Getting Organized

Dawn Atkinson

Chapter Overview

This chapter offers organizational tips to help you prepare for the demands of college life. Effective students, like effective writers, frequently use techniques to stay focused on accomplishing goals; use the guidance in this chapter to devise organizational strategies in order to maintain momentum during your studies.


Develop a Plan for Your Education

When starting college, some students may not know what they want to do next or even why they want to continue their educational training. The following vignettes, adapted from Chancellor’s Office, California Community Colleges (2016, “A Diverse Body of Students”), reveal some of the uncertainties students might face when enrolling in college.

Andre: I’m not sure I want to be in college. Why am I here? Because my parents say if I don’t go to school, I will have to work full time and move into my own place. How can I possibly make a plan for my education when I don’t have a clue about what I want to do in life, let alone in college?

Sara: So I think I really messed up. I blew off my college placement tests, and now I have to take developmental writing and math classes. Are these classes going to completely derail my college career? How are they going to affect my education plan?

Desmond: I retired last year, but I knew I would be happier if I kept my mind active by taking college courses. Do I need an education plan?

Olivia: I was a straight-A student in high school, but then my mom got sick, and I had to stay home and help take care of her. I want to become a doctor and need to develop an education plan that sets me up to transfer to a university with a medical school after I finish my first two years of college.

Mija: I haven’t been in school for five years, and I’m terrified that I’ve forgotten how to be a student. On top of that, I have two small children and a husband who says he wants me to go back to work. I know I can’t make much money with just a high school diploma. I can’t waste any time. Everything I take in college has to count toward my nursing major. I need a very detailed and focused education plan.

Abdul: I’m an international student who just arrived on campus. I know I want to major in petroleum engineering, but I don’t know what courses I need to take for this degree or which courses my scholarship will cover. What is an education plan?

Maria: Since I like to write and read, I’ve signed up for two writing courses my first semester in college. I want to pursue a job that requires strong writing skills, but I’m not sure what to major in. Can someone help me connect my interests with a career focus by developing an education plan?

Jim: I’m in college on a football scholarship. To keep my scholarship and remain on the football team, I have to maintain a certain grade point average and develop an education plan that enables me to graduate in four years.

Edgar: I work full time and have a family. My employer told me I have gone as far as can in the company without a bachelor’s degree. I earned a few college credits by taking dual enrollment classes in high school, but I’m not sure they’re worth anything anymore. What education plan should I follow to complete a bachelor’s degree in business as soon as possible?

Michelle: I receive veteran’s benefits to attend college after having served in the military. To make full use of these benefits, I need to develop a careful plan for my education.


What themes do you detect in the vignettes? How do the vignettes resonate with your own experience as a college student?


Depending on what college you attend, you may have access to an advisor, counselor, mentor, or professor who can help you think about how to align career aspirations and interests with educational goals. That individual, in other words, can help you develop a plan for your education. If possible, meet with this person when you first begin college and periodically thereafter to arrange your course schedule, discuss options for majors or programs of study, and feel confident about completing the necessary requirements for graduation. The following information, adapted from Chancellor’s Office, California Community Colleges (2016, “The S.T.E.P. Process”), details further benefits of working with someone at your college to develop an education plan.

  • With a plan in place, you are less likely to spend time and money on extra courses that do not tally with your degree program.
  • An education plan can help you track progress and stay focused, but it does not have to constrain your ambitions. Many college students change their majors at least once, and you are not expected to have everything figured out on the first day of classes. A plan will simply guide your efforts in college so they directed toward an aim.
  • If you are an athlete or receive veteran’s benefits, a scholarship, or other financial aid, you may need to maintain a certain grade point average and demonstrate progress toward your educational goals to meet eligibility requirements. Your education plan should take these factors into account; the plan will help you keep academic commitments and goals fresh in your mind throughout each school year.
  • An education plan will help you anticipate sequential sequences of courses and achieve a balance of more- and less-challenging courses rather than cramming those together into one semester.
  • Careful planning minimizes the risk that you will have to extend your studies to complete a required course that is not available every semester.

In summary, when students know how their courses apply to their degrees and can see their progress in education plans, they can confidently advance toward their goals. Develop a relationship with an advisor, counselor, mentor, or professor early in your college career in order to create an education plan so that you have a structure by which to organize your studies.


