Dear College-Bound Kids: What I’ve Learned From Five Years At University [On Studying and Assignments]

Hi friends! Two weeks ago, I wrote a post dedicated to my college-bound friends, offering some advice on university life. Today, I’ll be sharing with you my second out of three Dear College-Bound Kids post, and I’ll be focusing specifically on tackling studying and assignments.

During my time at university, I studied very hard. But, I learned a little too late (in my last year of undergraduate, in fact) that you shouldn’t endeavour to study hard, but you should study smart. So, in today’s post, I’ll be sharing some advice on how to study smart and effectively, based on years of experimenting and figuring out what works best. Of course, what works best for me may not work best for you! So spend some time figuring out what studying techniques work for you, and if you discover that they aren’t effective, try another method!

Anyway, let’s get straight to the post – and I hope the advice here will be helpful to you!


YOUR NOTES DON’T HAVE TO BE PRETTY BUT THEY HAVE TO BE ORGANIZED.

In my first year of university, I wasted so much time trying to make my notes all perfect and mistake-free. Colour-coded, tabs, nice headers, consistent typography – you name it. This was further compounded by the fact that I am a perfectionist (and I don’t mean this as a good thing), so whenever I made a mistake, I scrapped the whole thing and started again. I cannot tell you how much time I wasted trying to make my notes look nice. But the truth is this (unless bullet journalling is your hobby, which I totally respect!) your notes may be nice, but ‘nice’ makes little to no contribution to the effectiveness of your studying. In university, time is precious, and spending a disproportionate amount of time on making it pretty was not worth it for me. Besides, there’s a high chance you won’t look at your notes after the semester is over. (I have never ever looked at my past notes, planners, or studying material after the course was done.)

Rather than nice, make sure your notes are organized. When I stopped caring about making my notes look nice (heck, I wrote all my notes on scrap paper), I became infinitely more productive and was more focused and engage on the content, and less focused on making things look nice.

  • You want to be able to find your notes easily (I recommend using headings or colour-coding the top margin by subject).
  • Organize your notes by topics or chronologically; go with what makes sense for you!
  • Separate definition, theory, studies, etc. so when it comes to revision, you can find each with ease.
  • Develop an organization system that works for you and makes sense to youdon’t follow a friend’s way of organization even though it confuses you.

TAKE. BREAKS.

Look, I’ve been that frustrated university student who got snappish whenever someone suggested I take a break. How can you suggest that I take a break?! I’ve got SO much to do and I’ve got no time!!

I understand. But trust me: take breaks. A little eustress is good for productivity, but too much stress is debilitating.

All through undergrad, I didn’t take a lot of breaks. And though I thought, at the time, I was studying very hard, I wasn’t studying smart. I got sick often because I pushed myself to much, I was utterly miserable because I didn’t have a lot of time for myself, and I procrastinated far more than I should have. Now that I’m in my Honours year, which a kazillion of people have told me is the hardest year for Psychology students in my university, and have taken consistent breaks, my wellbeing has been significantly better and, after my breaks, not only am I more productive, but I end up producing really good work because my brain isn’t exhausted. You can spend 6 hours writing an essay, but if you’ve only written 500 words because you couldn’t think and were exhausted after a breakdown, what difference does it make if you spent two hours and wrote the same 500 words?

  • Take breaks, but control your breaks. What I do is use my phone’s app and set myself an hour. You don’t want something as short as ten minutes where you feel anxious counting down the minutes, but you don’t want something too long either where you lose motivation to work.
  • Your break should be spent on something that you enjoy doing or something that you find relaxing.
  • If you feel like you’re going to break apart if you spent the night writing this essay, then consider taking the night off. It really is okay and a night of purposeful rest (as opposed to guilt-ridden and reluctant) will do you so much good.

NOT PROCRASTINATING REQUIRES MORE THAN JUST SHEER FORCE OF WILL.

