How to Handle A Heavy Course Load in College (+ a job! and friends and family!)

Hello! This is a bit different from my other blog posts but I put a poll up a few weeks ago on Instagram asking my followers what they wanted to hear from me. A friend from high school suggested I write about how I balanced a heavy course load and a job in college. And boy do I have experience with that!

When I started my freshman year at WKU in Fall 2015, I was far away from home and I practically knew no one. Kids from Rockcastle normally don’t go as far as Bowling Green. It was a big and scary change. But at the time, I really threw myself into campus activities to keep myself busy and to make friends.

I served on the student council for my residence hall and on the campus-wide student council for HRL (mistake, very boring). I tried out College YIG because I loved the KY YMCA in high school but I didn’t really mesh well with the other students. I attempted to be active in the Honors College by attending H4 (a camp for honors kids before school starts) but this wouldn’t last when I realized I wasn’t actually that smart. The most defining and important thing I signed up for my freshman year was rushing and pledging Omega Phi Alpha National Service Sorority. As a new member, a sorority consumes much of your time and during my first semester, I had plenty time to spare.

However, starting my second semester freshman year, I would settle into my new normal: heavy course loads. At one point in time, I had three declared majors and one minor. I felt like I was always taking classes, because I was! After my first semester, I would not take less than 18 hours while on campus. I’ve taken 18, 19, and 24 hour semesters while at WKU. That shit…hurted. I’ve taken summer classes. I’ve taken classes that started at 6 in the MORNING. I’ve worked a part time job at a law firm while in school. And until my last semester of college, I also tried to be as active as I could in my sorority. My college experience can best be summarized as a long ride in a sports car going 100 MPH. Even in the curves!!

However, somehow, I did it! Not saying I did it successfully with no problems, but I did it (full disclosure: with tons of problems). I thought about dropping out; I took antidepressants; I cried a lot; I was suicidal; I have stayed awake for 41 consecutive hours; I asked for help ALL THE TIME. But I did do it–two degrees with honors in 3.5 years.

This is not a How-To guide and these suggestions and tips are not one-size-fits-all. But these are the things that helped me handle college and maybe they could help you too. Just remember that you are not alone (even when your brain has you convinced otherwise), it truly can get better and you can do this!

My Holy Grail: An Agenda

I have been a dedicated agenda user since sixth grade, which sounds early, but it’s true. In my school district, you were given an agenda every year of middle and high school. Most people used it as a hall pass, but to me it was so much more: it was the match that set my soul afire for being obnoxiously organized by meticulously planning and recording my day. For many years, I used a Lilly Pulitzer planner back when Lilly Pulitzer was “cool.” I have used the 17 month large and medium spiral agendas and the large 12 month agenda without the spiral. These are some heavy duty babies! The covers are extremely thick and durable and the pages do not bleed through. There is lots of room on the monthly pages but much less on the weekly pages.

Last year I used an agenda made by my friend, Hannah Good. She is an incredible artist and makes some killer agendas. The materials she uses are a little less durable than the Lilly Pulitzer agendas I was used to and the pages bleed through because I use pretty serious ink but with Hannah’s agenda THERE IS SO MUCH ROOM. I really never used the monthly pages but the weekly pages were my life because of the entire page for notes! Which is where all of my To-Do Lists went.

At the beginning of the semester, I printed out each syllabus for class and downloaded my work schedule and sorority calendar. I write in my agenda every deadline, test date, work schedule, event and service opportunity. All of these things are subject to change when you’re writing them down in August or January, but I guarantee you a lot will stay the same. I always, always label what I write. For example, “PS 303 Paper 3 Due by midnight” or “OPA Sisterhood Workshop.” This way I know what everything is for. “Homework due!” doesn’t cut it when you’re taking 8 classes, ‘cuz, like, which freaking class?

Also, pro-tip! I use a small binder clip to keep my page so I can turn to what week I am on every time. And it’s really satisfying to see the pages in the clip get thicker because that means you’re closer to being done with school/Christmas/starting a new year!

I also utilize note pages in my agenda! If there is a space for notes in yours, it’s there for a reason so use it! I used mine to plan Christmas gifts, schedule classes and write down assignments for my OnDemand class.

The First Runner-up to My Holy Grail: Good Ole Fashioned To-Do Lists

As lame as it sounds, I am a firm believer that creating To-Do lists and sticking to them is life changing. I keep my To- Do lists in my agenda because I prefer writing things down over typing them (always). Also the satisfaction in striking through something you’ve completed? Unmeasurable. However, if you do prefer the digital ways of staying on task, there are many apps dedicated to To-Do lists and if you have an iPhone, the Reminders app is already downloaded on your phone (I do use this one for packing and grocery lists!).

