College Binder Organization in 5 Simple Steps (or Less)

College Binder Organization in 5 Simple Steps (or Less)

If you’re reading this, you’re probably trying to get organized for college. That’s great! I’m really proud of you.

Yes, I’m proud of you, even though we probably don’t even know each other. Why? Because I see students struggle with organization issues all the time. Almost none of them ever do anything about it. So yes, I’m proud of you for taking action to be more organized.

I’ve written elsewhere that being organized is one of the core qualities of good students. When you know where everything is, you don’t waste time looking for stuff you can’t find. So being organized improves both productivity and time management.

In this post we’re going to focus on just one aspect of getting organized for college: college binder organization. Here we’ll look at a fairly simple binder setup. This binder organization system should work for just about any class, so you can use it semester after semester.


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Before we launch into binder organization, I wanted to delve into the big debate: should you use notebooks or binders for college? Clearly, I’m a binder fan, but I want you to know why I recommend that college students use binders.

​Binder vs. Notebook

Before I wrote this post, I had no idea there’s an intense and fairly passionate binder vs. notebook debate among college and college-bound students. I did some research and here’s what I found.

​Notebook pros and cons

The primary advantage of a spiral notebook is that it stores all your notes in one place. You don’t have to worry about loose pages falling out of your notebook or the pages getting out of order. Plus, notebooks are less bulky than binders and therefore easier to carry.

The primary disadvantage of a notebook is that the pages are fixed – you can’t easily add or rearrange pages in a notebook. You can put course handouts inside pockets within a notebook, but that won’t work if you have lots of handouts for one class. The alternative is to have a separate folder for handouts, but then you have two items to keep track of and bring to class.

​Binder pros and cons

The primary advantage of a binder is that you can easily add to and rearrange the contents. This means binders have more organizational options than notebooks. You can add dividers, zippered pockets, document holders and other accessories to a binder. Binders are also easier to store than notebooks, since they can stand upright on their own (a big advantage if you’re storing them on a bookshelf).

The primary disadvantage of binders is that they’re bulkier than notebooks and harder to carry. The contents of a binder can also get out of order very easily if you’re not careful, something you don’t have to worry about with fixed-page spiral notebooks.

Binders also tend to be more expensive than spiral notebooks. However, you can reuse binders from one semester to the next, which is often not possible with notebooks.


​Why I recommend college students use binders

Binders are bulkier and more expensive than notebooks, but I still recommend that students use binders. There’s no denying that binders offer more organizational possibilities than notebooks. And since getting and staying organized in college is our main goal here, I suggest that college students use binders for their classes.

​One vs. many binders

I know some students use one binder for all their classes, but I endorse the one binder per class approach. Again, our goal is organization and having one binder for each class follows some organization best practices.

First, having one binder for each class makes it easier to color code your course materials (more on that later). Second, the one binder per class approach lets you group like things together.

Grouping like items is a fairly basic organizing principle. This is why kids are taught to store all their crayons in one box, all their Legos in another and so on. With one binder per class, your biology materials are in one place, your history materials are in a different place and things stay more organized.

Okay, now that I’ve staked my claim in the binder vs. notebook debate, let’s get onto to our discussion of college binder organization.

​How to Organize a Binder in 5 Steps (or Less)

​Note:​ ​​​​Sorry about the dark photos in this post. I'll try to take some better ones soon. Unfortunately, I'm not very creative, so my binder decoration skills are unlikely to improve.  

​Step 1:  Gather Your Binder and Other Materials

I’m a big fan of using color to organize college binders. In fact, I still use a color coding system for my teaching binders. In this example, you’ll see that I’ve used a white binder with a simple red color scheme.


My college binder organization system uses the following materials.

​1” 3 ring binders

In most cases, a one-inch binder should be big enough to hold all the materials for each of your classes. When it comes to setting up a color coding system with your binders, you have a few options.

