Making the Most of Your Mac in School

There’s no denying that Macs have been quite popular with students for years, and with good reason. Apple’s computers are ideal for an academic context (and, we’d argue, almost any context, but we might be biased), given their reliability and features that help its users to get stuff done. However, I’ve come to realize that students often use their Macs superficially. Most are not taking full advantage of everything OS X offers them, not to mention the myriad of incredible third-party apps.

I’ll attempt to capitalize on my 4-year experience with using Macs as a student. In all honesty, many of these tips can be applied to any situation, so long as it involves productivity in one way or another. Moreover, don’t expect these tips to be mindblowing; they’re aimed at new Mac users, but even old timers might find a new tip or three.

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Backup Your Mac!

Granted, this is no revelation. Nevertheless, this doesn’t take away from the importance of backups. I’m sure you’ve already heard plenty on why it is important to backup your data, so I’ll skip that part and jump right to the how.

Luckily, there’s a built-in tool in every Mac that enables easy backups: Time Machine. You’ll find it in two places: in your Applications folder, and in your System Preferences. The former is useful only when you already have a Time Machine backup and want to find a file in it. The latter is where the user sets up Time Machine, which is what we want. All you need to do is plug in an external hard drive (which is entirely worth the expense, seeing as it can potentially save you the massive headache of losing data) and you’ll be able to Select Backup Disk in the Time Machine preference pane. The rest is self-explanatory.

A little side-note: you should also consider online backups, for the simple reason that if a fire breaks out where you have both your computer and backup disk, your backup is gone right along with your Mac. Two well-known, affordable services are Backblaze and CrashPlan. You should check them out.

Dropbox Is a Student’s Best Friend

You’ve probably heard of Dropbox, but never gave it second thought. Well, let me tell you that it is the single, most useful web service out there, especially for students. I would recommend putting all of your classwork in your Dropbox folder. Here’s why.

Dropbox is useful for so many reasons. First of all, consider it an automatic basic online backup solution. Obviously, with your free 2-GB account, you can’t put much, but you should have enough storage for those crucial school files. If you do decide to get a pro account, it might be all the online backup you need. Second, all of your files become accessible virtually wherever you are. You can either access them via a Dropbox app (say, on your smartphone) or you can simply use the web application. No more “I forgot my homework at home”. Third, a lesser known Dropbox feature is version history. You can read about it here, but essentially, it grants you access to previous versions of a file (up to 30 days with a free account). For instance, if you save a file after deleting some text and undo isn’t working, you can access a previous version and copy the text from there. It’s a true lifesaver.

SelfControl

I just need to mention this gem. Basically, you add a list of websites to a blacklist (e.g., facebook.com, twitter.com, youtube.com) and then activate SelfControl for a given time (e.g., 4 hours). You will then lose access to those websites and there’s nothing you can do about it, not even brute-force tactics such as uninstalling the app and restarting the computer. As a social media addict, I recognize the need for having this app on every Mac I use.

SelfControl

SelfControl’s power lies in its simplicity: a blacklist and a timer. That’s all you need for artificial self-control.

Prepare Yourself Against Theft

Unfortunately, university campuses aren’t without crime. Theft, most notably of high tech items such as laptops, is still very common. So, why not put the odds in your favor?

There are a few solutions out there, of which I will discuss two: Find my Mac and the Prey Project. Within iCloud’s settings, there’s Find my Mac, which allows the user to locate the computer, send a message or sound, and remotely lock or wipe the machine. Granted, these provide means of protecting the user’s data, but not so much to recover the computer itself. This is where the Prey Project comes in. Their homepage does a good job at describing what it does. In short, it offers better ways of finding the culprit. All you need to do is create a free account and run the installer on your Mac. This way, you won’t have any regrets if something does happen.

Textbooks on Your Mac

I’ve stuck with paper versions of my textbooks, but ebooks textbooks are increasingly a great option for saving money and weight in your backpack. A bunch of companies have been promoting this new medium, namely Apple and Amazon, though oddly Apple hasn’t done much to promote ebooks on the Mac themselves. Something worth noting is that you can install Kindle for Mac and view your textbooks right there, on your computer. This accommodates those that don’t have a tablet computer. So, next time you shop for textbooks, check out if Amazon offers Kindle counterparts, saving you both money and effort.

Preview Doesn’t Just Preview

If there’s one app which is a clear underdog and rarely given the attention it deserves, it’s Preview.app. You probably use it all the time to simply view images and PDF documents. However, its functionality doesn’t end there. I’ve used it on the past to crop images, annotate both pictures and PDFs, combine documents, and more. As of Mountain Lion, the tools found in the Edit Toolbar are even more powerful, allowing image resizing, color adjustments and more. It’s one of the best preinstalled apps on your Mac.

Preview

The myriad of options offered in Preview.app is amazing. Just click on the Show Edit Toolbar button.

