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How to work during college

Posted 9:58 a.m. Monday, April 22, 2024

UW-La Crosse students connect with employers during a part-time job fair on campus in 2022.

Suggestions for managing college student jobs and school schedules from UWL student research  

Sidney Paulson

Working college students make up a significant sector of the national student population with about 40% of full-time students in the U.S. employed in 2020, according to the most recent data from the federal National Center for Education Statistics. While student work has its benefits like the potential to earn more after graduation and even improve grades during college, it also comes with challenges.  

Below student workers from UWL share their strategies for how to work during college to find a balance between work and school schedules. The strategies were collected from UWL Student Researcher Sidney Paulson as part of an anthropological study. Read more about her undergraduate research experience.

Create a schedule and stick to it.

Many students surveyed said an organized schedule, including all of their school, work and social commitments, helped them balance priorities. Whether written out on a white board or phone calendar, scheduling time as much as possible meant staying on top of managing work and school. Scheduling time also included blocking off hours for study time between activities. 

Make school a priority.

When weighing school and work commitments, many students surveyed said school was their highest priority because it is their biggest, long-term goal. “Financially that is not always an option, but trying to make a way for school to come first is what students I surveyed highlighted as important.” 

Schedule time for social interaction.

It may sound frivolous to schedule time for socializing, but students largely agreed that feelings of isolation affected other parts of their life, including academics. And the benefits of socializing improved their ability to focus on academics. “Even if students feel overwhelmed and like they have no time, they still needed to find ways to have those social interactions,” says Paulson. 

Structure downtime.

One key to including more socialization in a busy schedule is structuring downtime. Going to grab lunch? Make a lunch date with a friend. Going to study at the library? Bring along some roommates. “Some described how they made sure even if they had a lot on their plate, they would still have study time with roommates or friends in the library to fulfill their needs for socializing.” 

Let your professor know your situation.

Did an unexpected late night work shift to cover for another employee impact your ability to finish a school project? Speak up. Many students surveyed said even though they felt ashamed reaching out about the need for flexibility, faculty were often flexible if they were notified. 

Explore all of your work options.

Students surveyed said they needed to figure out the best type of job for them, which at times meant switching jobs. They considered factors like pay, proximity to campus, and the type of work. Remember to explore other options if the work situation isn’t working out. While on-campus jobs were more convenient, most students found they paid less than off-campus work. Also, students could sometimes find jobs aligned with their field of study, although these jobs typically paid less.  

Use campus resources.

Many campuses have supports for students to help with food, clothing, healthcare and other needs. In her survey of UWL students, many students said The Campus Thread, a free clothing closet at UWL, was a great resource, especially for finding more professional clothing, such as for interviews or internships. They also appreciated the campus food pantry and the Scholarship Resource Center, which helps students find scholarships. However, students also thought time spent on scholarship applications wasn’t always fruitful, so when weighing whether to work more or apply more, they opted to work to ensure a return on investment. 

Find your hours per week sweet spot.  

While your peers may be working a lot of hours, don’t feel pressure to work as much if you don’t have to. You need to figure out how many hours of work each week is best for you given your needs. Studies have shown that working 15 or more hours per week can begin to have detrimental effects on grades. While some students do not have a choice because they need the money, if you do have flexibility, use data to determine the best number of hours for you.  

Keep in mind that some work has been shown to be beneficial.

Department of Education data shows students who work 12 hours per week or less have stronger grades than their non-working peers. Reasons could be related to the discipline and time management skills that are gained from maintaining work commitments.