Listen, I am the worst procrastinator. Yes, I know I had a spiel about taking breaks, but in undergrad, I worked ‘hard’ but I also spent an inordinate amount of time playing Solitaire (why? C?W? why?) whenever I hit a road bump. So, if you’re a procrastinator, you’re going to need more than just sheer force of will – “okay, okay I’m DEFINITELY going to do work for real now” – to stop. My suggestions:

  • Use apps like Forest app. For some reason, this app really works for me. Not that I care about the pixelated trees, but for some reason when I know my phone is not accessible to me, I don’t feel motivated to check it. Make sure you ‘whitelist’ apps that may be important for you to use.
  • When it’s exam or assessment time, give someone you trust (and someone who will not abuse that trust) your social media passwords. Sure, you might slap ‘hiatus’ on your username and be ‘absent’ (i.e. not posting), but what’s stopping you from scrolling and watching those autoplays? 🤷
  • I just took two days off from social media. I undownloaded the Facebook messenger app from my phone and logged off Facebook. It’s amazing how much I concentrated uninterrupted and how much work I got done. Because I measure my productivity by word count, I wrote three times as much in one day because I wasn’t logged into social media.

SET REALISTIC GOALS AND USE A PLANNER.

One of the worst things I did to myself was set unrealistic work/study goals. ‘Read this WHOLE chapter by tonight!’ What a load of horse poop, and it was no wonder I didn’t feel motivated to work.

Productivity isn’t just about chugging out a ton of work. Productivity is partly attributed to planning. Set yourself realistic and achievable goals and you’ll be far more productive. I tend to look at when assignments are due, and, knowing that I am a very slower writer, I plan my time accordingly. I usually give myself one full day to do comprehensive research, and then set myself 500 words a day, allowing myself at least a full day to edit, and then, if I can (which, let’s be real, is seldom the case), give myself three days leeway before the due date in case things don’t go according to plan. Moreover, if you reach your goal for the day, why not reward yourself the rest of the night off?

As for the planner, I make a table on Microsoft Word. I used to plan my things in a planner book, but I felt like it didn’t work very well for me. Also, I spent a lot of time trying to make it look neat and pretty (which is just how I am), and whenever I made a mistake, I hated crossing things out. With Microsoft Word though, it works for me because I can edit it easily, I can colour things and change the colour as well, and I have infinite amount of room. My planner looks a little bit like this:

And though that planner is certainly not pretty or underwhelming, it works really well. The columns correspond to my classes (the far right being dissertation work), and my goals for each. For me, I’ve coded it so that green means that I’ve accomplished that goal, whereas red means I didn’t quite get there, and blue means that’s my goal. Orange, as you can see, is a due date.

  • Productivity is producing work and good planning.
  • Set yourself realistic and achievable goals where you can trust yourself to complete. Plan ahead!
  • If it’s important for you to have a pretty and neat planner, great! It just doesn’t work for me, so I use one on Microsoft Word. It gets the job done and takes up less time, which is what I want from a planner.

START YOUR ASSIGNMENTS EARLY. 

When people say ‘my best work is done the night before!’, take that with a grain of salt. Because, honestly, that is, 95% of the time, a load of bullpoop.

Let me teach you a thing called cognitive dissonance, and this is a really important and useful thing to learn about. (Because, honestly, it explains a lot of behaviour.) Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomena where we hold two contradictory beliefs or ideas. Now, having two contradictory ideas is actually really uncomfortable! We like having the world make sense, that is consistent with our ideas and beliefs about the world. When people experience cognitive dissonance, they will actually feel motivated to reduce that mental discomfort.

In the context of doing your assignments last minute, we can understand the cognitive dissonance caused by the contradictory beliefs of ‘I am doing this last minute and it’s not as good as it could be’ and ‘If I started earlier, this would have been way better and I would be less stressed’. An outcome of cognitive dissonance is when people end up justifying their actions, especially when they invest a great deal of perceived effort into the task. Therefore, in this context, to resolve or reduce the dissonance they feel, people who do their essays last minute (and experience a great deal of stressed and put in a lot of perceived effort) will end up justifying or show a greater positive evaluation of the essay.

So the moral of my ramble: starting early will give you more time to become an expert on what you’re writing about so you know what you’re talking about in your essay, spread out your workload across a few days rather than writing it all in one day, and give yourself enough time for road bumps and editing.


Though university can be a lot of fun, studying and assignments is arguably the worst part. But, with some solid planning and smart studying, it can be less miserable, even if it’s just a little bit. And if you’re struggling, I promise you’re not alone.