My To-Do lists are organized by class and priority. So if I have homework for SPAN 345, I will make a list titled “SPAN 345” and put bullet points underneath it for what should be done before class. Last semester I only had classes on Tuesday and Thursday, so I made the To-Do List every day after class on Tuesday and Thursday. On Tuesday, I wrote what needed to be done before Thursday and on Thursday I wrote what I needed to be done over the weekend. Sometimes I will write a To-Do List for household chores or something as simple as “shower” but when you take 8 classes, reminding yourself to shower just makes sense. Same thing with any extracurriculars you have! Had I been active in my sorority during my last semester of college, you would have seen a list that probably looked like:
  OPA
– Buy pencils to donate
– Go decorate for semi-formal
– Text VP about service opportunity

I also subscribe to the concept that no task is too small. Write literally everything that needs to be done down. It can be as simple as “Print out Blackboard readings.” If it needs to be done, this To-Do list will remind you and it’s an easy strikethrough or check off!

Be Physically Organized/Find A Physical Space to Be Productive

Another way to stay on top of lots of classes is to be physically organized, prepared and in the right headspace. It is so easy to get overwhelmed during a hectic semester. Just like an athlete would train for a marathon, you need to train yourself for school! Try your best to get 7-8 hours of sleep each night and not fall into the routine of caffeine and naps. Instead of buying the best sports gear like an athlete, by folders, binders or notebooks for each of your classes/find out what works best for you. Last semester, for example, I had four Spanish classes back-to-back. I used a 3″ binder for all four classes and used tab dividers to divide them up. I also bought a 5-subject notebook that I used for all of my classes that I kept with me for all my classes.

Another thing that took me too long to learn is that it’s important to find a physical space that aids in your productivity. Find a spot that is yours and is free from distractions. Studying in bed isn’t studying at all if you’re prone to falling asleep like I am. I also never enjoyed studying at the desk in my room because it is too close to the bed. However, I did like studying at the kitchen table because it was large and it was high up (for some reason I like to have my feet dangle? it helps? idk). However, when my roommates were around, I found that instead of working, I would want to talk to them. In those moments, I figured out I needed to find another spot to study. For me that was Panera Bread. I really started studying at Panera in Fall 2017 and then just never stopped. During the afternoon, it’s not crowded and if there are people there, it’s quiet old people! Also baked goods. Libraries, coffee shops, restaurants with WiFi, buildings on campus that don’t get a lot of foot traffic are places that I found to be conducive to my productivity.

Look for Jobs Made for Students

If you have to get a job while in college, I can’t stress this enough: find one that is created for a student! This might be working somewhere on campus or in some type of paid-internship. However, the point is that the position is made to work around your schedule! That is awesome! As a runner at a law firm, my schedule was created at the beginning of the semester and was made with student schedules in mind. So I worked Mondays and Fridays since I have always preferred Tuesday/Thursday and Wednesday classes. And that’s it. That’s the schedule. It doesn’t change unless I talked to my boss to get it changed. When the rest of your schedule is consistent, your job should be that way too. It is so much more manageable.

Don’t Be Afraid to Say No

For me, this one was hard to learn but eventually, I did learn it. My freshman and sophomore year I tried to do the Most. It was super tiring and horrible for my mental health. I was constantly running between sorority functions, study groups, classes, and hanging out with friends. I wanted to make everyone happy but me! The sooner you learn to prioritize your needs and what helps you succeed, the better. And newsflash! If a friend of yours is upset by you not being able to do them favor when it’s finals week and you had a car accident on Tuesday, they aren’t really your friend, ok?

Care for Your Mental Health

I CANNOT STRESS THIS ONE ENOUGH!!!!!! If your mental health suffers, your academic endeavors will suffer. If your school works is what is causing your mental health to suffer, everything is going to go downhill, real fast and you need to be able to grab hold to something to keep you steady. For me this is realizing when I am falling into a depressive episode. I’ve had enough depressive episodes to know what causes them and the signs that tell me its coming on. I have PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) so I know I get depressed on the days leading up to my period so I can work around it and prepare for that. If it’s a regular, run of the mill depressive episode I can tell I am getting worse when I start sleeping more, start crying over every little thing and stop hanging out with friends as much. I saw a therapist in Bowling Green for almost two years so whenever I felt an episode coming on, I always made sure to make an appointment with her or make sure that I was taking my meds (I was notoriously bad at remembering to take them).

There are also preemptive things you can do to care for your mental health! Create a healthy routine before the semester begins so you are used to being in when the semester gets tough. Don’t take too much on! Know your boundaries and what helps and hurts you. I applied for early alum with sorority in Fall 2017 because I realized it was hurting more than it was helping. Due to study abroad in 2016, lots of class work, and the worst depression I had ever experienced in Spring/Summer 2017, I was not able to be as active as I was once was, and yet I was still bending over backwards to participate in an organization that was becoming increasingly unfamiliar to me. I didn’t always feel welcome because a lot of my friends had graduated and the Exec Board gave impassioned speeches to the whole chapter about attendance and participation whenever possible. Being vocally reprimanded for doing the best that I could made me very bitter, which lead me to applying for early alum. Being granted this status was the best thing that organization could’ve ever done for me. I knew when to walk away and I am so glad I was able to focus on other things.

