How to plan your schedule to maximize your productivity

I’ve just recently moved in for my senior year as an undergrad and this will be my second year as a freshman RA. Now, every school does scheduling differently and from what I know, my school is pretty weird. Our incoming freshmen register for classes just a couple of days before class begins for the fall semester, which can end up being super stressful for those of us who like to approach major life decisions with a color-coded spreadsheet and at least three contingency plans. Things usually work out for the best, but no matter how your school handles scheduling and class registration, it can sometimes take a couple of semesters (or even a couple of years!!) to really figure out what kind of class schedule will work best for you.

Your class schedule really forms the foundation for your college experience each semester. Here's what to consider when registering for classes!

Luckily for you, I’ve put some thought into the things that play into my choices during class registration. This post outlines some of the factors you should consider while laying out your schedule so that you can have your most productive semester yet!

Early bird or night owl?

What to consider

This question is a great one to start with because not only does it reveal a fundamental truth about yourself, but it also can help lay the foundation for your whole day. You probably already know the answer to this question, because it’s pretty basic, but it’s always worth coming back to, especially if you’re going to be entering college for the first time.

It’s also important to remember that most college students tend to swing toward the night owl end of the spectrum. Just because you survived your high school with a 7:30am start time doesn’t mean you’re going to want to stack your week with 8:00am classes.

Unless you’re going to be really dedicated to getting up for your 6:00am run and turning down plans to go to bed by 11:00pm (shoutout to my close friend Alyssa! I admire people like you who do things like this!) it’s safe to say that you early birds are going to have to edge into night owl territory a little. And you night owls have to remember that most schools don’t offer classes at 3:00am, so if that’s your peak hour, you’ll probably have to make some sacrifices too.

How it should affect your schedule

This one is pretty self explanatory. If you’re a classic early bird, you’re probably going to want to start your day earlier than your night owl friends. However, the next question will involve adding a little more nuance to this night owl/early bird question, so keep reading!

My example

I am most definitely an early bird and even going into my senior year, I’m still having a hard time adjusting to the fact that sometimes club meetings start at 9:00pm. While my early bird tendencies don’t have the effect on my class schedule that you might expect (see below!), I always try to be out of bed by 9:00am or earlier so that I can make the most of my natural morning time productive energy.

What do you consider a “productive” use of time?

What to consider

Figuring out my answer to this question is what truly helped me figure out how to have the most productive schedule possible. We divide up our time over so many different tasks every day and our goal is always to be spending more time on the things that matter to us (see my post on the quadrant method for more on this!).

It’s important to think over all the things you may have to do in a day and think about how you’d prioritize them. This is different for everyone, which is why all of our schedules should be quite different. Do you feel most productive when you’re writing? Participating in class discussion? In your extracurriculars? At work? Performing administrative tasks and running errands? Let your class schedule reflect where you feel your time is most productively spent.

How it should affect your schedule

If you feel most productive when you’re participating in class discussions, and your peak productivity hours are in the afternoon, schedule afternoon classes! If you feel most productive when you’re writing papers and your peak productivity hours are in the morning, schedule afternoon classes and spend your mornings working on papers!

Essentially, schedule your most productive-feeling activities into the hours of the day when you feel motivated to really accomplish things. This sets you up for success because it aligns your priorities with your natural preferences and helps ensure you get the most out of each day.

My example

As I said before, I’m definitely a morning person. However, I don’t really schedule morning classes. This is because I feel most productive when I’m doing things I can cross off my list — getting things done! I like to spend my mornings running errands that need to be taken care of, doing reading for classes, answering emails, writing papers, and even sometimes doing laundry. When I’ve taken morning classes I’ve felt restless and inattentive. The “afternoon slump” is the perfect time for me to schedule my classes because I get to accomplish all kinds of things in the morning and avoid succumbing to the urge to take a nap because I’m too busy participating in class.

Papers or tests?

What to consider

This one is easy. Do you perform better in test-based or paper-based classes. For some people, this might be dictated by their major. But in all likelihood you’ll have the opportunity to take both kinds of classes. It’s important to recognize which type you excel in more so that you can be prepared to work extra hard in the other.

