How to Use a Syllabus

Welcome to August – your back-to-school panic starts now, and syllabus week, like winter, is coming. Arguably the best week of the year, syllabus week usually means no lecture, no homework, and no stress as professors brace you for all the learning to come. It’s almost mind-numbingly boring, listening to five professors give you variations on the same attendance and grading policies for hours a day, and a lot of students zone out, or skip class altogether. But you’re smarter than that – you know syllabus week is necessary, and I’m here to help you figure out how to use a syllabus – the right way.

How to Use a Syllabus

Syllabus week is so boring, but using your syllabus right is the key to a successful semester!

Listen in Class

You’ll have plenty of time to read the syllabus later, so when it’s handed to you on the first day, listen to the instructor instead. As tempting as it is to skim the syllabus and tune out, I’ve rarely had a class where a professor didn’t mention something extra that didn’t make it onto the syllabus, or correct a last minute typo to an important number. Keep a pen and a highlighter on hand to edit in any changes, or highlight sections the professor takes time to emphasize – they’ll be important to remember. If you have any questions, ask in or after class. If you’re feeling self-conscious, write them in the margins of your syllabus to follow up on in an email. It’s important to understand your syllabus from the start, and your instructor should be happy to help.

Read on Your Own

At the end of the day, pull your syllabus (or syllabuses… syllabi?) out and reread them, word for word. As tedious as it may be, you’ve been given information about your classes and it’s your responsibility to understand the rules and regulations of your classroom. Besides, it’s a good way to procrastinate better if your prof breaks the golden rule and assigns homework. If you notice anything that’s a dealbreaker for you, you can drop the class now, rather than panic about filling a gap in your schedule later. Highlight or underline anything that you might want to reference later, like attendance or late work policies. They might vary from class to class, so be sure to keep them straight – there’s nothing worse than losing points because you got two professors’ rules mixed up. Once again, if you find anything that confuses you, email your professor, or make a note to ask during the next class.

Use your syllabus to plan ahead for busy weeks, so you'll always know when you have a conflict.

Use your syllabus to plan ahead for busy weeks, so you’ll always know when you have a conflict.

Mark Down Important Dates

This might be the most helpful part of a syllabus – it usually has a schedule of due dates, tests, quizzes, and presentations. Knowing these in advance is vital to keeping your life organized. If you use a planner, mark down all your important dates right as you get the syllabus. Or, if you’re like me and plan your life using Google Calendar, type it into your phone. If something changes, you can edit later, but most instructors want to know in advance if you have a conflict, and now’s the time to find out. If there’s a week where you’ll have two midterms, a paper, and a group project due, you definitely don’t want to realize that Sunday night. And if your schedule really does look too hectic, a lot of professors are willing to grant extensions and loosen up deadlines – provided you prove to them that you’re a responsible student. And what better way than to address potential issues early in the semester?

Keep It Safe

While most instructors will make copies of the syllabus available to you somehow, try to keep track of your original copy, especially if you’ve made notes on it or highlighted anything important. Designate a desk drawer or special folder to your syllabuses (syllabi?) for every semester, and keep it out of sight to keep your dorm room looking beautiful and protect it from harm. It’s a lot easier than re-downloading the syllabus every time you have a question, and as an added bonus, it’ll make you feel like you actually have control over your life. I seek that feeling whenever possible. The other benefit is that, if you keep track, you can actually hand off an old syllabus to a friend who later considers taking the same course. Seeing the syllabus before signing up will give them a better idea of whether they want to take the class, and earn you major friendship points, which you can probably redeem for ice cream. And you deserve ice cream.


Is syllabus week heartrendingly boring? Yes. Is it an excuse to live in denial about summer being over and needing to do schoolwork again for just a few more days? Of course. But if you take just a few minutes, you can actually get something out of those mindnumbing hours, and hopefully save yourself some time and trouble later. What other beginning-of-the-semester advice do you have?

  • Right! As much as I hate not having in-class reminders of homework, it’s nice to know what my workload will be so far in advance.

  • Great post, Megan! I totally agree with all of this. I think that a lot of people underestimate the power of their syllabus. Some professors that I’ve had actually don’t tell us what’s next for homework or what’s going to be on an exam — they say, “follow along with the syllabus” so we really have to pay attention to it.


  • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and I hope it continues to help out!

    And, of course, happy belated birthday!

  • Deekillumination

    Hey! This showed up on my pintrest. The way and content that you’ve written is so refreshing, damn. The other day I actually felt like you said control over my classes by setting aside all my syllabi? to the corner. I’m new to blogs but this posts makes we want to explore what young people have to write/say.

    Oh it was my 18th birthday when you wrote this!