You’ve been on the college scene for a few weeks, having the time of your life and wondering what all the university hype is about. So far, all you’ve had to do for your grades’ sake is skim some course readings and listen to a few professors babble in the lecture hall. But then … BAM! After an enlightening series of classes one fine Monday, you realize you’ve got a biology exam and two thousand-word essays on Homer and Joyce due - all by the end of the week.
This scenario is all too common, even among seasoned students. Sure, you can survive it, even if it means pulling a few all-nighters. But if you always let everything pile up until crunch time, your grades will eventually suffer. And so will you.
How can you avoid epic battles with tests and deadlines so you don’t become a scholastic casualty? Stop stressing. Now. You can tackle time management and stay organized so your course work doesn’t get the better of you. Here’s how:
Stay on top of things. It may sound like a no-brainer, but no kidding: If you don’t want schoolwork to pile up, you need to be actively aware of when it’s due. Pick up a planner or try Google Calendar, which also conveniently syncs with your Gmail account, and copy the entire semester’s worth of assignments, exams and due dates into it from each class’s syllabus. And while we’re on the subject, be sure to carefully read all your syllabi. You may find sneaky stuff hidden in there, like “one full letter-grade drop for every unexcused absence” (true story). It’s better to know sooner rather than later.
Take notes. When you're trying to figure out what's crucial to know for a test or how to arrange course content into a viable essay, having good notes can be a real lifesaver, so pick up a few loose-leaf notebooks for jotting down info. We don’t recommend taking notes on your laptop, you risk getting distracted by the Internet and missing most of what's said. Besides, paper provides a much more harmless way of keeping you entertained during idle moments (i.e., doodling).
Beat writer's block. When it comes to writing essays, getting those first couple of sentences down, or even just making an outline, can be a challenge, especially if it's your first assignment. David Uskovich, a writing consultant at the University of Texas-Austin’s writing center stresses the importance of research: “It can put you in conversation with the material you're trying to cover, which will help you make some connections so you'll have something to start from when you actually sit down to write the paper.”
Freelance writer Lauren Brown, whose first young-adult novel is due out in the fall of 2010, offers this useful tip: “When I was in college at University of South Florida and had a paper due, there was nothing worse than staring at a blank computer screen and feeling like I had no thoughts in my head. The secret is to slowly condition your brain to start flowing by simply taking a few minutes to write via stream of consciousness. Just write down anything that comes to mind, even if you literally keep writing over and over, ‘Nothing is coming to mind.’ Eventually, your brain will warm up and more fluid sentences will emerge. After maybe 15 minutes or so of doing this, try again to start your paper. You’ll notice that you feel a bit more focused, way more relaxed, a little more creative and a lot less overwhelmed. Anytime you get stuck, just take a break and repeat this exercise.”
Outwit exams. College tests come in many shapes and sizes, but as a general rule, liberal arts classes usually stick to short-answer and essay-oriented exams, while math and sciences often lean toward a multiple-choice format. For essay exams, it helps to find out beforehand from your professor or T.A. what the test will cover. It never hurts to ask them point-blank a couple of days before the test.
Third-year UT-Austin biology major Ben Cox points out that you can sometimes find many multiple-choice test questions from homework of previous years: “Math and science professors often take the basic idea of homework questions, even optional homework, and tweak only a few figures, leaving the concepts tested by the question intact.”
If you can get your hands on exams from previous semesters, these can also be helpful. Just ask around to find out who has taken the class before you, or find out if your professor posts old exams on the course Web site. (Note: As long as you’re not memorizing answers, we don’t count this as cheating, but check out your school’s policy to avoid things like, expulsion.)
“While the questions and even content might vary some from year to year, knowing the way your professors format their tests will do wonders for your preparedness,” says Cox.
So there you have it. Just by being organized and putting forth the effort to adequately prep for tests and assignments, you'll be able to get more Zs and more As, which is sure to put you on good terms with the parentals. And that always comes in handy, of course, whenever you want an “extra something.”