Today I want to share how I stay organised at university. Higher education is different for many reasons. At school, you’re told what to do and to an extent forced to do it. University is very different, there is no one making sure you’re attending class or doing work.
University forces you to take control of your learning, lecturers are there to help and guide you. But they can only help if you put the effort in. Today I want to share some organisational tips I’ve figured out which help me to do my best at university.
I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome so I’m not the sort of person who will advocate for 10-hour study sessions, it’s not something I am capable of. When I say do your best, I mean the best to your ability and that is different for everyone. But hopefully from this post, you will learn some methods which can help you stay organised at university.
How I Stay Organised At University
Get a planner
I’ll go more into planning out a daily schedule later in this post, but planning out your time over the whole semester can be extremely useful. The exact tool you use to plan your time will depend on your personal preferences. I prefer a bullet journal but have used planners in the past. I have a whole post where I review academic planners and tell you which ones I think are best.
You want to get a tool which will help you stay organised then actually use it. One of the things which has helped me stay organised at university is knowing where I have to be and what I have to do. I don’t have problems with forgetting a hand in or missing a lecture because I didn’t know it was on. This is because I have all of these things written in my planner.
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At the start of the semester, you’ll get a time table for each module. This will tell you when you have lectures, tutorials and any other important events. At this point, you should hopefully also be told when your hand in dates are for the semester. Some lecturers about this are better than others. Knowing the exact dates you need to hand in your work is important because you can start planning back from this date.
Once you’ve got all the important dates in your planner you can start adding in any other important personal or work events. This allows you to plan your time around these important events. Once you have your semester as a whole organised you can start planning out your weeks and go from there to plan out what work you need to do.
Don’t leave work till the last moment
I know that as a university student it can be very tempting to leave your work to the last moment. I’ve even seen some people claim that a short deadline helps them do better work. A big part of university is about learning how to cope when you’re in the real world. As a student its fine to leave important things like dissertations to the very last moment. You might not get as good a mark because you had less time to refine your work, but you’ll probably get it handed in on time.
The thing is, there is no way you could ever work like that in a real job. It is ridiculous to think that a workplace would let you blow off working until literally the last moment. Yes, there are examples of people doing great work in a short amount of time, or bands writing hit songs in an hour. But it’s not a good idea to get into this sort of mindset.
In my last tip, I talked about how planning out your semester from the beginning can help because you know the deadlines you need to work to. This is especially important in helping you stay organised at university because it will prevent you from leaving your work to the last minute. Having more time to work on an essay helps because you have more time to make changes and fix mistakes.
Break large projects into small tasks
One of the things which help me stay organised at university is dividing large projects into small chunks. I want to share how I write essays as I think this is a good example of how I break a large task down into smaller stages. I find essay writing to be very difficult, though I spend a lot of time writing for my blog, writing an essay is very different.
Sitting down to write a 2000 word essay feels like a huge task. So I break that big essay down into manageable chunks and I do a little bit every day. This was extremely useful this semester as I had around 4000 words worth of writing to do over three essays.
I’m a graphic design student but these essays were written for my dissertation module. This module is about communication and one of the things we focus on as part of that is writing for different audiences. This means the way the essay has been written was extremely important. I was also very lucky for this semester as the lecturer had added notes to the module timetable about what stage of essay writing we should be at for each week. This was extremely useful in helping me create a time plan for my essays.
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Once I have the hand in date for an essay I will start planning back. Ideally, I want a week for research, two weeks so I can do two drafts of the essay, then another week for making changes. Usually, I find 4 weeks is a good amount of time.
Once I know what I’m writing about I will start to make a plan. This is quite similar to how I write blog posts. Each paragraph is a point I want to make for my essay. From this, I can start building out each paragraph from my notes and quotations I’ve saved. Referencing as I go because that is something you don’t want to go back and do later. These plans are usually extremely detailed, at the same length or even longer than the stated word count. From this plan, I will write in 20-minute chunks each morning before doing any other course work.
I like working this way because its when I have the most energy for writing. But also because I find I can get a good amount written in just 20 minutes. I can’t write the whole essay, but usually, I can get at least a paragraph written. It won’t be good at first, and the essay will probably be way over the word count. But that’s why I start writing long before the deadline, so I have lots of time to go back and continually improve in little bits.
Write down any feedback
This advice is quite specific based on my course. I’m not entirely sure how it works in other departments. Each week I have a tutorial where I can talk to my lecture about my work. During these sessions I will write down any important information and feedback I get on my work. Feedback is extremely important for my course, and I’m sure anyone in an art course will feel the same. This is where I find out what ideas work, what don’t and what I should be working on next. It can be quite a lot of information that I get in a short space of time.
