How To Stay Organized in College

A cluttered desk with notebooks

You’ll have the opportunity to learn quite a lot in college. You’ll probably work on your research and writing skills, and you may develop major-specific skills, like how to conduct experiments in a lab. Some of what you learn in college can be applicable to your entire life, such as how to be organized for school, work or in your personal life.

Organizational skills are essential for everyone, and college is a great time to work on improving yours. College organization skills generally fall into two main categories: physical and mental. That is, you’ll need to keep everything physically organized (e.g., clothes), and mentally organize everything non-tangible (e.g., obligations).

Here, you can learn how to stay organized in college and beyond with actionable tips. We’ll also be discussing digital organization.

In This Article:

The Importance of College Organization

Organizational skills for college students are one of the life skills that are essential to master — now and for your future beyond college. There is a lot to keep track of in college — from assignments and course schedules to social activities and family obligations. Developing an organizational routine — and sticking to it — can help you avoid forgetting about an important assignment or neglecting to call home on a sibling’s birthday.

College Organization May Improve Mental Health

College organization is important for another reason: mental health. If you’re disorganized, for example, if you have piles of clutter everywhere, you may be more likely to experience stress. Psychologists say that disorganized clutter can lead to stress by:1

  • Creating excessive stimuli
  • Causing feelings of anxiety and of being overwhelmed
  • Making you feel as if you can never finish your work
  • Inhibiting productivity and creativity
  • Preventing you from finding what you need quickly (e.g. a homework assignment)

Mental “clutter” and physical clutter alike can be stressful.1 However, learning some organizational skills can help address the problem.

Mental Organization

Staying mentally organized can help you stay organized in college on many levels and help you avoid problems, such as trying to cram for an exam that you forgot about until the night beforehand. Use these tips to facilitate college readiness.

Use Just One Calendar Tool

Some people prefer apps they can use on their phones, while others prefer hard copies of day planners. Whichever one you use, only use your selected tool. If you try to list reminders and to-do lists in multiple places, you’ll be more likely to end up misplacing or forgetting about something.

If you do use a physical day planner, carry it with you whenever when you leave your dorm. Bring it not only to your classes, but also to social activities whenever possible. This allows you to jot down new plans or changes in existing plans as soon as you know about them. It’ll also help you avoid scheduling conflicts, since you’ll know what you’re already committed to.

Plan in Advance

At the beginning of every week (or the end of the week prior), write down everything you’ll need to remember for the week ahead. This includes assignments, exams, social activities and reminders (e.g. “call home” or “plan a birthday outing for a roommate”).

Use Advance Reminders

It’s definitely a good idea to indicate on your day planner or scheduling app when an assignment is due or when you’ll be taking an exam. However, it won’t do you as much good as you’d hoped if you only notice these items on the day of or the day before they happen. To give yourself more time to prepare, use advance reminders.

When you have a major assignment due, such as an essay or a time-consuming project or when you have an exam coming up, write down reminders in the days leading up to the big day, such as a reminder to study a few days before a test. You can even color code these reminders, if that will help you. For example, you could use yellow for the reminder five days ahead of time, green for three days ahead and red for the day before.

Alternatively, if you prefer scheduling apps, set up periodic reminders on your phone. Figure out a system of reminders that works best for you — and stick to it.

Syllabus Reminders

Certain information doesn’t belong in a day planner. If you need to remind yourself of something for a specific class, consider annotating your syllabus for that class. On each syllabus, write down important class information or the professors’ policies.

Follow a Consistent Schedule

People tend to be creatures of habit. If you do different things at different times each day, you may be more likely to forget to do something important because you don’t have a set routine. Although your class and labs schedule may look different on Monday than it does on Thursday, try to otherwise follow a consistent, predictable routine.

For example, try to wake up at about the same time and go to bed at roughly the same time each day. Set aside time to work out and try to eat meals at around the same times each day.

Physical Organization

Physical organizational skills for college students go hand-in-hand with mental organizational skills. Remember that when your physical space is well-organized and free of clutter, you’re less likely to forget things or misplace items, and you may also experience less stress.1

There is no one universal rule for how to be organized for school. Find a system that works best for you — and follow it consistently. Try these tips:

Keep Your Backpack Organized

As a student, your backpack is almost like an extension of yourself. It’s likely that you carry it almost everywhere, and along the way, it may tend to accumulate a lot of unnecessary items. Get into the habit of going through your bag every evening, removing the unnecessary items and adding in the items you’ll need for the following day.

Follow the Five-Minute Rule

You might be amazed at how much cleaning and de-cluttering you can accomplish in just five minutes. Set aside five minutes every morning and again every evening to de-clutter and organize your desk, dresser, closet and other personal areas.

Keep Schoolwork Organized

It’s good practice to keep notes, assignments, syllabi and all other physical materials for each class separate. That is, don’t mix your biology notes in with your English 101 handouts. At the very least, you’ll need separate folders for each class.

Create a Productive Workspace

Although you’ll want to keep your desk clean and free of unnecessary clutter, you’ll still need some items close at hand. You’ll need items like pens, pencils and a calculator in a desk drawer. If there is a shelf near or above your desk, you could keep all of your class materials there. You should also have good lighting for your workspace.

How To Stay Digitally Organized

Digital organization is just as important as physical organization, but it’s generally not talked about as much. Chances are, you keep a lot of digital documents on your computer for school, and they may be prone to getting disorganized over time. There are a couple of simple steps you can use to stay digitally organized.

Create a folder organizational system that works for you. For example, have a master folder for each school year. Within each main “year” folder, create individual folders for each class. Within each “class” folder, you can further create more folders for “notes,” “assignments” and “projects.”

If you do a lot of online research for school, you may want to create an organizational system for your bookmarks. Create a bookmark folder for each class, within these, additional bookmark folders for each major project or area of research may be needed. Clean up your bookmarks periodically.

At Grand Canyon University, we’re committed to helping our students get the most out of their college education by providing student support programs and resources. At our Student Success Center, you’ll find tools handy for completing your coursework. Fill out the form on this page to explore our wide range of degree programs. 

1 Carter, S. B., Psy.D. (2012, March 14). Why mess causes stress: 8 reasons, 8 remedies. Psychology Today. Retrieved Sept. 20, 2023. 

Approved by the assistant vice president of GCU Marketing on Oct. 12, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.