The College Student’s Back to School Survival Guide

It’s time to go back to school, a fact that may be causing you a bit of anxiety. After months traveling around the country, going to concerts, and catching up on good books and movies, you have to go back to college.

How are you ever going to get organized and stay ahead of your professors’ many demands?  Don’t worry. Kibin has your back. This back to school special includes seven great ideas to help you gear up and get ready for a successful college semester.

#1 The Best Transportation

One major back to school consideration is finding the best transportation. Depending on your college, it’s better to walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation to class. There are a lot of advantages to foregoing a car. First, you can save money on gas, maintenance, insurance, and parking permits, and you can use this money to help pay for your textbooks and school supplies. Second, riding a bike or walking gives you a chance to get some exercise, even during your busy school schedule. And, exercising can make you a better student.

A study at the University of Georgia Department of Exercise Science has found that exercising for up to sixty minutes improves brain function and memory, but they caution that exercising to the point of dehydration has the opposite effect. The final reason it’s awesome not to have a car on campus is that you won’t be the one that everyone goes to when they need a ride off campus.

Don’t have a bike? Don’t let that stop you. Many towns now offer bike libraries where you can borrow a bike for cheap or free. Check out this directory of community bike programs compiled by the International Bicycle Fund to see if there is a service near you. And, after you’ve taken a ride to class, post your six-second bike ride video here to show why biking is so great!

I know I just told you to forgo a car, but there are some circumstances where a car is really the best way to get around. If you must have a car to get somewhere every so often, you may opt to use a car sharing service like Zipcar.

These cars can be rented for a low monthly fee if you drive fairly regularly or on an hourly, as-needed, basis if you drive infrequently. They are insured and you don’t have to worry about maintenance, car loans, or other expenses… including gas (yes, even gas)! Many universities now offer this service on campus; visit Zipcar to find out if your university is one of them.

College Student Survival Guide Use a ZipCar
I have no idea why that Zipcar is parked in the grass… do you?

#2 Find a Study Space

Second on the back to school agenda, now that you have transport, is finding an optimal study space. Dr. John Grohol of Psych Central says,

“Finding an ideal study place is important, because it’s (a habit) you can reliably count on for the next few years.”

Your dorm room may or may not be your best option. It depends a lot on whether or not your roommate is likely to distract you with conversation, a blaring television, and/or party plans.

Second, if you choose your dorm room as your study space, make sure that all those creature comforts you have in your room, like your game console and your cozy bed, don’t lure you away from your textbooks. You may even find your own laptop to be pretty distracting; if so, try to leave it untouched and study with just your textbooks and a notebook instead.

If that’s impossible, download an app like SelfControl (for Mac) or FocalFilter (for PC); these apps block you from accessing certain websites that you know distract you (oh, like Facebook or Google Plus) during the hours that you decide you should be studying. If this isn’t enough, Jocelyn K. Glei at 99U has compiled a list of 10 online tools to help you focus.

Laptop in tow, blocked or not, other potential locations to study include a coffee shop or your school’s library. The library is a great choice because it has additional resources you can use. And, you won’t find yourself spending five bucks on a three-hundred-calorie café mocha that busts both your budget and your diet.

If these spots are too obvious for you, check out’s list of 14 legit study spots, which includes some unusual locations, like the roof, and some very logical ones, like the gym. Reading your history book while on a stationary bike or a treadmill is another great way to make sure you get in your daily exercise!

College Student Back to School Get Your Exercise
Hitting the gym? Don’t forget your spandex! Errr… maybe do.

#3 Stay Positive

Staying positive is important when heading back to school, and exercise can help you. Carl Ernst et al. of the University of British Columbia published a study showing that exercise can help alleviate depression. This is especially important as your class responsibilities get ever more intense this semester. Make a commitment to keep smiling throughout every challenge you encounter at school.

“Aim to think positively when you study, and remind yourself of your skills and abilities.” – Dr. John Grohol, Psych Central

So, to take Grohol’s advice, as you sit down to write your English essay, think about how far your writing skills have come (perhaps, in part, thanks to your Kibin editors!).

According to the happiness experts at The Pursuit of Happiness Project,

“Evidence suggests that optimism is important in coping with difficult life events. Optimism has been linked to better responses to various difficulties, from the more mundane (e.g., transition to college) to the more extreme (e.g., coping with missile attacks).”