How it should affect your schedule

Before you start stacking your schedule with 100% paper-based classes, take a minute to think about how midterms will feel when you have to write five big papers in a week. Or, think about how finals will feel if your test-based courses all culminate in three-hour exams you’ll have to sit through one after the other. It’s also important to remember that your paper based classes will likely be reading-heavy and there are only so many hours in a day to read for class. Definitely swing your schedule more toward papers or tests — wherever you’re stronger — but try to strike a little bit of a balance.

My example

I’m an English major so you better believe my schedule is usually heavy on readings and papers. However, if I have room to add electives, I usually try to add at least one class whose grades come predominantly from tests. Even though I do much better with papers, it’s nice when it’s only three 15-page term papers instead of four.

Gen eds? Pre reqs? Major classes? Just for fun?

What to consider

You’ll probably have to take lots of different kinds of classes in college — especially if you go to a liberal arts school. Think about whether you function best when all your classes can interrelate or whether you’d do better with a schedule more reminiscent of high school, with a wide variety of different subjects each semester.

How it should affect your schedule

This one is pretty easy because there’s not really any hidden tricks. If you’d rather have a mix of subjects, take a jumble of major classes, gen eds, and electives. Just remember that it’s probably almost never a good idea to push off the classes you don’t want to take until your last semester. You never know what might happen and you definitely don’t want to risk a rotten senior spring!

My example

I’m double majoring in two areas that have some degree of overlap and are definitely compatible without being too similar. This allows for a good bit of variety in my schedule each semester. I front-loaded most of my required classes into my first three years, which is allowing me to take some fun classes (like “Television Sports Today” and modern dance!) in my senior year for electives that contribute to the number of credit hours I need to graduate.

Front-loading was also helpful for me because I ended up changing my mind about my career path this summer and decided to pursue a career in elementary education. This change meant fitting three education classes into my senior year to prep for grad school, which I would have had a much harder time with if I had saved more requirements for my senior year. Being able to fill most of the rest of my schedule with electives will allow me to heavily focus on the classes I need for grad school. In order to keep myself on track with all of that, I have a pretty awesome color-coded spreadsheet, which you can learn more about here.

Meal time?

What to consider

An easy thing to forget when you’re planning your schedule, believe it or not, is eating. Think about your eating habits (and about the meal plan you purchased!). Do you eat three meals a day? Do you like a grab-and-go breakfast or would you rather sit down for something bigger? What times do you prefer to eat your meals? Do you like to eat at a consistent time every day or are you okay mixing it up a bit?

How it should affect your schedule

Eating is essential (obviously). You’re definitely not going to be performing at your best if you’re hungry. So ideally, your class schedule should work around your meal times. However, sometimes those awesome classes (or maybe just those ones you’re absolutely required to take) are only offered during the same time period when the dining halls are serving lunch. Are you willing to pack a sandwich to manage to score a seat in that class with the awesome professor? Or is your lunch time sacred? Figure out what is most important to you and plan your schedule around that.

My example

The first semester of my junior year, I didn’t have time for lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I had three classes back to back to back from 11:00am straight through 3:30pm. At the start of the semester, sometimes I just ate a big breakfast at 10:30am or sometimes I’d just eat a granola bar between classes and have a late lunch/early dinner around 4:00pm. When I was doing it that way, it was really hard and I was having difficulty staying focused in class, even though I thoroughly enjoyed all three classes, just because I was so hungry. At some point though, I got into the habit of packing a peanut butter sandwich and a granola bar or bag of chips and I’d eat them around 12:30pm because that professor didn’t have a problem with us eating in her class.

Once I got into a consistent habit and was actually eating enough for lunch, I did much better in those classes and I felt much better too. It ended up being worth it for me because those were some awesome classes, but taking class all the way through lunch time is not a decision I’d make lightly, or one I’d undertake without a plan.

Gentle stroll or Olympic sprint?

What to consider

While this is far from the most important factor to consider while registering for classes, I would be remiss if I left it out of this post because it is far too often forgotten. Consider how big your campus is and how long it takes you to walk from building to building. Now consider how much time you have between each class and if you’re going to be able to make it.

How it should affect your schedule

Don’t schedule classes that give you 10 minutes to walk from one side of campus to the third floor of a building on the clear opposite end. You’ll regret it and you’ll be miserable two or three times a week all semester. You don’t want to walk in late and exhausted to one class every single time. That is not the way to set yourself up for a successful and productive class.

