How to Get a College Degree With Little Effort

Four Parts:Planning Your Course ScheduleManaging Your Time WiselyStudying EffectivelyTaking Tests Successfully

Earning a college degree will always require some work on your part. However, there are ways that you can make the process of earning a college degree easier on yourself and on your schedule. By managing your time wisely, studying efficiently, and knowing what is expected of you, you can earn your degree and learn a great deal about various subjects -- all while still having fun.

Part 1
Planning Your Course Schedule

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    Find courses that interest you. The more fascinated you are by your course of study, the easier it will be to learn the material. Think carefully about your passions and interests, and try to find courses to match.[1]
    • If you are not sure what kinds of courses you like, consider taking a career aptitude test or a skills aptitude test. These might help you find where your strengths lie. If you're still in high school, your guidance counselor probably has one you can take. There are also many available for free on the internet.[2]
    • You can also visit your school's Career Center if you do not have a clear idea of what you want to get out of your college experience.[3] A career counselor can help you find a clear direction to help you organize your workload in the most efficient way.
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    Give yourself time to experiment with different subjects. Having a balanced course load will help you manage your time effectively and not get overwhelmed.[4] For example, you might love reading Victorian novels. However, taking 4 Victorian novel courses will leave you drained and exhausted. Find a balance between new subjects and old favorites.
    • Many colleges and universities have distribution requirements, which require that students have experience in multiple subjects.[5] Use these distribution requirements to your advantage in order to explore new topics and to avoid exhaustion in your major.
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    Take some "fun" courses. You will probably have to take some courses that you may not be all that interested in, such as chemistry or English. However, many colleges and universities also have a variety of unusual courses, from jewelry-making to culinary arts, that may fulfill elective hours. Schedule time for at least one fun course per semester.
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    Read the college handbook carefully. Many colleges and universities have policies about student conduct, behavior, and academic requirements.[6] These policies should be printed in your student handbook. It is essential that you know and understand these policies so that you can graduate in the most efficient manner. Policies to pay attention to include:
    • How many courses do you have to take each semester to qualify as a full-time student or as a part-time student?
    • How many courses do you need to take in order to graduate from the university?
    • In which subjects do you need to take courses?
    • What are the course requirements for your major?
    • What is the minimum grade point average (or GPA) you need in order to graduate from the university?
    • What is the minimum GPA you need in order for a course in your major to count? Some majors might require that certain courses be passed with a C-average or better: merely passing a class might not count toward your major. Check this policy carefully.
    • Are there any attendance requirements or residency requirements?
    • What are the rules for academic honesty? Be sure that you adhere to these policies carefully to avoid failing classes or other negative consequences such as expulsion.
    • What does proper student conduct entail? You might have requirements for your personal behavior in addition to academic requirements. Make sure that you behave according to all honor codes and policies as outlined in your handbook.
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    Study for placement tests. Some colleges will provide students with placement tests in certain subjects. These placement tests will allow you to be placed in a course of the proper difficulty level. In certain cases, a successful placement exam might even mean that you can skip over required courses. Be sure that you study carefully for all of your placement exams: a few hours of work now can save you many hours of work down the road.[7]
    • Common subjects that have placement exams include: foreign languages, rhetoric and composition, and mathematics.
    • Many high schools offer special courses called Advanced Placement (or AP) courses. If you do well on AP exams, you might receive college credits. There are currently 3,600 American colleges and universities that permit AP credits. If you are in high school, consider looking into AP course options to help cut down on the credits you need to take in college.[8]
    • The CLEP (College Level Exam Placement) program, run through the same organization as the AP exam, also allows you to earn college credit for subjects by taking exams.[9] They offer 33 exams in five subject areas: History & Social Sciences, Composition & Literature, Science & Mathematics, Business, and World Languages.[10] Check with your academic adviser to see how much CLEP credit you can apply toward your degree. You may be able to test out of many core subjects with these exams.
