Bullet Journal for College Students – tips: how to take notes and schedule assignments

I’m a bullet journaler and I’m also a former student. I spent decades of my life in school and later college. Not something I’m particularly proud of, but it does give me insight into the needs of college students when it comes to organizing their life, assignments and notes.

The Bullet Journal is a way to stay organised that is NOT digital. That works because our brain is non-digital. Writing on paper helps us organize our thoughts in ways that writing digitally just doesn’t do.

I do use digital organising for my calendar and that’s because it is easier and works very well cross platform.

Here are the basics of the bullet journal by the designer himself:

In the video below Amanda Krutsick shares how she used the bullet journal in her first year of college. It’s an honest video, but the conclusion is really: she didn’t use it much.

She ended up with the following things that DID work:

  • Google calendar, in combination with alerts for planning classes, appointments and meetings.
  • Sticky notes per class or per assignment. This is really smart: you make a short list of requirements for an assignment on a sticky note. That way you can move it around from week to week in your bullet journal.

In general I think college students should organize their notes and assignments per class. In other words: you follow the syllabus. This does not automatically combine well with the bullet journal, which is basically a chronological system.

Another weird aspect of the bullet journal is that you create your own calendar. This puzzles me. WHY? The whole point of a calendar is that it helps you figure out what date is when. Dating a calendar yourself is asking for trouble (aka mistakes) and there is no advantage, because a dated calendar is literally already dated and as cheap as a non-dated calendar is.

For the same reason I do NOT recommend using your bullet journal as an appointment planner as well. I do recommend using it for to-do lists and dating those.

Here are some more bullet journal habits I DO recommend:

Index

The first page of my bullet journal index
The first page of my bullet journal index

This is very useful: an overview of your collections and notes. I recommend this in any note-taking system, but it works particularly well when you use a journal, instead of a loose-leaf system.

Keep that index up and you will always be able to find your collections (lists, notes, whatever) and expand them when you need to.

If you give names to notebooks, you can even reference between them! That works especially well if you number your pages, which is another Bullet Journal trick. Again, this works best in non-loose-leaf systems.

Alternatively you can reference back and forth between your notes based on dates. Start by dating all your notes and then when you learn something that expands something you already took notes on, you can write something like ‘see notes on sept 7th 2016’. Then put a circle around it to stress it.

Future log / monthly log

I don’t like the monthly setup of most calendars and planners. The bullet journal can be way more flexible. I recommend taking a decent amount of space for your future log: a page per month works well for me.

The actual planning happens (for me anyhow) in your planner or google calendar, but it’s useful to plan to-do’s ahead of time sometimes and that’s what your future log is for.

Migrate them to your monthly log when you start a new month.

Migrating

To do lists quickly become obsolete as things you did get crossed out and things you end up not stay on the list.

Migrating solves this: all to-do lists have a date, or at least an end-date. I have created to-do lists in my bullet journal with an end date two weeks later, or a ‘do before I go on holiday’ list. Whatever it is – because there is an end-date, you have to create a NEW list later.

That sounds like extra work, but it is actually very helpful and one of the things I like a lot about the bullet journal.

What you do is use the > sign to migrate the ‘to-do’ to another (usually the next) list.

This means that everything on your to-do list gets checked off, either because you did it, or because you migrated it. If you decide NOT to do it, you cross it out.

Chronological note-taking

When you’re taking classes, I absolutely recommend organizing your notes by class. It can be in a loose-leafed system, with tabs for each class, or you can decide to have a notebook per class.

Each class however, should have your notes chronologically. This makes sense: your teacher or professor will start with the basics in that topic and then move on to more complicated things as you understand and know the simpler stuff. So in studying you will go back to the notes you took at first and read them with the later stuff in the back of your mind.

As I said before: you can use the dates to cross reference notes.

Bullet journal shortcuts in your regular notebooks

My bullet Journal Key
My bullet Journal Key

The bullet journal is so very popular in part because it trains people to use symbols in their note-taking.

However, you don’t have to stick with the regular stuff. Here are some symbols you may want to use in your notes:

  • S : Source (or TO READ)
  • B: birthdate (of famous person)
  • – : to do
  • > : to do you scheduled in your planner or bullet journal

Often used words can be abbreviated. H20 for water, for instance. Or P for psychology. Whatever word is often used in your topic.

Alternatives to the regular bullet journal

1) Planner as a bullet journal

Use a Moleskine weekly notebook (or equivalent). You get all the dates and a bit of room on one side of a spread. On the other side you get a page for notes. There you can put your weekly to-do list, for instance.

2) Use a bullet journal for everything that doesn’t fit your other notes

My mindmap in my bullet journal, about my first blogpost about bullet journaling.
A mindmap in my bullet journal, about my first blogpost about bullet journaling. It’s in Dutch, in case you were wondering.

For instance, when you have an assignment, you can plan your to-do’s in lists – with sublists. Say you need to write a paper, you can make a list (a collection in bullet-journal-speak) that lists everything you need to do to get that paper done.

Another page can be used for mindmapping the topic.

My main point: do it YOUR way!

I just read a blogpost by an enthusiastic college student who uses the bullet journal method and she apparently has an extra notebook for stuff that doesn’t fit her bullet journal. Long term planning and that sort of thing.

That is NOT necessary! You can create a page at the end of your future log for stuff that you need to do that doesn’t have a date yet!

Your bullet journal does NOT have to be pretty! Of course it can be if you like pretty, but it was designed to be USEFUL. All you really need is pen, paper and a legible handwriting. I have deliberately used my own bullet journal to illustrate the system, because my handwriting is NOT pretty, nor do I use washi tape and colored pens. It’s not necessary. If you like it, great. Otherwise, don’t feel obligated.

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