Devise and Keep a Schedule 

Although an education plan can be helpful for achieving long-term goals, successful students also prepare for the short term by keeping track of assignment deadlines, quiz and exam dates, work schedules, and other responsibilities. An inexpensive paper planner or calendar can help manage all of these things—the confidence of knowing that you have a weekly, monthly, and semester-long schedule arranged can help relieve stress associated with the unknown, thereby enabling you to focus on other, more productive matters, such as conducting research for assignments, meeting with classmates for study sessions, and revising papers. Some folks like to use wall calendars for this purpose, while others prefer notebook-style planners; select an option that works best for you, and be diligent about making notations on it. Maintaining a planner is a straightforward way to hold yourself accountable for meeting responsibilities.


Organize Course Materials

Think of effective organization as a way to boost confidence in college. If you bring all the materials you need to class and have them arranged so you can find things easily, it stands to reason that you will be able to focus on lessons without worrying about other issues, such as not being able to find a highlighter, pencil, or handout in your backpack.

A three-ring binder offers a simple, inexpensive means for organizing course materials. Keep your syllabus, class schedule, lesson handouts, assignment sheets, rubrics, homework, notes, and blank paper in this binder, and bring it to class every day so you are prepared during lessons. Date handouts and notes, and file them chronologically in the binder to keep track of materials as the semester progresses. You might decide to use one small binder for each class or divide a large binder into sections to visually separate course paperwork so that you can locate it easily. Either way, the binder will keep things together in one place for easy retrieval.

In addition to the binder, bring your textbook to class every day. Many instructors refer to the textbook or ask students to complete activities using the book during lessons, and it is your responsibility to be prepared for these situations. Plus, you might need to access a section of the textbook during class to make notes, so it is best to have the book handy at all times.

A high-capacity flash drive can serve as a small, portable tool for filing written documents. Create a different file for each course and sub-files for each assignment so that you can keep class materials and assignment drafts together. A flash drive will easily fit in a backpack or other school bag and can be carried around for easy document retrieval.

Beyond confidence boosting, staying organized can help you maintain focus when working on research and writing projects. If you have a clear system of organization for notes and source materials, you are much less likely to confuse source writers’ thoughts, language, and content with your own and thereby avoid academic integrity violations.


Activity: Think Further about Organization and Other College Success Strategies

First, decide how you want to use the guidance provided in this chapter, and discuss your ideas with a classmate.

Now listen to the audio podcast episode “How to Do Well (and Be Happy!) in College” (Nadworny, 2019), which aired on National Public Radio. The podcast can be found at While listening, take notes on the following questions.

  1. What are the six takeaways mentioned in the podcast?


  1. What are some tips given for taking notes?


  1. How many times do scientists suggest people should try to retrieve a correct answer in order to learn it? Why is this the case?


  1. What is the Pomodoro technique?


  1. What are the effects of sleep deprivation?


Having listened carefully to the podcast, now practice the two things technique by answering the following questions. Be prepared to share your responses with the class.

  1. What are two things you learned from the podcast?


  1. What are two things mentioned in the podcast that you want to remember?


Homework: Discuss Organization and Other College Success Strategies in a Letter

Read the following documents.

  • “Getting the Most from Lectures” (The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2020) at

  • “Knowing How to Study Can Mean the Difference between Success and Failure for First-Generation Students. Here’s How Instructors Can Help” (McMurtrie, 2019) at

Afterwards, write a block-formatted letter to your instructor in which you address the following questions:

  • What organization and other college success strategies will you use to maintain momentum during your studies?
  • How do these differ from your current study strategies?
  • How will you use the guidance provided in the readings, this chapter, and the podcast?

Remember to cite and reference any outside sources of information you use. Consult the “Organizing Paragraphs” and “Writing Print Correspondence” chapters of this textbook for help with writing and formatting your letter.

After you have drafted your letter, use the following multipage handout, produced by the Writing and Communication Centre, University of Waterloo (n.d.), to ensure your text is clear and concise.


Writing Concisely

Concise writing uses the fewest words necessary to accurately convey an idea and should be the goal of every university-level writer. Writing concisely is challenging because it requires significant attention to detail regarding word choice, sentence structure, and organization. When achieved, concision increases a text’s overall clarity and persuasiveness. This handout outlines a number of strategies you can use to achieve concision in your writing.

Helpful tip: Early in the writing process, many writers need to focus more on getting their ideas down. You do not need to be overly concerned with reducing wordiness while drafting, but you should pay careful attention to the concision of your work while revising and proofreading.

Concision strategies

Cut meaningless words and phrases

One contributing factor to wordy writing is the addition of unnecessary words, phrases, and ideas. Here are some things to avoid:

  1. Meaningless words and phrases

    Avoid cliches, idioms, and colloquial (overly conversational) expressions.

    Wordy: Rather than taking the bull by the horns, she was quiet as a church mouse.
    She avoided confrontation by remaining silent.