Find ways to be a glass-half-full kind of student as you head back to school this semester; when you find yourself having negative thoughts (I’ll never finish this history reading on time!), think positively instead (I’ll finish this history reading on time, if I take it with me to the gym!). 

#4 Eat Healthy on Campus

Another great way to stay positive while going to college is to eat healthy on campus. Don’t try to subsist on Ramen noodles alone; you need to be adequately nourished to study!

Dietician Kate Fortunato says, “Skipping meals, especially breakfast, can throw off your entire routine. You may feel weak and have a hard time focusing, make poorer food choices at your next meal, and gain weight over time.”

This could spell bad news for you because, if you are unfocused, you won’t be able to finish the entirety of your astronomy assignment. So, eat your breakfast! A great breakfast includes a protein, a complex carb, and a piece of fruit. Instead of chowing down on Lucky Charms, select a scrambled egg and a bowl of oatmeal topped with fruit.

Fortunato also reminds you to make healthy choices at your school’s cafeteria by heading to the salad bar at lunch, but she says, “Stay away from creamy dressings, mayonnaise-based prepared salads, and excess cheese and croutons.”

If you’re looking for easy, healthy meals that you can prepare in your microwave (yes, your microwave can be good for something other than reheating Chinese leftovers), check out Fortunato’s awesome post about healthy microwaveable dinners. I also suggest you read this great resource for eating well on campus from Hungry Girl.

#5 Sleep Well

Now that you’re properly nourished, be sure to also get your sleep. As you get back to school, you may find it hard to sleep when you have three papers due, a test to study for, and a late shift at your job. You have to find a way though, as sleep is critical to your success.

But, how much sleep is enough? According to The National Sleep Foundation, the amount of sleep you need varies depending on your age, genetics, activities, and other factors. A good rule of thumb to know if you’ve had enough sleep is if you are able to wake up without an alarm, feeling refreshed.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: this is never going to happen… Chances are you won’t be hopping out of bed refreshed at 7AM on your way to your 8AM physics class, and I’m well aware of your habit of hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock before rolling out of bed.

According to The National Sleep Foundation, a study found that students who had caught up on missing sleep by sleeping as much as possible, settled upon naturally waking up after about eight and a half hours of sleep. Also, staying up all night to cram for your bio test may not be the best tactic.

A study by researchers at UCLA found that students who sacrificed adequate sleep hours to study actually experienced a decrease in academic performance compared to their well-rested counterparts. The lead scientist at UCLA, Professor Andrew J. Fuglini, says, “Although these nights of extra studying may seem necessary, they can come at a cost.”

Yes, the cost of not being able to think straight when your history teacher surprises you with a pop quiz the next morning! No matter how intimidating your biology test is, you need to make time to get your sleep; so, structure (ideally eight or so) sleeping hours into your master schedule. You should also try to go to sleep at about the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning (I know that’s easier said than done).

#6 Get Organized

Speaking of your master schedule, you’re going to need to be well organized as you head back to school this semester. So, have a plan, write it down, and follow it! Use one of the many organizational apps for your smart phone (a great, free one is Errands To-Do List by Yoctoville, or, for a paid app that is perfect for this type of thing, try iHomework for your Apple product).

You may also opt for a simple, paper day planner; I know that I enjoy scratching out something on my to-do list with a real pen. Record every task you need to accomplish and include deadlines for when to accomplish them. This includes your full class, work, workout, and sleep schedule, when to turn in your Shakespeare essay, and when to study for your first math test.

Back To School Survival  Keep a To Do List
Errands To-Do List app

If, during your study session, you have a hard time deciding what task to tackle first, Greg Ferro of suggests starting with an easy subject, moving on to something more difficult during the middle of your study time, and then ending on a high note with something easier again.

So, for example, you might start with your art project, then spend a couple hours tackling your chemistry homework, and end with a review of your humanities notes.  By planning your time in advance, you’ll be better equipped to stay ahead of your homework.

#7 Accessorize

If you’ve been following me so far, you have a time and a place to study, you’re well rested and well nourished, and you’re thinking positively. Now, it’s time to accessorize!

