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4 Weeks to a 4.0: Create Project Folders

4 Weeks to a 4.0 is a four-part series to help you transform into an efficient student. Each Monday between 3/30 and 4/20 I’ll post a new weekly assignment to aid your transformation.

Welcome to Week 4Time to Change

This is the fourth and final post in our four-part series 4 Weeks to a 4.0.  Let’s do our review. In week one you gained some control over your schedule. In week two you mastered taking notes in class. And in week three you streamlined your assignments. In other words, we’ve covered all regularly occurring academic work. This leaves us only to tackle the big infrequent stuff. I’m talking about studying for exams and writing papers.

Week 4 Assignment: Create Project Folders

Your assignment for this week to adopt the project folder method, which I describe below. This simple method streamlines the process of studying for exams and writing major papers. I used it throughout my time at Dartmouth, and swear by its effectiveness. You can also see aspects of it in action in our ongoing finals diaries series.

The Project Folder Method

Buy a box of plain manila file folders. Set aside one folder for each exam and paper you having coming up in your semester. Label the folders with the corresponding subject and exam/due date.

For the exam folders, do the following:

  • Print the relevant class notes and assignment notes. Label each clearly. Add to the folder. If you took notes in a notebook, either make photocopies, or just rip the pages out of your notebook.
  • If the exam is for a technical course, include problem set solutions, past exams (if the upcoming exam is cumulative), and any sample tests made available by the professor.
  • On the front cover of the folder write out a study plan using the date/action list method. A date/action list is a collection of specific review actions labeled with the date when you will do the work. The key word is “specific.” Don’t put down: “4/23 – study.” Instead, put down something like: “4/23 – meet with TA to discuss how to solve the problems I got wrong on the last four problem sets.”
  • Mark each of these dates on your calendar to remind yourself you scheduled work. If you end up needing to change the plan, mark the new plan on your folder and change the relevant dates on your calendar.

For the paper folders, do the following:

  • At first the folder will be empty. As you gather research materials, however, this is the place where they all go. This will keep you organized.
  • On the front of the folder, use the date/action list method from above to construct a plan for researching and writing your paper. Follow the same rules as with the study plans. That is, record pairs consisting of a date and a specific action. This plan will probably change more than a study plan as you get going, so make sure you record all changes on your folder and your calendar.

Once you’ve created the folders, follow their corresponding plans. If you’re having a hard time fitting in time for all of your exams and papers, then you may need to do some emergency schedule clearing, setup a visual panic schedule, or perhaps even declare a temporary activity vacation. But don’t hide from what has to be done. The project folder approach makes the work you face explicit and unavoidable — allowing you to better spread out the work and streamline the steps.

Summing Up…

Once you finish this week’s assignment you’ll be done with the program! These lessons aren’t a miracle cure. For example, it’s possible that your schedule is so overcrowded that no amount of smart habits can save you. It’s also possible that you’re suffering from deep procrastination, which thwarts attempts to follow even the most basic advice.

But if you stuck with the program for all four weeks, your technical study habits will be better than 99% of all students, which should put you on track to better grades and less stress.

For those of you who followed the program, let us know how it has been working for you. 

11 thoughts on “4 Weeks to a 4.0: Create Project Folders”

  1. This is by far my favorite post of the series.

    Previously, I’ve used class specific folders, but this simple innovation would keep me much more organized. Will use for my next classes! Thanks!

    Cal –

    Any news about your next book?

  2. If you’ve got the space, small boxes often work better than folders. They have enough room for any books or magazines you’ll be using. Pull out the box, work on the project, put away the box. Simple. I also toss scraps of paper with web links and the like into the boxes, so I don’t lose anything I might need.

  3. Greetings from Rio. Behind me, as I write, is a sun-soaked tropical beach. I’m viewing this trip as the ultimate incarnation of adventure studying.

    On to your comments…

    Any news about your next book?

    Same as before. The manuscript is due in the fall so it will probably be out next spring. It’s focus, however, is high school students (how to do college admissions zen valedictorian style) so it might not prove as relevant for my undergraduate readers (though the lessons, i think, are applicable to anyone interested in a zen-v lifestyle.)

    If you’ve got the space, small boxes often work better than folders

    It’s an interesting question. I know some people swear by the box method. The problem is portability (hard to take boxes to the library). I guess it depends on your style.

  4. Hey,
    I really think this is a good way to study. I’m heading my finals, my high school finals and I have such a folder for every class.
    The one thing I didn’t do was having a date/action list in front, and that is definitly something I should do.
    Thanks for the great post!


  5. Definitely creating these folders this term.

    Great news!! Happy to hear a book is coming out for high school students, even though I’ll be in my last year of high school next spring.

  6. i’ve been using some variation of this for my projects and assignments, and i find that it works very well in keeping all the relevant notes in one place.

  7. Hey Cal! Thank you so much for this post! 🙂 I used project folders this summer in a six week course which consisted of three large tests, and I quickly noticed how much more confident I felt about my study habits and the material by using this method. Overall, I felt less stressed going into my exams, and I ended up getting an 4.3 (A+) in the course. I loved the series, and I especially loved this post.


    • If you’re talking about preparing and sorting through study materials, ASAP. For the act of studying/learning for the exam, at least 2 weeks before exam.


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