Consider AppleCare

I know what you’re probably all thinking: is this guy really trying to sell me an extended warranty over the Internet? Indeed, I am, but I don’t work on commission, so stick around for just a bit.

As a student, your Mac will most likely become your life, meaning that losing your Mac, or your access thereto, would prove to be catastrophic. Thankfully, Apple has a great customer care system in place, the Genius Bar, to ensure quick repairs. However, there’s no denying it: they can be quite expensive, depending on the part. On my 15” MacBook Pro, I had the screen and the logic board swapped. If it weren’t for AppleCare, I would have payed over $500 for each repair. That’s why I think that tripling your coverage to three years with AppleCare is completely worth it, especially when you can get it at a discounted price as a student.

Quick Tips

That’s all the major stuff, but there’s so much more that you can do with your Mac to make your school life easier. Here’s an enumeration of quick tips that I use almost daily.

Use Spotlight

Make sure you make use of Spotlight. It’s a multipurpose tool that comes with every Mac. Not only can you launch applications, but you can also perform quick calculations (e.g., type “(1100 + 200)*1.15”), search for word definitions, and more.

Spotlight

Spotlight is more than just a file searching tool. You can define words, make quick calculations and launch apps.

Speaking of Dictionary

One of my favorite gestures is the three-finger tap. In most applications, if you perform a three-finger tap while the cursor is hovering a word, a dictionary and thesaurus pop-up will appear. This makes learning new words on the fly easier than ever. Furthermore, you also have embedded Wikipedia articles within the popup, great for reading the first paragraph, which more often than not contains enough information. Click on either Dictionary, Thesaurus or Wikipedia to expand that section right in the popup.

Screenshots Made Easy

Remember the days when taking a screenshot on Windows required to perform a Print Screen, then pasting in something like Word or MS Paint? Thankfully, it’s a thing of the past with OS X. If you tap Cmd-Shift–4, your cursor will change into a crossfire and you will be able to select a region of the screen. The selected region will then be taken as a screenshot and the image file will be created on the Desktop. You no longer have an excuse for taking pictures of your screen. Bonus: if you want to take a screenshot of an entire window, after pressing Cmd-Shift–4, press the spacebar. Cool, huh?

Change Your Default Finder Location

When you open a new Finder window during the semester, shouldn’t it be your school folder? You can do exactly that by opening the Finder preferences and changing the “New Finder windows show” to your current semester’s folder. Small things adds up.

Hide, Not Minimize

Coming from a Windows environment, it’s tempting to minimize apps when we need to temporarily get rid of them. Well, there’s an alternative in OS X which I find works better, and it’s the Hide mechanism. Instead of minimizing apps, you can hide them by clicking Cmd-H, in which case they simply disappear until you open it again (e.g., by clicking its icon in the Dock). This eliminates the minimize animation, which is cool the first time, but annoying every other time.

Paste and Match Style

Another cool OS X feature is the Paste and Match Style. In most apps, under the Edit menu, you’ll find this option below the regular Paste item. Let me explain the difference. Have you ever copied text into Word from a website and realize that the text kept the style from the source, such as the typeface or font size? Well, Paste and Match Style solves this issue. As the name implies, it strips any style from whatever text is in the clipboard. This way, when you paste it, it matches the surrounding text.

Final Thoughts

Even to this day, I’m always learning new ways of optimizing my workflow. Hopefully, this article will help newcomers, especially students, adapt more easily to their new Apple computers. If you have any other obscure tips or tricks, share them in the comments.


  • Karin

    If you are a student you must have a clone backup. You will always be late for every task and will not have time to reset a system with TM or talk about the time it takes to download from the cloud. You’ll need something where you are up running in a minute. You know 3′clock in the morning when you have to deliver a paper at 8. Nowadays a hardrive crash is not an excuse to be late.

    Dropbox is great but combine it with something that back up your desktop (Sugarsync, Box …) Your most important documents tender to be there and not saved in your Dropbox when problems start.

    I have been there, done that :)

  • Andreas

    I have a dedicated folder for school work in my dropbox to make sure nothing is lost. It works great in university, since you’re mostly handling text documents. If you’re working with media (large images and video), you may look elsewhere for backup. P.S Make sure to invite your schoolmates to gain some extra dropbox space!

  • David

    I prefer Sugarsync because it syncs whichever folders you want, so rather than having to save to a Dropbox folder I can just file to normal subject folders in documents in my university folder and sync that directly.

    But the only thing that comes to my mind that you didn’t mention is to make full use of Calendar. It’s a great app for keeping you on top of what’s happening when, tracking your submission dates etc.

    Thanks for bringing Self-Control to light! I’ve been looking for something like this for ages!!

  • Haley

    I only just discovered this feature, but I find it a great timesaver. Most people probably already know, but you can drag any folder beside the trash-can in your dock to have it there permanently. Easy access to any files within from the dock. You can customize it with icons so it looks great too.

    I have a folder for my class syllabi and each of my class’s digital notebooks, which I access on a daily basis. No digging around in my layers of class folders.

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