College students quickly come to realize that all that college requires of them, including papers, assignments, readings, and lab work—not to mention the family, job, and social responsibilities they must continue to uphold—make it especially important to plan and use their time well. If they were good students in high school, they’ll surely find that college offers new challenges that place new demands on each day; or, if they’ve been away from school for quite some time, they’ll know that adding college to their list of commitments will certainly change the way they balance and use their time.

In our Spring 2015 Student Engagement Insights survey, we asked college students a number of questions about their time-management habits. Nearly three thousand students responded.

In today’s post, we’ll focus on their thoughts regarding the differences between the time-management skills they used in high school, and those they use now that they’re in college.

Would most college students say that they’ve needed to pick up new time-management skills… or would most say their habits aren’t all that different? Let’s take a look at what they told us.

Is it really more difficult to manage your time in college?

We asked students: “Do you struggle more with time management now than you did in high school?” Somewhat surprisingly, the votes were split almost in half, with a slight majority saying that yes, they do find that it’s harder to manage their time in college.

Do students struggle with time management more in high school or college? Cengage Learning

This number is one you may want to bear in mind as you start your next semester. Though of course the responsibility for improving time-management habits rests on the students’ own shoulders, you may wish to direct them to resources that will help them improve their habits (and thus improve their chances for success in your course). Refer to them on your syllabus, or include a section on “study tips” within your course website or LMS. Need a place to start? Review and share these tips for time management in college, as provided by Phi Theta Kappa students).

Students’ willingness to adopt new (and improved) time-management skills in college

Although a large percentage of students said that they don’t struggle more in college with time management, an overwhelming majority (88%) said that they have changed their methods of managing their time, underlining that college is, indeed, a very different environment than high school. Plenty of college students find that the experience is not necessarily more difficult, it’s just different.

Students - have you changed your methods of time management now that you're in college? - Cengage Learning

Among our survey respondents, we found many students who did not transition directly from high school into college. However, their life experience prepared them to manage their time effectively while they’re in school. In their own words:

  • “Managing time for college has been more complicated than when I attended high school, but now that I am older and have more life experience, I am better able to manage my time.”
  • “In high school I didn’t care about the outcome. Military service changed that.”
  • “I am more mature and my life experiences have taught me well.”
  • “…[M]y boys are both in school so I must finish my assignments first so I can be available to help them.”
  • “I didn’t have a kid [in high school] and my time was my own; now I share my time, but I am managing to make it work.”
  • “I did not have a child in high school. I did not have a job either. It hard to juggle different situations. But it is possible! Although I had more time in high school to study and work on homework. I feel like I can manage my time better now. I do my homework when my 7 year old is. And read the chapters and do homework as I watch her play at the park or take her to McDonald’s. When there’s a will there is a way!”


Factors that have an effect on time management in college: Students weigh in

To better understand why students feel time management is more difficult (or, in fact, easier) in college than in high school, we also asked them: “What differences have you felt between managing time in high school and college?” We noticed several trends in their responses.

Though we received the full gamut of responses—from “it’s easier in college,” to “nothing, it’s the same” to “managing my time in college is ten times more difficult”—for the most part, students noted that college has pushed them to improve their time-management skills. Their responses can give you insight into their frames of mind and the particular challenges many students face in the college setting.

Many students have more responsibilities to balance and manage. In high school, students generally aren’t holding down full-time jobs, caring for children or aging parents, and taking on roles and responsibilities within their communities. Now, as many students noted, they have to weigh and take into consideration other needs and expectations. As one student put it: “It takes more work balancing because you have more on your plate and sometimes more or less time to do it.”

And as many others said, family needs often take priority. Common responses in this vein included “I was only worried about me then, now I have a family and have to help manage all our time,” “I have a family and job now. Finding time to study can be a challenge,” and “Studying with children at home has made it more difficult.”

College requires more self-motivation and self-discipline. Several respondents echoed one student’s words: “College is all on you; there’s no one to push you.” And, as another wrote: “College is easier to manage, but it’s also easier to forget because no one is going to constantly remind you and tell you what you need to be doing.” These students (and many like them) recognize that they have to take ownership of their responsibilities in order to succeed.

However, for some students, this has made time management less difficult: “Strangely, it has been easier in college, probably due to the feeling of independence and taking full responsibility rather than being dependent on parents/teachers to motivate you.”

