How to Succeed in College While Working a Full Time Job
From Dropout To Working, Accomplished College Graduate
I put myself through my last 3 years of college during the evenings while working full time during the day. I don't deny the difficulty: you absolutely need discipline and an unwavering dedication to your studies to get the job done, when you have to work to pay the bills and get precious little time to rest and relax.
Being a former college dropout, in a way, was a blessing in disguise for me. I had already been struggling in class, and my grades did not match my ability or the excellent grades that allowed me to graduate high school with honors. Knowing my motivation wasn't what it needed to be, I left college two years after finishing high school, went to work full time and struck out on my own.
By the time I returned to college years later, I had to do so around my work schedule. I had to find a way to work full time while also attending class full time.
This time around, I averaged a 3.3 GPA and finished my Bachelor's of Arts degree at the University of Washington within two years of returning to school. I didn't get lower than a C+ in any class, and never had to sweat a final exam.
The key to my success was building lifestyle habits that allowed me to get my schoolwork done outside of work without wrecking my sleep or robbing me of my weekends and holidays.
Here are some of the key principles that led to my success in college, principles that you can adopt as well!
First: Make sure your planned work/school schedule is realistic
If you work 10 hour days starting at 6 am, going to class after work until 9-10 pm may not be realistic, because you're not going to get enough rest and down time to make it work.
Also, don't take 4:30 pm classes if you work an 8 to 5 day job, thinking you can get time off from work, get your schedule shifted, or can work reduced hours... unless you in advance have mapped everything out and have confirmed with your boss, your family and (most of all) yourself that it works.
When I went back to school, I knew I worked 8 to 5 Mondays through Fridays. My school offered 4:30pm-6:30pm classes as well as 7:00pm-9:00pm classes.
I made sure to only register for 7:00-9:00pm classes, because I knew the earlier classes conflicted with my work schedule. And even if I could get out of work early, there would be very little time to get between work and class.
I decided to ensure I had a larger buffer of time before any of my classes, and that was a very smart decision.
The Bare Minimum You Need To Do At School:
- Attend every scheduled class and be a present, engaged listener.
- Do every reading and homework assignment between class.
- Turn in every paper or project.
Do all of this without missing once and regardless of your intelligence or ability it will be very hard for you to earn less than a C in a given class, even if the class material is very difficult. For most classes this work will lead to at least a B.
You learn best by osmosis and habit over time. Information in reading and assignments builds upon older information from prior assigments and sessions. If you are an active, engaged participant every day, it will become easier to get and stay engaged, and you will learn the needed material whether you want to or not.
This was the magic key to my success in finishing my degree. I made a point to show up to class every day and do every assignment I could complete, graded or not. I was pleasantly surprised at how well I did in exams, despite not studying much the days before. My grades were often rock solid B's with a few A's.
In fact, the handful of C+'s I got were in classes where I flaked on doing this and skipped a few sessions. It clearly showed! I stopped flaking in future classes, and got nothing but A's and B's from there.
The Keys To Note Taking:
Use paper whenever possible. The act of physically writing tends to help somehow with memory retention. Plus, the action of writing is more deliberate and gets you to think more about what you are actually writing down.
If you must use your PC, disable your internet. Do not use your phone. Your only focus must be on the discussion at hand. This was less of an issueback in my day, before 4G-5G made mobile internet ubiquitous. It's more of an issue now. Turn the phone off and keep it put away during study and during class.
Focus on writing down main ideas, not a transcription of everything mentioned. Not only will work for word transcription make your hand hurt, most of the material will be of little use when studying. It also won't clarify the needed key material, which is the point of note taking.
A helpful guideline for figuring out what to write down: At every moment the instructor is talking, figure out the reason why the instructor is making a point to say what they're saying right now. THAT is what you need to write down.
I was often mentally tired from work by the time I got to class, and didn't have it in me to write down more than main ideas from lectures.
This was a blessing in disguise, as this made my note making much more efficient and easier to read and follow after the fact. Doing this became my regular practice after the first term, and in my working life beyond school.
Never Stay Up Late To Work On Homework
If you work a day job, avoid doing any schoolwork after 9pm. Another good general rule around bedtime is to cease any work 10 hours prior to the start of your work or school day (depending on what comes first after you sleep).
For example, let's say you work overnights 11pm to 7am, go to school during the day from 9am to 12pm, then sleep before work. It's a good idea to not study at all after 1pm, which is 10 hours before you go to work (the first activity you do after sleeping).
Make sure you get to bed at a decent hour. Rather than doing homework at the end of the night, try to do your reading and homework:
- In the morning before work
- During a lunch break at work
- During work commutes if you take transit
- Right after work and before school, or vice versa (depending on your schedule)
The key here is not just that getting sleep is important, but that studying and homework (much like watching TV or using the internet) wires your mind and can interfere with your ability to get to sleep.