Try Your Very Best to NOT Procrastinate by Setting REALISTIC GOALS AND DEADLINES

Listen, we all fall victim to procrastination every once and a while, I know. But we know it’s bad, why do we keep doing it?? For me, it’s because I know I work well under pressure. I’ve written entire final papers in a matter of days (sure, it was like two days of not sleeping, but I did it which set a dangerous precedent)! However, this past semester, taking eight classes taught me that procrastinating = certain death. You can’t do it.

For me, the way I combated this was by setting very realistic goals and deadlines for myself. I knew I had a paper due in a month but I also knew myself, AKA there was no way in hell I would start writing that paper a month before it was due. However, if I broke the paper into sections, maybe it would get done a few days before it was due. This worked for me! A few weeks or so before the paper was due I would use one week for research (find all my sources, take good notes) and write the outline and the next week I would write the parts I actually wanted to write/found interesting and then I would finish the paper just in time with the other stuff. I know that I do need a little pressure to get stuff done, so I gave that to myself but without having to pull all-nighters to write every single paper that was due that semester (only had to do it like three times last semester!).

DO NOT GET BEHIND

I’ve found that getting behind is more mentally exhausting than anything. It’s knowing that you have stuff to catch up and the stuff you were already supposed to have done. It makes you want to accept defeat. And we don’t do that, OKAY? The best thing I think you can do if you do get behind: cut your loses. Take one zero so it doesn’t become two. Don’t make a habit of this, of course, but you have to pick yourself up and keep going. F

Make Time for Friends and Family

My blog post is about juggling school, a job, and friends and family. This is the friends and family part. In order to juggle them, you have to add them to the rest of the pins (if you’re juggling bowling pins, that is). It is so easy to put friends and family at the bottom of your priority list! So easy because most of the time they are understanding and will forgive you. But you have to create time and experiences in your schedule to see them because it’s important. It reminds you what it is like to have fun again!

Family can be harder, especially if they live far away. If that is the case, maybe set one night a week aside to FaceTime who you want to FaceTime and then when you are able to go see them, prepare in advance–do your homework for Monday before you leave on Friday!! Don’t go home to be with your family only to be stuck at home doing your homework because hello, your parents are paying for the food if y’all go out and that shit is nice. You’ll miss it one day.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

You are not alone even when you feel like it! There is someone, somewhere out there that wants to give you a hand. For me, I’ve always liked getting a second eye on my papers because sometimes I spend so much time writing and rewriting them, I lose focus or don’t catch mistakes. My mom was an English major so I normally ask her to read them. However, during my last semester I had a huge portfolio paper due in my Senior Seminar for my major. I wanted LOTS of people to read it so I could get LOTS of feedback. I tweeted, I Instagrammed, I grabbed random people in the halls and asked for people to read my paper and a lot of people DM’d and was like, “Yeah! I’ll read it!” And they did and it was great and so kind and I am so glad I asked for help.

Sure, you have classmates that seem to be doing literally everything by themselves but you asking for help doesn’t make you an inferior student, it makes you a resourceful one!

Online Classes Can Be Your Friend

I love a good online class. Do your research and find ones with good professors and easy material. I’m talking the tests are the book almost word for word. If this class is just to complete a requirement, you are not obligated to love it or give it your absolute best. It’s okay to take an easy way out every once in awhile.

Also, if possible, I do prefer taking an online class where you can set your own deadlines. You know yourself best! However, if you know you like structure and set deadlines by the professor, stick with what you know!

Take a Break from Social Media

This one is normally my last resort. Unfortunately, I spend HOURS every day on my phone between Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But when the going gets tough and I have to buckle down in school, I have been know to take social media breaks where I simply delete the apps off my phone. This helps me a lot because I know a waste a lot of time on these apps, specifically in the morning and at night when I should be getting ready or going to bed.

And that’s all I have for you. I am sure there are other tips and methods of being a productive student, but these are what helped me and I sure hope they can help somebody else. College is tough! But people go to class and do their work and take extra shifts at work and then go back to class every day. It’s possible and that should give you enough hope to get through it, too.

Good luck! And I do warn against a 24-hour semester, just don’t.

One thought on “How to Handle A Heavy Course Load in College (+ a job! and friends and family!)

  1. Always look forward to your posts and enjoyed this one. At this stage of my life a monthly schedule does it for me. I appreciated many of your suggestions as I, too, kept a yearly agenda – have kept many of them over the years and enjoy perusing them at times. I noticed your illustrations – you have a gift there. Have you considered writing and/or illustrating a children’s book? 🌹

    Like

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