Balancing Act: Tips for College Students to Best Manage their Time

With a schedule of early-morning lectures, cramming in study time between classes, making it to work on time and still finding time for a social life, college students may be feeling the pressure to keep all their plates spinning at the same time.

Many students are working during college to support themselves financially, something experts say is like working two full-time jobs. A U.S. Census report determined that 71% of the nation's 19.7 million college undergraduates were working in 2011 and of that number, one in five undergrads were working at least 35 hours a week year-round.

Students attempting to balance school, work, and family/social obligations should evaluate the commitments in their life and discuss realistic goals with friends and family members to ensure that they will have the support and time needed to maximize their success, recommends Becky Takeda-Tinker, president of Colorado State University-Global Campus.

“Being realistic and understanding what you as an individual need in order to be successful and fully engaged is crucial whether it’s succeeding in school, personal, or professional arenas,” she says. “Effective time management is a transferable skill that is an important foundation for both academic and professional success.”

To help students with time management and maintain their sanity, here are four expert tips for establishing a well-balanced system.

Step 1: Create a Calendar

Creating a calendar or schedule forces students to visualize their obligations, whether it’s paper, a dry erase board, or on a smartphone app, says Nicolas Tynes, vice president of programs at Harlem Education Activities Fund (HEAF).

“Some people may need a physical calendar and the action of writing on a calendar will help them retain information better, a calendar that’s in their face that they can look at on a regular ongoing basis,” he says.

Being able to see a week or month’s worth of obligations can also help students manage their time better for larger tasks like big projects and final exams to avoid cramming the night before, adds Takeda-Tinker.

“Placing specific dates and times on their calendar helps to emphasize that school is a priority and commitment and allows for planning ahead--it is also wise to work ahead whenever possible,” she says. “Life events and emergencies will arise, but staying on top of school work means there will be room to adjust when those things do happen."

Step 2: Know You Have to Prioritize

Students, just like everyone else only have 24 hours each day to fit everything in (no matter how many energy drinks they consume) so they have to create a list of priorities to decide what matters are urgent and which ones can wait, says Shawnice Meador, director of Career Management & Leadership Development for MBA@UNC.

“Remember that sometimes what is important to someone else is not necessarily as important to you at that moment; you may have to occasionally say ‘no’ in order to stay on track with your personal and professional goals and objectives,” she says.

Although students may need to work a certain amount of hours to support themselves, it’s vital they don’t spread themselves too thin. Working extra hours during time off from school can give students some flexibility if they have a semester with a larger academic load, says Linda Descano, president and CEO of Women & Co.

“If you’re going to have classes that are very intensive, [ask your supervisor to] lower your work hours during that semester or figure out how are you going to allocate some of the course work that you’re doing so you can still have enough time for work, which may be critical to your financial health, but also that you have some time to take a deep breath,” she says.

Step 3: Learn How to Multi-Task

Finding ways to multi-task and combine commitments can help students best utilize their time, particularly if they are commuting to class or work, says Tynes.

“Students can look at how they’re using all aspects of their day—during their commute are they using that time to also study? Are they using it to meditate, sleep, are they using it to do some pleasure reading or socialize with their friends?”

Busy students should also seek out opportunities to merge their school, work and social lives by getting involved in professional organizations and attending networking events, school-sponsored lectures and professional development workshops, suggests Meador.

These events are often free or low cost, and can really be worth the time and investment,” she says.

“The best part of these opportunities [is] spending time with old and new friends while expanding your network and learning more about your profession.”

Step 4:  Seek Out Support Resources

If students are feeling overwhelmed, talking to academic and/or student advisors, professors, a peer-based or professional resource on campus can shed some light on problems or issues.

“Talking to non-university people in their lives - like a well-organized co-worker - that seem to balance multiple commitments with ease can also be helpful,” says Takeda-Tinker. “Communication is a key when questions, issues, obstacles or concerns arise so that students can access the necessary resources and partner with their school in strategies for success.”

Seeking out assistance from upperclassmen in their specific major or field also gives students more tailored, relevant advice about their situation, suggests Descano.

“It could be little: how people take notes, how they study, finding people who commute with you,” she says. “Even if you’re feeling overwhelmed, just to talk to someone and not keep it all buried in, but leveraging your parents, your friends and your advisors and asking for help.”