How to Succeed as a Commuter Student: 18 Proven Tips

Throughout university, commuting has been both a productive and frustrating experience for me.

I studied in downtown Toronto while living with my parents in the suburbs about 15-20 miles away. Because of this, I commuted about 3 hours a day for 5 years, and I did it with every form of transportation you can imagine: car, train, bus, subway, hands and knees (okay, that last one might be an exaggeration).

My worst commute horror story happened on the day of my last exam of university, of all times:

  • The subway line lost power because of a notorious Toronto snowstorm
  • I had to run go back to my car (which I had already paid the $6 parking for) and drive 1.5 hours to get to school
  • I could only take slow, inside roads and not the highway because of the rush hour standstill
  • A huge block of snow fell on my windshield as I was driving and bent my wiper out (so I had to get out in the middle of the road at a stoplight to fix it)
  • I had to pay another $25 to park in downtown Toronto where my school was
  • I was 1 hour late to a 2-hour exam that I absolutely had to pass to graduate

You’ll have to read till the end to know the ending of this story, but if this makes commuting sound like a nightmare, let me set the record straight: it usually isn’t.

This was one incident out of hundreds. For the most part, my commutes were uneventful, productive, and even rewarding.

In this post, I’ll be going through 18 tips on how you can succeed as a commuter student. Here’s how the 18 tips break down:

Let’s get into it!

5 Reasons Being a Commuter Student Rocks

man smiling on subway

1. Choice of how much time you want to spend studying versus with friends

Since you don’t live on campus, no one is going to barge into your dorm room asking where your roommate is. And there won’t be any unplanned beer pong sessions at 1 AM when you’re scrambling to study for your organic chemistry midterm.

Some people may see that as less exciting, but if you want the spontaneity, you can always stay over a friend’s dorm room. The key thing is that commuting gives you have a choice of when it’s work time and party time.

2. Commuting is a forcing function for productivity

Whether you drive to campus or you take public transit, your daily commute is a blocked out period of time that you can’t escape, even if you’re not feeling motivated that day.

For example, if you drive or take the subway to school, you can listen to podcasts or recorded lectures. If you take the train like I do, you can do a lot of difficult reading and writing, especially if the train doesn’t have onboard Wifi to distract you (more on this later).

3. School-life balance

Because your commute is a set start and end to your day, you can use it as a marker of when to start and stop doing schoolwork. For example, you can decide to only do schoolwork between your 7:30 AM commute until 4:30 PM in the afternoon, or between your 8:30 AM train and your 5:30 PM ride back.

At other times, you’re free to do whatever the heck you want. You can even take these set times to the next level by deciding not to do any schoolwork in the evenings and weekends.

Trust me, it’s possible because these boundaries force you to sit down and focus on your work, without the temptation to procrastinate and drag everything out throughout the day.

4. It’s cheaper than living on campus

For this point, I’m assuming you’re living with parents or at a cheaper place farther from school. I’m also assuming that you either don’t drive to school or that your parents help you out with the car expenses.

Being a commuter student might help you graduate debt-free because you’re cutting down on one of the biggest expenses in student life: room and board.

5. Catch up on shows, guilt-free

Like I mentioned in reason #3, having a commute to bookend your days means that you have a way to help you separate your schoolwork and the rest of your life.

Giving yourself the incentive of watching Season 7 of Suits if you finish your Stats 202 assignment before your 5:30 PM train helps, too. You get your work done and get a 4.0 on that course, and you also know better than your other friends on what’s happening between Mike and Rachel. 😉

6 Realistic Ways to Be Productive as a Commuter Student

man reading on top of a bus

I’m going to be honest with you — I’m not a disciplined person.

But because commuting gave me constraints to work around, being a commuter student helped me get a 4.1 GPA out of 4.33 (around a 95%) in my first year while swimming competitively.

Here are some tactics I used that you can try:

6. Use your commute to bookend your day

Like I mentioned in the first part of this post, make your commute to campus a productive time. Bring coffee on the train in the morning if you have to. And on the way home, use it as a way to ease out of your day – meditate, take a nap, or read a book.

This tactic is something author and professor Cal Newport uses. He has a shutdown process that ends off his day and a fixed schedule that has a set start and end time.

7. Learn on the commute

I advocate public transportation over driving because you can work while you travel (and you don’t have to worry about finding parking). And doing readings and schoolwork that you hate doing and procrastinate on the most on the train or bus is the best because they usually don’t have Wi-Fi to distract you.

For myself, I get a ton of writing done on the commute, because there are no distractions and I pump out my writing quickly since there’s a time limit (i.e. the end of the commute). I use Google Docs offline for this.

You can also use apps like Instapaper and Pocket to save blog posts offline to read.

8. Meditate

I like using Headspace to meditate on my commute, because if I can find my quiet space on a bustling train, then I can find it anywhere. It’s also an excellent way to start and end my day in focus.

9. Tie up loose ends

You can also use commuting to batch together similar tasks that aren’t productive in themselves, like phone calls and emails.

