Working through college can be just as fulfilling as it is challenging.

I recently got a question from a reader that ever so slightly blew my mind. 😛

The question isn’t what really blew my mind. It was the fact that I haven’t directly addressed this question on the blog yet. I’ve responded to reader questions a handful of times but I’ve never written up the full monty.

You can still score near the top of your class while working full-time hours. The reason most people struggle is because they’re good at the usual “work harder” concept. Working harder is good but this is a situation where working with finesse is often more useful. They don’t teach you that in school.

This reader referenced my story and asked:

You tell your story about working through college all the time but you never go over the details of how. You focus on study strategies but that can’t be everything, right? I’m trying to manage a part time job and I’m spinning my wheels. I just can’t keep up with any of it. Any tips?

– Jen L.
UNE

Oh boy… I’ve got so many tips for you that I’ll make the average waiter jealous.

But first I should give you the fair warning:

It was tough.

For the readers unfamiliar with my own story: I was going to school full-time. I had a double course load part of that time. I was working about 30 hours a week. I had to bike about 30 minutes to and from class and work (in opposite directions.) I still managed to maintain a good GPA. I showed up to every class. I never missed a shift at work.

My success wasn’t due to some masterful plan. It was due to a combination of small short term fixes. (If it was due to a masterful plan then I’d say the masterful plan is the scientific method. I tried stuff. I watched the results. I adjusted course as required.)

At the end of this article, you’ll know how I did it. More importantly, you’re going to know how you can do similar things (or even more impressive things.)

The Expectations

You might prefer to set standards based on your own personal goals.

I want to start this discussion with a quick point on managing your expectations.

Most people that fail at juggling work and school fail because they’re not ready to face the results. You’re not going to be able to live up to all of your usual standards. You’re going to miss out on opportunities. You’re going to score some B’s. You’re going to have to go days and days without much fun.

Be ready for it.

If you have reasonable expectations then you might be surprised how reasonable they are.

  • Your grades will suffer a little
  • You shouldn’t expect to manage work stress.
  • There will be days with no free time.
  • You need a schedule.
  • You will sometimes need to pick between work and school (be prepared for it.)
  • You can’t expect school or work to give you any leeway.
  • Plan time off (even if it is a month from now.)

There is only so much time in your day. There is only so much time management can help. You can improve your results but you’ll never be able to change the underlying reality that you have your limits. You can’t hold yourself to the same standards as top students or top employees. If you can manage it short-term, don’t expect to manage it forever.

Never Give Up On A Sleep Schedule

The one part of your day that you shouldn’t cut from is sleep. If you usually need 9 hours a night then sleep 9 hours a night. Set a sleep schedule and follow it.

Don’t stay plan to work late nights.

Don’t study instead of sleep.

No matter how you try to replace sleep with productivity, it’s going to bite you in the ass eventually.

You need sleep.

It consolidates memories. It reduces your stress. It helps your muscles recover. Most importantly, without it you get super sleepy!

Sacrifice hours from your job. Sacrifice a few points. It’s worth it because you can make the decision. If you choose not to sleep, you won’t get to pick what suffers. You’ll be tired and your whole day will be at risk. You may lose points on a test. You may get your boss mad. You may walk in front of a bus. Sleep is a big and unpredictable risk. It’s better to pick where you’ll lose out intentionally.

Think In Cycles

I’ve gone weeks working long hours. I’ve worked morning to night. I’ve felt reasonably well through most of these times but eventually I always hit a wall. Something breaks this super productivity. When I’m lucky, it’s just a minor short term inconvenience.

I’ve watched this happen with friends repeatedly. They work too hard for weeks or months and then:

  • get sick
  • overreact and throw opportunity away (Walking out and quitting out of frustration.)
  • get super depressed
  • lose their edge and screw up something important

It’s best to prevent the major problems by planning a cyclical effort.

Don’t push too hard early in any semester.

There are a few parts of any class that will give you hell. Be prepared for them.

1. Midterms and finals will all end up in the same couple weeks. That means you’re going to be overwhelmed by the need to study in multiple classes.

2. You may also have a big project or two in your courses. These will also beat the crap out of your schedule.

These two challenges will be your busy times during the semester. Plan your cycles around that.

If possible, ask for reduced hours during those weeks. (If you ask a couple months in advance then you’ll usually get them.) Work more during the slower times if you need the money.

Set Your Priorities

How are you going to handle the times when you need to choose work or school? It’s much easier to plan it in advance.

Regular readers are probably rolling their eyes because I mention this repeatedly. I mention it repeatedly because it’s super important on every level.

In life: Know what you care about most. Is it more important you work part time or that you get high scores? Or is it most important you don’t pull your hair out?

In school: Know which courses are most important and which are most challenging to pass. Put your time into the classes that need the most effort. More importantly, don’t be afraid to skip stuff in classes that don’t matter as much to you. Don’t let unimportant classes drain your time and energy.

In Class: Know how your grades will be calculated and adjust your effort based on that. If tests are 90% of your grade then put all your effort into passing those damn tests. If tests are 10% of your grade then you probably shouldn’t spend much (or any) of your time worrying about them.

Skip the unimportant.

My experience in college suggests a good 25% of my time would have got wasted on 5% of the points. By only doing 75% of the work in class I could still score 95% of the points on my final grades.

Read your syllabus. Take it seriously.

Working while going to school can do a ton of good. It allowed me to graduate without any student loan debt. It gave me a huge head start in life. That being said, it wasn’t easy.

Don’t underestimate the challenge but…

You can pull this off. You may need to change your mindset but it’s possible. Once you get into the rhythm, it will feel natural. You’ll feel like you’d be able to do it forever. (Just because you feel it, it doesn’t mean you could.)

I know you can do it Jen! Just buy yourself a pair of boots and pull yourself up by the straps. 😛

Good luck.


Image Sources: J_Benson, MyStock.photos, frsparis

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