Studying in College: A Primer

Q: How do I structure my time in college? Do you really get as much free time as people say you do?

A: Ah, if I had a nickel for every college study strategy I’ve heard … well … I’d probably have like 6 to 7 nickels, I guess. Needless to say, college strategies are a dime a dozen (so I guess I could buy a few dozen college strategies with those nickels). A common response you’ll hear is that for every hour of in-class time you spend, you should prepare to spend 3 hours outside of class working on the subject. While I’m sure someone somewhere has benefited from that advice, I’m here to tell you that I have yet to meet someone who actually applies it when they get to college. The most useful advice I’ve ever heard on this topic is the following: treat college like a 9 to 5 business … that you run.

No one is here in college to wake you up, or tell you when to go to bed, or when to do laundry, or really anything. The only thing you *have* to do is show up to class, and sometimes your professor won’t even require attendance, so in that case the only thing you’ll *have* to do is show up to the exams. Outside of that? There’s nothing you HAVE to do. But all this free time is more or less an illusion, because college tests how good you are at controlling the time that you have in front of you. When I got here freshman year, I had no idea how to manage my day at all. High school basically plans your entire day out for you. When you get here, it’s up to you.

The 9 to 5 business hour plan is there to give you a baseline. So if you are really not able to think up any study plan (and this is totally fine), this plan is there to keep you on schedule. But the reason why I like it so much is that it separates your work time and your relaxation time. If you clock in at 9, work as much as you can throughout the day (going to class, synthesizing notes, doing homework), and then clock out at 5, well, you’ve earned a couple hours of break! Go do an intramural, take a nap in the library, serve in the community, see a play, or hit up that quirky model train club you don’t want to tell your friends you’re going to. The idea here is that you’re the one controlling the time; the time isn’t controlling you. You’re the one deciding when to rest, and you’re the one deciding when to do work. You’ll feel bad when you walk past the library at 5:01 seeing a bunch of people working all the time, but keep your chin up and smile. All that means is that they weren’t able to control their time as well as you did.

Now, the other half of the 9 to 5 business hour plan is that it’s a business that you OWN. What does this mean? Well, it means that if you have to come in early, you’re going to do it. If it means if you have to work late, you’re going to do it. Your business is something you’ve thrown capital and hard work into. You can’t let it fade away just because you decided to stay rigid on your times. Make no mistake, you’ll have tests on the same day. You’ll have 3 presentations and a quiz in 2 days. And on those days, you’re going to have to put in a little more than a 9 to 5. But if you see it as a business you’re running, your reaction to working overtime is “Yeah, this sucks, but hey, this is my thing. I’m going to own this.” Pretending you run a business actually is a trick to teach yourself ownership of a major task. And so by doing this, you’re at least 2.5 semesters ahead of your peers.

Now you might wonder how this has all worked for me. Well, at first I followed it rigidly, but I expanded the hours from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. My first semester here, I made sure I clocked in at 9 and clocked out at 8. Rarely would I do work after 8, and I would really just watch TV. Of course, I got super distracted a lot during the day, so having longer hours just meant that I got the same amount done as I would have had I worked nonstop from 9 to 5. But as the weeks and semesters go by, you’ll start turning the 9 to 5 into your own thing, and that’s when you actually are certified as someone who’s figured out time management. The 9 to 5 is a base framework where you can get a feel for what’s expected in college and create a routine around it. But it’s getting used to that routine that will help you stress way, WAY less.

So that’s the “big picture,” but I’m a man who loves practical tips, so here are some:

1. Find “your place.” Pick a spot on campus and decide that this is the place where you will dominate all of your classes. For me, it’s the Undergraduate Library at Illinois. It’s underground, so that kicks out all of the above-ground distractions like grass and sunshine and happiness. Secondly, it’s a boring-looking place. I secretly think it was designed that way on purpose. It’s a great place to study for long hours. Avoid “pretty” places to study. ‘Cause trust me, between the view from the ACES library on a fall evening and acid/base titration, you will 10/10 always choose to stare out at the sun.

2. Use Google Calendar. This one is mostly for the guys, because I’m starting to learn that girls have been using Google Calendar for years on end and they never bothered to tell their Y-chromosomed counterparts about it. But yes, Google Calendar is how I manage what I have to do. You can play with the settings and have your classes show up every week. This helps you see exactly how much time you have and where you can work on what assignments. I’m serious. Google Calendar is the secret to all of this, and the sooner you befriend it, the sooner you can sprint away from the hellfires that come from not knowing when deadlines are. The best part about Google Calendar is that it syncs really well between your devices, so you’re always up to date. Also, I’m pretty sure that the people who designed Google Calendar were college students, because some of those features are suspiciously too awesome.

3. Have morning and evening routines. Lots of studies show that having solid routines to open and close a day can be restful and energizing for those who practice them. Almost without fail, my morning routine every day is wake up around 7, brush my teeth, shower, change, eat breakfast, spend a little extra time sipping my coffee, read what I can in the paper, and walk to the library and do my Bible devotionals. Only after that entire process do I even think about work. My evening routine could use some work, though! Some good ideas are turning screens off 20 minutes before going to bed, reading a chapter of something, and/or making a to-do list for the next day.

4. Don’t skip on rest. This means both sleep and waking relaxation. One of my biggest annoyances with modern culture is that we glamorize workaholism. What they don’t tell you is how quickly you’ll burn out and lose everything you’ve worked for in the process. Do not think yourself a hero for never sleeping. Do not think yourself a hero for never having fun. You’re only cheating yourself from legitimate success. The human body needs rest. The human brain needs rest as well. Rest well. In your off-hours, do things that are productive but relax you. Listening to podcasts is an amazing start. I go on long walks all over campus. My friend’s teaching himself guitar. Of course, we all love YouTube and Netflix, and for sure do both of those things. But make sure you rest well. I cannot overstate how stupid it is to think you can pull all-nighters all of the time.

5. Put people first. Always put people first. If your friend went through a rough breakup, take her out to lunch. If your significant other feels like you’ve not been talking to them much, set aside your Friday and spend time with them. Call your mom. Get dinner with the people on your floor. Text your brother. Play frisbee with your friends if it’s nice on the Quad. FaceTime that one high school friend who’s somewhere in Colorado. Homework is important, but you can find a way to get that homework done later. You’re here to get a degree, but if you can’t get your priorities in order, what good will that degree really do you?



Class of 2020
I was born and raised in Naperville, Illinois. I’m a pre-dental student studying Integrative Biology, and I’m trying to pursue minors in Chemistry and English. My posts are for students who want to know what college is actually like and how to survive once you get here.


  • Thanks for publishing this blog, Mark! It will help prospective and current students, and life-long learners (like me) that need a reminder to take a break and reconnect.

  • Hey Mark – this post is great and hilarious! I like your style of writing a lot! The part about the view from ACES vs. acid/base titration is 100% true.