I do this by downloading all my emails to Apple Mail or Gmail on my phone before I leave school, then clearing them all on the way home.

10. Rest on the commute back

This is one of my favorite parts of being a commuter student: I have a designated nap time every day before dinner. 😂

Depending on how tired I am, I may or may not need my cheapo Sony noise canceling headphones to sleep. If I have headphones on I like listening to Spotify’s K-Pop Acoustics playlist, even though I have no idea what they’re singing.

11. Bring flashcards to memorize when you’re waiting

Memorizing is the bane of my existence. I have a good memory, but I just don’t like sitting down and doing it. By doing it when I’m waiting for the train or bus, it feels productive and I don’t have to sit down at my desk to do it.

7 Tips to Effortlessly Make Friends as a Commuter Student

friends studying together

Most on-campus students are around each other 24/7, so they naturally get close. As a commuter student, though, you’re not on-campus all the time like they are. Here are 7 ways you can work around that.

12. Intramural sports

This is a great way to meet people in your major and in other majors because nothing brings people together like a shared enemy. If you’ve never played sports in your life, Ultimate Frisbee and slow-pitch softball are two team sports that are easy to pick up. Just make sure to stay hydrated.

13. Intentional networking

Set one afternoon to get coffee (or cookies!) 1:1 with folks, then schedule people back to back so the meetups overlap and people meet each other.

This way, you start building a circle of people who know and (fingers crossed) want to hang out with each other.

Pro tip: Send follow-ups to people after you meet them, asking them that to introduce you to anyone cool so you can meet more people over for cookies or coffee. Something like,

Hey Yvonne,

It was great meeting you today. Wasn’t that THE best chocolate cookie you’ve ever had?!

Haha. Anyways. If you know someone cool you think I’d enjoy meeting, feel free to connect us over Facebook Messenger or email — I’d love to take them out for cookies, too.

Keep in touch!

–Roxine

14. Sleep over at friends’ places (but not too often)

Assuming that you used tips 12 and 13, in addition to talking to classmates, this is a simple way to get the on-campus experience without the costs.

If there’s a party or event happening on campus, ask your friends if you can stay over at their place and hang out – but be sure to be an easy guest and not to overstay your welcome!

For example, I have a close friend – let’s call her Abby – who stayed overnight at someone else’s place – let’s call her Beth. Now Beth and I have a mutual friend – let’s call her Christine.

As Christine and I were having dinner, I mentioned that I heard Abby was staying over at Beth’s place. Christine made a face. “Yeah, it was just supposed to be one night because Abby has exams. But it’s been two and she’s still there. And Beth doesn’t really know how to politely kick her out.”

Ugh. Don’t be Abby.

15. Plan your weekends

On Thursday or Friday, when you see that your schedule’s open on Saturday, don’t just think about playing Fortnite or Overwatch alone. Get people over to your place or to someone else’s place and play together – whether that’s Just Dance, karaoke, board games, or D&D.

16. Attend campus events

Set times like Teddy Roosevelt did, study for a set time during the day, then leave the evenings free to have fun, hang out with people, and try new things.

Most things happen in the evenings, anyways, so if you’re OK getting home a bit later, then hit up all the events you can attend!

17. Organize events yourself

Similar to #13, don’t wait for people to invite you out – initiate.

For example, if your friends don’t know each other, try to get 3-4 of them together to watch a movie you all want to see, grab dinner afterwards, and – BOOM – you just created a new crew to hang out with.

Congratulations!

It doesn’t have to be a huge thing — even a simple backyard barbeque or a brunch at someone’s place will still bring your friends together.

18. Keep in touch with people from where you live and with people from school

One hidden advantage of being a commuter student is that you have twice the circle of possible acquaintances and friends. For example, I would spend most of my weekdays at school with my school friends, then spend Friday nights and weekends with friends from my church at home.

Make the most of it and keep in touch with other commuter students you know—maybe even visit friends in other universities.

Check out this post for a more in-depth guide to making friends in college.

Conclusion

eating a meal together

Commuter students are more isolated than most students who live on campus, but that’s OK. This simply means they have a choice on how much time they spend on campus and how they spend that time.

If you’re on the fence trying to decide whether you should live in campus housing or at home, I hope this post will help you decide, because despite the ridiculous day I had on the day of my last exam, the good news is that I (barely) passed the course and convocated.

True, it was an incredibly stressful way to end my undergrad career, but the truth is, commuting isn’t as big of a hassle as you think.

In fact, for some people, commuting might actually make more sense than living on residence, especially if you need some structure in your day to keep yourself disciplined. Who knows? Maybe all of that time spent traveling back and forth might actually help you do better in school!

Image Credits: featured, man smiling on subway, man reading on bus, women laughing, meal

Roxine is the brains behind Defy Gravity — a blog aimed to help you conquer life and achieve your craziest dreams, even if you’re still in school. She landed her dream job before graduation, went from self-conscious to self-confident, and found her answer to the question of “WTH do I do with my life?!”

If you’re tired of mediocrity and you're ready to take concrete steps towards your dreams, sign up for the weekly newsletter here.

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