8 Time Management Tips for Adult College Students

By Beth Dumbauld

Choosing to go back to college as an adult is an easy decision. There may be no better decision when it comes to enhancing your career and reaching lifelong dreams. In fact, there is a substantial income gap between college grads and high school-only grads. Studies have shown that on average, a person with a college degree earns 74% more than a high school graduate -- a gap that’s up from 40% in 1980.1

Though the decision to go back to college may be easy, following through can be difficult. For the adult learner, finding the time to realize your educational dreams can be a huge challenge. You aren’t alone, however: most college students are crunched for time. In fact, most college students work: 78% of undergraduates work, and on average, employed students spend almost 30 hours working with 25% of them working full time.2 Many non-traditional students also have the additional time commitments related to family life. If you do return to college but aren’t overly focused on managing your schedule and your available time, you can easily become overwhelmed by all there is to do.

A successful college student is also someone who knows how to manage their most critical resource -- time. Here are a few time management strategies to help adult learners like you do the same:

  1. Know your priorities: Make a list of all activities you need to do or possibly delegate. Mark what should be considered high priority versus low priority. You may want to try numbering them. A 1 could mean an essential task with a 2 and 3 holding a lower position; tasks that can wait. Be sure to make a daily to-do list grouping the 1’s, 2’s and 3’s together. Each day you’ll want to reconfigure this task list and reward yourself for accomplishing your most important tasks first.3
  2. Work time: Assess how long each task will take and how much energy.4 For highest priority tasks requiring the most energy, you’ll want to schedule that activity when you do your best work. Know yourself. Are you a morning person or do you do better work late at night?
  3. Be healthy: Paying attention to your health may seem basic, but you really do want to give your body and mind its best chance at top performance. Healthy activities include regular exercise. Exercise, among its many health benefits, can help reduce stress. Stress reduces performance, as does lack of sleep. Make sure to keep a good night’s sleep a priority. Rest allows your brain to perform at its peak. Lack of sleep can make the day seem longer and tasks more difficult.5 Another good strategy is to include a walking/stretching break between study activities. When switching between subjects, walking helps clear your mind and reset your brain for new activities.
  4. Build in flexibility: An adult learner will benefit from a flexible mindset and schedule. As you consider a return to college with a life already full of commitments, you may want to consider an online college for its scheduling flexibility. An online program allows a student to control when, where, and how they take classes and study. No matter where you choose to go to college, flexibility also means building in extra time to manage unforeseen obstacles (UFOs) on your time into your schedule. UFOs will happen.6 Plan accordingly.
  5. Let the little things add up: For the college student, there will always be small tasks that need to be done on a daily basis. From scheduling a meeting with an academic advisor, editing a paper, reviewing notes from class, or even reading a few pages of your required reading -- small things can be accomplished in the spaces between your more pressing commitments. For example, an email can be written on a bus ride, a problem set can be finished while waiting for a dentist, and the opening paragraph of a paper can be drafted at your child’s gymnastic class. Don’t wait for those big chunks of time to get everything done. Doing the small things on a regular basis now and developing good study habits can help keep the momentum going and you feeling good about all that you are accomplishing rather than focusing on all that you have yet to do.
  6. Know when it’s survival time: There comes a special time in everyone’s college semester called exam time. Midterms and finals are not a time for moderation when it comes to school. Exam time is when a planned imbalance is essential. Non-essentials need to fall to the wayside as you prepare yourself for these important tests. Schedule outside appointments during other times of the semester. Prepare your friends and family appropriately. Let them know finals are coming up so they can plan accordingly and give you the space you need. Give people the appropriate heads up to know you won’t be returning texts or otherwise -- that you need your focus to be on school during this time period. Your friends and family want you to succeed. Let them know how they can help so when you do hit a new milestone, they know they helped play a part in your success.
  7. Know when it’s celebration time: Be sure to celebrate milestones. Acknowledge a job well done. These could include a successful exam, the submission of a paper, getting a good grade in a college course or the completion of a semester. Give yourself and others permission to be proud of your hard work -- and mark the progression towards your degree.
  8. Compromise: Sometimes, there’s just not enough time to get things done exactly the way you want it done. Sometimes, you need to trade in excellence for efficiency. Sometimes, you need to know when good enough is good enough. You are in school for the long haul; you want to graduate. Remember, you won’t be judged by one project alone. Learning is a cumulative process.

There are only 24 hours in a day. You may not have control over every scheduled hour of your day, but you can control how efficiently you use each minute. You can fit college into your life through a flexible mindset. Consider success in college as a series of daily commitments to accomplishing your highest priority tasks first and fitting the little things in the spaces between. Make this a habit and you’ll see that college degree sooner than later.

Time Management Tips for Adult College Students

1 Inside Higher Ed, The Case for More College Grads, June 27, 2011

2 Acenet Issue Brief, Working Their Way Through College, May 2006, p.1 (PDF Download)

3 Academic Skills Center, CA Polytechnic State University, Time Management, p.1


5 The College Board, Time Management Tips for Students, 2011.

6 Academic Skills Center, CA Polytechnic State University, Time Management, p1