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How to Balance Work and School in College

College student struggling to balance work, school, and a social life in college.

College can be the first real taste of independence that young adults experience. They’re away from home for the first time, living on their own, and learning to balance school, a new social life, and even working simultaneously.

Going to school is a pivotal time in a person’s life and finding the right balance takes time. The adjustment to college-level courses, expectations from professors and faculty, and a rigorous course load can be a lot to manage. If you factor in potential homesickness, mental health challenges, and common growing pains, it’s understandable why college students may struggle to find a balance in their new normal.

Here are some tips and resources that can help balance and manage work, school, and life in college.

1. Create a To-Do List

The challenges of work and school make it easy to feel overwhelmed by all that needs to get done. Organization is one of the key skills that college students acquire as they gain independence, learn how to prioritize tasks, and build time management skills.

Creating a weekly To-Do list will help to balance school and work by prioritizing the most important items for the week. A comprehensive To-Do list can help students plan ahead one day or week at a time, carving out hours of the day for study time, social time, chores, and other tasks.

Ultimately, a To-Do list will help students stay organized and accomplish tasks throughout the week. The more planning done early on, the more successful the semester will go. Sticking to a consistent To-Do list will help students perform at their best and reduce anxiety or stress related to planning out their schedule.

2. Prioritize Physical Health

When we’re stressed, burnt out, or struggling to balance commitments, our physical health can be the first thing we neglect. Basic needs and physical health must be met in order to stay productive with schoolwork, a social life, and a work schedule.

Students should be getting enough sleep, eating healthy and balanced meals, and getting regular exercise. Taking care of your physical health will help to keep your mind clear, your focus and energy where you need it, and a positive outlook on your workload and abilities.

A good night’s sleep is much more impactful on physical and mental health than we realize, especially for young people. Sleeping enough helps young people work at their peak performance, including better memory and motor tasks.

3. Plan Extracurricular Activities

One of the best parts of the college experience is the social environment. This includes meeting new people, attending on-campus events and activities, joining clubs, rushing a sorority or fraternity, and enjoying the freedom of their social calendar.

If students start to fall behind in their classes, they may cancel social plans to study or complete more work. While canceling social plans is sometimes necessary when important tasks need to get done, it’s imperative for students’ mental health that they are still engaging in frequent social activity.

Social interaction can decrease stress levels and reduce anxiety and depression, so it’s important for students to keep plans on the calendar to maintain balance for their mental health and well-being.

4. Find Quiet Places to Study

Whether that’s in your dorm, the library, one of the buildings on campus, or any other dedicated study space, it’s important to have a quiet place to get studying and homework done.

Many dormitories have quiet hours so students can focus on their schoolwork without any distractions from their neighbors or roommates. If your roommate doesn’t have the same workload as you do, try to communicate early on in the semester that you’ll need to study in the room throughout the week, so they can make other plans.

Having a dedicated place to go and get work done will help you feel more productive, focused, and motivated.

5. Study at Work

For those with on-campus jobs, many students find that they can get reading or coursework done when they’ve completed their tasks at work. Full-time and part-time jobs can help students learn problem solving skills, as they have to use time wisely and reduce procrastination.

Full time students may find it challenging, but employment teaches students responsibility, independence, and confidence. Having a job will teach you how valuable your time is and what tasks need the most attention.

While a part-time job is ideal for a full-time student, some don’t have the luxury and have to work full-time in order to pay for their education. At work, communicate with your manager about your course load and see if you can use downtime at work to study, as long as it doesn’t affect your performance at work.

6. Explore Flexible Degree Programs

Many universities offer online classes or online programs, so students can have a more flexible schedule to properly time-manage. Even if it’s just one or two classes that are online, that’s two fewer classes that have to be in-person, providing students with more flexibility to get their work done throughout the week.

Online classes are ideal for busy schedules, particularly for students who have part-time or full-time jobs and need to lighten the load of their packed schedule.

If you are struggling to balance working full-time and school, swapping an in-person class for online classes is an effective way to get back a few hours into your daily schedule, as long as it doesn’t affect your intended degree program.

Having a full-time job while pursuing a college degree is difficult, but for those who need the money, it’s their best option.

Online programs are designed for students with a busy schedule who need more time away from the classroom than in it. If this sounds like your situation, look into online degree programs at your university to see what your options are.

7. Create a Reliable Support System

There are many ways students can seek help if they need emotional support in college. Many universities offer on-campus counseling for students who are feeling overwhelmed and need someone to talk to.

For students who live in a dorm, most have resources including a live-in Resident Assistant (RA), who can help provide emotional support and an ear to listen.

Many individuals will make friends and build a support system through organizations on campus, including Greek life, sports, and clubs related to their major or interests. Creating bonds with people who have similar interests and priorities is another way to learn about time management and balance.

Learn from people who have been through the same experiences and imitate the actions they’ve taken that have helped them find success with managing daily tasks. Older students can provide valuable advice to help you with balancing everything on your plate.

8. Practice self-care

For a busy college student, free time can be hard to come by and even more difficult to enjoy, knowing what homework needs to be done. While your education is the top priority, you can’t neglect your own mental health in the pursuit of a degree; it’s not sustainable or healthy.

In order to succeed in college, taking care of yourself is critical. Set out some time each week to take a break, close the computer, put the books away, and relax with your favorite methods of self-care. Self-care can be things like:

  • Meditation, breathing techniques, or exercise
  • Napping or lounging with your favorite TV show
  • Pamper yourself (massage, facial, long bath)
  • Catching up with family or friends
  • Pursuing a hobby or interest

Whatever helps you relax, unplug, and re-center is the best way to check in with yourself as you’re figuring out the best ways to cope with school-related stress and anxiety.

Balancing work and school can be very challenging; it takes practice, a support system, and time management to be successful. It can be overwhelming trying to navigate your courses while also balancing work, friends, and your mental health. The best way to approach a balanced life while pursuing a degree is by setting realistic expectations for yourself, celebrating small wins, and giving yourself grace. Higher education is not meant to be easy, and it’s normal to feel overwhelmed at times.

Gain Tools to Reduce Stress & Burnout With Clear Behavioral Health

At Clear Recover Center, we offer a virtual IOP (intensive outpatient program) that provides weekday mental health treatment for students who may be experiencing burnout due to heavy workloads and long hours, or for those who struggle to find a sustainable work-life balance. Contact us for more information.

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