Navigating academic and social life in college can be challenging, whether you are a first-year student transitioning from high school, a transfer student, or a senior who has been here for years. On top of adjusting to a new schedule, new people, new living conditions, and different responsibilities, you have to adjust to more rigorous courses and likely a deceptively heavy workload. It can be a lot. Fortunately, you are not alone, and there are many resources available at UNC to help you achieve academic success. There isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution, nor is the following intended to be an exhaustive list, but as a starting point we have put together five key tips with practical steps and resources to help you thrive while you’re here.

1. Establish a time management system.

Any student’s academic success is built on a foundation of time management. It’s nearly impossible to do well in classes without a routine, a way to balance priorities, and a system for planning ahead. Here are a few key tips to get your time management under control:

Use a weekly schedule, planner, or calendar to plan your time each week and each day. It’s common for students to want to have lots of unstructured free time, but students often tell us that unstructured time leads to procrastination—meaning they end up neither doing what they should be doing (studying) nor what they want to be doing (fun stuff). By using a planner, you can find room for both academic and social time. Factor in everything you do in a day, including things like meals, working out, social events, clubs and organizations, class, work, studying, and even free time. Use this to plan strategic study times for each class. You can use any type of planner (digital or hard copy). To get started, you may want to first try one of the Learning Center’s weekly calendars to keep track of how you spend your time or to sketch out your ideal week.

Chunk your time. Research has shown that it’s much more effective to space out your studies over a longer period of time (distributed practice) instead of doing all your work at once or cramming last-minute (massed practice). Additionally, studying for smaller periods of time (no more than an hour) and then taking a break improves learning. Try using the Pomodoro technique to help you study in chunks.

Plan ahead and think big picture. Use a semester at a glance calendar to figure out when your busy weeks are—before they catch you off guard! This big picture tool can help you plan ahead so you don’t end up cramming last minute or getting overwhelmed during the busy weeks.

Use academic coaching. Academic coaching can help you better understand your habits and your goals, and it can also give you new ideas for what might work best for you. Importantly, academic coaching includes a focus on accountability, which is integral to forming new time management habits.

2. Use effective study strategies.

Let’s be honest: if you’re not studying effectively, you’re wasting your time. Many students start college using the same strategies they used in high school because those techniques worked well in high school; however, as you may have already figured out, college is different. Classes are structured differently and require more independent study, and your professors may be less accessible than you’re used to; these differences may require new study habits that you didn’t need to develop in high school. The good news is that there is plenty of research and plenty of resources out there for how to study effectively in college. Below, we give brief descriptions of a few effective study strategies and connect you to resources to continue exploring.

Test yourself. Rather than simply re-reading your textbook and notes, create flashcards or create a study guide from memory to test yourself on the information. If you’re using flashcards, don’t look at the answers or flip the flashcard until you have tried to answer the question yourself. If you’re creating a study guide, write down as much as you can from memory, leaving gaps when you know you need to fill in information or details later. These practices will tell you exactly what you do and do not know and will actively engage your brain in retrieval—an essential part of good learning.

Become a teacher. Instead of rereading information, close your book and notes and explain the information in your own words out loud to a friend—or even to yourself. In doing so, you’ll quickly get a better feel for what you know and don’t know well.

Use active reading strategies. Using effective active reading strategies can transform your reading time from frustrating, time-consuming, and confusing to meaningful, purpose-driven, and successful.

Use metacognition to your advantage. Research has shown that students who engage in metacognition (reflective thinking about what they know and don’t know and about how they learn) are much more effective learners.

Study with a partner or group. Attend review sessions or group study sessions for your class or join one of the Learning Center’s study groups: Bio Cell, ChemPossible, and Math Plus. If you can’t find a group, make one! Ask someone in your class to be a study partner or start a group. Check out this resource to help you develop good group study habits.

Attend a Learning Center workshop or coaching session. Take one hour to come to a workshop about effective study strategies in a group setting from one of our academic coaches. You’ll also receive handouts and resources and get time to apply what you’ve learned. You can also meet one-on-one with a coach to help you better understand and implement active learning strategies.

