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How to Excel in College While Employed in 11 Easy Steps

working college studentAre you working and taking college classes at the same time? If so, you probably already know how challenging it can be. But don’t worry. Even with limited time, you can succeed at both school and work. In the next few minutes, you’re going to learn 11 easy steps to follow to help you draw the best out of yourself in both settings. Since you’re a busy student, I’m sure you don’t have any time to waste. So, let’s get started!

Have a conversation with your boss.

This first step might be the hardest for you depending on your relationship with your boss. Whatever the case may be, I can assure you that it’s important. Why? Picture this scenario. You’re at work watching the clock as the final minutes of your shift wind down. You have a test the next day. Your plan is to rush home, bang out a few hours of studying, then get a good night's sleep. Just as you’re about to leave, you run into your boss. He or she tells you that someone on the next shift called off and asks you to stay late to fill in. What do you do? 

It can be uncomfortable when you know you need to study, but don’t want to disappoint your boss. The best solution is to sit down and have a conversation about this as early as possible. Let your boss know that you’re taking classes. Tell him or her when you’re available to work, and when you’re not. Be polite, but assertive. Having a successful talk with your boss will ensure that you’re both on the same page about when you can reasonably work. The trick is to pick a time when your boss isn’t too busy to sit down with you for a few minutes.

Set goals.

Success always starts in one place—goal setting. Time management is no exception. Clarifying what you want to achieve will help you make vital decisions about how to spend your limited time. There are many ways to set goals. The method I most recommend to students is the SMART method.

Researchers at the University of Western Florida did a study on student achievement outcomes with and without using SMART goals. In 2010, they gave students in their business classes a team project and didn’t require them to use SMART goals. A year later they assigned their classes the same project. This time they required students to set SMART goals. They found that the students who used SMART goals completed the project faster, did a better job, and reported feeling more satisfied with their work.

Goals should be SMART—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. When you’re done reading this, set aside at least a few minutes to think about your goals. Whenever you must pick between multiple ways to spend your time, ask which choice will bring you closer to achieving your goals, then get started!

It is usually a good idea to get into the habit of setting budget goals while you're in college as well. OneClass has created a free and uncomplicated step-by-step college budget template to help you create and meet goals for every month, semester, and year. 

Be strategic with your vacation/personal days.

If possible, request days off from work during midterms, finals, and other busy points in your semester. Yes—kitesurfing in Maui (if that’s what you’re into) would be more fun than studying on your vacation days. But you’ll never have to worry about running out of time, pulling an all-nighter, and going into your test feeling (and looking) like a zombie. By giving yourself more time to study, you can expect to score higher and have less stress.

Plan and anticipate setbacks.

Napoleon Bonaparte—the infamous 19th century Emperor of the French—once said “A leader has the right to be beaten, but never the right to be surprised.” Now, even if you don’t serve in a leadership position (club president, etc.), I would argue you’re a leader anyway—every day you must lead yourself closer to your goals. Therefore, you can’t let yourself get blindsided by your workload. Planning is one of the best habits you can form for success.

Brian Tracy—New York Times Best-Selling author of the time management classic Eat That Frog—says that “every minute spent in planning saves as many as ten minutes in execution (source).” This rule predicts that just 6 minutes of planning at the start of your day can save you an hour.

To take it to the next level, you must also learn to anticipate challenges before they occur. A great start is to mark when all exams, quizzes, and major assignments are due on your calendar. Do you see any cases in which you have multiple deadlines in the same week? Not spotting busy weeks like these in advance so you can plan accordingly can result in massive pile-ups. The trick is to first spot these weeks ahead of time and start your work early.

Anticipating challenges is also valuable to do nightly. A simple and effective method you can start using right away is called mental rehearsal. Mental rehearsal is a form of visualization in which you imagine yourself performing well at any undertaking you choose. How do we know this is effective? 

