Heading back to college in organized style

Last summer, our intern Julia was heading into her junior year of college, lived in a dorm, and had great advice to share on getting a college dorm room organized. This summer, our intern Tim is working on his Ph.D., is married, and is a genius at writing computer code. Tim’s skill set is perfect for the technical needs at Unclutterer and Dancing Mammoth, but he has been away from a dorm room almost as long as I have.

So, we thought we would point you to three wonderful blog posts we have seen this week on Lifehacker on the subject of back-to-school issues for college students instead of asking Tim to stop writing code. Everyone wins. Enjoy!

Getting Things Done explained for students on Lifehacker:

… Contexts are an awesome way of organizing assignment to-dos. Instead of having one daunting list of homework, you separate each item by what materials you need to get it done. That way, when you’re trying do a little HW at your work-study job, you’re not trying to read books you don’t have with you or look up files that are on your desktop at the dorm …

DesignYourDorm takes the guessing out of moving in:

… Just supply your school, residence hall, and room number during registration, and if you’re lucky you’ll get a 3D model of your room. The site doesn’t have replicas of every room in every university in their database, but they allow users to add floor plans, meaning that in time it’ll only get better …

Also, 10 must-dos for the first week of college:

Start your (note-taking) engines: Get in the habit of writing everything down from the very first meeting of the class. Keeping your hands moving (we mean taking notes) will help you actively engage with the lecture, and will pay dividends when you discover that 80 percent of the midterm is based on class lectures.

Have you spotted any college organizing advice in the past few weeks on other blogs? Share them in the comments.

20 Comments for “Heading back to college in organized style”

  1. posted by Sandra on

    Some advice from a professor (me): Take advantage of your professor’s office hours to come in early in the term for a brief visit to clarify expectations about assignments, etc. and get any questions answered. Limit it to about 15 minutes. This will not only help you get more organized for the course but help you stand out in your professor’s mind. This is especially valuable if it’s a big class where you can get lost in the shuffle. Most of us like to get to know our students and would be happy if more came to office hours.

  2. posted by Kelly on

    Erin –

    I would be really interested in Tim’s (and others’) thoughts on how to organize oneself for a dissertation (and pre-dissertation milestones) or thesis or heavily researched book.

    I, too, am in a doctoral program. I have just completed coursework, and feel daunted by the organization of ideas, literature, research, methods, etc that all have to come together. I have a pretty good idea of my topic and such, but the actual organization of printed papers, digital papers, papers I have written, references (or detailed bibliography), etc have me seriously intimidated.

    I’ve been an incredibly organized student in my courses but feel stymied by the range of database and reference software, organizational methods and systems, etc. required for this multi-year project that requires documentation from 100s of sources.


  3. posted by belugagirl on

    This is especially for freshpersons who haven’t been “off to college” before:

    Pack light. You’ll never miss a fraction of what you think you will.

    Music: Ipods (and such) help. In my day, I had to pack all my CDs and a boom box if I wanted music to listen to. Now an ipod, headphones, and mini speakers is all you need.

    Books: Don’t bring leisure-reading (other than maybe whatever you’re reading on the drive). You won’t have time. (And if you do, that’s why God invented the library and the second-hand bookstore.) Minimize your reference books to what you can’t get online. Chances are, you’ll have access to tons of stuff through your library database.

    Supplies: As much as your mom will want to stock you up, don’t pack stuff you can buy locally once you’re settled (laundry detergent, extra toiletries, stationary, snacks, etc.)

    Wardrobe: You won’t need as many clothes as you think. But do bring lots of socks and undies. This can help you space out your laundry nights.

    Luxuries: Contact your future roommate(s) in advance and coordinate who will bring some shared amenities (mini fridge, TV, whatnot).

    Loft: The “loft” thing could go either way. It CAN be nice to have and a great space-saver (depending on the room configuration, furniture supplied, etc.) but it can also be a huge pain to plan, pack, haul, and build/assemble. Try living without for a while, and then if you find you need the space, bring loft materials back after your first major break. Have your engineering major friends help you build it. Good times.

  4. posted by frugalscholar on

    Most important: be in class. Make it a habit.
    Also, as above, see the teacher. Especially if you are having trouble.
    For first year students–take a fairly light and easy load.

    For frugality–I disagree with comment above. College bookstores are very expensive and sometimes it’s hard to get to off-campus shops. So I’d suggest stocking up at the fabulous back-to-school sales (e.g. 10 cent notebooks). Make sure you get enough for both semesters.

  5. posted by Rod on

    After the first couple of quarters, I deliberately started skipping the first week of every class, because it seemed to take that long for professors to get rolling past the pleasantries and teach new material. Just an alternate view on how to declutter.

  6. posted by Another Deb on

    I guess I am out of the loop, since the last college class I took was in 2007 (the first was 1974). I cannot imagine how I would know what was happening with the class if I had missed the first week! Perhaps all that housekeeping information and the expectations are online now?

  7. posted by Susan on

    Sit in the first row or as close to it as possible so you don’t get distracted, attend all classes, take notes, participate in class discussion, do the assigned reading, answer any questions at the end of textbook chapters even if they are not assigned.

  8. posted by Sandra on

    Dissertation tips: There are a lot of good books, but here are a few tips that can help you avoid common perils:
    1. Have a really CLEAR, researchable question that you can answer. This is the framework of the whole thing. Your advisor can help with this.
    2. Read EVERYTHING written on your topic until you start running into stuff that’s too far afield. You should know as much as anyone in the country on the topic.
    3. Run a pilot study before investing too much time.
    4. Let your data and your expertise from your reading tell you what you’ve learned.
    Do these in roughly this order. I could probably write a whole book on it. These are based on my experiences in education research and may not be relevant for other fields.

