Software Tips to Help You Rock Your Education

Published 9 September 2013 ~

Screenshot of Evernote for Software Article SMALL

Software’s somewhere in the running for the least sexy topic I could possibly write about, so I’ll assume if you’re reading this it’s not for the titillation factor – you want to learn how to be a better, more effective student. Learning to use the tools mentioned here can help you get your life organized, avoid the distractions that are every student’s worst enemy, and save your bacon when the sh*t hits the fan.

Get Organized

Note Taking

More than likely your first reaction to Evernote will be to wonder what all the fuss is about. That was my reaction too until I realized the vast potential and capabilities of this cross-platform note taking/organization tool. Now I use it to save content from the web, store and organize important files, write down those ephemeral and spontaneous ideas wherever and whenever they occur, take pictures of random awesomeness, annotate images and PDFS – its potential uses are nearly limitless.

That’s not to say it will please every user: as with Apple’s iconic products, making the most of Evernote’s rich capabilities hinges on whether you can adapt yourself to its particular ways of doing things. Given its very low learning curve, though, your future self will thank you for taking the time to figure it out – it’s the best program of its kind, and you’ll likely find its usefulness grows the more you use it.

OneNote, part of the Microsoft Office suite, is perhaps the most comprehensive and flexible solution for serious digital note-takers, particularly if you take handwritten notes using a stylus. It too has it’s legions of devotees – particularly among students – and I’m finally starting to appreciate why. You can clip and embed virtually anything into a Note, including audio, video, emails, images and spreadsheets, and it’s now been more completely integrated into the Office ecosystem, meaning you can easily swap contact back and forth between OneNote and Word, PowerPoint, Excel and the rest.

The interface is structured just like a physical notebook would be, but the major advantage (apart from portability and the fact that your notes are synchronized across all your devices) is that everything you put in a note is indexed and searchable. OneNote definitely seems perfectly made for the task of keeping track of all of those concepts and ideas scribbled (or snapshotted) during lectures – that’s how I’ll be using it this year.

Document and Reference Managers

There’s something about the idea of a reference manager that first year students have difficulty appreciating. Perhaps the fluidly hyperlinked nature of the web makes the idea of keeping track of your sources quaint and antiquated, but trust me on this: you will not make it through university – much less land a professional career – without learning how to be rigourous and exact in documenting the sources of your ideas and written work.

Thankfully there’s tools that have been specially designed to make this otherwise daunting-task easy. Evernote and OneNote are good at clipping information from the web, but when you get to upper-year classes and find your syllabi packed with dozens of sources, many of them PDFs, you’ll appreciate having a tool that can corral all that information into some semblance of order. Check out Zotero, Mendeley and Papers. I prefer the former but they’re all capable of getting the job done. The library recommends using RefWorks, but unlike the previously mentioned programs it doesn’t store copies of the actual documents themselves, just references to where they can be found. Zotero and Mendeley also make it easy to send documents back and forth to your iPad/tablet.

Mind Mapping/Information Graphing

As a Humanities student I never found much use for mind-mapping/relationship-graphing software, but now that I’m in Computer Science I suspect I’ll find more use for them. There’s dozens of options in this category, and since I have no personal experience with them I’ll just point you to some reputable sources that can help you find the right one for you: check out LifeHacker’s “Five Best Mind Mapping Tools”.



University’s a great opportunity to have lots of sex, party immoderately and do other outlandish things you’ll later tell your kids about, but if you’re looking to come out of this with a degree at the end you do eventually need to get down to work, and when you do, it’s crucial that you keep those cute cat video study breaks to a minimum. Take 5 when you need to, but make sure that 5 minute break doesn’t stretch out to 40 minutes or 5 hours – your future self will want to kick your procrastinating present self’s ass.

Distraction-Free Writing

Unfortunately our world’s become an opium-den of potential distractions, so you may find some of the following programs useful to keeping you on track. There’s a whole genre of ‘zenware’ writing programs designed to help you shut out the rest of the world and just focus on what you need to do: write! They all have similar functionality, so choose whichever you like that’s available for your operating systems. FocusWriter is a fully-featured and free option available for Mac, Windows, and Linux, as is TextRoom. WriteMonkey, Q10 and ZenWriter ($9.95) are Windows only, while WriteRoom and iA Writer cater to the Mac, iPad, iPhone crowd.

Finally, for the serious writer, Scrivener (the program I used to write this) is a specialized writing suite designed to help you organize and structure long pieces of writing, whether they be essays, dissertations or novels – and it also includes a distraction free full-screen mode. It’s not free, but if you’re entering a field where you’ll be expected to produce lengthy, complicated essays or a thesis, I highly recommend checking it out.

Music Without Words

I’m serious – check out contemporary classical, symphonic metal, ambient, whatever works for you and keeps your mind stimulated but not distracted. It’s not going to help you if you’re singing along to your favourite catchy lyrics. You need music to zone in to.

Time Trackers

I’ve you’re really having trouble staying on task, you may nee to resort to more drastic measures. First you need to identify where your time is being wasted. This might seem obvious, but it’s not uncommon to come to the end of the day having achieved little of what you set out to do, without a clear idea of where that time was spent. A time tracking app such as RescueTime acts as your own personal watchman, keeping track of exactly how much time you spend in each application and on each website you visit, and gives you detailed reports of how much time you spent productively and unproductively.

Just as a personal trainer can keep you motivated to hit the gym even when you’d rather stay in bed, simply having a program monitor your behaviour and quantify exactly how much time you spent watching cat videos may be enough in itself to help you stay on track.

If that’s not enough to curb your time-wasting habits, the pro version of RescueTime, the Chrome add-on Time Warp and many similar programs can be as hard a taskmaster as you need them to be – even blocking access to the sites you waste the most time on. Ultimately, if you’re determined to waste away your day no program can stop you from doing so, but if all you need are some helpful reminders – or more forceful nudges – to get back to work, time trackers can be very helpful.

Back It Up!

I assume that as rational beings you all have a redundant backup system for your important documents already in place. No? Then that’s your #1 priority before you do anything else in university.

Dropbox, SkyDrive and the like are nice, but I prefer something a bit more advanced, like SpiderOak – these allow you to keep multiple folders in sync so that you don’t need to keep all your current works in progress in your Dropbox or, worse, try to remember to save occasional backups to your email like I did in my first undergrad. It’s also end-to-end encrypted so no one can read your files (unless your computer’s been compromised). Most premium backup/sync services also keep a version history of your documents in case you ever need to see any earlier version of a document you’re working on.

For those with more than one work computer, BitTorrent Sync is the latest and greatest way to keep all your files and folders synchronized across multiple computers. It’s also encrypted, and uses the peer-to-peer (p2p) BitTorrent protocol so your files sync directly, without passing through anyone else’s servers. It’s still in early Beta stage, but I’m using it on a regular basis and so far have not experienced any glitches.

Remember that none of these options are fail-safe, particularly if you’re only keeping your documents on one computer and the cloud. The best, safest practice is to use these services but also perform regular backups to an external hard drive or USB stick.