The coursework is more challenging and requires more attention. This may seem rather obvious (especially to college instructors), but it does make a difference in terms of the time and effort students put into their studies.

Indeed, the serious academic rigor of college coursework produces a recognition that students must invest more time in their classes. One student wrote: “For college, I cannot forgo studying and just ‘wing’ it when it comes to tests and assignments.” Several others wrote that in college, “it’s not that easy to catch up” if you fall behind (or slack off) in your studies.

You have more freedom… and you have to use that freedom wisely. For the majority of high-school students, time follows a fairly strict schedule, and your responsibilities are laid out for you. However, in college, you can determine your own schedule, and (for the most part) no one is managing your time for you. This leads to an increased level of freedom and free time. But, as one student succinctly said: “More freedom requires more self-discipline.” Students have to be willing to use the freedom to work towards their longer-term goals and priorities.

College represents a financial investment that deserves to be matched by a serious investment in one’s time. The fact that students pay tuition causes many of them to place greater value on the learning experience. As students said:

  • “I’m paying… so my time means more now than it did in high school.”
  • “College requires you to keep track of your schedule and it means more since I’m paying for it.”
  • “High school was easy enough for me that I did what I did and it was good enough. I still a B+ average; in college, I have to pay for these classes, I’m in them because I WANT TO BE HERE. I love to learn.”

Life skills learned outside the school setting make a difference. Of course, college is not the only place where one can learn effective time-management skills. As we noted above, many “non-traditional” students talked about the ways that their work experience and their family responsibilities have helped them manage their time successfully. As one wise student said: “I am older and know that managing time is the only way to get ahead and be prompt with dealing with life. You have to be flexible and know that even with time management there are times that things could happen and you just need to be prepared.”

Several students who have previously served (or currently serve) in the military mentioned that this experience, in particular, trained them to manage time well. One student told us: “…after six years in the Navy, I learned to manage my time much better. These skills helped me transition easily into college.” And as another said: “The military helped reinforce the importance of prioritizing.”

Reflecting on these results, we’re pleased to see that students see the correlation between time management and college success. But what about students who are new to college, or who are beginning to recognize their need for improved time-management and study habits? How can you help them out?

Three quick time-management tips for college students

Do you know some students who could use a bit of a time-management “refresher” before they head back to school? Share these three suggestions with them:

1. Plan your time carefully—but with a bit of flexibility. Of course, when you’re creating a schedule for yourself, you’ll make note of the time you need to attend class, study, and write your papers. You should also account for other important parts of your day, including work, special family times, appointments, and time to hit the gym. Be sure to write down all relevant activities; don’t neglect to note something because you think you’ll remember. Having each event written in (or typed into) your planner serves as a visual reminder of all your responsibilities for the forthcoming day and week.

You don’t need to be tedious about it (“7:00, eat breakfast; 7:15: brush teeth; 7:18, get dressed”), just realistic. For example: allow yourself enough time in the morning to get ready; take commute time into account when you’re considering the time you devote to school and work. And don’t overschedule yourself; give yourself some “buffer time” throughout the day (to account for those inevitable last-minute appointments, mishaps, and emergencies,), and leave time for rest, relaxation, and fun.

2. Take a workshop from your school. Most colleges offer workshops and seminars on a variety of college-success-oriented topics, including time management and goal setting. If yours doesn’t, find other books, videos, and articles that will give you guidance and ideas about making the most of your time. (To get started, you can read our previous posts on time management.)

3. Use a planner. It doesn’t have to be a fancy planner complete with stickers, tabs, and a leather cover. However, you should use something that includes the types of sheets you want to use (e.g., sheets for both daily and monthly calendars, or a notes section), a design and layout that you like, and a size that allows you to take it along with you throughout the day. You might find that a spiral-bound notebook works best for you; or, you could try out one of the numerous time-management apps available for mobile phones. But, no matter which format you choose, it has to be used consistently… a planner won’t help you if you never use it!

Looking for a useful planner designed especially for college students? Try out Cengage Learning’s 2015-2016 College Success Planner, which includes tools and tips that will help you plan your schedule effectively, while also preparing yourself for success in college (and life).


What do you suggest to students who want to improve their time-management skills? Share your thoughts in the comments.