Crash Course: Bullet Journaling For College Students

Written by Brynn Elson

Picture this: It’s October 2021, and midterms are looming. You foolishly signed up for nineteen credits, and you have three jobs (ok, but writing for the blog, working at Penny’s, and teaching music lessons are all your passions, right?). You have an orchestra concert in two days and a paper due next week. On top of all that, your parents are coming into town for Parents’ Weekend, and you haven’t seen them since August. Oh, and the GOAL organization that you’re a member of has a big volunteering event next Tuesday (the day before your paper is due).

How should you handle the crippling stress that must result from such an enormous workload? Common responses include “run away to Alaska,” “jump out of a third-floor window in Kendall,” and “steal 10 M H2SO4 from the chem lab and chug it,” among others. While these are viable options, they may be detrimental to your health.

Bullet journaling may not solve all your problems—it won’t help you get a boyfriend, give you superpowers, or alleviate your chronic stress-induced hiccups. Bullet journaling is also not a foolproof tool for “getting your life together.” However, it is a very effective method for organizing your life and prioritizing your tasks. I have found that it enables me not only to stay on top of deadlines and due dates, but also to divide my work to effectively prepare for said deadlines and due dates.

Unless you’re a Pinterest guru like me and all the other 35-year-old moms out there, you might not know what bullet journaling is. Essentially, it’s a system of personal organization that synthesizes scheduling, reminders, to-do lists, brainstorming, day plans, journaling, and even art into a single notebook. Ryder Carroll developed the bullet journal method a few years back, and he published a comprehensive guidebook in 2018. To learn all the nuances of the system, check out his website.

The intimidating factor for most bullet journal newbies is the time commitment. You might think, “why should I spend hours making a bullet journal when I could just buy a pre-made planner?” For many Hillsdale students, the time they spend on their bullet journals is worthwhile. Recent graduate, Sophie Klomparens, explained that she has more freedom with a bullet journal than a planner or an app. Sophomore Kate Cavanaugh and freshman Jo Von Dohlen both mentioned similar reasons. 

Kate enjoys having more creativity with her notebook’s format versus a typical planner—she can be creative and artsy on days when she has enough time, but she can also pare the journal down to a more minimal style if need be. Jo also mentioned that the bullet journal is helpful for managing her school life and her personal life. 

Bullet journals help balance school and personal life, but Hillsdale students also believe that it helps them organize day-to-day tasks. Sophie said that sometimes, keeping track of what work you need to do and when you need to do it is more challenging than the work itself. (Organic chemistry students will disagree, but the principle still stands.) She says the bullet journal helps her “organize her life in terms of tasks” and work with a greater awareness of her priorities. Kate also recommends keeping a sleep log because it makes her more aware of the disparity between how much she is sleeping and how much she should be sleeping. Jo explains that the bullet journal is a great tool for students because “it can be whatever you want it to be”—in other words, it doesn’t have to fit into a box.

The students also pooled their advice for beginning bullet journalers. Sophie reminded newbies that they don’t need to use every element that they see on Pinterest. The bullet journal should be a useful tool, not an aesthetic prop for your next Instagram photoshoot. Kate’s advice involves the spreads themselves: she says not to be a perfectionist, but to plan out spreads ahead of time in pencil if you anticipate making mistakes. Jo spoke a little bit about the creative side of bullet journaling. She says that the creative side of the journal is a great outlet for some, but it may be overwhelming for others. She recommends starting small and simple, but also branching out and trying new things from month to month.

One of the easiest traps to fall into when bullet journaling is “retail therapy” . . .  but with pens. As Jo reminded me, “a good notebook and black pens are really all you need.” During my five years of bullet journaling, I have probably collected hundreds of different writing utensils. On a daily basis,  however, I use a single black gel pen. Colorful markers (particularly Mildiners and Tombow dual brush pens) are popular, but they’re not crucial to your bullet journaling success. As far as notebooks go, check out brands like Rhodia, Dingbats, and Leuchtturm, and choose “dot grid” paper over blank, ruled, or grid (it gives you more flexibility). Kate also recommends taking advantage of Hillsdale’s free color printing to find graphics to paste into your notebook (if you’re going for the “artsy” angle).

A bullet journal won’t solve all your problems, but it is a great first step for organizing your life. So the next time school and extracurriculars get overwhelming—cancel your tickets to Alaska, back away from the window, and put the H2SO4  away. Instead, buy yourself a bullet journal and a black pen.

Brynn Elson, ’23, is a biochemistry major with a decent comprehension of the English language. She enjoys drinking coffee, playing the clarinet, and overcommitting to things. When she’s not studying (which is rare), you might be able to find her running (read: getting lost) on the back roads or complaining about Hillsdale’s lack of mountains.

Published in May 2021