Life Hacks for a Smooth Back-to-School Transition

I’m sure that many students, like myself, are in deep denial about the fact that the 2015 school year starts in just over a week. Many people make grandiose plans to conquer this transition, but find that once the school year starts hurtling forward like a locomotive, it’s incredibly easy for all that meticulous preparation to fall by the wayside. As I enter my senior year of college, I feel I’ve finally gotten myself into a comfortable groove when it comes to starting the year on the right track. The biggest takeaway for me: small steps make the greatest difference. So, in the spirit of paying it forward, here’s a list of little things one can do to make the start of a new school year less painful and more productive:  


Navigating each building on the UM campus can be an exercise in detective work. For instance, even if you’ve had a class in the Liberal Arts building before, finding Room 11 can be a challenge (hint: it’s in the basement). To reduce stress during the first week of classes, pick a day, grab some friends and go on a scavenger hunt to find your classrooms. Keep in mind, however, that even the best laid plans end up foiled when professors shift their schedules. Luckily, having walked all over campus during your tour will give you a bit of a head start on dealing with any changes.

The Hack:  Log into CyberBear or the Academic Planner and print out a schedule. While on your walk, you will discover shortcuts and helpful resources (like where the heck the bathrooms are), but my favorite is finding ways to avoid the blistering winter weather by cutting through buildings on your route.


There are coffee shops located on all corners of campus, even though you might not have noticed them. While the UC and The Country Store are the main hubs for food and drink, these buildings may not always be very close. Finding the quickest way to get a dose of caffeine is, to put it mildly, a necessity that will improve your ongoing school experience incredibly. My go-to coffee spots are the Think Tank near Urey Lecture Hall, the Biz Buzz in the Gallagher Business Building and Recess in the Phyllis J. Washington Education Center.

The Hack: It’s a great idea to scope out each coffee shop, both for convenience and to discover which offers exactly the goods you are looking for. Knowing which shops have your favorite coffee mixers available or those that accept Bear Bucks is a good way to maximize the efficiency and enjoyment of your overall experience.


While it doesn’t sound very exciting, taking some time to identify what times work best for you to study and then COMMITTING to that time is absolutely necessary to making it through a semester. The trick is to be honest with yourself and schedule study times that are realistic AND coincide with your moments of high energy and focus during the day.

The Hack:  Setting up time to study is like building any other habit, a little bit every day is better than cramming every once in awhile. Setting aside at least one hour per day will yield better results than trying to squeeze four or five subjects, and 200 pages of reading into a marathon session on a weekend.


There are four general access computer labs on campus. These labs are free and open to any University student, faculty or staff. The labs are located in Liberal Arts Room 206, Fine Arts Room 210 and there are two in the University Center.  UC Room 225 and the Tech Lounge are especially nice because they are generally less busy, have a good atmosphere and are located near all of the UC facilities. The computers run both Mac OSX and Windows operating systems. Plus, these computers usually have updated software that can be cost-prohibitive for students to purchase for themselves.

The Hack:  Bring a flash drive or set up a Google Drive account to save your homework and writing assignments and drastically reduce the amount of stuff you have to carry around in your schoolbag. Remember that you have to pay 15 cents per print from funds on your GrizCard, so plan accordingly.


Organizing your finances as a student can be difficult, but the University offers two spending account programs that make things easier (and in some cases, cheaper). UMoney is a prepaid spending account. You load cash onto your account and can spend it at more than 100 locations on AND off campus. Bear Bucks, on the other hand, is a declining balance food-purchasing account that can be used across the UM campus at 24 different venues. The great thing about Bear Bucks is that users receive a 10 percent discount on all items they purchase.

The Hack:  Try to use Bear Bucks to purchase daily specials at venues across campus and get the 10 percent discount on top of the special price.


