Whether transitioning straight from high school or from the work world, college demands can differ from what you’ve been accustomed to in the past — right down to how you spend your days.

After all, high school is structured around long blocks of class, with plenty of time to work on assignments, papers and tests in class, points out Adiam Tesfay, director of Academic Support Programs at the University of Washington in Seattle. In college, students attend classes, but have gaps between them, giving a feeling of “free time” instead of study time, she says. Without a new time-management approach, students can suffer from last-minute stress.

Here are solutions for common first-year problems, featuring tips from the academic support departments of local universities.

1. Time management

[College] students can’t get all their studying done in the evenings; plus, they tend to be involved in clubs and work more in the evenings.

In college, students attend class, but also spend three times the class period length studying and learning. Study time needed varies by class and quarter, and students shouldn’t expect to study the same amount for every class.

ON COURSE: Your Guide to College Planning

Dedicate time for each task in a planning device or planner: classes, study, work, extracurricular activities, family, friends, etc. Stick to these dedicated times for a few weeks, to create a natural habit. Add meals and time for physical, emotional and spiritual health to a schedule.


—Adiam Tesfay, director, Academic Support Programs, UW

2. Classroom skills

Smile and make friends with your classmates so you can share notes and ask each other questions about assignments. Consider forming a study group.

Use your syllabus to mark on a calendar any quiz, test and paper dates, and plan extra study time before these dates. Don’t miss class! If an emergency arises, call the instructor before class and explain why you will miss and when you’ll return.

—Lydia Minatoya, counseling

faculty member, Student Success Services at North Seattle College

3. Note taking

As the professor is talking, focus your attention on comments that clarify something you found confusing in the assigned reading or seem to expand on the assigned reading. It’s often the little details that professors focus on outside of the textbook that make their way onto a test later on.

Taking notes is valuable in its own right; physically writing something down is one way of solidifying information in your long-term memory. However, notes are most useful when you use them to identify your questions and talk through them with your peers and professor. Taking notes is the first step to effective studying.

—Rachael Shelden, interim director, Center for Writing, Learning, and Teaching, Puget Sound University

4. If you must cram for a test

Become familiar with the organization and general content of the materials. To do this:


1. Read the title.

2. Read the lead-in or introduction. If it is extremely long, read just the first paragraph.

3. Read each boldface heading, and the first sentence following each heading.

4. Read titles of any maps, charts, or graphs; read the last paragraph or summary.

5. Read through the end-of-chapter questions.

6. After surveying the material, you should know what it’s about and how it’s organized.

The morning of the exam, begin your day with confidence. Jump out of bed quickly, eat a small breakfast like fruit: an apple, pear, plum. Wear clothes that make you feel good. Just before the exam, do breathing exercises, prepare all supplies and arrive early to class.

—Kristin Plaehn, executive director, Center for Student Success, Pacific Lutheran University

5. Group (work) dynamics

When working on a group project, establish ground rules in the first meeting, and be open and honest about your strengths and areas for growth. Discuss your communication methods: Email? Text? In person? Determine roles for each group member, and milestones to achieve.

Check in, and follow up with everyone at each meeting, and in between as necessary. Have periodic group evaluations to assess how you’re doing.

Have fun with it, and reward yourselves with milestone celebrations. 

—Angelique Jenkins, director, Learning Assistance Programs, Seattle University

6. Writing style

Don’t completely erase your personal voice or over-formalize your writing. When starting out in college, it’s tempting to want to sound exactly like the books you’re reading, in terms of formality and depth — and it’s hard to know which words are jargon and which are in common academic usage.

Focus on showing your thinking first; style is definitely a part of communicating, but it’s not the whole point of writing in college.

—Ariel Birks, Writing Center assistant director, Evergreen State College

7. Class choice

Finally, when it’s time to pick courses from the catalog, don’t sell yourself short.

“Don’t think that just because you’re a freshman you have to take only intro classes,” says Madeline Bennett, a student tutor and junior at UW. “Take at least one course you know will challenge you, and one course you know you’ll do great in.”