You can use 1” 3 ring white binders and personalize them with your own color coding system, as I’ve done here. I prefer white binders because I think they have a cleaner look. Plus, white binders tend to be a bit cheaper than colored binders. But, you can use 3 ring binders in different colors, if you prefer.

Whether you use white or multi-colored binders, one order of six binders should get you through several semesters of college. As long as you take care of them, you should be able to reuse them several times.

​White binder dividers

You can buy white binder dividers in bulk; one package should be enough to last several semesters.

Alternatively, you can create your own binder dividers fairly easily using cardstock. Cardstock is a thicker material and therefore is sturdier than typical binder dividers. In this example, I cut my own binder dividers from 12”x12” white cardstock paper.

​Letter size zippered document pocket

I like to put a zippered document pocket at the front of each of my binders to hold loose papers until I have time to hole punch and file them.

​3 hole punch

You may get a lot of handouts or need to print out PowerPoint slides or readings in some of your classes. If you’re going to use binders to stay organized in college, it makes sense to have your own inexpensive 3 hole punch.

​Repositionable divider tabs

I use these write-on divider tabs to separate the important sections of my notes. You can see an example in Step 3.

​Permanent markers/Sharpies

You can buy markers and Sharpie pens in a variety of colors, so should be able to easily fit these into your own color coded binder organization system.

​College-ruled paper

You can buy the more expensive reinforced college ruled paper if you want, but the cheaper unreinforced paper will probably work fine for most students.

​Decorative materials

Okay, before I get too much further, I want to say: decorating or personalizing your binder is totally optional. If you’re not crafty or just don’t care, then don’t worry about it. But, there’s nothing wrong with adding some personality to your binder.

If you want to decorate your binder and binder dividers, go for it. After all, you’ll be using your college binders every day, so they might as well be pleasant looking. Just don’t spend more time decorating your binder than you do keeping it organized.

There’s no prettiest binder contest in college. Personalize your binder if you want, but remember our priority here is to develop a system to keep you organized in college.

​Step 2: Personalize Your Binder (optional)

If you want to decorate your binder, now’s the time. But again, this is totally optional. That’s why I said you can organize your binders in five steps or less. If you’re not into decorating, you can totally skip this step.

But even if you don’t decorate your binder, you still need to set up a color coding system. If you’re using binders in assorted colors all you need to do is assign a color to each of your classes.

If you’re using white binders, then you’ll need to label them somehow. You can decorate them a bit, as I’ve done here, using red for my geography classes. If you don’t want to decorate them, then just printing a label (e.g. ​red for geography, blue for biology) and putting it in the spine of the binder will be sufficient.

The most important things here are that you have a different color for each class and a way to clearly distinguish between your binders.

​Step 3: Assemble Your Binder

Once you’ve gathered your materials and decided on your color coding system, it’s time to assemble your binder. These are the items I put in my binder, in order.

Zippered document pocket. This goes on top and will store loose papers until you have a chance to hole punch them. You can put class handouts, readings and returned homework/tests in here. You will also put homework to be turned in during class in this pocket for safekeeping. Use this pocket like a daily work folder.

Blank paper. I put blank paper near the front of my notebook for the current weeks’ notes. Then, once I’ve finished reviewing/studying those notes (or, now that I teach, once I’ve finished lecturing with those notes), I file them in the notes section.


Dividers. Next, add dividers to separate major sections of your binder. You’ll definitely need a notes section in your college binder, but other sections will depend on each class. Some ideas for binder sections include:

  • ​Readings
  • Lab Exercises
  • ​Project planning/notes
  • ​Research paper notes
  • Paper/essay drafts
  • Returned word (homework/tests/quizzes)
  • Study guides/practice tests/exam prep

Look at the course syllabus for each of your classes when figuring out how to set up your college binder. For instance, if the syllabus lists a lot of homework assignments or mentions a final project, you know you’ll need sections for homework and project planning/notes in your binder.