Things fall through the cracks very quickly if you haven’t created some kind of system for keeping track of your homework, important due dates and any other obligations. Finding a method to unify all of your important schedules will ensure you stay on top of your classes and your life. This is another activity that isn’t necessarily fun, but the overall effect it will have on your day-to-day life can be mind-blowing. It’s also really important to make sure to use a system that works for you, not something that looks cool. And the system is ever-evolving, so if something isn’t working, don’t try to force it.

The Hack:  I, personally, have a hard time keeping my thoughts organized on a digital device, so my system is a hybrid of low and high-tech. While a smartphone has a calendar, it’s not always convenient or polite to be entering info into a device in the middle of a conversation, and may not even be allowed in class. Having a hard-copy planner that you can easily jot down notes and due dates will keep you focused on the task at hand, and you can enter it all into your phone or computer at the end of the day. A great place to start?  The Bookstore!   There are usually a bunch of free UM planning calendars available at the beginning of the semester near the checkout kiosks.


College is about more than just earning a degree. It’s about finding direction and making friends and contacts as you pursue your career goals and broaden your experience. One of the absolute best ways to put your skills and interests to work is by joining a student group. Visit the Associated Students of University of Montana (ASUM) website to discover which of the nearly 200 student groups is the right fit for you.

The Hack:  Membership in a group is a great first step, but being a leader of a student group is a fantastic thing to add to your resume and a way to expand your skill set. There are usually elections at the beginning of a semester to establish the leaders of the group and set goals and direction for the year. Get involved now … you won’t regret it!


It may not seem possible to make time for things unrelated to school when your classes are the only thing on your mind, but taking a break from studying (and stressing out) is a must to maintain your mental health. There’s a caveat, though:  Netflix might not be the best idea. While it’s convenient and cheap to binge-watch three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy or Family Guy, binge-watching shows can become a prime method of procrastination instead of recreation. Remember to treat this as part of your schedule, not an escape from your schedule.

The Hack:  There are lots of ways to do this, such as exercising, playing video games or getting together with friends for dinner. I recommend going old school and picking up a book. Recreational reading is a great way to give yourself time to relax, and if you re-read an old favorite it doesn’t even have to be that mentally challenging.


It never fails to surprise me when the leaves fall from the trees or the snow hits the ground. I am getting better at preparing myself for the cold weather, however. Winter in Montana drastically alters transportation routines and schedules in general. Take time to think about this ahead of time and you can reduce a lot of headaches when trying to adjust to the changes. First step, dig out your big coats, warm socks and snow boots in October and have them on standby so that you don’t find yourself with frozen toes while walking around on campus.

The Hack:  Transportation adjustments are probably the No. 1 cause of stress as the seasons change. Figure out how to get to school both by bus and by foot should you run into car or traffic problems.


This behavior requires some discipline and extra planning, but can remove a huge amount of stress from your day-to-day life. The concept is simple … arrive at school 30 minutes earlier, or leave campus 30 minutes later than normal and you will be amazed at how you can avoid parking problems, traffic and the crush of students migrating across campus. In fact, 30 minutes is really just the beginning. Getting to campus really early is a surefire way to secure a parking space, or coming back to campus in the evening to do some studying at the Mansfield Library can guarantee a relaxed and focused session.

The Hack:  It might not seem fun to get up and get moving a little earlier in the morning, or to hang around campus after your classes are finished, but using extra time in the morning to plan your day, or time in the afternoon to review and organize yourself at the end of the day, can give you a sense of stability and awareness of the full spectrum of your day’s activities.


Attending Griz football games is an essential college activity for many students. Getting tickets, however, can be a bit of a challenge if one isn’t familiar with the specifics of the process. Free tickets for students become available the Monday morning before the game. Most students go to The Source at the UC to get their free tickets, and because tickets are limited, a line usually forms early in the morning. If you want to go to the game, get in line early.

The Hack:  Set an alarm and be one of the first people in line, especially for highly anticipated games. Bring your computer or some homework to make the wait more bearable. Even better, get some friends together and make an event out of it…the UC has plenty of eateries and things to do once you score your seats!