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How to catch up when you're falling behind

On October 20, 2010

For Cassie Wallace, a junior at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, college life was in many ways a rude awakening. "My grades slipped to C's and D's over the first few months of school," she says. "I was used to straight A's." Wallace says she was faced with new obligations and distractions that made it hard to focus on schoolwork. It's an all-too-familiar feeling. With the excitement of a new school year, a chance to get involved in a handful of extracurricular activities, the promise of parties, new friends, and possible dating opportunities, it's easy to get wrapped up in all that college has to offer. But as the year starts to whiz by, keeping up with school work often takes a backseat.

Get a Helping Hand

"I started cutting out distractions and utilizing the resources that the school provides," she says. "I realized tutoring programs aren't for dummies; they're for students who want to really grasp the material."

Wallace was able to get her grades back to normal, and she says the key was to recognize her problem and reach out for assistance.

"The most important thing to do is just ask for help-go to your teacher's or teaching assistant's office hours, go to the campus tutoring center, ask your friends and classmates for help," says Rebecca Zook, a math tutor based in Atlanta, Georgia, who specializes in helping students who are overwhelmed or falling behind. "When you ask for help, it shows that you want to try and work hard and are being proactive."

To Drop a Class or Not

If you're failing a class no matter how hard you try, if the class just doesn't interest you, if you don't get along with your professor, or if dropping the class will relieve some stress so you can focus on other classes, dropping the class may be worth considering. But it's a serious decision, and you should get guidance from an advisor and your professor.

"[If you're not doing well gradewise,] make sure you talk to the professor first to see if there is a solution to get you back on track," recommends Russell Hyken, an educational consultant in St. Louis, Missouri. "Know your options before making your decision. Many students will become depressed or anxious if they drop the class."

5 Ways to Catch Up

Here are five ways to manage your schedule and stay on top of your academics so you don't fall behind:

1. Prioritize: Prioritizing what you do is the key to maintaining your sanity in college, feeling good about yourself, and keeping your grades intact.

"Students should prioritize the importance of work starting with the most difficult tasks and working toward to the most familiar material," says Hyken. "Learning occurs best when the body and brain are rested and alert."

Zook says the key is starting small: "Most procrastination is rooted in perfectionism, so just start with very small goals-I will read one section of this chapter, or I will download my homework, or I'll check those books out of the library."

To help prioritize, Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, ad vises its students to make a daily to-do list and keep it short with specific goals.

2. Plan Ahead: The end of the semester will be here before you know it, and you don't want to be kicking yourself for saving a 15- page paper for the last minute.

"For at least a week, write down exactly how long it takes to do homework for each subject," says Eileen Roth, speaker and author of Organizing For Dummies. "Realize the first week of school is often different from the second as it is more introductory. Also, when topics change, the amount of study time will also change. It will also change when there are special projects or reports to be done. You will have to take more time for those and should note how long it takes you so you can estimate time for another project."

Amanda Sauceda, who recently graduated from California State University, Long Beach, says planning ahead was key to her college success: "If I knew there was an event that I wanted to go to, I made sure to do my homework or study before I went. I didn't necessarily have to finish, I just had to get it started because that was always the hardest part."

The website of the Academic Skills Center at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, offers a quiz to help students assess how well they plan, which contributes to good time management, relieving anxiety, and eliminating cramming.

3. Stay organized: Using a calendar or daily planner

will keep you on task and on schedule in both your classes and your social life. It can also help you plan ahead because it forces you to look at the bigger picture of your day, week, month, or year.

Kristina Blasen, a graduate instructor for the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, advises students to purchase the school bookstore's version of a daily planner: "It usually is already set up with the dates of the semester at your school and will list all school breaks as well as holidays. Include all of the readings from your syllabus as well as assignment due dates and tests."

4. Be disciplined and unplug: Between cell phones, TVs, and

computers, the average college residence hall room is hardly a conducive environment for studying, according to Lorneth Fahie-Peters, an academic counselor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. "My students are encouraged to turn off their phones while studying," she says.

5. Befriend the Web: Though

the Internet can be a huge distraction, It can also be extremely useful and provide you with information for your classes and up-to-the-minute tips and time savers that will help you manage your schedule in college.

"If the way your teacher or textbook is presenting a concept doesn't make sense to you, try watching some YouTube video tutorials on the topic," says Zook. Just be careful they are giving accurate information.

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