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The Best Methods to Stay Organized in University

Organization can either make or break your semester. If you have organization habits in place, you will know when due dates are coming up and better equip yourself for success. In order to stay on track during my semester, I always organize my syllabuses and supplies before the semester, plan my tasks weekly, and keep my tasks and notes organized daily. Here are some tried and tested tips that I have used to help me stay organized and stay on track in university!

At the beginning of the semester

Get Your Supplies in Order

Although it may seem obvious, scrambling to get supplies after lectures have started will cause unnecessary stress. Ideally, I would recommend going school supplies shopping after the first day of class.

If you are like me and use a computer for notes, you may not need to buy any supplies. However, some of my professors this year did not allow computers in their classroom. I bought notebooks for these classes right after and it really helped me to keep everything straight and get into the habit of bringing notebooks on the specific days I had those classes. Aside from the practical benefits, it’s also budget smart because I avoid buying notebooks I’m not going to use!

Know your syllabus inside out

Your syllabus is the ultimate guide for the course and it’s important to check it often to ensure you haven’t skipped anything over. In high school, my teachers would give us numerous notices and reminders for a specific assignment as well as give us direction and guidance in class for what would be required. In some of my university courses, the syllabus was the only time the class was notified about a particular assignment. The crucial tip here is that you write down due the assignment and exam dates from your syllabi at the beginning of the semester.

-Go through every syllabus and put the important dates and assignments into a day planner or calendar as soon as possible.

-Add any recurring weekly activities, like clubs or work, to get an accurate depiction of when you’ll have time to work on everything.

-Make a chart with the top column titles for assignment name, due date, the date you think you need to start working on it, how much it is worth, and any additional notes.

-If the syllabus details course readings, make a week-by-week reading schedule with every course on it. My reading schedule has different colours for each course and columns for the reading’s title, the pages, and when it needs to be read by.

Weekly Planning

Every week, I set aside one hour or more on Sunday nights to make a to-do list and rough schedule. I have used multiple formats for my weekly planning including full scheduling, bullet journalling and to-do doing done lists.

Full Scheduling

The strictest method I’ve tried of weekly planning involves making yourself an hour by hour schedule of each day of the week to make sure you get everything done. This method works best if you know how much time each task will take you. I also find this really good for balancing out life, work, school and fitness because you can literally make time for everything. The reason I don’t use this method often any more is because it isn’t very flexible towards things that may come up throughout the week. For example, if you have an off day or you get asked to do something for bonus marks in a course, the hour by hour schedule does not give you leniency to take unscheduled time off. I now use a variation of this method where instead of scheduling every waking hour, I just schedule my appointments and meetings into my bullet journal, and each day I’ll make rough blocks of time for study sessions.

Bullet Journalling

Bullet journalling is my favourite method because it allows for the most creativity! There are beautiful pictures online of bullet journal pages that look like absolute art. The basic idea is to plan your week with a layout, usually either like a calendar or broken into sections. There are so many layout options, just searching the tag bullet journal on tumblr or pinterest will give you lots of examples.

I typically use a two-page spread layout, formatted with the dates at the top as the title. On the top right of the first page, I write the week’s meetings, appointments and due dates. Along the bottom half of the two-page spread, I section it into all of my courses and add in the tasks I have to do into each course’s box. On the top half of the second page, I add in any other to-dos and usually organize them somewhat in categories such as shopping, fitness, and cleaning. With this two page spread, I can look at it and see everything I have to do for the week. I always carry around my journal with me and reference it often. My roommate and I are hooked on bullet journalling, we often add motivational quotes and little drawings to ours and show each other what our spreads look like each week. The creative aspect of the bullet journalling method makes it fun and helps to motivate me to make my spread and stay organized each week.

To-do, Doing, Done Lists

A variation on the classic to-do list I use is the to-do,doing,done list. This task management type of to-do list proved really effective to motivate me and make sure none of my tasks were left neglected throughout the week. To make this list, I took a rectangular whiteboard and drew on a table, with two columns, one for Monday to Wednesday and another one for Thursday to Saturday. The three rows were to-do, doing and done. Each week I wrote the tasks I had to work on a page tab post it note. I then placed the page tab post its on the board under the dates I intended to work on it under to-do. The concept is simple, at the end of the day I would go through what I had done and move down to doing or done when I had made progress on them. Then, I looked at the board and made myself a task to-do list for the next day.