3. Understand your professors’ expectations for each course.

Read your syllabi. Get to know your syllabus for each course, and refer to it often. It’s your roadmap for the class and provides important dates, links to resources, and timelines of topics. Don’t just take a narrow view, looking one day at a time at what you need to get done—students often miss the important information they can learn from looking at the big picture and how things connect. By scanning previous weeks of the syllabus before you read a new assignment, you’re likely to understand more of your reading because you can better situate your new knowledge within what you’ve already learned.

Take advantage of office hours. Don’t be afraid to make an appointment with your professor to discuss anything you may be confused about or any questions you have about your course or assignments.

Get to know Sakai. Visit Sakai often for updates from your professor, links to resources, returned grades, and important dates. Not all professors use Sakai or use it in the same way, so be sure to check how Sakai is being used in your classes.

4. Create your team at Carolina.

UNC offers resources and support across campus in many different areas. Consider your needs and check out these great resources to become more connected during your time here.

  1. The Learning Center: Offers academic coaching, workshops, peer tutoring in many subjects, and a plethora of online resources about many academic skills and issues.
  2. The Writing Center: Provides writing coaching appointments, workshops, English language support, and many online resources for writing.
  3. Advising: Provides support and aid in scheduling, registration, courses, and planning your academic path at UNC and beyond.
  4. Counseling and Psychological Services: Offers therapy, psychiatry, referrals, and academic intervention services for students.
  5. Student Wellness: Offers supports and resources for students to enhance their health and overall wellness and safety.
  6. Campus Health Services: Provides comprehensive health care and wellness promotion to support academic and personal success.
  7. Accessibility Resources & Services: Provides accommodations and services to students with disabilities and medical conditions.
  8. Retention: Offers a wide variety of services to support student success.

5. Practice self-care.

Since college can be challenging and time-consuming, it’s important to take care of yourself along the way. Many students find themselves neglecting sleep, healthy eating, and enjoyment for the sake of academic success. However, part of being academically successful is living a healthy, balanced life and taking care of yourself. You can’t perform at your best if you aren’t taking care of yourself mentally and physically. Many of the resources we’ve shared in this handout can help you establish a good routine that will allow you to do well and eliminate some of the stress that college brings. These self-care strategies seem simple, but they are as easy to neglect as they are important to remember.

Sleep matters. Sleep promotes cognition and memory, facilitates learning, recharges your mental and physical batteries, and generally helps you make the most out of your days. With enough sleep, you improve your mental and physical health, withstand stress, and maintain the consistency that is critical to healthy daily functioning.

Make healthy choices. What you put into your body affects the way you feel, perform, and learn. Things like drinking enough water, eating healthy foods, and getting exercise improves your brain, body, and your chance at academic success.

Set goals and develop solid habits. Create some short-term and long-term goals, then take steps towards pursuing them. Use one of our goal-setting resources to keep yourself focused, driven, and purposeful in college. Use some of the resources in this handout to create healthy habits that will set you up for success not just in college but in life.

Find things you enjoy. It can be tempting to study or work all the time, but it’s important to strike a healthy balance and make sure you do things you enjoy sometimes. Incorporate relaxing activities into your day, like yoga or a walk. Give yourself study breaks. Plan to spend time with friends. Take up a hobby or get involved in a student organization. Make sure to plan ahead, and schedule your time so that you are able to get your work done, but don’t feel bad about scheduling in some fun time as well. And don’t forget that quality “down time” isn’t just for fun—mental breaks also help you study more effectively.

Bonus: Academic Coaching

It takes time and effort to establish a time management system, use effective study strategies, understand your professors’ expectations, create your team, and practice self-care, but you don’t have to do it alone. Our academic coaches at the Learning Center can help you talk through these things, create a plan, and start to implement them. You can meet with an academic coach regularly for accountability and help in sticking with your plans. Schedule an appointment to meet one-on-one with a coach here.

Works consulted

Dembo, M. H. and Seli, H. (2013). Motivation and learning strategies for college success: A focus on self-regulated learning. (4th ed.) New York: Taylor & Francis.

Holschuh, J. and Nist, S. (2000). Active learning: Strategies for college success. Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon.

McGuire, S. Y. (2018). Teach yourself how to learn: Strategies you can use to ace any course at any level. Virginia: Stylus Publishing.


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout (just click print) and attribute the source: The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

If you enjoy using our handouts, we appreciate contributions of acknowledgement.