Dr. Biasiotto led a study on visualization at the University of Chicago. The researchers divided basketball players into three groups: a group that practiced shooting free throws, a group that visualized themselves making free throws, and a group that neither practiced or visualized themselves making free throws. After 30 days, the group who only visualized themselves making free throws showed almost the same amount of improvement as the group who had practiced them!

Every night, a great habit to form is to take 5 minutes to stop and review your goals for the next day. Plan, then sit back and ask what could go wrong. Visualize yourself going through the day accomplishing everything you need to. See yourself overcoming any obstacles that arise. No—this doesn’t guarantee everything will run smoothly. But the potential returns far exceed the minimal time investment.

Determine how much time you need. 

Figuring out how much time you need to study per week is crucial, so you can plan your study schedule around your work schedule. This can seem a little daunting at first if you’ve never done it before. Here’s a great rule of thumb: for every 1 hour of class time, plan to study for at least 2 hours outside of class. In other words, determine how many hours of class you have each week, and multiply this number by 2. This gives you an approximation of how many hours per week to block off for studying.

Now, keep in mind—this is only a rule of thumb. As your semester progresses, you might find that you don’t need this much time to study, or that you need more time. While it’s tough to get your estimate exactly right, establishing a baseline is still beneficial. Use it as a starting point, then adjust from there.

Make a to-do list and prioritize.

If you don’t already make a daily to-do list, you owe it to yourself to start now. Keeping track of your objectives somewhere outside of your head frees up brain power for more important tasks. After all, I’m sure as a college student you have enough stuff to cram into your head already. Why try to juggle more than you have to?

If you go down your list and think carefully about each item, I’m sure you’ll find that not everything is equally important. On an ideal day, you’ll finish everything on your list. But most swamped students know that ideal days rarely happen. So, if you can’t finish everything on a given day, at least make sure to finish the most important tasks.

A great way to prioritize is to review your to-do list and ask yourself these 3 questions:

  • What’s due next?
  • What’s worth the most points?
  • What do I least want to do today?

Answering the first two questions will help you focus on what will impact your grades the most. The third question is crucial because the tasks we procrastinate on the most are often also the most beneficial.

Utilize time windows.

What if I told you there was a time management strategy you could use to gain back more than a full day’s worth of time over the next 3 months? What if I told you that this is true, and that it barely requires any extra work on your part? If you’re at least somewhat skeptical, I can’t say I blame you. Let me explain.

Right now, ask yourself if you could make just an extra 20 minutes a day to study. If you were to do this 6 days a week for the next 3 months, all the extra 20-minute sessions would add up to over 24 hours of study time. I encourage you to do the math for yourself if you’re still not convinced.

These short time periods that open throughout the day are time windows. While you probably won’t get much done in any single 15 - 30-minute time window, they add up. This is especially important to understand when you’re working and taking classes, because blocking off a few hours of uninterrupted study time can be a challenge. Here are some great times to try to squeeze in an extra 15 - 30 minutes of studying:

  • First thing in the morning
  • Before bed
  • After a meal
  • Between classes
  • During a break at work
  • When you get to class early
  • While riding public transportation

Never underestimate the power of how studying in short intervals adds up over time!

Study incrementally.

Trying to cram in all your studying right before a test is like leaving your house for an appointment at the last minute. If you hit all the green lights, find a parking spot right away, then sprint in, you just might make it on time. But just because this works every now and then doesn’t mean it’s a strategy to rely on.

When you cram, you’re gambling with your grades and causing unnecessary stress. As a working college student, you can’t count on having a whole afternoon or evening free to cram. You’re going to have to break your studying up into smaller pieces. Try to review daily whether you have a test coming up or not—at least a little bit.

Best-selling author, blogger, and Georgetown professor Cal Newport wrote an article on how to conquer cramming in which he talks about what he calls the Same Day Rule. The Same Day Rule is simply this: “For every medium to large size assignment, do some work toward its completion the same day that it’s assigned.” This is an excellent rule to adopt for college students with jobs.

Maximize your focus.