If I don’t write any of that information down there is a good chance I will forget about it, not taking on board that feedback and changing my work based on it. But its important to take on board that feedback because it can improve your work.
I’d highly recommend writing down any useful feedback during a tutorial. Certainly in my course its quite common to see people jotting down notes as they talk to a lecturer. If this isn’t possible during a tutorial, take 15 minutes immediately after to write down any useful information. From these notes, you can start building a list of tasks you want to start working on.
I know it can be tempting to work all the time. I start feeling guilty if I work on something which isn’t coursework. But you need to take breaks every so often. You can’t constantly force yourself to work. I think especially now that most universities are moving to online teaching, having set breaks is important.
I try and set aside one day each week where I don’t do coursework. These are usually Saturdays but can change depending on other events I’m going to. I think this is necessary because it can be easy to get burnt out while doing nothing but coursework. Burn out is something you should always be aware of.
If you’re finding it hard to focus on work, or if you are getting majorly stressed out, it can be a good idea to take a break. This is why I like working on multiple projects at the same time, you can jump between projects if you find yourself losing motivation. I know I get to a point in the semester where I just want it to be over.
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Taking breaks is also especially useful for creative subjects. I don’t need to memorise information to regurgitate during an exam. I have a brief and need to create a response to that, this isn’t a quick process. You need time away from the computer to think about work. You see all sorts of creatives talk about how they had a moment of inspiration while out for a walk or doing some other task. Thinking time is important.
I’ve seen this metaphor be explained using a bucket. You have a bucket full of ideas, as you use up those ideas you will get to the point where the bucket is empty. Taking breaks is important because it helps you fill that bucket with new ideas. Taking breaks won’t help you stay organised at university, but it can help your physical and mental health, allowing you to continue working.
Plan your time
It’s much easier to get your coursework done if you have set time for uni work. I know my lecturers recommend we treat the course like a job, doing 9-5 Monday to Friday. Realistically, this isn’t possible. Students have other commitments they need to manage as well as university work. Even if you can do the recommended 40 hours of university work each week it’s still a good idea to do some time planning as this can help you stay organised.
I find it best to plan out my week as a whole, then figure out my daily tasks based on that weekly plan. You can use an hourly planner to do this but I usually just make a small spread in my bullet journal. First I will insert any tutorial and lectures, taken from my semester overview. I will then divide the rest of the time so I spend around the same amount of time on each project.
I like setting specific days to work on certain modules. Wednesday and Fridays are my dissertation module time. I like spreading this out as these are easier days, where I do more reading than designing. The Wednesday almost acts like a rest day (chronic fatigue remember!), and it builds a little more thinking time into my week.
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Once I have my week planned out I will then plan my days. I have a daily routine now which works pretty well for me. I do university work during the day, split into 20-minute chunks. This works well for me as I don’t get too tired and it’s surprising how much you can get done in 20 minutes. I’ll do this for a few hours, take a longer break then do another few hours of university work.
I think the important thing is that I plan out far enough in advance that if I’m having a really bad day, or just not feeling it, I can take a break from coursework for a day without it affecting my overall progress. I really can’t emphasize this enough, getting your work done is important, but not if you make yourself ill in the process.
Organise your files & backup
Organising the files on your computer and running backups doesn’t sound very interesting. But please believe me when I say it can be extremely useful if you want to be organised at university.
Most of the work I did this semester was computer-based, I had 20gb of data for one project. One of the things I didn’t do so well in this project was set out a good naming convention. It didn’t help that many of the files were more concepts than an actual thing, I had lots of Illustrator documents labelled with things like ‘spinny thing’ and ‘many spinny things’.
Having a good organisational system for your files and naming them well makes it so much easier to find the right files. It’s also especially important when you make changes to a file. You want to be able to easily see the most up to date version of a file, and even more importantly, the version you will be handing in. Labelling your files as “final”, “finalfinal” and “actuallyfinalthistime” doesn’t work. Using some sort of numerical system works much better.
While we’re on the subject of managing data, back up all your files. If you don’t have a huge amount of data to back up get Dropbox or Google Drive. They are relatively cheap and you can access your files across multiple computers. If you have larger amounts of data to backup get yourself an external hard drive and set up some sort of system where you back up important files each week. Computers break and you don’t want to be in the position where you lose all your work because of a computer malfunction.
Those were my tips on how to stay organised at university. I know this may be a little biased as these are the techniques I use to stay organised. I’m not saying they are the best methods, just what I’ve figured out.
I think a big part of staying organised at university is being responsible and taking control of your learning. Don’t leave things to the last minute because you never know what will happen, computers break, lecturers go on strike and your university might just close because of a global pandemic.
I do hope you’re gained something useful from this post. If you’ve figured out any other methods which help you stay organised please share in the comments.