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Balancing School and Work: 5 Tips for Working College Students

By Chad Fisher | January 22, 2013

If you are in college or are considering returning for your degree, congratulations! You are embarking on a course that can bring you both success and personal satisfaction. In fact, according to a study by Georgetown University, students who have a college degree may earn an average of 84 percent more over a lifetime than those who have only a high school diploma!

However, while some students pay for their college tuition with loans, scholarships or help from their families, other students must rely on their own means. Those who support themselves often maintain a part- or full-time job to pay for tuition, books, and other living expenses. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, in 2010, 40 percent of full-time college students and 73 percent of part-time college students under the age of 24 were employed while attending classes.

While working college students may face more obstacles than non-working students, it is possible to hold down a full-time job and earn your degree. Students working full-time may need to take special precautions however, such as limiting their initial course load and working on their time-management skills, in order to get the most out of their time in college. Here are 5 tips for working college students on how to balance college and work.

1. Start Small and Build Out

During the first few semesters it may be tempting to take on multiple classes that sound interesting or get the core classes out of the way. However, you might end up taking more classes than you can handle while  maintaining your job. Instead, start with a smaller course load and add to it the following semester if you didn’t feel overwhelmed.

For instance, the minimum credits required to be considered a full-time student is 12 units a quarter, or about three classes. Working college students will have limited free time to study compared to their non-working classmates and may have a busier schedule running between class and work. As a result, the margin for error is small if classes become more difficult or if financial obligations increase. Consider signing up for two classes, or about ten units, to give yourself a larger margin for adjusting your course load or work schedule.

2. Watch Your Habits

You may have been able to hold down a job while in high school, but college classes are more demanding and professors expect students to complete many of their assignments on their own time. For working college students, developing time management skills can be the key to staying on top of your class work.

Keep track of how much time it takes you to begin studying after you leave your job. Do you waste  time browsing the internet? Do you find it easier if you eat a quick meal? Do you become easily distracted with TV? Can you focus more if you go to a nearby coffee shop rather than studying at home?

Finding out what makes it easier for you to jump into studying after leaving work can help you make the most of your time. Sometimes this means taking a quick break—other times it can mean stepping away from the television.

3. Isolate the Difficult Classes

Try pairing classes that you struggle in with classes that allow you to showcase your strengths. For instance, if you are an English major who loves writing but struggles in math and science, you may want to avoid signing up for 3 science classes in one quarter (even if it means you’ll be able to get these classes out of the way sooner). These are the classes you may want to take in addition to your “easier” classes so you can devote your time to a difficult class while also making gains towards completing your degree.

Similarly, avoid being overconfident when it comes to selecting your classes. You may think you can handle a schedule with organic chemistry, microbiology or physics, but many classes can end up being incredibly time-intensive both in the classroom or lab, and at home. Talk to your peers, advisors, or coworkers about their experiences in these classes before enrolling. You may not always agree with them after taking the class, but it won’t hurt to ask someone who has been there before.

4. Make a Time “Budget”

Time is one of your most precious commodities in college and can be easily wasted without notice. Before you begin a semester, try writing down a weekly schedule including your work hours and your study time. The general rule, according to University of Michigan, is that you should study two to three hours outside of class for every hour you are in class. That means if you are taking 12 semester hours of credit you’ll need 24 hours per week of study time. By planning ahead, you can allot a responsible amount of study time and space in your calendar for group study sessions with tutors, classmates, and teaching assistants in between your work schedule. Planning your time carefully, and staying on top of important tasks, makes it easier to keep things from unraveling.  

5. Don’t Forget Your Short- and Long-Term Goals

Students attending community colleges or those planning on transferring to a university can have important long-term planning obligations as they must juggle transfer dates, transfer pre-requisites, and class availability in addition to their work schedule and their life. Sometimes, balancing all of this can be overwhelming. According to a 2001 study sponsored by Upromise, the number of college students working full-time has doubled from 5.6 percent in 1985 to 10.4 percent in 2000. Many of these students reported that they sometimes struggled with their studies, or that their workload had a negative impact on their class selection.

To help balance college and work, remember to focus on short and long-term goals when things feel like they’re getting out of hand. By breaking up your tasks into short- and long-term goals, you can keep yourself focused on the tasks at hand.

Setting goals, managing your time, and budgeting your energy are all important skills to have if you plan to work your way through college. Working while going to school can be incredibly stressful, but students should always remember that accomplishing your goals can be worth it. With a little planning and hard work, you might carve out the best of both your school and work worlds.

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About the Author

Chad Fisher knows that working students face unique challenges when it comes to earning their degree. For many of these students, the salary and experience of their intended career is worth the extra effort. Find out more about salary information and employment outlook for psychologists at SMPMN.com.

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