    Wordy: The bridge is unstable due to the fact that it was constructed with inferior material.
    Concise: The bridge is unstable because it was constructed with inferior material.

  2. Filler words, all-purpose words, and unnecessary qualifiers

    Wordy: All things considered, climate change should be given more attention, in my opinion.
    Concise: Climate change should be given more attention.

    Wordy: Last but not least, researchers found several connections between the subjects.
    Concise: Lastly, researchers found several connections between the subjects.

  3. Vague words

    Use specific wording whenever possible.

    Wordy: Engineering is comprised of many aspects.
    Concise: Engineering can be subdivided into many disciplines.

    Wordy: Historical context is an important factor to consider while writing literature reviews.
    Concise: Historical context must be considered while writing literature reviews.

Cut unnecessary repetition

You should avoid repetition in your writing because it disrupts the flow of your paper and can bore your reader. Here are some things to avoid:

  1. Repetition of the same word within a sentence when used in two different ways

    Wordy: He received a wound from the clock while he wound it.
    Concise: The clock injured him while he wound it.

    Wordy: He was right to assume his subjects are right-handed.
    Concise: He correctly assumed his subjects are right-handed.

  2. Redundancy of ideas

    Wordy: Subjects with little technical training tend to perform poorly due to their lack of technical experience.
    Concise: Some subjects’ lack of technical experience resulted in poor performance.

    Wordy: The reason she moved is because she was offered a better position.
    Concise: She moved because she was offered a better position.

  3. Words and phrases that express an idea that another word implies

    Wordy: As already stated above, beluga whales use sounds and echolocation to hunt in dark or turbid waters.
    Concise: As stated above, beluga whales use sounds and echolocation to hunt in dark or turbid waters.

Simplify sentences

Where possible, you should ensure that your sentences are as clear and direct as possible. If you can eliminate words or phrases in your writing without disrupting or diluting meaning, you should consider doing so. Here are some things to avoid:

  1. Expletive constructions (it is / there is / there are)

    Wordy: It is challenging to read Shakespeare.
    Concise: Reading Shakespeare is challenging.

    Wordy: It is significant that a study of ethics complaints against social workers found that half of these involved violation of professional boundaries.
    Concise: Significantly, a study of ethics complaints against social workers found that half of these involved violations of professional boundaries.

  2. Verb and noun clusters

    Replace verb and noun clusters with a single verb.

    Wordy: The researchers conducted an investigation of the effects of caffeine on students writing timed examinations.
    Concise: The researchers investigated the effects of caffeine on students writing timed examinations.

  3. Unnecessary helping verbs

    Wordy: The teacher could understand why her students failed the test.
    Concise: The teacher understood why her students failed the test.

  4. Short but related sentences

    Join short, related sentences with appropriate punctuation, such as a comma (or several commas).

    Wordy: Many of his fabrications lay in plain sight for years. One of them was published in the respectable journal Science.
    Concise: Many of his fabrications, one of them published in the respected journal Science, lay in plain sight for years.

  5. Passive voice

    Where possible and appropriate, use active voice in writing.

    Wordy: The reaction was catalyzed by the introduction of light.
    Concise: The introduction of light catalyzed the reaction.

Helpful tip: There are some kinds of writing where passive voice may be appropriate. See our handout on passive and active voice for more information.

Rewrite jargon

Jargon is field- or discipline-specific language that your reader may not understand. In deciding whether or not to keep specific terminology, consider your audience and their level of knowledge about your topic. Here are some things to avoid:

  1. Convoluted / complex language

    Use plain language whenever possible.

    Wordy: The author’s expostulation impugns litterateurs of yore.
    Concise: The author’s argument disproves earlier scholars.

  2. Technical terminology without definition or explanation

    When introducing technical terminology, it is generally appropriate to explain it the first time it is mentioned.

    Wordy: The photographer fixed the negative.
    Concise: The photographer removed unexposed silver from the negative in a solution of chemicals, thereby “fixing” the image.

Helpful tip: Although the previous example’s wordy version is shorter than the concise one, concision is as much about clarity as it is about length. Make sure that you are meeting your reader’s needs in both content and structure.



Chancellor’s Office, California Community Colleges. (2016). Educational planning (text version). License: CC-BY.

The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (2020). Getting the most from lectures. License: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0.

McMurtrie, B. (2019, July 11). Knowing how to study can mean the difference between success and failure for first-generation students. Here’s how instructors can help. The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Mean/246644

Nadworny, E. (Host). (2019, September 4). How to do well (and be happy!) in college [Audio podcast episode]. In How to succeed at college. National Public Radio.

Writing and Communication Centre, University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Writing concisely. License: CC-BY-SA 4.0.



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