Building your schedule

Note: this blog post is about scheduling, not choosing classes. There are some things you can control, and some you can’t when you’re scheduling out your calendar. This is about best-case-scenario scheduling.

Little Sister demonstrates the perils of improper scheduling by falling asleep at the dinner table (circa 1996). I'm sure she got much better at sleep management in college.  

College is usually the first time you have the chance to build your own schedule. Even if you had some nominal control over which classes you took and which extracurricular activities you signed up for in high school, the basic layout of your time was planned for you. There was school time and home time, with structure imposed on you to a certain degree wherever you were.

When I left for college, I had no idea what kind of schedule worked for me. I had no real concept of what time of day I was most productive, or whether I would be happy with early-morning classes, or what it would be like to get to schedule a day off every Wednesday.

In college, you build your own schedule. Use this opportunity. Find out what works for you.

Scheduling covers everything from your class schedule to what time of day you do your homework. No one will be telling you to go to bed (except, perhaps, a disgruntled roommate), or serving as a back-up alarm clock in the mornings. You are responsible for your time, and also for a whole new host of decisions.

Some productivity advisers will tell you that mornings are the key to success. Or lists. Or mid-morning exercise. Or detailed schedules, with time allotments and appointments noted down to an obsessive degree.

The fact is that you need to find what works for you.

When do you have the most energy? And beyond that, what kind of energy do you want for different activities during your day?

For example: it takes a different kind of energy to sit in class than to study. Essay writing involves a different type of concentration than getting to the gym. You might have some idea of your natural rhythms from high school, but I certainly didn’t. I got up ridiculously early to get to ridiculously early classes, ate lunch when the school told me I should (which was 10:30 am for most of my high school days) and then squeezed homework in between extracurriculars and sleep. I knew I was more of a morning person than a late-night type, but beyond that I really had no idea how to use my new scheduling freedom.

If you’re just starting school, I would recommend trying some different start times for your classes. If you want to get to the gym, try going at different times (and enjoy seeing who you’re sharing the space with at different times as well—it really fluctuates). If you’re like most college students, you’ll be staying up way later than the “real world” adult population, and will be surrounded with all kinds of great distractions. This is a good thing. It’s an essential part of college, and of what makes this time so special and so intense. Embrace the fun and the social life and the community, particularly in the dorms.

But you also need to get to classes (most of the time), and to get your homework done (most of the time).

Some basic rules of thumb from my experience:

  • Try not to have classes before 11:00 on Fridays. The odds there will be some late Thursday nights are  extremely high.
  • Try not to schedule classes after 3:00 on Fridays. That way you can start your weekends early.    
  • Try to get a day off (or mostly off) in the middle of the week. Look for long chunks of unscheduled times when you might schedule in clubs, sports, internships, homework, or whatever.
  • Take at least one early-morning class your first year, and see if it works.
  • Remember to schedule lunch.

If you’re a motivated student and you’re excited about the class offerings, sign up for the maximum number of classes. If you’ve got some other commitments one semester, take a lighter course load. Figure out when you’ll do homework during the week so that you can have at least one day semi-off on the weekends. Remember that time to yourself is essential for your health and happiness, so leave that space in your schedule and defend it to the bitter end.

This was my schedule for fall term of freshman year. It had its advantages and disadvantages--I actually liked getting started at the same time every day, but the long blocks on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were tough.

This was my schedule for fall term of freshman year. It had its advantages and disadvantages--I actually liked getting started at the same time every day, but the long blocks on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were tough.

Here’s what worked for me (the perfect-scenario):

  • No class on Fridays
  • No class before 11:00
  • Longer classes for fewer days a week (I loved the ones in a three-hour block just once a week—it  led to better class discussions, allowed me to be better prepared on  homework, and freed up the rest of my week)
  • One early evening class to leave more space in my schedule
  • At least one PE class per  semester
  • Volunteering or internship  work at least once a week (preferably twice)
  • Non-campus activity scheduled at least twice a month
  • At least one adventure  every month

This is a perfect-scenario to keep in mind when choosing classes, setting a work schedule, and signing up for activities. Obviously life doesn’t always work out perfectly. But this is what I aimed for each new academic term.

This post isn’t about picking classes, which I will be writing about in depth in other blog posts, including how to balance passion and strategy, and how much you should take on in any given academic term. This post only addresses one piece of the larger challenge of taking control of your time in college. You have four years. That’s four winter breaks, four fall semesters, and a limited number of classes to squeeze in along the way. Taking control of your schedule means taking full advantage of everything that college life offers, across the board from studying to making friends. Things will change each semester, and time goes faster than you might imagine. Knowing yourself and your energy is absolutely vital to making the most of your college life.


Please leave a comment with your schedule-building tips. What's working for you? What's not? How have you balanced your life?