When you’re in college, the work outside of class can be a lot more stressful than the time you actually spend in class. And if you’re not careful, your studies can follow you everywhere, always hanging over you head like a cloud, and never being finished to your satisfaction… or to the satisfaction of your professors. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
You can manage your out-of-class studies by finding a study schedule that works for you, a study schedule you can stick to. The trick here is to find a schedule that really works for you personally.
Make sure your study schedule is realistic
Whether you plan to work on readings, assignments, GRE prep, or anything else you may be studying for, when you first start to think about your study schedule it really can be a creature of fantasy. You may imagine you can study 3-4 hours a day, ensuring top grades at school while still having enough time for your work and personal life. Or you may imagine yourself just studying 1-2 hours a day and still doing well in class, with plenty of time left over for other things.
And maybe the ideal study plan you imagine at first is possible. But it’s more likely that you’ll need to carefully revise your time tables into something more realistic. Think about how much energy you have immediately after work or school. Imagine how tired you’ll be if you try to schedule your studies in the evening. Be honest with yourself about whether you can wake up early in the morning to study or not. Think about how much you’d ideally like to study versus how much you need to study…. And how much time you need for your life outside of school.
As you weigh these factors, put together a timetable that includes all of your other time commitments—physically being at work or in class, responsibilities to your family, and the “down time” you need in order to take care of yourself. Only then will a truly realistic study schedule—one you can stick to—come into view.
Have contingency plans
Once you’ve put together a realistic rough draft of your study schedule, think about what you’ll do when your study schedule gets off track. And I do mean when. Inevitably, you’ll have days where your study activities take longer than you expected, or you get called into work, have to deal with an emergency, and so on.
A good study schedule that you can stick to will include some “wiggle room…” time periods when you can catch up on your studies if your original schedule doesn’t go as planned. One way to deal with the unexpected is to set aside a certain amount of hours per week for this wiggle room. Another good approach is to schedule your study periods as “flex time,” with a plan to study—for instance—between 2 and 4 hours on a given afternoon.
Of course, life can be crazy, and sometimes even contingency plans can’t save a study schedule when it runs off the tracks. This brings me to my next important strategy….
When your study plan falls apart, don’t give up!
Sometimes you may think a study plan is realistic, and only realize it’s not feasible after you’ve been trying to follow it. Sometimes one contingency plan after another fails, and you find yourself falling farther and father behind. When you face these challenges, it can be tempting to just throw up your hands and give up on having a study schedule. But this is a mistake. With no structure to your studies, you set yourself up for more chaos, more stress, and a risk of academic failure.
Instead, if you find your study schedule is not a keeper, remember the best thing about designing a schedule yourself: the rules are yours, and you can rewrite them on the fly! Any schedule you make can be partly redesigned or completely replaced. And when it comes to make a study schedule you can stick to—one that meets your personal needs—if at first you don’t succeed, you can try, try again.
Always be open to making compromises
When you’re in school, many different responsibilities and activities compete for your time. You may want to devote a certain amount of time to your job and your personal life, while still always taking enough time to excel in school. But ultimately, the way you spend your time is always a matter of balance. Sometimes you’ll need to miss a night out with your friends or take some time off from work so that you can do well in school. At other times, you my need to risk not getting an A on an assignment, because you need to attend to your personal and professional life. These compromises are OK. And in fact, being open to healthy compromises is the key to success in time management. It also makes for a happy and successful life, at your job, during school, and in your personal pursuits.
David is a test prep expert at Magoosh. He has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has been teaching K-12, University, and adult education classes since 2007 and has worked with students from every continent. Currently, David lives in a small town in the American Upper Midwest. When he’s not teaching or writing, David studies Korean, plays with his son, and takes road trips to Minneapolis to get a taste of city life.
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