Moreover, working hard and university stress can be very overwhelming, so make sure you also give yourself days where you can take a breather, spend time with loved ones, or do something for yourself too. University is important, but your mental health is important too. If things get too overwhelming, check out the university counselors – usually there are mental health staff on campus and they are, more often than not, fantastic. Look after yourself and your friends. 💛

Let’s discuss!

  • Do you have any advice for fellow college-bound/university-bound students?
  • How do you study, and what works best for you?
  • Do you use a planner? Does having a bullet journal work for you?
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22 thoughts on “Dear College-Bound Kids: What I’ve Learned From Five Years At University [On Studying and Assignments]

  1. I agree with all of your tips. I would add two:

    1. Make an index at the beginning of all of your notebooks. Just leave 2 pages blank at the front of your notebook. While taking notes, number your pages at the top. After each class of note-taking, go back to the index, jot down the page number/range and key words/phrases to give you an at-a-glance reference. (i.e. After a lecture on Degas paintings, go to the index and put the page number in the left column; then put things like “Degas”, “painter”, “dancers”, “19th century France” next to it. That way, when it comes to paper-writing or exam time, you know exactly which page to go to for details on Degas. Plus, summarizing the lecture afterward will help you retain key details.)
    1a. If you take notes on your computer, you can do the same sort of thing digitally! If you use Word and compile all of your class notes into one document, just leave some space at the top to add pages and lecture summaries. If you use Notes and have a separate tab for each lecture period, put a few key words at the top (i.e. “DEGAS/DANCERS/19TH C.”). You could also make a separate tab/note for an index, just put a 0 before the title that way it stays at the top. :)

    2. Pre-arrange to take group notes on Google Docs during your class (if laptops are allowed and if you prefer them to taking notes by hand) (and if you’re comfortable talking to others, of course). This is a new thing I’ve been reading about, so I didn’t utilize it during my 5 years in university. But! It sounds super helpful, especially for lecture-heavy classes. I can see it being hard to have 4 people all taking the same notes, so maybe consider having a Word Doc open for class- and lecture-related questions. (“What date did she say?” … “When did so-and-so die?” … “How do you spell that guy’s name?”)

    … This is hella long, but I wish I’d done both of those things while in university. Good luck, new/current students! :) <3 x

    • Hi Kaiya!
      I love love long comments! So thank you so much for leaving a thoughtful one!

      I love your advice on organizing notes – I was never organized enough to do it to that level, so I’m super impressed. Your notes must be so so nice. *loves organized notes*

      Woah! The Google Docs idea is such a good idea – I wouldn’t have ever thought about that. I love this idea so much, though I can imagine it’d only work if you had friends you trust in class. But this is incredible – I hope you don’t mind if I share this piece of advice in my next post (if I get around to doing it)?

      • Hi CW!

        I also love long comments. I can’t ever seem to prevent myself from rambling. 😬

        My notes were awful and more full of doodles than anything helpful, unfortunately. I graduated before bullet journals and Google docs-level collaboration. ☹️ They’re both super useful tools, so please definitely share the ideas in your next post! (Even though I’m no longer a student, I’m still looking forward to it!)

        x

  2. My brain and yours work a lot in the same way haha, so I saw myself in most things you said. Like how in my first and second year I wasted a lot of time trying to make my notes pretty whereas right now I only need them to be organized and where I want them to be. And planning my studying is honestly Something I cannot go without, I need a plan to focus on and a goal to work towards otherwise I either procrastinate like a champ or overwork myself and end up exhausted. And planning saved my study life more often than not.
    Once again, great great post <3

    • Hi Fadwa!
      Haha yes! I wasted so much time making my notes pretty and I don’t even look at them anymore – haha I probably through them away…
      Me too!! it’s either you don’t do any work or you end up doing too much to the point it’s detrimental to your health.
      It’s kinda nice to know that I’m not entirely alone in my experiences, and it’s awesome that we have the same style!!
      Thank you so so much. <3

  3. As somebody that procrastinates like crazy and is scared of college (but still looking forward to it) this post helps a lot! Thank you so much!! I’m sort of a perfectionist too and like things to look pretty haha

  4. I wish I had these tips when I was an undergrad, but I’m still going to use them as a postgrad :) I do literally every single thing that a student should not do (procrastinating, leaving it until the last minute, not even studying) but somehow it works well for me because I still get pretty good grades. My Masters thesis is due in next month so I’m changing everything I do for that because there is no way I’d be able to get 16000 words done in one night or even a week 😬 My biggest piece of advice would be to actually do the assigned reading because so many people in my classes would just show up not having read what we were supposed to and then sat at the back hoping that they wouldn’t get picked on during a discussion, which can be pretty embarrassing if you don’t know what everyone is talking about.