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    Examine the course catalog closely. A college course catalog will usually include course names, topics, and times. Many course catalogs will also clarify how each course will meet either a university or a major requirement. Highlight courses that seem interesting to you, that are run by professors you like, and that fulfill important requirements.
    • Many colleges and universities now offer online syllabus banks as well, where you can examine syllabi from previous semesters. Have a look at what the syllabus for your chosen courses looks like.
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    Prioritize courses that will fulfill more than one requirement. Some college courses will be able to double-count toward graduation. For example, a statistics course might be necessary to your major and might also fulfill a distribution requirement at your university. Be on the lookout for courses that can pull double duty, and prioritize those in your schedule. It might cut down on the total number of courses you need in order to graduate, saving you time and energy.
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    Put together a tentative course schedule. Depending on your college schedule, you might need to take anywhere between 2 and 5 courses in a given term. 4 courses (12 semester hours) is a fairly common full-time load for US colleges and universities. Fill out a tentative schedule with the relevant number of courses. Take a look at your tentative weekly schedule to see if it seems reasonable. Ask yourself:
    • Am I making reasonable progress toward graduation?
    • Am I making reasonable progress toward my major?
    • Are there any conflicts between courses? Remember to take discussion sections, lab meetings, or studio time in mind.
    • Do I have any days that are unreasonably busy? Having class from 8 AM to 8 PM could leave you worn out for a couple of days. However, if you are a commuter student, you might want to compress your schedule into 2-3 days of the week.
    • Will I have time to work at my job and engage in my favorite activities?
    • Am I taking too many difficult courses in one term? If you can, have a balanced mix of "easy" basic courses and the more advanced, difficult courses in your major.
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    Talk to an academic adviser about your tentative course schedule. Your university might assign you an academic adviser. Or your college might have an academic counseling center. Run your tentative schedule past a knowledgeable adviser. Your adviser will be a significant resource to ensure that you are fulfilling your requirements.
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    Attend the first week of classes with an open mind. Many universities have an "Add/Drop" period early in the semester. This means that you can change your class schedule without penalty, even after classes have started. Before committing fully to your schedule, attend each class at least once. Perhaps you will discover that the class is more difficult than you expected and you will want to switch to an easier one.
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    Look for professors who fit your learning style. The person teaching a course is just as important as its topic. Some professors like to lecture; others like to run discussions. Some professors focus on exams; others prefer assigning large projects outside of class.[11] Make sure your professor runs her class in a way that fits with your own learning style.
    • Don't discount a course just because it's different than what you're used to, however. For example, you may not usually enjoy large lectures, but one particular professor could be an amazing lecturer whose classes become your favorite. Don't be afraid to try new things!
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    Read the course syllabi carefully. A syllabus is a contract between a student and a professor. It will lay out the course requirements and expectations, and it should provide a schedule of important assignments.[12] The syllabus will clue you in about the course's difficulty and will also allow you to know in advance how you should spend your time.
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    Make a schedule of lectures, exams, and important due-dates. On a calendar, combine the information from all the syllabi for all your courses. Write down each exam, each major project, and each major essay assignment in the proper date. Ask yourself if there are any weeks that will be too difficult for you. For example, perhaps three of your classes have major projects all due on the same date. This might be too much work for you to handle.
    • Adjust your course schedule as necessary. Make sure you adhere to your school's add/drop policies. Ask an adviser if you are unsure about whether you can add or drop a class.
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    Take online classes if possible. Many universities are offering online courses and blended courses (which are both online and offline). Online courses can be easier to fit in a busy schedule and can sometimes provide more flexibility. Look into the possibility of taking an online course at your university.[13]
    • If your university accepts transfer credits, you might also be able to take an online course from another school and then get your credits counted at your own university. Make sure you get permission from your adviser in advance, however.
    • You may also be able to take some courses at a community college and transfer them to a four-year college later. Community college courses are sometimes (but not always) less difficult than their four-year counterparts, and they're often much cheaper.

