Balance Academics, Activities as an International Graduate Student

Set priorities and cut down on distractions to manage your time at a U.S. graduate school.

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Develop a well-rounded time management plan to help you balance your academics and social interactions as an international grad student.
Develop a well-rounded time management plan to help you balance your academics and social interactions as an international grad student.

Managing graduate classes and having a life at the same time can be challenging. Many international graduate students, including myself, have felt overwhelmed by school work.

When that happens, it's hard to catch up with friends or attend social activities. I realized I was so busy with school every day that I didn't have a chance to breathe.

It took me a while to realize the importance of social activities, but life is not solely about working, studying or partying. Learn how to manage these, and you will accomplish your work with half the effort.

1. Improve your time-management skills: It's critical for college students to learn time-management skills if they want to have a successful academic life. This is especially true in U.S. colleges or universities, where students are required to read fast and learn quickly.

International students facing challenges in their adjustment to a U.S. university should try to do their most difficult task at their best time of the day. If you are a morning person, start your day with this task so that you can finish it efficiently.

Second, focus on one thing at a time. Stay away from distractions, such as TV, music or a noisy environment.

Many people listen to music while studying, but I found that doing so distracted me and it took me longer to finish tasks than it normally would. Do what fits you best to stay focused.

[Learn how to choose a U.S. graduate school.]

2. Prioritize daily tasks on a checklist: I didn't realize the importance of making checklists until I came to study in the U.S. When life gets busy, you should lay out your daily tasks in order of priority, with the most urgent first.

Having a checklist helps me organize things and remain calm. I put a check mark right next to each finished task, and every time I see a check mark, I get a sense of achievement and relief.

If I fail to finish tasks by the end of the day, I take time to reflect before bed to figure out why I didn't finish.

I ask myself: "Did I procrastinate today?" The next day, I try to avoid making the same mistakes.

[Check out ways international grad students can budget.]

3. Talk about your problems when feeling overwhelmed: Many international students I have encountered are too shy to speak out about their problems to their American friends. They would rather grumble to someone from the same country for cultural recognition and compassion.

While that's not wrong, it's helpful to tell your American friends what you are struggling with because they can often provide better solutions from a different cultural perspective, which can leave you feeling both relieved and inspired.

When I was having trouble finding interesting story ideas last semester as a graduate journalism student, I talked with my American classmates. That conversation gave me a lot of interesting ideas that I may not have thought of without our chat.

4. Spare some time for exercise: No matter how busy you are, you have at least 20 minutes free every day. Use that time to exercise.

Exercising will help you have a lucid mind and sort things out. Next time you are out of sorts, exercise your body first.

[Take these steps when arriving at a U.S. grad school.]

5. Work like a professional: Compared with undergraduate programs, graduate programs are more intense and professional. In graduate schools, students are trained to apply their academic knowledge to the real world.

In my second semester in the graduate journalism program at New York University, we chose our beat, pitched story ideas to the professor and classmates, went out reporting and turned in the assignment for review. This process of story production was more like that in a real newsroom.

Studying and living abroad offers international students numerous opportunities to grow, learn and experience new things. Managing your time is a skill that has lifelong benefits.

Jia Guo, from China, graduated from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism after transferring from Shandong University of Political Science and Law in Jinan, China, where she studied law. Guo is currently a graduate journalism student at New York University.