    • Hi there Louise!
      I’m glad that you still get great grades! I think different things work for everyone – I feel more stressed and my productivity diminishes if I do it last minute, so that doesn’t work for me! And that’s okay. Everyone has different styles.

      All the best for your Masters thesis! Mine is due in a month and I’m lowkey panicking, but also certain that I’ll be okay in the end.

      That’s fantastic advice, and so relevant to postgrad classes where the classes are just so much smaller and it’s so much easier to remember who did or did not do the readings.

  5. I LOVE this post CW and I am going to check out the other post for college kids as well. I definitely needed this. I am halfway through my undergrad year, and it isn’t going well because I did really bad the past two semesters and so I am pushing myself as much as I can to do better this time. I DEFINITELY and STRONGLY agree that all assignments, term papers, presentations should be planned and completed before hand–if possible, a week before the due dates. I have been trying this for the last month and it has really helped me cope with the stress of university.

    I never tried making my notes pretty because I simply do not have the artistic flair in me :p And I don’t bother with color coding either. I do however date my notes vigilantly, make sure to write the chapter names and numbers at the top of the page and I highlight important parts so it’s easier for me to look through them. I also keep separate notebooks for every subject so that takes care of half of the organizing part.

    The only advice I would add (and I am pretty sure most people already do this) is to keep track of your marks. And not just class test or midterm marks. I have a separate notebook where I have every important dates noted, and a huge chunk of pages dedicated to keeping records of how much marks I earned for every class attended (our universities are very strict about attendance and carries 5 marks just for a 90% or higher attendance), every quiz, midterm, assignment, presentation and term papers. This way I know exactly how much more effort I need to put in for a particular course.

    • Hi Tanaz! Aw, thank you, I’m glad that you like this post! I completely agree – when I was in undergrad, I did work right to the last minute, but in postgrad, I’ve been trying to give myselfa wide berth before the due dates so I don’t stress as much as well.

      I keep separate books for different subjects too! It helps so much, especially when it comes to studying. I love how organized your notes sound – I love love love organized notes.

      Ooh yes, that’s great advice! I’m really fortunate and our university has a program that keeps track of it for you – it’s also the place where you can retrieve information about the course, so it’s so helpful. But yes, I totally agree. It’s a great way of keeping yourself accountable and motivated!

  6. Agreed agreed agreed!! It’s funny, I just started bullet journalling but I am definitely not planning to use it to write notes. To keep track of when assignments are due, yes, but I see it more as a creative outlet than anything else. I’m hoping it will be a good non-stressful escape for when assignments and classes start back up again, anyway! :-)

  7. Such wonderful studying/college advice CW! Hopefully there will be some college bound students that can utilize all the knowledge you have acquired over the years. My biggest source of success when I was in college was starting assignments & studying EARLY, and not waiting until the last minute. Like you, I did much better breaking assignments & studying up in small daily chunks vs. spending hours in one sitting. I also highly suggest taking advantage of study groups or finding a study buddy! Sure studying solo worked for me, but I also benefitted from mixing things up and studying with a group.

    • Hi Amanda!
      Yesssss, totally agree with starting early! That has been the ingredients of my successes this year, and I wish people just… started early. Hahaha!
      Ooh gosh yes, having a study buddy got me through my research statistics class – so that’s invaluable advice! Thank you Amanda!

  8. I’m not in uni yet and I’m in a second college of further education (I think it’s like American community college) because I didn’t pass the exam to go to uni when I was 17. My college is basically a mini uni so I find that these tips will work out for me!

    NOT PROCRASTINATING REQUIRES MORE THAN JUST SHEER FORCE OF WILL. <— So true because I used to barely procrastinate when I was in primary and secondary school. That was also the time when smart phones weren't around in Ireland so that helped. Also, my parents confiscated my phone before I could use it/the computer/my gameboy advance.

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