Organization (The Step by Step Guide)

So…organization. Repeated more often by teachers, mentors, and parents as the key to the universe, and the great mystery (or dreaded arch nemesis) of many a high school student. But what is organization? At least in my personal AP-Studentese dictionary, organization is the effort to put your thoughts and physical homework and classwork into a comprehensible order. Be it a triple-layered color-coded sticky note system, or a simple iPhone app; organization is whatever keeps your stuff in an understandable format that’s easy to access, and easy to understand.

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Whether you’re fluent in the magical arts of organization looking for some extra tips, or you’re a student who is only reading this because your mom emailed it to you in a last-ditch effort to get you to finally, FINALLY, organize the mess of loose papers in your backpack, this post hopefully has some useful tips and explanations that will help you keep everything straight.

Organizing Classwork & Homework

The easiest (and most fundamental) place to start organizing is with the physical papers you deal with on a day-to-day basis. From assignment papers you get in class, to the math homework you always manage to lose from the moment you put it in your backpack to the moment you need it in class (I swear it’s in here!)—I’ve written up the most common ways students keep their papers in order:

  • Binders & Notebooks. Classic, a binder with a divider for every class, or a separate binder for every class is a great way to go. A spiral bound notebook for note-heavy classes (math and language classes for starters) is also a great idea so you have chronological notes where you can’t lose a loose sheet.
  • Folders. Maybe you have an addiction to kawaii Japanese school supplies, and individual folders are more your style. Great! But I would not suggest this for someone who struggles with organization because it requires that you only keep with you the bare minimum of what you need, lest you spend excessive amounts of time searching through loose sheets of paper.

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  • Computer folders. Deceptively simple, this is actually a fairly complicated task. If you take notes on your computer, it can be difficult to keep track of word docs, emailed drafts, google drive, and whatever is on that flash drive you’ve kept in your backpack for years but never use. The best advice I can give to keep your cyberspace in order is to keep detailed folders (i.e. a “Class Notes” folder within your “AP Biology” folder) and to always put draft numbers in file titles. Also remember that Google Drive has folder options, and it can be wonderful to keep important documents backed up there in case of a crash (no really, you can’t imagine how sad I was I brought soup to school that fateful day in my backpack).


Organizing Assignments

The next important step in learning the dark arts of organization is keeping careful track of assignments, or things you need to do. Many only do this for homework (which is a wonderful place to start), but if you find yourself struggling to remember everything outside of school you need to do, it’s a good idea to start writing that stuff down too. Tasks for extracurriculars, chores, college application details, and/or a part time job are numerous and confusing if you try to remember them all at once.

As with school work, you have several common options for how to organize your school and general to-do lists:

  • Paper agenda. The best thing about an agenda is that you get to physically write down and check off tasks. If you’re a kinesthetic learner, this might be a good option for you because it will be easier for you to remember when you’ve done something (because you went through the motion of crossing it out).
  • Smartphone apps. What I love about smartphone app organization is that you always have them around, and won’t forget your lists places. If you have a habit of losing things, this would be a great option for you because most to-do apps also connect to a website that you can access from any computer (in the awful situation that you lose your phone). Additionally, they are great for setting timed reminders that will beep at you when it’s time to do something. The only common drawback is that many times when you’re entering your homework into your phone teachers sometimes think you’re texting, but just let them know you’re actually being a good student and doing the right thing. My favorite apps are:
    • Reminders for the iPhone (check out this link on how to best use it)
    • myHomework (keeps track of class times for you)
    • Wunderlist (great for sharing to-do lists and deadlines on group projects)
    • Cozi (for family tasks)

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Keep an eye out for a list of other helpful high school apps on the Magoosh blog, and remember that your organizational system can be a mix of different apps. Mine was actually all four of them.

Organizing Thoughts

The final step in the full sweep of get-your-life-together organization is note-taking. Because chances are, if your homework is disorganized, so are your notes. But you’re in luck! Just like the rest of these tips, organized note-taking is something everyone can be good at with effort and practice. It’s also really, important that you take organized notes so that you can find what you need when you’re searching back through them to study.

This video can help you get started:

I’ve listed here the most common note-taking styles with comments on each:


  • Cornell Notes. I would say this is the most common, and the most versatile way of taking notes. If you’ve never encountered it before it’s essentially a giant T on your page where the smaller left side is reserved for key terms and concepts, and the right side is the bulk of your notes. I find this style works well for term-heavy topics like biology, history, or even certain section of English classes like rhetorical devices, but is poor for classes like math and chemistry where notes are dominated by long problems. It also includes a summary at the end of a topic to remind you of the most important parts (but I never had time in class to do these).
  • Outline/bullet points. This style is the most hierarchic, and makes it clear when one concept is part of another, or builds upon one another. It’s good for subjects with clear classifications and sub-topics (like psychology or biology) but poor for topics with many key terms, or with many sample problems. This is also the easiest format to type notes in.
  • Concept maps/drawings. I find that beyond necessary diagrams of physical process (like the parts of a cell in bio) drawings are usually a study tool more than a note-taking style. It’s difficult to keep up in lecture when you’re busy drawing a complex diagram. But as with anything, if it works for you, then keep doing it as long as it doesn’t hold you back from absorbing more information.


The Takeaway

Organization is a process of trial and error in efforts to find what works for you. There are a lot of tips here, but ultimately you need to find your system and stick to it. If you’re at a total loss, just pick one strategy from each of the categories and try to train yourself to constantly keep at it. Maybe you won’t be a perfectly organized person every moment of every day, but at least once a week you should sit down, go through everything, and make sure you have what you need for the coming week. This weekly process can be a real stress reliever (psychologically proven), and help you be positive about the work to come (not psychologically proven, but my personal philosophy!)


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  • Cassidy Mayeda

    Cassidy recently graduated from San Dieguito High School Academy located in Southern California, and is looking forward to studying at Barnard College at Columbia University next fall. She loves pretty much everything from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, to classic American Literature, but above all learning new things and meeting new people. Like her older brother Zack (who also works at Magoosh!), she also enjoys drinking copious amounts of coffee.

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