Organization Tips for College Students: 5 Steps to Get Organized

A student in pink glasses stares at a calendar on her computer

As a student, being organized is a key component of your success. You can focus more on completing assignments when you’re not worried about keeping track of everything.

But why does something so simple in theory tend to get so complicated in reality? Throw in your regular life, work and family responsibilities, and suddenly, getting organized can feel like a daunting task. However, with the right system in place, getting—and staying—organized can be a painless process. We'll walk you through getting organized in college in five simple steps.

How to get organized in college: 5 steps for success

Getting organized is about two things—what you need to do and when. But what does that look like? The following steps outline how to go from overwhelmed to organized by consolidating, categorizing, creating and dating a to-do list.

Organization looks different for different people, so feel free to adapt these steps to what works best for you. If you’re new to organization, you may want to start out with a higher level of structure and then scale back as you get comfortable. You may also want to start small.

If you tend to get overwhelmed by your to-do lists, start by organizing one week at a time. Once you get the hang of it, then start looking two weeks ahead and so on. And remember—you can do this! Even if you don't consider yourself an "organized person," you can learn and practice to get better, just like any other skill.

Step 1: Consolidate your to-do lists

Do you have sticky notes on the counter, lists on your phone, reminders on your calendar and notifications on your computer? That could be holding you back from getting organized. While you’re busy checking items off your sticky notes, you may be forgetting an important deadline buried in that note on your phone. Or worse—are you trying to keep track of everything in your head?

Make it easier on yourself by consolidating. Start one big master to-do list. Grab a notebook and start writing down everything you need to do. Don’t worry about how neat it is. The goal of this step is to simply get everything out of your head and where you can see it all at once.

Now, you might be thinking, “There isn’t a notebook big enough to combine all my to-do lists. And how will I keep my work, school and family lives separate?” Good question! We’ll deal with that in step number two.

Step 2: Categorize your tasks

Once you’ve collected all your to-do items, it’s time to categorize them. Work, family, home and school are some common categories, but you may want to get more specific like “Class #1” or “Kid’s Appointments.” Of course, you can always change your mind as you start to categorize.

Pick a different highlighter or pen color for each category. Then start assigning each task to a category. For example, if you wrote down “Assignments 1 & 2,” you might highlight those blue for “School.” Categorize every task in your entire to-do list.

Step 3: Create a “master” to-do list

Now is when you create your new to-do list. Think about what kind of list will be most helpful for you. Is it a physical notebook? An organization app that you can reference on the go? Or an online doc you can share with your family?

Once you’ve decided where to keep your to-do list, it’s time to start filling it out. Start with one category at a time. As you begin adding things, consider whether they need to be broken down into smaller tasks.

For example, if you wrote down “Complete a research paper for class,” consider what steps you need to take before turning in the paper. Writing a thesis statement, completing an outline, finding sources, etc. Add each of those steps underneath the project. This will help you to avoid underestimating how much time something will take to complete.

Step 4: Date your to-do list

Once you’ve added every category, project and task, go back through and add due dates. Remember: when is just as important as what. For bigger projects, work backward from the final due date. Add dates to each task in the project. For an extra layer of structure, add both a start and due date.

For example:

Complete research paper for class – Due on 12/31

Revise draft

Start 12/26

Complete 12/31

Submit draft for review

Start 12/22

Complete 12/22

Write draft

Start 12/17

Complete 12/22

Document three sources

Start 12/12

Complete 12/17

Refine outline

Start 12/9

Complete 12/10

Write thesis

Start 12/8

Complete 12/8

Start initial outline of topic

Start 12/6

Complete 12/8

Start initial research of topic

Start 12/3

Complete 12/6

Pick a topic

Start 12/1

Complete 12/3

For reoccurring tasks like “Pick up the kids from school,” simply add a note like “Every Mon, Wed, Fri at 2:30 p.m.” For projects that don’t have hard deadlines like “re-tile the bathroom,” you can add check-in dates that will remind you to reassess whether you have the capacity to take them on.

As you start working on projects, the dates may shift. That’s okay! An outline will help you stay on track even if you don’t stick to it exactly—and it can also give you an indicator of where you may need to pick up the pace.

Step 5: Set up regular check-ins

You did it! Once you’ve consolidated, categorized, created and dated your to-do list, you’ve done the hardest part. Moving forward, you’ll simply check in and update it. And soon, you’ll have that feel-good feeling of crossing things off your to-do list.

If you started by organizing one week at a time, you may want to check in every Sunday afternoon to update your list for the coming week. Referencing it each morning for that day’s tasks and each month for more long-term projects is also a good idea. Again, as you try out different strategies, you’ll learn what works best for you. The most important thing is that you try!

Extra tips to get organized 

If you’re looking for some more tips on how to organize your life while in college, here are a few extra:

  • Block your calendar for studying: If you have a hard time fitting study time into your schedule, try adding it to your calendar. Even if it’s just 15 minutes between picking the kids up from school and making dinner, short sprints of studying add up and can help you make progress even on busy days.
  • Use the Pomodoroâ technique: To make the most of your longer study windows, try setting a timer for 25 to 50 minutes. Put your phone and any other distractions in another room. Study until the timer goes off and then take a 5- to 10-minute break. Repeat until you’ve finished what you need to.
  • Find your most productive time: Some people are most productive first thing in the morning while others work best in the afternoon or evening. Find what works best for you, so you can plan out when to study for particularly challenging projects.
  • Declutter your study space: A cluttered space can quickly lead to a cluttered mind. Clean your space and you may find it easier to focus on your assignments. Though having a dedicated study space is not always possible, it’s ideal to have a space separate from your bedroom and living room. That way, when you’re done with studying, you can put it away and transition to “home mode” much easier. 
  • Make time for the essentials: Remember not to neglect self-care. Often during busy times, the first things to go are sleep, exercise and meal planning. While you will certainly flex your priorities from week to week, your overall health and well-being are important to your success in college. As best you can, plan out quick, healthy meals for the week. Set a consistent bedtime and take breaks to be active.
  • Back up your files: Save yourself the late-night panic of missing files. Simply back up all your assignments to an online cloud system like OneDriveâ. That way, you can also access them from anywhere.

You’ve got this

You’re well on your way to getting organized. Even by just reading this article, you’ve taken a step toward organizing your life and freeing up your mind to focus on more important things.

As with anything, practice is important. Once you get into the rhythm of balancing school with the rest of your life, you’ll get better and better. Keep in mind that the best organization system is one that you’ll use. And remember—you’re not on your own. At Rasmussen University, you can always ask for help and get connected with helpful resources.

To read about more ways to set yourself up for success in college, check out our article “Academic Success: 7 Simple Habits of the Best Students.”

Pomodoro technique is a registered trademark of Francesco Cirillo.

OneDrive is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation.

About the author

Will Erstad

Will is a Sr. Content Specialist at Collegis Education. He researches and writes student-focused articles on a variety of topics for Rasmussen University. He is passionate about learning and enjoys writing engaging content to help current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.


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