By breaking yourself off from schoolwork at a decent hour, you allow your brain to unwind and give yourself ample time to get decent sleep. Poor sleep not only has a bad effect on your health, but it interferes with crucial brain function that you need to study and do your job effectively, not to mention commute safely.
My classes ended at 9pm and I worked 8am-5pm during the week, so I typically tabled any homework until tomorrow. I would get home, prepare and eat dinner, and just go to bed.
I always did my reading and homework after leaving work at 5pm, at the campus library during the couple of hours before my 7pm classes. I would focus on the previous day's classwork (homework due tonight should have been done the day before), and review any reading or notes for tonight's class before heading to class.
Set Daily Goals. Schedule Time To Get Them Done. GET THEM DONE!
Your out-of-class studying has to become more efficent and purpose driven. Outside of work and school you need to set aside dedicated time (at least an hour, probably more) for reading and homework, the same way you would schedule a meeting in Outlook, or put on your calendar a commitment like a doctor's appointment.
I recommend building a schedule that allows you 2 hours of time between work and the nearest class.
Get all you can done in that 2 hours: Any reading, any homework, work on any major projects or papers. Get as far ahead of the game as you can, so that you either don't have to worry about it at the last minute, or the assignment only requires partial work or finishing touches.
You need to minimize stress during what's undoubtedly going to be a stressful quarter or semester, and staying on top of your work as much as possible will keep your options open should anything arise.
And, during this 2 hour period, NO SCREWING AROUND. Stay off your phone and the internet unless you're conducting research. In fact, if your assignment requires no computer usage whatsoever, I would suggest staying away from a computer entirely. If you go to school at night, go to the library after work, find an empty desk or table, and get your work done there.
More importantly, you need to enter this time block with a firm to-do list of goals: Complete assigned readings. Finish homework assignments. Write assigned write-ups. Make whatever lists of questions or ideas your instructor wants you to bring to next class. If you're doing a group assignment, this can be the time to contact classmates and sort out who has what.
For example, you have work for your English class and your Algebra class you need to get done, and you set aside 5-6pm today to get it done at the library. Your to-do list could look like this:
- Read Act 2 Scene 4 from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. (Good news: You read about half of this during lunch today)
- Complete assigned one page write up of your thoughts on the scene from Troilus and Cressida. (Good news: You took notes while reading, and already have enough ideas to quickly knock out a couple paragraphs)
- Finish 10 assigned problems from Algebra Chapter 3-4. (Bad news: You haven't touched this at all since it was assigned. The good news is the material looked easy in class and it shouldn't take you long to get them done)
When you sit down during your time block, you know exactly what needs to get done. Get to work! It all has to be done before you get up in an hour. Perhaps you make sure to finish the reading and take remaining notes before 5:20, get that paper written and printed before 5:40 (no need to write Shakespeare! Just form some key ideas and get a page written), and knock out the Algebra problems by 6:00.
Between work, life, and class, my time was stretched thin, so I did this out of necessity. I left work at 5pm, caught the bus to campus and arrived shortly before 6pm, had something to eat if there was time, got to the library and knew I had until shortly before 7pm to finish work before heading to class.
At first, I was doing that night's due assignments in the library that night. This helped with reading assignments, as the ideas were fresh in my head for that class discussion. But with write-ups and other homework it was more stressful, because you had to have a finished product by class time. I eventually got used to using this time to get ahead on those assignments (and more on that in a bit).
Eat regular meals
You need a lot of energy to get through what's probably a 12-14 hour day. If you go more than 4-5 hours without a meal, your body's going to crash without nutrients to keep moving, which will only complicate an already a complicated day. You'll feel physically shaky and, worst of all, you won't be able to think clearly.
Your head absolutely needs to stay in the game to get through days like this. Make a meal schedule, get whatever food you need to meet it, and stick to it.
I always ate breakfast before my 8am start time at work. I always ate lunch as normal at 12pm. After leaving work at 5pm, I'd stop at a restaurant or store (usually around 5:30-5:45pm) and quickly grab something to eat. I'd eat it right away. I'd go study at the library, go to class, get home around 9:15pm (I fortunately lived close to campus) and cook a light dinner that I finished eating before bed at 10pm.
I never swayed from this routine, and I rarely had any hunger issues.
Read Ahead Of Your Assignments Between Classes
Whether or not there's a reading or homework assignment for next class, read at least some of the following, yet to be assigned sections in your text to anticipate what your instructor will address in next class.
In some cases, this can make note taking and following the in-class lecture or discussion easier. But mostly, this gives you an edge when the instructor gives the next assignment and asks you to look for key ideas.
If you read ahead before class, you already have familiarity with the material ahead when the instructor points out what to look for. The next assignment becomes more like filling in expected blanks, rather than processing all new information.
I often did this by accident. I took a lot of Literary Analysis classes, so we read a lot of Classical texts. I'd get into whatever text I was reading and accidentally read past our assigned stop point.
But, because I did so, this helped me mentally prepare for future assignments, which often required some homework writing before next class. While the instructor's assignment was brand new information for most students, I was already mentally planning my next write-up before picking the text back up.
