01/08/2013 05:01 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

A Cheap and Fantastically Useful Tool for the New Semester

With all of the purchases and preparation that go into getting ready for the new semester, allow me a moment to make the case for a simple, affordable acquisition that I have personally seen make a significant academic difference for so many college students.

Buy a planner. Make it a paper edition that you can hold in your hand and mark up, not one on your computer. Check to see that it's a good one, with plenty of room for appointments, weekly plans, a daily study and work schedule, room for addresses and contact information, and a place to make lists.

Take it with you everywhere. Make additions; take notes; check tasks off as they are completed. Show it to a friend, mentor, roommate, or coach; let them help you hold yourself accountable for the goals you've set.

Fill it with the following:

Skills-based appointments: Take time to go to professors' office hours; bring a list of questions with you. Make regular visits to your college's academic resource centers, for such purposes as organizing papers, practicing oral presentations, completing science labs, or computing z-scores in your statistics class. Set time aside to use your university's peer tutor program. Get to know your college's reference librarians, computer technicians, teaching assistants, and academic support staff. Put those appointments and regular commitments in your planner.

Activities that enrich your academic life: Look up opportunities to attend speeches, art exhibits, performances, workshops, concerts, and presentations. Put these events in your planner. Go. Check them off. Integrate what you learn into your classwork and your long-term academic goals. List books that you want to read and questions you want to explore in the summer and in upcoming classes and projects.

Future plans: Make appointments and attend workshops at your career services center. Learn about opportunities to partake in study abroad, community-based learning, internship, faculty-sponsored research, and honors project programs later in your college career. Make lists of the skills you'll need to acquire and steps you'll need to take to participate in these essential engaged learning opportunities.

Thoughtful goals and a good time management system: Make a list of goals each week at a set time: say, Sunday night at 8. Generate goals that address skills you need to keep developing. Complete tasks each week that chip away at major assignments due later in the semester. Leave time plenty of time for revision, reflection, and research when it comes to writing, like I discussed in my September post, "Writing Strategies for That Semester-Long Paper." List your short-term responsibilities and objectives, too. Be aware of challenges and obstacles that might block the fulfillment of your goals and devise strategies to overcome them. Use the hourly planning section of your planner to set aside specific time blocks for academic work in each of your classes. Use that time to read, look over notes, do research, test yourself on materials, do practice problems, and write. Make sure that social commitments don't infringe on this time. If you are having trouble with distractions or procrastination, log your study time and completed activities in your planner.

A good investment: A good planner will probably cost about ten or fifteen bucks. Nevertheless, it can be a critical tool to help students take ownership of their college education, manage their time wisely, and fulfill goals in all aspects of their academic lives. What a bargain!