Gearing up for another year in college can feel a lot like New Year’s Eve: There's anticipation, some nervous excitement and the knowledge that change is soon to come. Much like January 1, September is always a good time to take stock of your personal and academic life, make new goals, shed bad habits and assess new opportunities. This back-to-school mindset is fertile ground for personal growth and positive change — and there’s no reason it has to end by the time October rolls around (even if you're not a student anymore).
It can be overwhelming to set aside time for even more planning but fostering a back-to-school mentality beyond September is an opportunity to ground yourself in what you want and introduce small changes. It’s a matter of working smarter, not harder, and the sooner you can start implementing these new strategies, the better.
“Starting now enables us to have a broader perspective as taking smaller steps today, rather than panicking and trying to take ginormous leaps later, leads to less anxiety, less burnout and more fulfillment,” says Cindy Chanin, former college admissions officer and founder of Rainbow EDU Consulting & Tutoring. After all, says Chanin, brilliance doesn’t always strike like lightning but stems from micro-steps and consistent habits.
We spoke to a group of experts who weighed in on the tools you need to maintain your back-to-school mindset at any time of the year and at any time of your life.
Acknowledge the transition — and invest in your mental health
College students experience a burst of freedom, responsibility, and adjustment — enough change to unsettle even the most well-adjusted adults, says Colin Pears, PhD, the associate provost for student success at the University of New England. “Rising college students are simultaneously confronted with seismic changes on all fronts, away from the safety and security of family and friends, all while being asked to navigate new frontiers of personal, academic and professional development,” he says.
Returning students might have a slightly less turbulent landing than those setting foot on campus for the first time but even the best-prepared among us go through a period of adjustment when we're starting something new. Begin by acknowledging that every new start represents a new transition — and accept that there will be an (often bumpy) learning curve.
Then make sure you take care of yourself and prioritize your health — mental, emotional and physical — year-round. Most of us know the drill: solid sleep hygiene; nutritious meals; time for hobbies, friends and alone time; and regular physical exercise. It can be easy to underestimate the importance of these small commitments but setting a solid foundation of wellness means you’re better able to confront challenges at full capacity.
Setting aside time for year-round self-reflection will help you identify how you’re really doing and what actually matters to you. Pears recommends scheduling time on a regular basis (as you would a class or study date) and finding a distraction-free setting. This could be as simple as a weekly check-in about your school, relationships and mental health: What thoughts, emotions or incidents were significant this week? Where did I thrive and where did I struggle? Am I satisfied with where I am?
Make a realistic plan but don’t panic when it’s time to adjust
Making a plan for yourself can feel like a big task but think of it as a flexible inventory rather than a gigantic to-do list. Start your inventory with the categories that matter to you, like academics or job performance, health, relationships, finances and passions. Take stock of the resources, people and non-negotiables (like classes or a job) that are in your life. Then ask yourself what you want more of and what you want less of. Maybe it’s landing an internship, getting a better handle on your budget, or more free time to pursue your hobbies.
Then, says Chanin, it’s time to zero in on choices and behaviors that can make those goals achievable. “One of the best ways to create an action plan is to ‘reverse engineer’ the goal,” she says. “Work backward and break it down into tangible, digestible tasks that you can take to get where you are going.” After you have your action plan, seek out the support of a trusted mentor, friend or professor for feedback and add each step to your goal on your calendar so you stay accountable.
Chanin says that laying out a game plan this way can be transformative, whether you do it weekly, monthly or even just quarterly. “Find a consistent cadence and routine that works for you,” she says. “The goal is to take stock at regular intervals without it feeling cumbersome to the point where you’ll find yourself wanting to avoid it altogether.”
Remember that your plan should still be flexible enough to adapt to your changing needs. Give yourself grace when you need more time, celebrate wins big and small, and allow your priorities to change without beating yourself up.
Focus on balance, not FOMO
To meet your goals, a well-organized calendar will be your new best friend. If academics or work needs to come first, make sure it takes priority on your calendar and build out your free time from there — extracurriculars, gym time, social events, etc. Each day will likely have its own tempo but by planning ahead and knowing what you need to get done, you’ll be able to keep on top of your goals.
Realistically, with an airtight plan and priorities list, it’s possible you’ll miss out on some experiences. If you have a set time to do coursework, it may mean sometimes missing out on a spontaneous night out with friends. Remember that it’s okay to miss some things as long as you’re able to maintain a balance of fun and goals. A back-to-school mindset means you’re looking at both long-term goals and short-term experiences — and not letting the fear of missing out (FOMO) guide your life.
“The college experience varies from person to person — what is depicted on TV and in the movies isn’t real life for most students,” says Stephanie O’Dea, life coach and host of the Slow Living podcast. “Decide on purpose what events are important [like] football games or certain campus mixers and attend them. Don’t succumb to FOMO — do only the things that make you feel good.”
This year, try tapping into the back-to-school mindset every time you wake up and head to class or the office, prep for another paper or crack open a book. By practicing self-care, reflecting on and planning for your goals, and striking the right balance between free time and responsibilities, you’ll be ready for anything, any time of the year.