Part 2
Managing Your Time Wisely

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    Read the syllabus carefully. The syllabus is the single most important document you will receive in college. It will tell you everything you need to know about what your courses will ask of you for the entire semester.[14]
    • If a key piece of information--such as the date of an exam--is not included on the syllabus, ask your professor or teaching assistant.
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    Enter important times and dates on your calendar. In order to manage time wisely you will have to know in advance what is required of you. Create a Master Calendar with every important date and time. Consult your Master Calendar whenever you add an event to your schedule to make sure there aren't any conflicts. Use the Master Calendar to figure out in advance which weeks are your "easy weeks" when you can do more fun things and which weeks are your "hard weeks" when you have to buckle down and study.
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    Make a to-do list each week. In addition to your semester-length Master Calendar, keep a to-do list each week.[15] This will include many of your smaller assignments such as readings or short homework assignments. Keep on task and be efficient in order to save yourself effort later on.
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    Study the harder topics earlier in the day. Then move on to easier subjects.[16] This is the most efficient and easy way to study effectively. Accomplish harder tasks before you move on to the easy ones. You will work more quickly and will retain information more easily.
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    Know when you are most effective each day. Plan your study times during your peak hours.[17] If you need a nap in the afternoon, do not schedule homework for the afternoon hours. Let your body's natural rhythm determine how and when you schedule your homework.
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    Avoid procrastination. Procrastination can seem fun sometimes, but it can also lead to more stress and less free time in the long run.[18] It is better to get tasks done quickly and take breaks after. You will feel calmer and more relaxed and will be able to accomplish more.
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    Reward yourself when you accomplish a task. Whenever you finish a major project or assignment, give yourself a treat. This will keep you energized and motivated, and it will make the process of earning a degree seem like less work.[19]
    • When you finish reading a textbook chapter, let yourself take a quick walk around the block.
    • When you write 2 pages of your essay, take a snack break.
    • When you study for an exam for 2 hours, meet a friend for coffee.
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    Break large tasks into smaller ones. Many college projects can seem large and overwhelming. For example, lengthy research essays, big exams, and long projects are routine in college courses. However, tell yourself that each large task is composed of smaller, more manageable tasks.[20]
    • A twenty-page essay might be five four-page sections.
    • Reading an 800-page novel can be accomplished in several 100-page chunks.
    • A long research project can be divided into several parts: reviewing literature, gathering data, analyzing data, and writing up results.
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    Aim for "good" instead of "perfect." Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Remember that your goal is to get through college and earn a degree: your goal is not necessarily to get straight A's or finish summa cum laude. If you are passing your classes and making progress toward your major, you will earn your degree.[21]
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    Take breaks every 30-40 minutes. People learn better when they are able to take short breaks. Breaks also make studying more fun and pleasant.[22] Don't become a monk: let yourself take rests. You will be more efficient in the long run.
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    Schedule time for fun activities. College often provides opportunities for recreation and social activities in addition to academic work. If extracurriculars or activities are important to you, make time for them and put them into your schedule. Whether you participate in an intramural sport or participate in a political organization, place important dates in your calendar along with your projects and assignments.[23]
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    Maintain healthy habits. Don't let studying get in the way of your sleep or your meals. Having good rest and eating healthy meals will help you keep your energy up and retain information more effectively.[24] Exercise can also help you be more energized and optimistic, which will help major tasks seem less daunting.
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    Get help from university resources. If you find yourself struggling, talk to your university about resources than can help you. Many schools have a team of tutors, counselors, advisers, and study experts who can help you get back on your feet.[25] Depending on your school, you might consult your:
    • Academic adviser.
    • Residential Adviser (aka RA) or Dormitory Leader.
    • Teaching assistant.
    • Counselor or therapist.
    • Study center.
    • Librarian.
    • Tutoring Center or Writing Center.