    In working with graduate students and junior colleagues, I find that not following these causes a majority of problems. This is a little off-topic from uncluttering, but it’s really about having a clear mental understanding of what you’re doing, so perhaps is uncluttering after all.

  9. posted by Meredith on

    While belugagirl has some good tips, I disagree on “supplies.” For me it makes sense to stock up on those things at home. I live in the Midwest but go to school in DC. I save a lot of money buying my shampoo and other necessities here where things are cheaper. Sales tax alone is twice as much in the District!

  10. posted by Brad S on

    I just wanted to second the worth of laying out floor plans in advance.

    In one dorm room I lived in, space was especially at a premium, and I knew I would be returning to the same dorm the next year. Before I left for summer, I took measurements of the room and all of the furniture that came with the room, then drew up a quick floorplan, to scale, in Microsoft Word.

    By the time that move-in day arrived the next Fall, my new roommate and I had already agreed on a layout for the room, and we already knew exactly what would and wouldn’t fit where. The layout worked perfectly, and I remember that my father in particular was shocked that it all managed to fit together the way I had drafted it, since we were down to half-inch margins in some places out of a 12’x12′ room.

    While not everyone can do that, if you have the chance, it’s definitely worthwhile. It saved us hours of repositioning furniture over the first few days.

  11. posted by Kelly on

    @Sandra –

    Thanks for the dissertation advice – those are the broad strokes things that everyone (from the dean to advisors and committees) have impressed on us as 3rd year doctoral students.

    What is not clear to me is the mechanics of tracking and organizing notes on everything that I read/write/need to cite in the final work for the lit review portion. I know my area and am narrowing my question, but I have so much material to retain and eventually integrate/cite. For individual classes I’ve taken, I could just work out of a large binder (or two!) of relevant material, but now I’m talking about an enormous volume of background research.

    I am not as concerned about the organization of data collection (I’m doing a qualitative study, so it will be volumnious), though advice on ways to organize that volume of material is welcome too!

    My own advisor’s advice about this stuff is lacking (her office is just piles of stuff everywhere with an org system clear only to her).


  12. posted by Martha on

    As a Ph.D. student, I’m totally with Kelly! I would love an article about organizing for a dissertation,from prospectus to defense. I agree that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of detailed info out there. And the process is so overwhelming!

  13. posted by Laura on

    I disagree with the advice about skipping the first week of class. True, the instructor will be doing more “housekeeping” than teaching, but this is when you find out the important stuff, like when the exams are, and what the instructor’s policies are about late assignments, missing classes, and so on. I’ve seen lots of students get into trouble later in the semester because they didn’t have this basic info. I second the advice making a brief visit during office hours just to say hello and I heartily second the idea of sitting in the first row. These things help more than you realize.

  14. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Kelly and other Ph.D. students —

    I’ve e-mailed one of the most organized people I have ever met, a woman who completed her Ph.D. in just two years, and asked if she would be up for writing a guest post for us. Hopefully she will!! 🙂

    — Erin

  15. posted by Peg Bracken Fan on

    Some random student organization tips that worked for me:

    1) Freshman? Don’t buy or pack too many clothes. Your style will probably change drastically when you get to campus due to weather differences and other factors. At my college, the students showed up for their first year in all kinds of peacock finery but by senior year everyone was in sweats and work boots.

    2) Big paper? Do your bibliography first. It gets a fiddling chore out of the way and gets you into the paper-writing mindset. There is an online bibliography generator, OttoBib, now too.

    3) Don’t buy your books, take them out of the library. If your college’s library doesn’t have them, then check the town library or do interlibrary loan (ask your college’s librarians how). You can usually renew online. Less clutter, because you return the books to the library at the end of term, and less money!

  16. posted by Kari on

    RE not going the first week of classes–be careful of this. I drop all students not there on the first day–too many students waiting for seats.

  17. posted by Kate Bee on

    I am a 26 year old student that also works full time and, after 60 units, here are my keys to success:

    -Go to EVERY class, especially the first week because the professor may drop you.
    -Sit in the front.
    -Do every homework assignment.
    -Get tutoring if the subject is difficult for me. (MATH!)

    These four things have allowed me to transfer from a community college with a 3.9 grade point average. Every single friend has told me that they didn’t take advantage of the free resources available to them in college, so I make a point to stay informed.

  18. posted by Tina on

    I’m also in a PhD program and am working on my lit reveiw. I’ve got papers everywhere. I’ve requested papers I’ve already had a copy of but didn’t realize it.

    Two things are helping.
    1. I’m using biblio software, Bookends, to put in the articles as soon as I get them. I have seperate databases for relevant and not relevant articles.

    2. I was getting overwhelmed with remembering what I had read where. I’ve started a blog. After I read every article, I write a blog post about it. That way I have the jist of the article, and keep track of what I’ve read. I’ve had comments left about potential sources and encouragment which is really helpful.

  19. posted by Michele Connolly, Get Organized Wizard on

    Having recently written a thesis on Happiness (fun, huh?) for my Psych Honors degree, I learned the value of setting goals.

    I couldn’t do everything I wanted to, but by deciding what mattered most, I could focus my time, attention and effort.

    If you’re into SMART goal setting, these steps might help:

  20. posted by 100 Awesome Organization Posts Start Your New Semester – Online Degree Programs.org: Top Online Degrees on

    […] Heading Back to College in Organized Style: This post offers ideas on how to get organized while you’re away at school. […]

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