Don’t be afraid to modify the setup of your binder as class progresses. You may find you need to add a new section, combine two sections, or even eliminate a section. The most important thing about a college binder organization system is that it works for you. So, if something with your original setup isn’t working, change it.

Accessories. You can add other accessories to your binder if you want. One popular option among my students is a zippered pouch to hold pens and other small items. Another popular binder accessory is a sticky note set made to fit inside binders.

​Step 4: Add Content to Your Binder

Obviously, you won’t have a lot of stuff to put in your binder on the first day of class, but that will change as the semester goes on. The first few weeks, though, you’ll probably just have your course syllabus, class notes and maybe some handouts.

Syllabus. You’ll refer to the course syllabus a lot – or at least you should – so keep it handy. I usually put mine up front, just below my zippered document pocket.


Notes. Again, my binder organization system has two notes sections. The first notes section is near the front of the binder, right behind the course syllabus. I keep my current week’s notes there, so I can easily review them after class or refer to them during class.

Once we’ve finished a topic, I move the notes to the actual notes section. The notes section, then, is really a filing area, where notes are stored until they’re needed again. Because this section acts as a filing system, you need to keep it organized.

​I like to use repositionable write-on dividers to create subsections within the notes section. For example, here you can see that I’ve created subsections for landforms and climate inside the notes section for a geography class. You can also see I’ve continued my color scheme here by writing the subsection titles in red.


Handouts. I’ve seen some students create a separate section for handouts in their binders. I think it’s better to store class handouts in the notes section so they are next to related material. It’s a lot easier to study when all the content for one topic is filed together.

Again, you’ll add more content to your binder during the semester, so don’t be afraid to experiment with your binder organization until you find the system that works best for you.

I do recommend that you keep your college binder organization system simple. You can decorate your binder if you want to but don’t fill your binder with unnecessary content. You can find all sorts of binder printables online; if you aren’t going to use those, don’t put them in your binder.

Remember that your class binder is a study tool – your most important study tool, actually. Don’t put things in your binder that detract from its true purpose of helping you study effectively.

​Step 5: Commit to Staying Organized

Getting organized is completely different than staying organized. To maintain your college binder organization system, you have to commit to a process.

Set aside time at least once a week to organize your binder. During this organization session, you should perform tasks like:

  • ​Reviewing and filing notes
  • ​Hole punching and filing handouts
  • Reviewing and filing returned/graded work
  • Discarding no longer needed material (e.g. old study guides, old paper drafts)
  • Replenishing paper or other supplies you carry in your binder

Tip: schedule your organization session(s) in your planner. Use your color coding system here, too. If your biology notebook is blue, use a blue pen when writing biology-related tasks and appointments in your planner.

Even if you have binders for four or five classes, your binder organization sessions shouldn’t take long – if you commit to doing them regularly. Trying to organize half a semesters’ worth of notes the day before your midterm isn’t helpful. You have to make staying organized regular habit.


The most important thing to remember here is to keep your college binder organization system as simple as possible. This is especially true if you tend to struggle with organization issues in general. The easier a system is to maintain, the more likely you are to do so.

Be sure the content you put into your binder has a real purpose. You can add calendars, bookmarks and other things to your binder. If those things don’t actually help you stay organized or study better, you don’t need them in your binder.

It may take you awhile to figure out a binder organization system that works for you and that’s okay. You may find that what works well in one class doesn’t really work in another. Don’t be afraid to try different binder setups. Once you find the best college binder organization system for you, you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to stay organized.

​Until next time, best wishes and keep learning,

The Prudent Professor

The Prudent Professor is the alter ego of Amanda Coleman (BS, MS, PhD), who has taught, advised and mentored students for over 20 years. Amanda has worked with students in high school through graduate school, at schools ranging from community colleges to large state universities. Amanda spends most of her free time bookmarking crafts she’ll probably never make and planning trips she’ll probably never take. She also outlines plots for novels she will eventually write (maybe).