Get organized and succeed in your studies

Rebeca shares strategies that you can implement now to set yourself up for success later.

Students walking on campus


YouAlberta is written by students for students.

Rebeca is a 3rd-year Philosophy and Political Science Arts major who came to Canada from Mexico. She retains her culture by cooking traditional dishes, trying new vegan recipes and making her food extra spicy. Passionate about connecting with under-represented communities and telling their stories, she plans to pursue a career in journalism.

You might have heard that the first week does not really count, that it is like a week off before the Term really starts. In the time I have been in university, I have learnt that "syllabus week" can be just as critical as any other week, and making the most out of it can get you a head start in the Term and make studying and meeting deadlines much easier. Planning and organizing your readings, assignments and commitments during "syllabus week" is crucial for a successful Term. 

Read each syllabus early on.

Carefully read each syllabus as soon as it becomes available on eClass and at least before going to your first class. As you read the syllabus, write down any questions about the assignments or the class format. You will have an opportunity to ask these questions to the instructor during the first class. Note that there might sometimes be short assignments during the first week, so it is important to schedule all the assignments early on.

Add the class and the office hours time to a calendar.

I have found it helpful to use Google Calendar. I add all my class times to the calendar and customize them to repeat until the end of the Term. I then add the building and classroom number in the "add rooms and location" section of the event. It is convenient to have the class times scheduled in your calendar because you can set it up to get a notification 10 minutes before the event, so that way, you never forget to go to class. I select a different colour in the calendar for each class and its office hours. 

The syllabus outlines the information on the professor's and/or TA's office hours. I add these times (with the location) in my calendar as an event that repeats until the end of the Term, so that way, every week, I get a reminder that I can attend office hours, and I have the meeting information easily accessible. 

Do not be afraid to approach instructors during office hours. They are always willing to support students. It is a great time to ask the instructor and/or TA any questions about the course and discuss any academic interests related to the topic of the class. 

Schedule your readings.

Often, professors send the syllabus in a "welcome email" around a week before classes start, or they make the eClass available ahead of the first day of classes. If you are able to, it is a great idea to start reading the material for at least the first week. Sometimes, as assignments and exams pile up, it becomes challenging to stay on top of the reading list, so it is helpful to read ahead on the Term as much as possible.

I find it easier to dedicate time every day to complete my readings (even if some days this is only for a brief moment) rather than leaving all of my readings to one day. Depending on the level and type of each class, you might get multiple readings or just one. The time you might need to spend reading each text might differ, too. Based on the type and length of the reading material, you can estimate how long it will take you to complete each reading. 

I usually create a Google spreadsheet where, for each week, I create a column for the name of the reading, the approximate time it will take me to complete it, the date by when I need to have the reading done and a checkbox to help me track readings I have completed.

In my Google Calendar, I create a daily event labelled "complete readings." When it is my dedicated time in the day to study, I check this list and start reading what I need to complete first, or I select the reading that I can complete in the time I have available. This helps me understand each text better and prevents me from falling behind on my coursework.

Schedule assignments and exams.

In my Google Calendar, I set my assignments and exams in red; this helps me pay more attention to them and prevents me from confusing the assignments with the scheduled classes. For each assignment and/or exam, I create an event in the calendar with the name of the class, the weight in percentage it has and the time it is due. This helps me allocate my time and effort accordingly, depending on how much the assignment is worth.

For example, for a quiz that is worth 5%, I will study a couple of days early, while I will start studying two weeks early for a midTerm that is worth 20%. 

I have learned that getting feedback before submitting my assignments helps me improve the quality of my work, enhance my learning process and get higher marks. I schedule all my assignments for the day they are due, and then a week before, I schedule an event with the name "have assignment ready for feedback," so that I can finish the first version of the assignment ahead of time and take it to office hours. 

Similarly, I schedule my exams for the day and time I write them. In addition to this, I schedule an event a week or two before (depending on the complexity and amount of material I need to study) named "start studying for the exam." In some cases, two days before the exam, I add another event labelled "finish studying for exam," so that I remember to complete my studying ahead of time and I am able to get enough sleep the night before each test. 

Check your calendar and email often.

To make sure that I stay on top of my deadlines and do not miss any assignments, I have both the Google Calendar and the Gmail apps downloaded on my phone and check I have my notifications on. This helps me receive and respond promptly to emails during the day, even when I do not have my laptop at hand. The Google Calendar notifications help remind me when I need to attend classes, complete the readings and submit my assignments. Besides checking my calendar for the week's events, I often scroll to the following week or two, so I do not miss any important deadlines. 

Attend academic workshops early on in the semester!

The Academic Success Center offers workshops on several topics, such as critical thinking, effective writing, study strategies and time management. It is always best to attend these workshops early on, as you can apply these learnings right from the start of the Term and perform better in your courses.

Ask questions on academic integrity early on.

Each professor might have their own academic expectations, details and understandings on how to maintain academic integrity. Even if you have completed assignments a certain way in one class, it is always a great idea to ask the professor from the new class you are now taking what is the best approach to academic integrity that works for that specific class. Clearly communicating with your instructor ahead of the deadline is a proactive step towards avoiding a possible breach of academic integrity due to a misunderstanding. Even inadvertent or accidental academic misconduct is investigated and can have sanctions. It is always better to ask in advance for clarification on how to complete an assignment or what practices are allowed during an exam.

Communicate with professors.

Even when you are organized, unexpected and urgent circumstances can happen. If you find yourself in this situation, communicate early on with your instructors. Letting them know how the difficult time you are going through is impacting your ability to perform well academically will allow you and the instructor to come up with an alternative for how you can meet class requirements. Do not be afraid to reach out to professors for support! It is always better to reach out as soon as you identify a potential concern rather than waiting until there is little to do to solve the situation.

Enjoy the start of the Term and learn about the involvement and extracurricular opportunities!

During the first week of the Term, there are opportunities to get involved on campus, meet like-minded peers, and start building connections on campus. Opportunities like Week of Welcome and clubs fair can help you get started in your search for extracurricular activities. BearsDen is also a great resource to conduct this search online. 

Being organized is important, but do not feel pressured to organize everything or schedule every hour of your day perfectly. 

I have found it helpful to make tables of the assignments, readings and 'need' to complete and set reminders on my Google Calendar so that I can make the best use of my study time and energy. However, there are times when I fall behind schedule and need to make changes. I have learnt that these situations are normal and that it is best to reach out for support early on when I identify any difficulties.