Your syllabus is probably the most important document you’ll receive in a class. It’s your schedule, your contact info, your lifeline for the next semester. How many of you know how to actually use it to your advantage though?
I’ll admit, my first year in University, I didn’t pay much attention to the damn things. I’d write down in my day planner when my exams were and when papers were due. Then, I’d stick my pile of syllabi in a folder and throw my day planner in my backpack. I didn’t check it regularly, and the “F” on my transcript is my proof of that (damn you History and Politics of Asian Religions!!!!).
I wised up a bit my second year. I’d check my planner once or twice a week, keep my syllabi with my class notebooks, and thought this was good enough. Actually, this is what most students do. And this is why so many students try to write 15 page research papers in two days, pull all-nighters cramming for exams last-minute, and spend more on coffee and Monster than tuition.
This method lulls you into a false sense of scheduling security. Yes, you have everything you need written down in front of you somewhere. And yes, you actually check what needs to be done the beginning of the week. But what do you have next week? Or a month from now? Can you open your day planner to a random page from this semester and easily figure out which classes will take up the most of your time and resources at a glance?
In my third year, I came up with a system. The first week of classes, I got all of my syllabi in class or on the class websites. Then, I took a whole afternoon to go over them and start scheduling. (Come on, it’s the first week of classes. You can spare a few hours to make the next few months a little easier!) All I needed were some coloured pens, sticky notes, and a day planner.
First, each class was assigned a colour. In the day planner, go through class by class and fill in WHEN each class is. I know you think you’ll remember that you have that Post-Modern Comic Theory class every single Thursday at 1pm. In a month or two, when you’re running on no sleep and ALL the caffeine, though, you may not even remember you’re enrolled in that class, let alone when it is. This also puts it right in front of you, in writing, when you are committed to be there.
Then, for each class, make note of your exams, papers, assignments, labs, and anything else that is a part of your grade. Write down when these things are, and a detail or two about each (like exam rooms and times, paper lengths, etc). This gives you your deadlines.
Now, for each major grade event that you need extra time for (like paper writing or studying for exams), give yourself at least one weeks notice. Flip back one week in your day planner, and make a section for this. Some planners come with a Notes area each week you can use. If you don’t typically have much planned for weekends, you could always use your Sunday space for this. Or, you could use the sticky notes I said to grab. (You can never have enough sticky notes in your life). Write down the day, time, subject, and how much of your grade this is worth. This ensures you have extra notice, so things don’t creep up on you at the last minute.
And now, VERY CAREFULLY read through each syllabus. Each syllabus is your professor’s notes to you on how to get as high a grade as possible. Take a page in your planner and write down each professor’s contact information, office hours, the course you are taking with them, and the course time and place. Then, read their instructions. Some professors will throw in exactly what they expect for assignments, or a grading rubric to help you plan our papers. They also give details about your exams, like if the final exam is cumulative, or only covers materials you learned since the mid-term. Some will break down exactly what chapters to read each week, what online material to look up, and what they expect to cover in their lectures each week. Make note of ALL of this! You need to know what you’ll have to do before each class, or else you can’t actually do it.
I know this seems like a lot to do all at once. This is the simplified version of what I did for three years, though, and what a lot of friends and colleagues have said have worked best for them. When my schedule got really tight (4-5 classes, two jobs, 6 volunteer positions, fraternity events, family obligations, sleeping, eating…..), I used a day planner, a one-month wall calendar, a 4 month wall planner, a system of 4 separate To-Do lists, and email reminders to keep everything straight. Compared to all of that, this is a walk in the park.
This also helps make your semester run a little more smoothly. Imagine, never checking your schedule on Monday to find out you have a paper due Wednesday that you forgot about; never again forgetting about your Monday midterm until Saturday night; never missing a party because you have to pull an all-nighter to finish an assignment you forgot. Sure, this will take a few hours to get done in one day. But think of all the money you’ll save on energy drinks, caffeine pills, coffee, and everything else you’ve been using to keep you up for those last-minute all-nighters.
Most of all, think of all the stress you can save yourself by giving up one afternoon to write stuff down with pretty coloured pens. You can plan things out like those real grown-ups you see in the movies, with their leather-bound planners and appointment books, snootily telling people “sorry, I need at least 3 weeks notice. I’m already all booked. Are you free in May? I may have an opening in May sometime.” This one afternoon with your day planner could be all it takes to put you on the path to becoming Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.……. or it could at least free up enough time for you to remember you love that movie, and actually watch it again.