13 Tips to balance college and work

What to know when trying to do it all

Going to school is a job in itself, so how do college and grad students manage to juggle classes, study, and ace their finals, all while working?

Tips for working while in college

Working while in college can be a lot to handle, but the benefits are endless. Aside from the obvious, like earning income that you can apply to the cost of college or tuck away for a rainy day, you’ll gain valuable experience for your resume (regardless of how your job relates to your major or intended career). You can meet new friends, mentors, or future employers. And you’ll pick up skills, like time management, multi-tasking, and decision-making, that can set you up for success in the classroom and in your career.

If you’re considering (or are already) going to school and working full time, use these 13 tips to help manage your priorities in the classroom and on the job:

  1. Be realistic. College is a huge investment in your future, and you have to dedicate the appropriate amount of energy to your coursework in order for that investment to pay off. Know what is required of you in school, and don’t try to cut corners. Before you can consider working while in college, you need to have an upfront conversation with yourself about how much “extra” time you’ll really have. How many courses are you taking? What are the professors’ expectations? Do you have extracurricular requirements? Do you have a commute to campus or to your classes?

    Once you have a clear idea about your studies, you can start to think about how much time you’ll have for other things. If you think you can commit to 15 hours a week at a job, factor in the time it’ll take you to get to work, how many hours a typical shift will be, and how much time you need for other things, like self-care.

    You can try to cram more work in, but you risk setting yourself up for burnout and could compromise your investment in your education. Be realistic about what you can handle.

  2. Consider both on- and off-campus gigs. You can work on-campus or off, and there are pros and cons to each. On-campus jobs will save you from a lengthy commute, and they’ll help you network with different staff and faculty members. That said, these jobs can get scooped up quickly, and your best bet is to indicate that you’re open to work-study when you file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Once you’ve filed, give your school’s financial aid office a visit to see if they have any listings for available on-campus jobs.

    Off-campus opportunities, while usually requiring some form of reliable transportation, can expand your job pool. Plus, with a variety of options (foodservice, retail, babysitting, painting, etc.) you can earn real-world experience related to your major. Example: are you an accounting major? Consider a part-time job at your local bank. Elementary education? A nanny or babysitting gig may be a good fit.

  3. Look for paid internships. A paid internship is similar to a job but comes with the inherent understanding that you’re a student whose responsibility is, first and foremost, school. Plus, these internships can set the groundwork for a future job offer once you’ve finished school.

  4. Schedule accordingly. When registering for classes, you can try to condense your courses into the same few days, which might open up other full days to work. Or, if you’re planning to work full-time, opt for evening classes that begin after your workday ends.

    Give yourself enough time to get to your job from campus (and vice versa), or to a quiet place to log on if your classes are online.

  5. Be transparent. Be sure to tell your boss that you’re taking classes and be clear about the responsibilities you need to uphold. The right manager will understand that your schoolwork is important, so be clear about your needs, including scheduling. If you can’t work Friday evenings because of a lab, for example, a restaurant manager might be willing to schedule you for lunches, instead. Just be upfront before you take the job.

  6. Plan ahead. Will there be days you can’t work because of a midterm or important project? Look ahead on your syllabus and create some ‘blackout’ dates to give your manager (with advanced notice), so you can continue to succeed in class and at work.

  7. Perfect your organizational skills. Sticky notes, your Google docs calendar, your desk pad, whatever you need to keep yourself organized—use it. Consistently update your class and work schedule, set alarms, and make sure you can access your schedule from multiple devices.

  8. Find multiple ways to use your work. If you’re lucky enough to land a job that relates to one of your classes or your major, make good use of it. Use your employer as a resource to help make classes more meaningful. For example, if you have a project about a business, consider using your employer (even if you need to create a new business name as to keep anonymity). If you need to write a paper about workplace culture, think about the culture at your job. If you need to balance a budget, ask for a meeting with your employers’ budget manager and seek his or her advice.

  9. Avoid procrastination. If you find yourself with some free time, even 15 minutes, use it wisely. Knock out a short school assignment when you can, and you’ll help to avoid the daunting feeling of a mountain of deadlines with no time to meet them.

  10. Dress efficiently. The smoother your transition from school to work, the more energy and precious time you’ll save. Consider wearing part of your work outfit or uniform to class, or going straight from work to class without changing. It might mean dressing a little more formally than your classmates, but wearing dress pants to class won’t hurt. Plus, you can always keep a jacket or hoodie with you.

  11. Create a dedicated study space. You’ll probably be running around a lot between work and classes (even if they’re online!). Since you’ll spend a decent amount of your ‘free time’ studying and preparing for the next day, make sure you have a quiet, peaceful space to be productive. Even if it’s a corner of your dorm or bedroom, give yourself the supplies you need (water bottles, paper, maybe a nice plant!) to ensure you can get your work done without too many distractions.

  12. Beat burnout. With all of the responsibilities you’re juggling, you’re bound to become exhausted—physically and mentally. Carve out a few hours in your schedule (the one you’re keeping track of regularly) to spend time on yourself. Get some extra rest. Go for a walk. Make yourself a nice meal. Whatever you do, make sure it recharges you.

  13. Know your limits. Before you begin working and going to college, set limits for yourself. Maybe you’ll decide that if you’re late for class more than once a week, or miss a deadline on a project, you’ve got to cut back on work.

    Check in regularly, too. Even if you have the hang of managing school and work one month, things can change. Be honest with yourself and understand that the balance may not always be doable. For example, a new semester can bring different professors, tougher classes, or more hours spent studying.

    If things get tough, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to give up work—you can try to reduce your hours or look for a different job.

College is an investment in yourself

Balancing work and school can have a lot up upside, but the variables, like the number of hours, on-campus vs. off, can be the difference between a successful semester and a failed attempt at multitasking. Be honest with yourself, understand your motivations for working, and set realistic goals.

That said, if it’s too much to handle, reach out to your financial aid office and consider other means to help pay for college, like scholarships, grants, and student loans. No matter how you finance it, completing your college degree can lead to economic mobility and higher earnings—so tackle what’s next with confidence. You’ve got this!

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

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