You can also use apps or sites, such as Trello or LucidChart, to make a chart with a similar format as my wipe board. This method combines weekly planning and daily planning to-do lists to ensure no task gets left behind.

Staying Organized Every Day

Task Planning with the Pomodoro Technique

In University, it’s no secret that many students spend long hours studying, with the occasional all-nighter. I found it’s possible to do the same amount, if not more work, and take breaks by using the Pomodoro technique. Taking breaks helps me to refresh and think clearly, while still getting my work done.

I use a modified version of the Pomodoro technique with thirty minutes of work, followed by a five minutes break. Every two hours I take a longer break, usually ten to fifteen minutes. To keep track of the time, I use a 30 minute online timer but in the past, I have used apps like Thirtyforthirty or Pomello. Both apps have the same main concept, users input tasks and then assign them to 30 minute blocks of time.

I prefer to not plan out every thirty minutes as specific tasks, although that is certainly an option you could implement. I usually block the time into different classes or assignments. That way, my scheduling is not messed up if I don’t complete a particular task on time. Doing it in blocks rather than by specific tasks allows me to put more emphasize on the actual process of doing the task rather than the task completion. If I am doing the task then I can check off that half an hour as successful, regardless of whether or not the task got completed.  

Note-taking

For the classes where I had to take notes offline, I made sure to buy a three subject notebook. I kept my class notes in the first section. For all my class notes, I title the document with the date and the main topic(s) or chapter(s) we are discussing in that lecture. In the second and third sections, I would put extra study notes, assignment notes or notes from office hours with professors.

Another tip I found helpful, especially in my French courses, was to create a table of contents at the beginning of my notebook. To do this, leave a page blank at the beginning of the notebook and as you go through the semester, create a study guide on this page including the page numbers to your notes on that concept. When you’re reviewing, you’ll know exactly where every concept is while also having a clear guide to what you have learned so far.

With my typed notes, I have folders for each class to keep them organized. I usually make subfolders as well for class notes, note summaries, assignments or papers, and study materials. In google docs, you can color code folders by clicking on the three dots or more action menu. Keeping notes organized like this may seem tedious but it will really help out at exam time and makes it easy for me to go back if something is unclear later.

If you fall behind a bit, that’s okay

You can be the most organized person in the world and still fall behind because of things beyond your control. Something that I struggled with accepting this semester was accepting that sometimes I really do need to take a break. It’s okay to take breaks and it’s okay if you’re not always completing every task on your to-do list. With time, you’ll learn what you can and can’t accomplish in certain periods of time and your organization will improve because of it. However, if you already have the organizational habits in place, any adjustments you make will be smoother. For example, when I used the to do, doing done tasking method, if I took a break on a wednesday,I just moved some of the post-it notes over to the next column and prioritized accordingly. When I feel myself getting overwhelmed with what I have to do and falling behind, the first place I go to is my to-do list and assignment list.

Start Now and Find What Works for You

The beginning of the semester is the most crucial time to get organized. Implementing some of these strategies at the beginning of the semester allows you to test them out and find what works best for you. Then, if you do switch methods halfway through the semester, you are only doing a transition of the information you already planned out and not implementing an entirely new habit. All the methods I discussed above are habits I have tried and continue to modify, I’m still not completely sold on any of them. I always use a combination and often modify if I find something isn’t working for my studying or my courses. The most important thing is that you have some organizational strategy in place to keep track of your course work, feel free to adjust and modify it whenever necessary so that the strategies you do end up using help you have stay on track of your assignments.

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Kate is a Bachelor of Arts Student, majoring in Political Science. She runs a feminist blog called Live Authentic at kateelizab.com and enjoys political discussions over coffee or wine. Kate can often be found writing or studying in her favorite local coffee shop.