Part 3
Studying Effectively

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    Study in well-lit, comfortable, quiet spaces. This will allow you to retain information and focus better. This will lead to shorter studying times in the long run. It is better to study effectively for 45 minutes than to study in a distracted way for 2 hours.[26] Your ideal study space might be in a library, academic building, dorm hall, or coffee shop: just make sure that you can actually accomplish necessary tasks there.
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    Form a study group. A study group can help you focus. You can also delegate activities across a study group to help ease everyone's load. For example, each member of the group might be responsible for teaching each other member about a particular topic. Studying will be made more fun and also more efficient with the help of a group.[27]
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    Take good lecture notes. Taking good lecture notes is an important basis for studying and reviewing. You can take lecture notes on a computer or in a paper notebook. Taking good lecture notes involves several steps:
    • Be prepared for lecture. Look over the relevant readings and handouts to make sure that you understand what the lecture is discussing.
    • Sit where you can hear the lecture and see the chalkboard or screen.
    • Have your materials ready. Make sure your laptop's battery is charged or that you have enough pens and paper.
    • Listen actively in lecture. Stay awake and alert and avoid distractions.[28]
    • Digest information in lecture; do not transcribe it. Translate the lecture into your own words, using an organizational structure that makes the most sense to you.[29] This will help you remember lecture material better: transcribing a lecture word-for-word will not help you remember it.
    • Be sure that you leave space in your notes to fill in extra information later. You might miss a fact from lecture or you might want to add more detail later. Give yourself room to edit and fill in gaps.
    • Ask questions. Write down any parts of lecture that confused you. Ask the professor, a teaching assistant, or a colleague about these confusing sections.[30]
    • Borrow lecture notes if you absolutely could not attend class. Do not just read them: translate them into your own words so that you remember them later.[31]
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    Write down citation information immediately. Whenever you encounter a page number, chapter number, or reference, jot it down. It is very difficult to remember citation information on your own. And it is very time-consuming to look up information when you do not have the specific page number. Taking a few seconds to jot down citation information will save you a great deal of time later.[32]
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    Read the textbooks as instructed by the professor. Pay particular attention to key terms, important dates, and important concepts. If you own the book, use a pen or a highlighter to call your attention to these key terms: they will help you review for exams more efficiently.
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    Back up all your work. Make sure that you save your work and back it up in more than one location. Use an external hard drive, the cloud, or physical hard copies to back up your assignments and notes.[33] Doing college-level work is difficult: doing the same college-level work twice because you lost the first copy is much more difficult.
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    Find a tutor. Many colleges and universities provide a team of tutors to help students study effectively for their classes. If you find yourself struggling, consider asking your university to help you find a good tutor. They can teach you shortcuts and help you organize your time as you digest material.[34]