When you’re working, your study time is already limited. You can’t afford to blow the time you do have by getting distracted. One major source of distraction is technology. Don’t get me wrong— I love social media and web surfing as much as the next person. But when the pedal hits the floor and your to-do gets insane, it’s time to unplug from everything unrelated to what’s at hand.

Author, programmer, and entrepreneur Scott H. Young said this in his article 20 Tips to Survive When You’ve Overloaded Your Schedule: “In an overload, connectivity becomes less important than productivity, so turn off anything that distracts you from work.”

Fortunately, there are several free tools that can help you out. There’s an extension for the Chrome web browser called StayFocused that lets you temporarily block access to distracting websites. For Firefox users, Leechblock does virtually the same thing. Another awesome tool is the OFFTIME app for iPhone and Android. OFFTIME lets you block calls, texts, notifications, and other apps so you can focus on your school work.

Another trick for improving your focus fast is what I call tally tracking. Here’s how it works. First, bring an index card or sticky note with you to your next study session. Set a timer for however long you plan to study before you take a break. Then while you study, mark a tally down on the sticky note/index card every time your mind wanders, or you get distracted. After the timer goes off, count your tallies and mark down the total. That’s your score for the session.

Don’t worry about what your score is. You just want to figure out where you’re at so that you can track your improvement over time. In future study sessions, your goal is to get a lower score, meaning you got distracted fewer times. It’s not an exact science, but it’s effective. By continually challenging yourself to do better, you’ll get a lot more done.

Limit your social life as needed.

Let me start by saying this—my best memories from undergrad come from times I spent with close friends. I highly encourage you to spend as much time as you can with friends in college. However, it’s wise to temporarily limit your social life when you have a test or major assignment coming up. This is a great rule of thumb for all college students—but it’s especially vital for those with jobs.

Unfortunately, when you’re working and taking classes, you’re going to have less free time than many of your peers. It’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll be studying while they’re doing something fun. I experienced this a lot myself, so believe me when I say I know how frustrating it is. No one wants to miss out on a good time or feel like they’re out of the loop. But if you want to achieve your goals badly enough, you’ll see that sometimes you must make the short-term sacrifice.

Track your progress.

Working and taking classes can be exhausting. Some days after a demanding shift, the last thing in the world you’ll feel like doing is hitting the books. How do you stay motivated when you don’t feel like doing anything or find yourself in a slump?

One of the best things you can do is to keep track of your accomplishments day-to-day. Often, we get so busy in the shuffle of life that we fail to give ourselves enough credit for our achievements. By tracking your progress towards your goals, you’ll feel more motivated to keep going when the going gets tough.

Comedian and actor Jerry Seinfeld told Gina Trapani—founder of—in a conversation on productivity that he tracks his work using a big wall calendar with every day on one page. Seinfeld marks a red X on his calendar for each day that he works on his craft. After a few days in a row, a streak starts to form. Seinfeld says, “Your only job next is to not break the chain.” 

Whether you try this method out or not, the takeaway here that finding your own way to track your accomplishments has big rewards. By doing this, you’ll keep yourself focused and motivated, and will never lose your momentum.

What’s Next?

Congratulations for taking a step towards getting better at time management by reading this article! Keep pushing yourself at everything you do. Give both your studies and your work 100% even when you don’t feel like it. Before long, you’ll adapt. Now that you’ve read these 11 steps, what did you learn that you can put into action? 

About the Author

Parker Smith is the founder of Test Prep Champions--a website that provides test taking, study skills, and time management advice to students at all levels to help them reach their academic goals. This is done through an online archive of research-based articles, videos, books, courses, and more. Smith is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and is now a student at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Test Prep Champions is currently offering a free one week-long email course on time management. Each day for 7 days, you’ll receive a quick but high-impact lesson on a key time management success skill. You’ll have the option to check in with the founder of Test Prep Champions, Parker, after every lesson to ensure you’re making progress. If you're interested in learning more, here’s the link to register for the free email course: Thank you!