My example

I have done this multiple times because my campus is small and I thought it was doable. It’s not. Don’t make yourself miserable if it’s at all possible to avoid. Set yourself up for a great semester by not actively making your own life harder.

Extracurriculars? Jobs? Going home?

What to consider

Being involved on campus really completes the college experience, and many of us need to work to be able to afford to go to school. All of these things outside of academics are also important to consider when planning your class schedule. How many extracurriculars are you involved in? When do they meet? What kind of job are you working? What are the hours like? Are you planning on going home fairly often? How important are each of these things to you?

How it should affect your schedule

Make sure you’re not overbooking yourself. The main reason you’re at school is the academics so your classes, homework, and studying time should be the top priorities when it comes to planning your schedule. With all that being said, these other things in life are important too! Make sure you prioritize and then plan your schedule in accordance with those priorities. For example, if your job has you working in the morning, schedule your classes in the afternoon. If it’s important for you to go home every other weekend, consider avoiding Friday classes so you have more time to spend at home.

My example

I work on my school’s newspaper, The Flat Hat. We spend basically eternity on Monday nights (seriously! 5:00pm until whenever we’re done, on average 1:00am but sometimes as late as 4:00am). Because of this, I try to make sure I don’t have classes earlier than 11:00am on Tuesdays and Thursdays because I like to be able to sleep in a little on Tuesdays after such a brutal Monday night.

All in all…

There are so many things to consider when registering for classes and setting up your schedule. I hope this post got you thinking and gave you some helpful hints!

A productive semester is one where you start yourself off on the right foot by making intentional choices in your own best interest. Personally, I can’t wait for the new semester and I hope you feel the same after thinking through some of the questions I asked in this post. (If you like to do your thinking on paper, a great place to do that is in what I call a catch-all notebook. you can read all about this system and why I love it here!)

{Which tip was your favorite? What helps you decide on your class schedule? Let me know in the comments down below!}

  • Brendan Doyle

    Some great tips here 🙂

  • What a helpful guide for planning your class schedule. At my school the freshman register during orientation which is held at random times throughout the summer.

    • I think that’s how most schools do it. We hold our orientation right before classes start which is interesting.

  • Amanda Faber

    I wish I would have had something like this back when I was in college

  • thesophiadiaries

    wow, these tips are so extensive! you put so much amazing effort in this! 🙂 thanks for sharing, and I 100% agree with all these tips!

  • These are great tips! I was/am a morning person always, I actually loved having my classes in the early morning, I felt more productive having the class over and done with. It also helped with scheduling classes! Most people don’t want early morning.

  • I’m also an early bird, it was such a struggle in college when some of my classes would go until 8:30, that was almost my bed time!
    -Nicholle
    http://www.nichollesophia.com

    • Totally feel you on this! I had such a hard time adjusting to things lasting until 11pm haha

  • I am also an early bird but like you I like to spend my mornings studying/working out/checking off to do list items and then have class in the mid morning and afternoon. I HATE extracurricular meetings at night but I’ve learned to deal with it haha!

  • these are great tips! I think knowing when you’re typically most alert is totally key! whether thats as a night owl or early bird as you say!

  • I was lucky to have a school that pretty much had each semester “planned” out for me. I could ignore it of course, but it was there to make scheduling classes easier so you knew what to take when and to make sure you got your pre-reqs done at the right time. It definitely made scheduling easier, and knowing if I was a morning/night person or when I needed lunch was my next priority!

    • Oh that’s so interesting! It’s so cool how different schools do basic things like scheduling so differently.

  • Kaitlyn Fickle Killebrew

    To do lists help me to stay productive! I don’t know what I would do without them!

    • I totally agree! I would lose my mind if I didn’t have multiple to do lists running at all times.

  • I have always been an early bird but absolutely agree that you need to find your most productive time to work. Wow I wish I read this in college 😉

    xo
    Grace | miss-graciela.blogspot.com

  • Tori Dunlap

    This is such a valuable post. I loved having afternoons free in college to get work done.
    Tori || Victori Media
    https://www.victorimedia.com

    • Thanks for reading! Having a time when you feel productive and are able to get work done is so important.

  • This post is SO helpful! So many great things to consider here when planning your schedule!

  • This is such a helpful post! I so agree that it’s important to consider if you’re more of an early bird or night owl when planning out your schedule.