How to Stay Organized this Spring: Tips for College Counselors

Last updated: Feb 19, 2020

If ever there was a self-help movement that translates fluently to the office of a college counselor, it’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, created by Japanese organizational consultant Marie Kondo. If you want to know how to stay organized this spring, we have tips for college counselors inspired by the tidying up movement to help you create a clutter-free, efficient, and welcoming office that will help you do your job with more joy and deliver better results for your students.

Decide What to Keep

Kondo’s tidying up methods, featured in her bestselling books and Netflix series, can inspire more than a simple spring cleaning of your workspace. Creating a chaos-free office environment can improve your productivity and change the way you approach the important work of college counseling. If you’ve never thought of tidying your desk as a behavioral strategy for a better work-life, today’s the day to get started, beginning with step one, deciding what to keep.

Less draining than deciding what you’re willing to part with, choosing the items that remain is a more joyful approach to imposing order on your office. An at-home spring cleaning might be a wholesale purge of everything past its use-before date in your pantry or pair of shoes that predates your college graduation. In a school setting, though, there are some items that simply cannot be tossed, such as district-owned records and contracts. But it’s still possible to declutter. Start by going as paperless as possible. Scan documents and store them digitally. Create an organizing, sharing, and archiving system for digital files, including a naming convention you and anyone else who accesses the files can remember and replicate for future files. Start a practice of not keying the print button unless absolutely necessary. 

At this stage, allow tidying up to prompt you to consider freshening up your processes, too. Of your many competing responsibilities this spring, what are you going to keep in your schedule? For example, are your small group scholarship seminars poorly attended? Might be time to discard them in favor of your popular “paying for college” presentation, offered the same night as open house, or a targeted email campaign, complete with links to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

A college counselor's hands resting on top of four binders filled with papers

Create 5 Categories

For at-home tidying, the Kondo method focuses on five elements of domestic life: clothes, books, papers, miscellany, and sentimental items. Unless you’re responsible for ordering spirit swag and senior T-shirts, clothes shouldn’t come into play during your office spring cleaning, but the other four categories should.

Books

Are your shelves sagging under the weight of yearbooks, university view books, reference tomes, testing and assessment guides, inspirational reads, and procedural manuals from your school district? Unless it is a job requirement for you to keep a particular title, stack every book in your office and evaluate, spine by spine, whether it adds value, purpose, or joy to you and your students. If yes, it goes on the keep pile. If no, donate it. To a true book lover, Kondo’s recommendation of keeping only 30 books is brutal, but the idea is to benefit from your book collection going forward, not looking back.

Papers

At home, letting go of papers is a challenge. In a college counselor’s office, it can be paralyzing. Because your school likely has a records management plan, you need to adhere to its system, but that does not mean you need to hold on to duplicates, first drafts, outdated materials, or promotional papers. Stack every paper from your inbox, desktop, and file cabinet to evaluate its current or future usefulness. Keep only what’s necessary. You don’t want to file what you can recycle.    

At this stage of the process, consider your own part in the paper cycle. Going forward, are there digital options you can share with students and parents instead of handouts? Tidying up is not only an issue of incoming mess; it is an opportunity to be thoughtful about your contribution to the clutter on other peoples’ desks, too.

Five stacks of paper secured with black binder clips

Miscellany

Your desk likely has a catchall drawer stuffed with rubber bands, takeout menus, sticky notes, and a rainbow of highlighters. If a pen doesn’t work, toss it. If you have more than one stapler, find a new home for your spare. Evaluate each item on your shelves (is that aloe plant thriving or stressing you out?), in your desk (what’s with all the loose paperclips?), and in your floor plan (has anyone ever used the coat rack?), and keep those items that you need or truly enjoy.

At this point, it can be constructive for you to tidy your digital junk drawer, too:

  • Delete old, unread, and unnecessarily archived emails. Answer everything else.
  • Keep only the bookmarked pages you’re still interested in.
  • Clear your browser.
  • Subscribe only to the podcasts and YouTube links in your queue that you love; delete the rest.
  • Unfriend and unfollow any site or connection that does not nourish your career, social life, or sense of wonder.
  • Organize digital photos on your phone, and delete unused apps. Same on your computer.
  • Update your email and phone contacts, and recycle paper business cards.

As you work on this minimalist digital cleanse, there will be crossover between your personal life and professional life. If you organize both this spring, your productivity in and out of the office will soar. Your stress will plummet. Students will reap the benefit.

Sentimental Items

At home, this category can stop your decluttering intentions cold. Who wants to toss old love letters or your first soccer trophy? At work, however, knickknacks, mementoes, and whatnot create visual chaos that impedes creativity, connection, and calm. It’s time to tidy it up. Evaluate each certificate, doodad, apple-themed coffee mug, university gift bag, that collection of fidget spinners, and decide whether it’s necessary, instructive, life-improving, or productive to your work on behalf of students. If sentimentality is its only virtue, consider gifting it or ditching it.

A light and bright office space that's organized and decluttered

Put Everything Where It Goes

School budgets being what they are, a fancy custom office suite likely is not going to materialize, but look at your keep items, the size and shape of your categories, and make adequate space for them in your office. A colorful milk crate or a clear rubber box with a pink label will do. All items of the same type should be stored together. According to Kondo, when you designate a place for each thing, clutter is solved, especially when you’re unequivocal about the discard process. Simplify and organize your office once, and theoretically you’ll never have to tackle it again.

At this stage, consider how your physical space contributes to or challenges the work you do with students:

  • Is there a space available for students to sit comfortably when they need your advice?
  • Do you have a warm and relaxing waiting area, a place for them to stow their backpacks?
  • Consider your wingspan: Can you reach what you need without getting up?
  • Can you make your screen visible to visitors so they can review an important webpage with you?
  • Can you easily access their paper and digital information, or do you have to fumble around trying to remember where you filed their reference letter or volunteer hours?

Does It Spark Joy (or Improve Results)?  

Despite the shift to thinking about keeping the good stuff, rather than focusing on ditching the useless stuff, you are going to have to part ways with things you have cared about to pursue a more organized office. Kondo’s method centers on this question: Does it spark joy? An orange prison jumpsuit illustrates how easy it is to hang on to items in your office that do not spark joy or improve results. Is your space sparking joy for you? Are your desk items and systems sparking joy for your students? Is your office improving results? Or is it just showcasing joyless stuff masquerading as office décor?

Sparking joy is not limited to possessions and furniture placement. How you allocate your professional time is also a method of sparking joy and improving results. This is the time to organize your calendar for the remaining school year. Having events planned six months in advance (advising about campus tours, Advanced Placement study groups, scholarship deadlines, college fairs), with a handful of dates blocked off for unforeseen (but planned for) surprises, helps you feel in command, joyful, flexible, productive, successful. 

Staying organized this spring means guiding your seniors to graduation and getting your juniors prepped for the testing and application season to come. If USF is a target for your students, our Counselor Toolkit has even more tips to help you help them. If you have questions about USF, the Office of Admissions has answers. Contact us online, or by phone at 813-974-3350.

GET MORE COUNSELOR RESOURCES

Interested in receiving the latest college counselor resources, tools and information? Sign up for USF's College Counselor Email Newsletter and Toolkit.

Sign Up