Getting Organized & Utilizing Your Syllabi


by Nikita Thadani

Although as grad students, we have all had to navigate class planning and organization for quite some time, acclimating to what this means for graduate school can be a challenge. As many of us are balancing coursework with other responsibilities, such as graduate assistantships, full-time jobs, and personal lives, it can be easy to get lost in the weeds of timelines and deadlines. Outlined are some of the easiest and most straightforward tips for staying organized throughout the semester.

1. Use your syllabus!

One of the most important things you can do to set yourself up for success each semester is to really utilize your syllabi. While these 10+ page documents can seem tedious to go through, your syllabi are the key to staying on top of your coursework. Here are the most important things that I make sure to pull from my syllabi:

  • Grading policy: I keep a list of major assignments, when they are due, and how many points they are worth. This way I can have it easily accessible to reference due dates and calculate my grades.
  • Class cancellations: The worst feeling is realizing you’ve come all the way to campus for a class that isn’t in session. Check out your course’s class schedule and make sure to take note of any class cancellations. 
  • Required texts: Create a list of all your required texts for the semester so when you go to rent/buy them, you don’t have to keep going back to reference the syllabus.
  • Major assignments: Personally, I like to also take note of important information for any major assignments. For example, page requirements for papers, projects with multiple parts, or required components to any assignments. 

If you’re ever wondering when an assignment is due, what the requirements are, or what the grading policy is--when in doubt, consult your syllabus! Always make sure you consult your syllabus before emailing your professor with questions, because they create your syllabus for a good reason. 

2. Digital methods of organization

If you prefer to use digital methods of organization, here are some recommendations for how you can do so:

  • Digital Calendar (such as iCalendar, Google Calendar, Outlook Calendar, etc.): Use your digital calendar to keep track of important due dates, class meetings/cancellations, or personal deadlines you want to set for yourself for any projects/assignments.
  • Reminders app: Use your Reminders app to set reminders for any or all class deadlines. 
  • Notes app: Use your notes app to organize information such as grading policies, required texts, major assignments, or class meetings/cancellations.
  • Spreadsheet: Create a spreadsheet with your major assignments or all of your class assignments. Personally, I like to color code mine by class and include information such as the due date, grading information, and required components of the assignment. Then, I organize the spreadsheet, sorting it by due date. You can do this in Google Sheets by clicking Data > Sort Range > Advanced range sorting options > Select your due date column > Sort A to Z. You can do this in Excel by clicking Data > Sort > Columns > Select your due date column > Oldest to newest.

3. Hand-written/physical methods of organization

Image of Mason Student Involvement Planner 2021-2022

If you prefer physical, pen-and-paper methods of organization, here are some recommendations for how you can do so:

  • Get a planner: Invest in a good planner that has your preferred layout--whether that is daily or weekly, big or small, or whatever you find helps you stay most organized. Your planner doesn’t have to be expensive - in fact, you can get a planner for as cheap as $5 at stores like TJ Maxx, 5 below, or Marshalls; and, if you’re around campus in August, you can grab a free Mason planner at any of the Welcome Booths, or stopping by Student Involvement on the Fairfax campus and the regional University Life offices on the Arlington and SciTech campuses. Use your planner to keep track of due dates, class meetings, and other obligations.
  • Paper calendar: Similarly to the planner, you can use a paper calendar to keep track of due dates, class meetings, and other obligations. However, a paper calendar is best used for big-picture organization, since you typically won’t have as much room for writing detailed information. 
  • Notebooks: Keep a notebook for writing a list of major assignments, important dates, grading information, and more. You can do this by creating a separate page for each class’s grading policies and due dates, or you can create a timeline and include important dates for all your classes in one chronological list.
  • Whiteboard calendar: Some people prefer to look at things on a more short-term basis. If so, a whiteboard calendar may be great for you. Each week or each month (depending on your type of whiteboard calendar), you can plan out your schedule and any upcoming deadlines. 

4. Consult the University Academic Calendar

Be sure to consult Mason’s academic calendars, which you can access here. Important dates to keep track of include deadlines for adding and dropping classes, university closures, reading days, and examination periods. 
Lastly, the most important tip to keep in mind is to stay organized. It can be easy to stay organized for the first few weeks of the semester, and then completely fall off of class planning in the middle of the semester. Keeping on top of your schedule and due dates throughout the semester will help you stay on track, not let anything fall through the cracks, and ultimately set you on the right path for success from start to finish.