Admittedly, this practice was a lot more useful in my foreign language classes, as it made the instructor's lessons more of a refresher at times than new material. This made processing the next lesson's information easier.
For Projects And Research Papers, Get Work Done Early
If you get a major assignment with a due date weeks down the road, get as much of the work done early as possible. Instead of procrastinating and getting it all done at the last month, try to get as much of it done as you can on the 1st weekend after it's assigned.
If you get the whole thing done that weekend, great. Otherwise (unless of course it's due that next week), let it sit for the week, focus on your class-to-class work, and do some more work on the project next weekend.
You not only have other homework, but other real-life responsibilities you need to attend to during the weekend, since work and school doesn't leave you with much time to get them done. The groceries won't buy themselves, the bills won't pay themselves, and the laundry's not going to do itself.
Plus, having put in 50-70 hours between work and school during the week... let's face it: You probably need a rest, not just physically but mentally. If nothing else, you may not be sure you'll even get the time, as other duties may call.
So as soon as the first weekend after you get these assignments, give yourself a couple hours every week and get some early work done on those projects and papers. Don't put yourself in a position where you need to spend a weekend scrambling to finish a major assignment.
Regardless of when you finish: If you finish early, sit on it. Projects generally should be submitted right around the due date anyway. For research papers, don't submit a finished paper early before the week it's due. In any case, sitting on a finished product allows for you to make changes if the instructor gives you information later that indicates you need to correct or re-do something. It happens! You don't want to turn it in too early and have your grade docked because you couldn't make the needed corrections.
Worst case scenario in doing this: If you get down to the final week before it's due and you're not yet finished, you're at least close to being finished rather than barely started. The reduced stress will make the rest of your life easier, not to mention your work for other classes. Deadline stress does affect all your other work!
I'd work on papers and projects exclusively during the weekend. During the week there was enough class-to-class assigned work that there wasn't much time to work on projects. In some cases the instructor would scale back homework assignments right before an exam or before a due date, so perhaps I could do some additional work on them then.
Usually, I set aside a few hours Saturday or Sunday and got the research done, or wrote the drafts, or for visual projects I'd gather and prepare the presentation materials. I never spent more than 3-4 hours on a weekend day working on this or other homework. I needed downtime like anyone else!
Speaking of down time... sometimes you admittedly need some extra downtime in a pinch:
If you need to take a day off... take a day off ONLY if the impact of missing a given class session seems inconsequential
Don't miss major due dates for projects or exam days. Try to miss a lecture or discussion class if you need to skip. Those classes typically don't require daily homework, and you can get notes on the discussion from a classmate if need be.
Obviously, you don't want to make a habit of this. DO NOT do this more than once or twice a quarter or semester for any class. Whether or not the instructor imparts penalties, I find that missing classes tends to follow a three strike rule: Missing one or two inconsequential classes doesn't significantly impact your grade or study, but missing a 3rd day or more in a quarter or semester turns keeping up in class into a steep uphill battle.
In fact, missing more than 3 days will usually get your instructor's attention, and not in a good way. Some instructors in fact may even pull you aside and advise you to drop the class once they notice. In any case, most will take note and, if you're graded subjectively on the quality of your papers or projects, noted absenteeism may impact how they grade you. That's not necessarily fair, but it happens whether instructors mean to do so or not.
In any case, knowledge provides tools to succeeding in any class, and missing class eliminates opportunities to pick up those tools. Avoid missing class. If you can handle going every day, then go every day. Your grades will thank you. And when you're nailing those finals without having to study much on final week, you will be thanking yourself.
I admit that for many classes (aside from the aforementioned C+ classes), I did skip one or two sessions during the term.
In most cases I was exhausted and needed a bit of a break, plus the discussion for that class was typically a continuation of that from prior classes. It often involved reading that I had already done per the above.
So, on occasion, I did go ahead and miss that class. Usually, I took an early dinner, got to bed early and got some extra sleep. Usually, the loss of experiencing that particular class session was worth the recovery from the extra rest.
Ultimately, you can succeed at college while working full time. You just need to be realistic about your needs, be diligent about meeting those needs, and give yourself the space to meet them without running yourself into burnout.
This is a lot of advice to take in. But it's all vital to a successful combination of work and school. I was a high school honor student who originally dropped out of college to work full time, and had to continue working full time when I finally went back to finish college years later.
I had to learn all this the hard way. If you want to succeed, you either do what you have to do... or you never get the job done and finish. I thankfully got myself to do what I had do, and finished my degree at the University of Washington with a 3.3 GPA.
In the process, I developed a strong work ethic that translated to my professional life and expanded my potential as a worker. It's a lesson many college kids never get the chance to learn. You're getting a unique opportunity to develop perseverance and character most college graduates won't. Take it and make the best of it.
These principles were my key to success as a returning, working college student. And they can help you too! Form positive habits in and out of class, and you too can succeed.