Back To University: Five Bits of Productivity Software Every Student Needs

By Meg Neal on at

So, you’re off to university and you want some tips and hints on how exactly you can improve your workflow. Given there will likely be a lot of distractions from serious work — especially in the earlier years, shall we say — working smarter, alongside harder, will help you enormously.

The wizards at Gizmodo have spent some time thinking up the five essential software productivity tools you’ll need to make the most of your time in higher education. While nothing is a substitute for a decent work ethic and attending lectures (even the 9ams), these tools will hopefully make the journey a little easier and more enjoyable.

Whatever your degree is, and however you work and learn, these tools will be helpful to you. Without further ado, let’s jump into the best productivity software for university students.

Office 365 

You’ll almost certainly have heard about this one at this stage — in fact, we’d bet money on it. But it’s worth considering all of the things this quite inexpensive suite of software tools can do. While it may seem like everyone at uni is sporting a brand new MacBook, the academic world still runs on Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, and the rest, so it’s good to have a good grip on it.

A subscription to Office 365 comes in a range of different types, some of them one-off payments and others on a monthly subscription basis. The Student version, for example, is a £120 one-off purchase while the Home and Personal versions cost £7.99 and £5.99 per month respectively (with yearly payment options, too.) This might seem quite steep but the software is basically unparalleled and will definitely be compatible with your lecturer’s crusty old laptop.

One top tip we have: make full use of OneNote for lectures, seminars, and the like; it’s a really good way to keep on top of everything in some simple-to-use way, especially around exam or essay writing time. Trust us, it’s worth it.

No matter what your course is, there will likely be a lot of different things going on all over the place, especially when it comes to exam season next summer. In order to keep all of these various things sorted and clear, it’s a good idea to get acquainted with, one of the best to-do apps around.

The service has apps across every major platform — Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Wear OS, Alexa, Slack, you name it — and that means that wherever you are, your tasks will be there too. Syncing tasks is only one part of it, however: the app also has a built-in calendar for longer-term planning, a reminders feature, and shopping list tool. Basically, the app is very, very nifty.

Most of the functionality is free to use, but there is a premium tier if you’re feeling extra fancy. For $5.99 per month (about £4.85) you can colour tasks, set locations for reminders, add attachments, and collaborate with others.

Apple Notes

Windows and Android users, look away now. The built-in Notes app that Apple provides for Mac and iOS users got an upgrade a few cycles ago and is now really, really good for productivity. If you’re lucky enough to own both an iPhone (or iPad) and a Mac, the syncing between them is really useful. I often create shopping lists while sat at my laptop and then add to them from my phone, for example.

In terms of uni productivity, there are a few useful tools. Notes can be allocated to folders for different tasks and each note can have tables, check boxes, photos, and so on. Notes can easily be shared with contacts, too, who can edit the notes live alongside you.

The best part, for Mac and iOS users anyway, is that Notes comes completely free; there is no paid tier or anything like that. Syncing is automatic and seamless. It really is low-key one of the best apps Apple has made.


This one is maybe the best. For the uninitiated, WolframAlpha is an amazing creation based around AI and natural language processing for hard, often mathematical, questions. While I am no maths wizard, the sheer range of math-related things that the service can do — algebra, plotting graphs, geometry, among them — is enormous, and that’s without even getting into the other things it can do. For example, it can tell you what date is X days from today; the population of certain areas; the dates albums came out, and loads more.

Think of WolframAlpha as Google but on steroids: it’s immensely powerful and really easy to use, making it the ideal tool for any uni degree. Even if you don’t take a numbers-heavy course, knowing dates, times, info on locations, and so on is super useful.

And the best part? The service — at least the website version — is completely free. There is an app, which costs £2.99 on iOS, and a premium version, including a student-focused variant, but the free version will be enough for most people.

Google Drive 

Last, but definitely not least, is another one that you will all have heard of: the Office-like offering from Google, which everyone has used at one point or another in their lives. The plus-sides — it’s free, all you need is a browser, your work is always backed up — are clear. If you haven’t used Docs in a while, for example, it would definitely be worth giving it another go.

For our purposes, though, the reason for suggesting Google Drive is simple: you get 15GB of storage for free, with no strings attached. This will easily be enough for most people to store all three years of uni material in the cloud, safe from any harm that might befall your laptop if, say, someone accidentally spills a drink on it during Freshers Week. Having everything saved safely is the greatest peace of mind that it’s possible to achieve.

The desktop versions of Google Drive are good, too, on both Windows and Mac, creating a folder where you can easily save stuff without having to load your browser every time — a surefire faff.

Basically, go and get those free 15GB!

Featured image: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash