planning your college schedule
For most people, the dynamic of college life is something that is brand new, and can be difficult to navigate. Managing your time can prove to be much harder than it was in high school, and a lot of the day that was once taken up by a rather rudimentary timeline of waking up, eating breakfast, going to school, taking classes, eating lunch, taking more classes, and ending the day with an extracurricular activity, homework, or social outings, now has a bit more flexibility.
When you get to college, most of that basic schedule is thrown out the window, and you get a lot more freedom regarding how to plan your day. So, what are some things to consider, and what are some ways to go about planning your day-to-day college student schedule?
1. More flexible academic schedule in college: Generally, high schools stick to a “block/A&B day schedule.” This can be similar to college class schedules in the sense that some classes meet on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and others meet on just Tuesdays and Thursdays. However, it’s important to note that these block schedules will look much different in college than in high school. As a high schooler, you’ll generally be expected/required to remain on campus from 8 or 8:30am-3 or 3:30pm, taking anywhere from 3-6 classes in a day (similar to your peers), with consistent “snack” and “lunch” times each day, possibly with “free periods,” “advisory/homeroom” hours, or something similar. In any case, your school day remains rather consistent from day to day, and you will likely stay on the campus for the entirety of that time (except if your school has some exceptions or off-campus privileges for older students). However, in college, you actually choose your class schedule based on your major and study trajectory (which means that many of your friends in the same grade will not necessarily be in the same classes), and you’ll often have classes that are spread out any time between 8am-6pm during the day. This means that sometimes your school days may go longer than normal, or you may have days with only 1 or 2 classes that you need to go to. Additionally, you may have longer blocks of time in which you are not in class, and you have the freedom to go where you want (go work out, take a hike, catch up on homework, meet up with friends, or even go home and take a nap!). Your schedule in college generally becomes more unpredictable/different from day to day, which means that you have more independence and freedom (and unscheduled time), but it takes a bit more effort to stay on top of your responsibilities.
2. Independence: Continuing off of that point, you will have much more independence in college when it comes to not only picking your classes, but what kind of schedule you want. Are you a morning person? Try picking classes that meet mostly in the morning, and you could end your school day by noon and have a lot of extra time to do other activities in the afternoon. Do you like to sleep in? Try picking classes that have a later start time (note that often freshmen may not have a choice to avoid early classes, since upperclassmen sometimes get the more favorable start times). The ability to freely choose these class times can differ from college to college, but in any case, your schedule will most likely be different from that of your friends, which means that you’ll have time on your own to occupy yourself by doing whatever you really want to do. This will require you to really hold yourself accountable, and use that time to be productive when you need to, or give yourself some much needed relaxation. Because of this kind of schedule, there may be less pressure on you to get work done at certain moments (if none of your friends have a project due tomorrow, it might be harder to work up the will to get it done), so it will take more effort for you to use that time wisely!
A Tip: Avoid Back-to-back classes: Sometimes, schedules like this cannot be avoided, however when given the chance, I would highly recommend steering away from a schedule that has a lot of back-to-back classes. A couple back-to-back may be fine, but at the college level, classes will tire you out much quicker than high school level classes. So, you’ll probably find yourself feeling fatigued and overworked if you allow yourself to take classes that don’t give you time in between to take a break, eat a snack, and relax. In addition, if you attend a large university, navigating back-to-back classes on a large campus can be physically difficult (you don’t want to have to run in between classes and risk being late every time!), so you want to give yourself a buffer.
My first year, I had back-to-back classes from 8:30am-1pm 3 days per week, and it was way too much for me to handle. I was exhausted every day, and I found it stressful to keep up with the work that was demanded by those classes (I had to have homework done for 5 classes in one day instead of spreading out and having 3 on one day and 2 on another).
Tip #2: Be nice to yourself: Similar to not planning back-to-back classes, be nice to yourself when it comes to your total workload: I would recommend not enrolling in more than 4 classes unless you absolutely need to or have determined that you can handle the course load. This number may be different from school to school, but don’t jump in right away with a ton of work: you’ll get stressed and may find yourself not having enough time to practice self-care and maintain your personal friendships. Instead, talk to an advisor, and get some insight on how to best plan your schedule. Are you taking technical classes? Maybe take fewer so that you can manage that demanding workload. Are you going through a lot in your life personally? Take fewer classes to give yourself time to work on your challenges. Are you finding yourself bored with the amount of work you have? Maybe take another class you find interesting just for fun, or get ahead on another major requirement while you have the time/bandwidth. Are you anticipating a large amount of work for the job you have? Maybe try taking more classes during a semester where work isn’t as demanding, and you can set yourself up for an easier time down the road.
Tip #3: You can be a “morning-person” too: Morning classes can help you motivate yourself! Hey - I love sleeping in as much as anyone else, but it can be really rewarding to get your day started early, take care of your academic commitments, and then have the rest of the day to get organized, finish homework, and then relax and enjoy some down-time. That way, you make the most out of your day, and you feel tired by the end of it! This makes it easier to fall asleep at night, and you end up being way more productive.
3. Filling the gaps: For me, particularly in the first couple years of college, I didn’t always get the most ideal class times. Sometimes I would have a class in the early morning, and then a break until later in the afternoon (do I go all the way home and then have to come back later, or do I stay on campus and occupy myself?). Or, sometimes I would have a 45 minute gap between each class during the day, which left me with awkward gaps to fill (not enough time to really go anywhere, but enough time where I didn’t want to just waste it sitting on my phone). For me, I found a few ways to fill those gaps:
On-campus Job: Throughout college, I kept the same flexible student job: Campus Ambassador. This was great for me because my shifts were scheduled based on my own availability: so, I could enter every free hour gap into my calendar, and I could get assigned different shifts throughout the day to keep me busy, and also help me earn a little money throughout the day. Since the job was on campus, I never had to travel far, and I could always easily get to my next class on time.
Studio: As an architecture student, I always had a studio that I could return to, where I had my own desk and work materials. This was an amazing resource for me, because I could come there whenever I wanted (even during an awkward 30 minute gap, or for a whole 4 hours). I could sit down and focus without a ton of distractions and work on my studio projects (there was always more work to be done!), or I could get started on my homework early for my next class. If you don’t have a place like a studio, find something like it for yourself: go explore and look for a place that you can always come to when you have some downtime - somewhere on campus you can focus if needed, take a lunch break, or even nap, and then get back to your classes when you need to.
Workout Classes: Oftentimes, universities or nearby workout studios have short classes during the day that are open to students or anyone that has a membership there. Look for classes that fit with the gaps in your schedule - you’ll stay active and get a break from academics every day, which can help your body, mind, and overall mood tremendously. This is also a great way to meet people each day (you can have your friends from class, your roommates, and your workout buddies!).
Always have a “To-Do” List Written Out: Whether it’s in your notebook, on your phone, on a post-it, or on your wall, always write down a list of things you need to get done. You can organize them based on how urgently they need to be completed, or the nature of the task (academic, professional, personal, etc.). That way, when it comes to those gaps of time, you always have a list of things you could get done (or at least start on) that you have brainstormed beforehand, and you’ll stay way more productive in those moments that are most likely to be wasted.
4. Extracurriculars: Activities outside of academics was always something that I prioritized (not only in college, but for my entire life before that point). For me, it was always sports, but really, it can be anything! Join a club, play a sport, try out for a musical/play, volunteer somewhere, start a community garden, you name it! Whatever you like to do and whatever brings you joy, filling the down-time in your day (often in the afternoon or evening) can help you meet new people, explore new interests/opportunities, and ultimately feel more fulfilled in your daily life. Oftentimes on-campus extracurriculars will work with your student schedule, and will be made up of students also balancing heavy workloads alongside everything else in their lives. This is a great way to balance your schedule and find a community.
5. If you need, schedule classes with a friend! Though you should plan your college schedule around your own academic journey (don’t take a class just because your friend is in it), holding yourself accountable for the work required for that class, as well as actually attending, can be easier if you have a friend going through the same thing. Whether you meet someone in the class that you vibe with and want to keep in touch with outside of class, or you know someone before singing up, this can be a good strategy for starting study groups, reminding each other of deadlines/schedules, and getting work done.
6. Get a planner (I mean it): If I didn’t use a planner in college, I would have been completely lost. From randomly scheduled dentist appointments, to project deadlines, work shifts, meetings, interviews, and more - a planner helps you keep track of all those dates, times, requirements, to-do lists. Trust me: trying to keep a busy schedule memorized in your head will not work, and you’ll be way too stressed out because of it. Write down everything you have to do and when, and keep track of tasks you’ve gotten done. Otherwise, you’ll end up double-booking yourself or forgetting important dates/projects, which could result in some pretty serious consequences (failing a class, losing a job, upsetting your friends, or missing out on incredible opportunities because of your lack of professionalism). This is a great time to start practicing for the professional world - as an adult, you’ll be expected to keep track of your own schedule, so start now!
Planning your college schedule is something that is hard to perfect: your ideal day-to-day calendar is something that you need to find for yourself. Whether it’s through trial and error, talking with advisors, or following your gut, figure out what works best for you. However, as someone who’s gone through the process, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and have had many learning moments, so I hope this advice helps you craft a schedule that leaves you with time to foster happiness and productivity in your own life.
Sarah is a Consultant on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language and Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at: shcollegeconsulting.com.
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