As an expert student, you’ll need the right tools for a successful college semester. Some items you might not have considered taking to school with you include:

  1. A mattress pad to make your springy dorm bed more comfortable, and help you get your sleep.
  2. A mini-fridge and a microwave oven for your dorm room. This helps you whip up those nutritious microwaveable meals mentioned above.
  3. Laundry detergent and rolls of quarters to run the washing machines. Obviously, you need clean clothes!
  4. And, shower sandals to help you navigate the common dorm showers. Visit this blog post featuring some more often forgotten school necessities, like a toolkit, surge protector, and an electric fan.

Realistically, it’s difficult to completely follow these tips, but it is important to get close. Take it from a recent graduate of  Beloit College who survived four seemingly eternal years at college.  In our chat, she shares how she managed to get through college on six hours of sleep per night and lots of carrots:

Me: Tatiana, thanks for chatting with me today.

Tatiana: You’re welcome, it’s my pleasure.

Me: So, how did you get around your campus? Did you bike or take a bus?

Tatiana: I actually walked everywhere. Beloit is a very small campus.

Me: Oh, that’s convenient! Where was your favorite place to study?

Tatiana: I preferred studying in my dorm room. There were no distractions from other people and I kept my space neat and comfortable.

Me: So, you didn’t have a roommate, I take it?

Tatiana: Nope, I was lucky. I had a dorm room to myself all four years.

Me: You were lucky! So, how did you manage the stress of school and stay positive?

Tatiana: I found that the best way to deal with school related stress was to get off campus.

Me: Meaning what? Where did you go? Like, on vacation?

Tatiana: No, it doesn’t have to be that big. Getting off campus just means going to the movies, shopping, going out to eat–anything, even for a walk by the river.

Me: What did you eat? What was your favorite food item during your college years?

Tatiana: I lived on carrots and cereal all four years. There was no preparation needed, and it was tasty. Oh… and Monster Energy Drinks… though I probably shouldn’t admit that.

Me: Energy drinks, huh? Guess that powered you through your study sessions.

Tatiana: Yeah, you gotta do what you gotta do!

Me: Did you manage to eat enough healthy food?

Tatiana: It was tough for me to get healthy food at my school. My first two years, I bought my own food a lot and ate out because the food on campus was disgusting. My senior year, I went off the meal plan and cooked for myself.

Me: Cooked for yourself? Did your dorm room come with a kitchen?

Tatiana: Yup! All the dorms at Beloit have kitchens.

Me: That’s great!  So, how did you keep your school work organized? Did you use a paper day planner? An app?

Tatiana: Actually, I used both paper planners and electronic organizational tools. I stayed pretty organized somehow.

Me: Tell me, what are three must-have items that every student should bring when living in a dorm?

Tatiana: A laptop, a scale, and a coffee maker.

Me: Are you sure you needed that coffee maker with your Monster drinks?

Tatiana: (Laughing) Yeah, you’re probably right, huh… Now that I’ve graduated, I’ll just drink carrot juice for a while, maybe.

Me: Did you prefer to study with a partner or study alone?

Tatiana: For most of my work, I preferred to study alone. But, I studied with friends or classmates for group projects and finals.

Me: That makes sense. When you studied with other students, what do you think were the benefits of working with a group?

Tatiana: I found that pulling an all-nighter is always more efficient with others. You are less likely to fall asleep and more likely to keep a healthy and productive pace.

Me: All nighters, huh? How many hours of sleep did you get per night as a student?

Tatiana Oh, on average, I’d say I slept about 6 to 7 hours per night during the week, not counting naps during the day.

Me: That actually sounds like a fair amount, but would you have liked to sleep more than that?

Tatiana: Yes, I would have liked to get at least 8.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.

Me: Yeah, I just read that 8.5 hours is about right for college students, actually! So, do you have any other tips for surviving college?

Tatiana: Yeah, my biggest piece of advice is that it’s better to go to a college no more than two states away from your hometown–I didn’t do that and it was rough! I was in Wisconsin, while my family was in California. Having family or close friends nearby is a huge plus and undervalued by most prospective college students.

Thank you for the great interview, Tatiana!

As you can see, it just takes a little bit of planning and execution to ensure your back to school success. Tell us in the comments, what are some of your best tips for a successful school semester?


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