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WWTK: Start the Year Strong!

WWTK: What advice would you give students going back to school so they start the year strong?

This is a great question, and one that I've answered before on this blog. In general, I'd say the most important thing for starting the new year strong is starting the new year ORGANIZED. Go back and look through your notebooks from the previous year, but not for content – look at them like a detective. What does your note-taking style say about you? Do you have spiral notebooks stuffed full of handouts with rumpled edges? Are your note pages just solid blocks of hurried scribbles that are all but impossible to read? Did you have to add extra notebooks halfway through the year?  And most importantly, how easy is it to find a specific piece of information in one of your notebooks?

Take the opportunity while summer's still going strong to head to an office supplies store and wander around. Really look at all the organization solutions, and try to imagine yourself using them. Organization is a very personal thing; what works for me won't necessarily work for you. But once you find that workflow that clicks with you, you'll be much better prepared for the classes ahead. Here are a few of my favorite tools and tricks concerning the monster of all organization debates: Spiral Notebooks versus Three-Ring Binders.

Ah, the age-old debate – spiral notebooks or three-ring binders? Once again, it all comes down to what you plan to do with them and how you personally take notes. When I was in high school, I liked to use three-ring binders to organize my notes, since I could carry around one large binder that had notes from all of my classes in it. When you're walking around a high school with only 4 minutes between classes, not needing that extra trip to the locker can make a huge difference. Even more so if, like mine was, your locker is in a block in the basement that is kept locked whenever it's not a lunch period.

There are down-sides to three-ring binders, though – in particular, my problem with them was always how loud opening and closing the rings was. I never wanted to open them during class, so I was forced to figure out ways to write on the back sides of paper with my wrist craned around the rings, which wasn't exactly comfortable. I have since figured out a solution to this problem, though – bring a clipboard with your looseleaf paper on it, and write on that. Then transfer your notes to the binder at the end of each class. Oddly enough, looking back now, there was a classmate of mine who did exactly that – but I didn't realize it at the time. I remember thinking it was a bit odd that she was carrying a clipboard around – but odd is fine if it keeps you organized!

Once I got to college, I realized that I didn't need to carry all of my notes around with me all the time – I frequently only had one academic class per day, and was already carrying around enough as it was. So I switched to spiral notebooks because I could take only what I needed and lighten my load, plus it was easier to keep information from each class separate in my mind when it was separate in my bag. But I always hated having to rest my wrist on the spiral when writing on the back sides of the pages. During my junior year I solved that problem – I found full-size spiral notebooks with the spiral across the top rather than down the side – stenographer style binding but with regular ruling. It was perfect! I could write on both sides of the paper without discomfort.

The only downside to the steno-style spiral notebooks was that they didn't have pockets. I had one class where the professor liked to load us down with handouts, sending us home each day with a new stack of paper. I never quite figured out how to handle that, and my perfect note-taking system became a bit unruly with a chunk of loose paper stuffed under the front cover of my notebook.

There is a happy medium between both of these methods, though it requires some specialized equipment. Some companies make a hybrid system that uses a series of specially-shaped rings to create a notebook with re-arrangeable pages. The most famous of these systems is Circa, designed by Levenger, but you can get knock-offs at some office supply stores as well. These systems are easy to use, and the pages come out and go in simply and quietly, removing the loud-snapping-rings issue. The only issue with these is that to really make them work, you have to invest in the hole punch that makes those special cutouts. Armed with one of these notebooks and the hole punch, you can punch your handouts and put them directly into the notebook exactly where they belong, but still have the feel of a spiral notebook.