How to Balance School and Work-Study without Losing It

A woman reads a book while balancing a book on her head; balancing school and work-study is a delicate act.

fizkes /

When you enter the workforce after graduation, you’ll surely hear the phrase “work-life balance.” A job with a good work-life balance lets you live a life outside of the office. That balancing act is trickier for students who plan to work and add school into the mix. How do you balance school and work-study and your life outside of both?

It’s normal to worry. Heck, I held an after-school job in high school, but the idea of a college work-study overwhelmed me. How was I to adjust to college-level coursework while simultaneously working a new job? Despite my insecurities, I figured it out, and so do plenty of students each year. During the 2011–12 school year, for example, about 6% of all undergraduates participated in work-study, and many others found work off campus. They managed to balance school and work, and so can you.  All you need are a few pointers.

Learn the ins and outs of the Federal Work-Study Program so you know what you’re getting yourself into.

For all you newbies out there, here’s how the program works: Federal Work-Study is a program designed to match undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in accredited colleges with part-time jobs. Most available job opportunities are on campus (e.g., working in a dining hall or library), but some schools may allow a few students to hold off-campus positions, almost always at nonprofit organizations that serve the college town. All jobs pay at least minimum wage, and the work-study office at your school will determine the maximum number of hours you can work per week.

To participate in Federal Work-Study, students must submit the FAFSA. This is because the idea behind the program is that students with financial need can use their earnings from a work-study position to supplement the costs of their education. At many schools, however, students without demonstrated financial need may also participate in the Federal Work-Study Program, but only after students with financial need have claimed their assignments. If your financial aid package did not include a work-study offer, contact the school’s financial aid office as soon as possible to see if there are any opportunities still available.

Think about the jobs that would make your work-school-life balance the easiest.

Balancing work-study and classwork can be a lot easier if you like your job. Of course, you aren’t choosing a career when you take on a work-study assignment, but look for positions that give you benefits in addition to that paycheck. What I’m talking about, of course, is the ability to kill two birds in one shift. If one of those birds is a paycheck, what’s the other priority for you that will help you balance work and school?:  

  • Study on the job when the office is slow (e.g., scan membership cards at the gym; work at a ticketing booth; tutor in the writing center)
  • Socialize (e.g., care for children in the on-campus daycare; place calls for the campus fundraising office or phonathon)
  • Get up and get moving (e.g., become a gym class instructor; join campus patrol)
  • Take a break from the campus bubble (e.g., request a work-study placement at a local nonprofit)
  • Relieve stress and zone out to a podcast while you complete mindless work (e.g., reshelf books in the library; file papers and do other administrative work for an office on campus)
  • Prepare for a specific career or boost your résumé (e.g., become a research or lab assistant, department intern, campus EMT)

Do everything in your power (hint: get your placement request in early) to ensure you receive the work-study placement you desire.

  • Incoming freshmen: Accept your financial aid offer (with work-study) early so that you can request your work-study assignment early. If you have a thorough understanding of the different types of federal aid before you receive your financial aid package, you should be ready to accept or decline the grants, loans, and yes, the work-study you’re offered as soon as you decide which school’s admissions offer you’re going to accept. Here’s why it’s important: upperclassmen generally pick their work-study assignments in the spring for the following school year. They have priority. That means, by the time an incoming freshman on financial aid can comb the job listings, many of them will be filled. There’s nothing you can do about that, but you can improve your chances of having your pick from what’s left if you accept your work-study early enough. Doing so not only ensures that there are still positions available but ups your chances at choosing your position before other incoming freshmen.
  • Upperclassmen: Don’t forget to apply for the job you want. Freshmen are usually shuffled into entry-level work-study positions, but upperclassmen often have more options. Sometimes, there are research assistant positions or managerial positions up for grabs, some of which may be in your prospective field, and these work-studies might require permission from the supervisor. That means you can’t just “dibs” the job; you have to prove that you’re qualified for it, possibly by completing an interview process, submitting a letter of recommendation from a professor, or excelling in a certain class. Do so early. These positions are a great way to add a little oomph to your résumé before graduation.
A man drinking coffee tries to figure out how to balance school and work while looking at his schedule. /

Schedule your work hours in big chunks if possible.

Let’s say you can work up to 10 hours a week this semester. You might be tempted to pick up a two-hour shift every weekday—after all, that sounds manageable—but what about the commute? If it takes 30 minutes to walk across campus to your work-study and back, you’ll actually save 90 minutes of precious study time every week if you pick up two five-hour shifts instead.

Use a planner to identify gaps in your schedule that you could be maximizing.

It helps to visualize a typical week by blocking out the times when you must be in class or at work. Pick up a weekly appointment planner or set your Google calendar to week view and start marking down your obligations. From there, look at the blanks in your schedule. Perhaps you notice a two-hour block on, say, Tuesdays between your morning shift and your afternoon class. Instead of eating luxuriously long lunches that day, mark off that block of time as a working lunch and hold yourself accountable. Every week, use that time to open your lunchbox and your laptop in the student center and get two hours of work done so that you aren’t scrambling to finish classwork when you arrive home in the evenings.

Don’t overload your work schedule.

Your financial aid office will let you know the maximum number of hours that you can work per week. This number often depends on your year in school, the school you’ve chosen, and the rest of your financial aid package. Remember, however, that you don’t have to work the maximum number of hours if you can afford not to. If you’re allowed to work no more than 15 hours per week, you can always ask your supervisor to schedule you for 12 instead. Work with your college’s career office to find a paid summer opportunity that can help you make up those hours when you’re on summer break.

If you are an incoming student who is particularly concerned about balancing work-study and school, remember that freshmen often have the option to postpone their work-study start dates until the spring semester. Talk to your school’s financial aid office if this option interests you and if you can afford it.

Let your supervisor know when your midterms and finals are.

One great thing about work-study assignments is that on-campus supervisors already assume that you’re prioritizing your studies. They want you to excel in school and may be willing to work with you to make that happen. Depending on your position, you might be able to rearrange your schedule during midterms or finals to put your studies first. Talk to your supervisor in advance and be honest about your needs.

A person stacks round rocks on top of one another. Balancing class and work is similarly delicate.

The Clay Machine Gun /

Striking a balance between school, work, and life is tough, but every year, thousands of students manage. They take the time to understand the Federal Work-Study Program, determine which positions offer more than just a paycheck, and request the ones that optimize the balance between work and school. And they do all of that before their start dates. After that, they maintain an eye on their schedules. Which shifts work best? Which weeks do they anticipate exams and due dates that might interfere with work?

TL;DR: Students who find a successful balance between school and work plan in advance. Worried about the balancing act this semester? It’s never too early to look ahead.

About Gwen Elise

Gwen is an avid traveler who feels most at home in Kentucky and Argentina. Her closet is full of dark dresses, and her walls are papered in colorful maps. She likes to make puns, read, write, and translate to and from Spanish, and she misses Vassar College, her alma mater, which helped her get better at all of those things.

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