Student Advice

Unasked-for Advice.

Students are always getting advice, and they rarely ask for it. Here’s some more, but be aware that unless you are a student of mine, I don’t really care whether or not you take it. Heck, even if you are a student of mine, this is only here as a resource: find what works for you, and do that.


I’m not kidding. The facts have been in for years. Not getting enough sleep (and you need A LOT) does terrible damage to you. In addition to being sleepy, it causes unwanted weight gain, depression, and that fugue-like state where you just can’t figure out what’s going on anymore. Sleep is the cure, most of the time. Get Sleep. Get it regularly at the same time. This is the most important thing you can do to improve your studies.


Similarly, exercise (doesn’t have to be hard-core – a half hour walk will help) counteracts lots of negative obstacles (can help with mood, increases blood flow to the body and the brain, improving scores on standardized tests, e.g.), and will provide you with a sense of confidence and stability outside of the intense world of your studies./

Getting Organized.

I’ll deal with ‘apps’ and tools at the bottom, but those aren’t ‘the fix,’ though they will help. Nope, the fix is wanting to be organized and in control of your life and schedule, and working systematically to improve that control.

The hardest thing to do, really, is the most general and vague. I have a sense that I already know how to run my life, but then why do I keep missing important appointments, and why do I feel so overwhelmed by the stuff I have to do?

There are a lot of ways to approach this, and I’ve tried many of them. One of the most popular for a long time was “Getting Things Done,” (GTD) which was created originally by a guy named David Allen, and which has been expanded, modified, and reshaped by lots of folks all over the world. It remains quite useful. The main points are the need to collect data, stray thoughts, anxieties, etc., and to capture these things in such a way that your focus remains on the task immediately at hand. Then, you organize the results of your thinking, review as often as is necessary (in order to keep your head ’empty’ and allow you to retain focus), and finally, do something about them.

The single most important tool I use is a small notebook that fits easily in my back pocket. (it’s a moleskine ripoff in flexible paper, about 80 pages thick). I use the front page to create an index for the planner that I fill out as I go (August pp. 1-14,  New Job Interview Notes p. 12, September pp.15-, etc.). On the next page, I create a month calendar: on one page I write down the dates for the month (1-28, 1-30, 1-31, depending), and the letters for the days after them (mtwtfss). This gives me a month-view of my calendar. On the facing page, I write a list of tasks that need to be done this month. Then on each page (I number them at the bottom), I write the date, my task lists and scheduled appointments, and check them off as I proceed through the day.

A more involved version is here:

My favorite GTD website is 43folders, which is named after the number of manila file folders used in a ‘tickler file,’ a common aspect to the GTD system.

Whatever you end up doing, you need a system. Putting things someplace, and then relying on your brain to remember where you put them, is not a system. Having a basket next to your front door for you to always put your keys in when you come home, and a spare key in a specific, accessible place, is more like a system.

You might also consider that you are trying to do too much. For myself and my students, most of us are trying to do too many things: either too many things all at once (conversation with friends, television, radio, while writing or reading, e.g.), or too many things in any given period of our life (writing a dissertation, teaching full time, parenting two kids, moving house, and community organizing, for example, might tax your system). An enormous part of learning to be efficient is to refuse to take on more responsibilities than we can actually fulfill. In other words, start saying ‘no,’ to others and to yourself.


Note-taking is a lost art. Many students take notes, but the notes are too often completely unorganized, attempt to record far too much about a given presentation or class, and worst of all, are almost never reviewed. If you will never use your notes, do not take any. In that case, you will certainly do much, much better by putting your pen down and concentrating solely on following the conversation. Synthesize the most important points (there shouldn’t be more than 5 in a given class period, really), and then write a brief paragraph or two after class summarizing these.

If this won’t work for you, then try to avoid re-inventing the wheel. Believe it or not, people have been taking notes for a very long time. One of the most famous note-taking techniques is the Cornell method, and the good folks there have even put Cornell Notes Template for you to print out and use. Here’s a short video on how to take Cornell Notes.


You probably don’t write as well as you would like. You can find lots of good resources to improve your writing online. I encourage you to take writing seriously. If you’re not going to take extra time to improve your writing, at least do the four following things:

Topic Sentencesevery paragraph should have a topic sentence. If it doesn’t, you didn’t write a successful paragraph.

Write Short Sentences – only the very best of writers can write long, complicated sentences that readers can also easily comprehend. Don’t assume you can. Try to write sentences that are no longer than ten words long. Seriously. It’s good practice.

Don’t ever use words you can’t immediately and confidently define. Just don’t.

Consider experimenting with “E-Prime.” Here’s a wikipedia article that explains the idea, and here’s a charming video introduction to the idea from Robert Anton Wilson.

Some Apps

Look, I put these last because apps will come and go, but the real skills are above. Nevertheless, here are some apps I use, and encourage others to use.

  • Google Calendar – most college and universities now have a calendar and scheduling app setup for students. It’s likely your instructors will want you to use it. It’s also important to put your classes and all other commitments in there, so you don’t double-book yourself. Finally, pick a regular, reasonable bedtime, and block it off on a regular basis, to encourage yourself to get decent sleep.
  • Google Drive – Google drive, including docs and sheets, is increasingly used. Feel free to use this app to compose your documents, but unless your instructor has encouraged you to do so, don’t just ‘share’ the doc with them or send them a link. Turn it in in the format they have asked for.
  • Evernote – I don’t use EverNote myself, because I’m very happy with my analog methods of note collection (not described on this page), but I have experimented with it and it is a powerful application that can keep everything from notes to photos to documents to videos in one place. There’s a free version, but with very limited storage space.
  • IAnnotate – Perhaps my favorite ‘app’ for students and scholars is IAnnotate, which works best on iPads, but which is also now iPhone compatible. This app allows you to read PDF files on the screen, and as long as the file is OCR-readable (most are, unless it was scanned badly or two-pages to a single sheet), you can highlight, underline, and take notes right in the pdf. Best of all, you can then export your highlights and notes to a text or word file.
  • Scrivener – Scrivener is a much beloved writing composition application, that allows you to take individual notes (like on notecards) within the application, organize and reorganized them easily, and compose your writing in a structured, easily comprehensible manner. Strongly recommended, but you should do the video tutorial first in order to use it powerfully and properly.
  • Bibliographic Programs. I use EndNote, but I suspect this is largely out of habit. Your campus librarians or IT folks should be able to recommend good reference-management software, such as Zotero or RefWorks.


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