August is the last gasp of summer, when vegetables ripen, families go on vacation, and kids everywhere beg to stay in the pool just a little bit longer (“Pleeease!”) They know they don’t have much time left before it’s back to pencils, books, and teachers’ dirty looks. For college students, August heralds the busy time before the start of a new semester; it’s to your advantage to make it a useful and productive period of preparation to get off to a strong start in the new academic year.
Though store flyers everywhere announce in bold letters the sale of a motley mix of posters, comforters, lamps, and furniture aimed at making the cement block walls of the average dorm room more fun and colorful than they were ever designed to be, décor is the least thing to worry about now, though by far the easiest. Instead, all students, whether they live on campus in a dorm, at home with family, or share an apartment with other students, should focus on three crucial areas to prepare for next semester: finances, technology, and academics. Here are some tips for organizing your life before you embark on an exciting new semester of work and learning:
- Check your financial aid status. Have you signed all the paperwork for your grants and loans? Have these funds been released to your school and has the financial aid been applied to your bill? Talk to your school’s financial aid office to check on these things and to find out if you are eligible to apply for any other sources of aid. You can also do some research yourself. For example, check out some of the options offered on this list of late deadline scholarships.
- Line up your work study or part-time job. Contact the work study office at your school to see what positions are available. One of the best work study jobs I ever had was working at the Apple Sales Room at the University of Connecticut, where the produce of the university’s orchards was sold. Sorting the more than 10 varieties of apples taught me a lot more about apples than I ever dreamed exited, it was a fun place for my friends to drop by, and it smelled great. But there was competition for that job, and if you want to scoop up the best jobs on campus, it’s best to beat the back-to-campus rush the first week of the semester and start looking around now. If you are already employed, speak with your boss about a workable schedule to help you balance your professional and academic commitments.
- Get a handle on your budget: Apps for your mobile device can be your new best friend when it comes to your personal finances. For example, Mint Money Management offers a free Mint for Android application that allows you to track your spending and manageyour income right from your phone. This means that when you buy the next round while enjoying some fall football with your friends, you won’t forget about it the next day. Your aching head will thank you as much as your bank account.
- Update your world: Make sure your computer systems are up-to-date by installing the latest browser updates, so that nothing interferes with your ability to access your course management systems or school emails. Sync your cell phone to your computer accounts, and update the emergency contact information your school has for you, including any campus emergency alert systems available.
- Conduct a trial run of your course’s learning management system (LMS). Whether your school uses Blackboard or another online course platform, spend some time familiarizing yourself with the functions. Don’t skip this step if you have already used the LMS, because there may be updates that have changed the system’s functionality. The last thing you want is a technology glitch at that last crucial moment before an assignment is due.
- Clean and organize your tech: Check and set your spam filters, making sure that new email addresses of faculty or students you work with can get through. Use Google Docs so that you can access no matter where you are or what computer you are on, and set it up so that you can use it to store your coursework. This way, a system failure, loss or theft of your laptop, cell phone, or flash drive won’t cause you to lose all your hard work. These contingency plans have saved many a student from certain disaster.
- Buy your books before the semester starts. I see it every semester: a student decides to wait until after the start of the semester and the first class session before buying their textbooks. The syllabus indicates that there is reading and homework due the very first week, but when the student goes to the bookstore, the books are sold out. This is an academic disaster in the making, because a poor start to course assignments can set you behind in the course content right from the beginning. If you buy your books early, not only do you eliminate the possibility that the store will run out of texts, you’ll get the pick of the pile and can get clean used copies. Or, buy them online for cheaper deals. Most textbook sales outlets offer hassle-free full price returns the first few weeks of the semester, so even if you decide to drop the course, you can get your money back.
- Complete and assess your schedule. Sit down, look at your course schedule, and make sure you can handle it along with your other work, family, and extra-curricular commitments. Talk with your advisor and scale back by a course or two if you need to-it’s better to get good grades in a few courses than mediocre grades in more. By the end of August, most professors who use online platforms, and even those who don’t, have posted their course syllabi online. Read the syllabi, and put all your assignments on your semester calendar. Google calendar is one way to do this, and if your syllabus is online, you can include a link to the syllabus and the assignment description, which you can check out right from your phone anywhere you are. Not sure if you can go out with your friends to a new club tonight? Check your phone to see what coursework is due before you throw on your finery and hit the town.
- Line up child care, including back-ups for those times when your regular sitter can’t make it. Now that your schedule is starting to fill up, it’s time to make sure you can fulfill these academic commitments. For many students today, balancing family and school can be tough, and last minute changes to a routine can quickly create significant problems for parents who are trying to write papers, study for exams, and manage their children at the same time. Very often, the academic work of single parents who attend college suffers because all it takes is one sudden emergency to throw everything off kilter. For the sake of your learning, it’s important to create contingency plans in this area, too.
For all students, preparation for a new semester involves forethought, planning, and creativity. These suggestions are a place to get started, but everyone has different needs. Do you take any special steps to prepare for the semester? Share your stories and suggestions here!