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How I Survived My First Semester of Grad School

Marie-Antonette Bone / Find the College Right for You! »

Going to grad school while working can take up a lot of time. Once you clock out of work, you’re logging into your online courses or heading to your campus. Although it sounds like you have anything but free time, rest assured that it is possible to make time for yourself while excelling in work and academics. Completing grad school while working full-time can seem like a tough balancing act, but can be done successfully with proper planning.

Before your Semester Begins

Meet With Your Academic Advisor

A great first step is meeting your academic advisor. Plan to meet with your advisor at least at the start and end of the semester. These checkpoints help make sure that you’re on the right track with your degree plan and give you opportunities to ask any questions you may have about courses, your degree plan, or any other concerns.

Your advisor can usually answer a majority, if not all, of your questions. All they need to know is what you need help with! Especially on your first visit, it’s important to have questions prepared beforehand. Here are a few of the questions I asked to help prepare myself for my first semester:

  • What are the courses required to to complete my degree?
  • In your opinion, which courses are more challenging for students?
  • What courses would you recommend taking together?
  •  What courses are available online? Hybrid? On-campus?
  • How are the MBA courses formatted during the summer; are the sessions 5, 8, or 10 weeks?
  • What is my expected graduation date in accordance to my plan?
  • How many hours a semester do you recommend taking?

Although this may seem like a lot of questions, it is good to know what you’re getting yourself into beforehand. Gather as much  information about your courses as you can so you can develop a plan for your whole academic career. For example, although course schedules are released at the end of the prior semester, there are patterns that schools may follow. Some courses may only be available in specific semesters or only in a certain format. Knowing beforehand can make it easier to gauge what your course load might look like and make you feel more prepared for the future. 

Additionally, if you know how challenging or time consuming your courses may be, you can decide how many courses you want to take per semester. If you’re balancing a full-time job while returning to school, you won’t have as much time to focus on studying and completing assignments like traditional students. Consider the amount of time you do have available to make a realistic schedule. As I planned my schedule, I made sure to avoid putting the more challenging courses in the same semester.

Find Important Dates and Deadlines

Along with asking your advisor about dates that you should know about, another great resource is the academic calendar. Colleges usually have this available on their school website. The academic calendar shows all of the school’s important dates such as add/drop periods, course schedule releases, registration dates, and the first and last day of school. Before my semester started, I made sure to look at the calendar and write down all of the dates that are relevant to my academic career. After all, you wouldn’t want to miss a registration deadline and push back your graduation date!


During the Semester

Read the Syllabus

As soon as your courses are available on Blackboard or Canvas, you want to make sure to read the course syllabus. It will have everything you need to know about the class such as the grading structure, assignment deadlines, and contact information. You want to mentally prepare yourself before you dive into the assignments. Learn what you will gain from the curriculum and what the course expectations are. 

Keep Track of Deadlines

In my experience, one of the most crucial steps to having a successful semester is writing down all assignment deadlines. Managing your time as a grad student is crucial. Yes, even for online courses!  Staying organized with a planner or calendar can keep you on track and successful. Throughout the semester, I always made sure to see what assignments are due the next week. This helped me plan how much time per day I should allocate to assignments and studying. This is especially important if your courses have different types of assignments.  I recommend planning ahead so you don’t have to worry about completing any assignments in a rush. Unlike my undergraduate years where I could pull all-nighters to make sure I ace an exam, I need to be more conscious of my time and energy. After all, who wants to go to work running on only an hour of sleep?

Schedule in Rest Days

Rest days aren’t only for the gym! Planning your study schedule ahead of time can also help you leave some time for relieving stress as well. I always made sure to allocate one day of the week to get my mind off of the books. As an adult learner, you have a lot of responsibilities on your plate. Make sure to leave time to take care of your mental health. You definitely deserve it!


After the Semester

Send an Email to Your Professors

One final piece of advice that I would like to recommend is sending a thank you email to your professors. One thing I learned after my undergraduate studies and regret not doing is keeping in contact with my professors. Your professors are a great way to network and they can also become a mentor or form of guidance. If you ever need letters of recommendation for a job or doctoral program, it is also important to make your presence known. Professors will not be able to craft a well written letter or support you if they don’t remember you. 

Utilizing these strategies at the beginning of your academic career can help form them into habits that will carry on to the following semesters. Although it may seem like a lot of preparation, it actually makes the semester feel a lot less overwhelming! 

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