Part 4
Taking Tests Successfully

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    Get information about the test. Each test is different. In order for you to study efficiently for an exam, you will have to know what you will be tested on. Ask your professor or teaching assistant about the test's length, the concepts it will cover, relevant reading materials, and skills that it will test.[35] Tests might ask you to solve problems, interpret facts, recall and explain facts, or apply theories to other kinds of problems and questions.[36] Knowing the test in advance will help you tailor your study time.
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    Look over all your study materials quickly once. Before you go in depth on any study topic, do a quick glance-through of everything the test will cover.[37] This way you will be sure to have seen everything once, even if you run out of time later. Make sure you have a general notion of everything the exam will cover.
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    Spend extra time on materials you never read or notes for lectures you did not attend. After you do your quick glance-through, turn to the material that is brand-new to you.[38] Whether you skipped a reading assignment or missed a lecture, you will have to review this material more closely to make sure that you pass the exam.
    • Don't get too caught up in making up this material, however. Skim the readings--do not read them in depth. Skim the major points of a friend's lecture notes--do not worry about nitpicky details.
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    Use active learning strategies to review material. Rather than just reading your notes, build some activities into your study habits. For example, highlight your notes in different colors; quiz yourself on flashcards; or talk about important concepts with a study buddy.[39] Active learning strategies will help you retain information more efficiently.
    • Study buddies are a particularly great way to build activities into your study habits. They can also be a great resource if you are confused by a particular topic.[40]
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    Test yourself before the exam. If you can, build yourself a "pre-test" that you can use to quiz yourself.[41] This will help you be less anxious during the actual exam, and it will allow you to determine where your gaps might be.
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    Use mnemonic devices to help you remember difficult concepts. Some tests require that you memorize certain rules, concepts, or dates. Mnemonic devices can help you memorize these facts.[42] Come up with a song or jingle that you cannot forget. Acronyms can also help you remember the correct order of certain processes or events.
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    Be calm and comfortable during the exam. Arrive to the exam hall a few minutes early. Give yourself time to use the restroom, and make sure that you have eaten a nutritious meal that morning. If possible, have a bottle of water with you in the exam in case you develop a cough or a nagging thirst. Dress comfortably, and consider bringing an extra sweatshirt with you: exam halls can sometimes be very cold.[43]
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    Write important rules and facts you memorized in the margins. If you have trouble keeping certain rules or processes in your mind, review them immediately before the exam. In the first few minutes of the test, perform a "brain-dump" where you write down these important facts in the margins, when they are still fresh in your mind.[44]
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    Budget your time. Before you launch into the test, take a look at the entire exam. How long should you spend on each section? Which sections will need the most time? Make a schedule for yourself that will allow you to complete the entire exam. Stick to this schedule, and keep careful track of your time.[45]
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    Read exam instructions carefully. Don't try to save time by skipping the instructions: you might find yourself unfortunately surprised. Pay attention to the exam instructions and follow them closely.[46] Ask yourself what the exam wants you to accomplish in each section.
    • Consider asking the exam proctor if instructions are unclear.
    • Do not over-analyze instructions or do more than the exam asks for. Just follow the directions.
    • Pay attention to the suggested lengths of essay questions and to the suggested timeframes for exam sections.
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    Make sure that Scantron numbers line up. Many exams are taken on Scantron sheets, where you fill in the bubble of the correct answer on a separate sheet of paper. Make sure that you fill out the Scantron sheet correctly: it can be easy to fill in the wrong line, so always make sure your Scantron numbers match the numbers on the exam itself.[47]
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    Highlight important words on exams. As you skim through the exam, underline or highlight key words. These words might be special instructions or they might be key terms in passages. Your notes to yourself will help you keep on track, follow directions, and pay attention to the most important concepts.[48]
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    Answer easy exam questions first. Get comfortable by answering the questions you are most confident about first. Try to get through the easiest sections first. This is an easy way to gain points on an exam in an efficient way.[49]
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    Pay close attention to high-value problems and questions. Some sections of an exam are worth more than others.[50] Pay more attention to these high-value exam questions, since they will give you more bang for your buck. If you do a high-value problem correctly, it is more likely that you will pass the exam, even if you have errors in other sections.
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    Use your returned exam as guidance for future study. Old exams are a great resource to help you organize your future study habits. Pay attention to sections where you made many errors and to any comments your grader made on the exam. This is a great source of information.[51]
    • If you are concerned about an exam performance, schedule an appointment with your professor or teaching assistant. Do not be frustrated in this meeting: look at it as an opportunity to make things better for next time.


  • Some courses provide the option of doing extra-credit work. Consider completing extra-credit assignments if you feel like your grade needs a boost.
  • Have good attendance. Many teachers appreciate perfect attendance in a student, which might help you out if you run into difficulty later. Good attendance doesn't just look good: it will also help you learn concepts more efficiently than you could learn them on your own.


  • College is a terrific time, but sometimes college students become overwhelmed by the freedoms it provides. Remember that your major goal is to earn the college degree. Organize your time so that you do not have to repeat courses, transfer to another school, or drop out.

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Categories: College University and Postgraduate | Learning Techniques and Student Skills