College Student with Laptop and NotebookModern students aren’t just preparing for the future; they’re part of it, because this is the first time we’ve educated an entire generation of cyborgs. Search the average first year student and you’ll find more advanced computer technology than the first moon lander, and for the same reasons: they’re exploring a brand new world and need all the help they can get. The only reason we haven’t implanted phones in our bodies is that would make it harder to upgrade, and people don’t have the time to wait in line at the Apple store and make a doctor’s appointment.

Some people say these devices are distracting, but that’s like saying a car is a terrible way to get to work because you might drive somewhere else. When used properly, mobile technology is an outboard brain booster, motivator, and research assistant all rolled into one. We look at the most essential apps for new students.


Astrid is everything you could want in a to-do list, including “free.” And if you didn’t want a to-do list, that’s the very first thing you need to change. The human brain can conjure the face of God, the Mona Lisa, and schematics for a laser fusion array, but some people have already forgotten one of those items and we haven’t even reached the end of this sentence. The brain is designed to do new things instead of holding on to old ones. This fact will be very useful in your college career (especially in terms of forgetting some embarrassing memories), but it means it might be useful to have some help remembering things.

Astrid App Example

Astrid To-Do App for iPhone

Astrid is that help. It’s incredibly easy to add new tasks, and just as easy to assign priority, upload them to your calendar (so you don’t miss assignments or parties), share them on public lists (an easy way to turn awkward division of flatmate chores into an instant agreement), and even have them hide until a certain day — so that the upcoming exam reminder doesn’t bug you early in the term. Get into the habit of checking your to-do list in the morning, and you’ll never be stuck scrambling at the last minute again.

iTunes Store: (free)


Dropbox has gone far past useful, through essential, and is now hovering in the realms of “basic intelligence test.” Because if you don’t have it, you’ve failed and will understand why when you feel stupid about not backing up that file you just lost. Every student has spent at least one full day’s worth of time screaming at the computer that says “cannot find the file EntireWeekOfWork.docx,” and another day emailing files back and forth, and a third trying to find a USB key when the files are too big.

Dropbox App Example

Save Everything to the Cloud with Dropbox

Dropbox is free for every device you can imagine. Install, drag and drop, and your files are accessible from anywhere. Which means you won’t lose them the next time you forget your kitbag.

iTunes Store: (free)


It doesn’t matter what subject a student takes, they have to learn how technology makes it easier (unless they’ve signed up for Caveman Obsolescence 101). This means learning how to learn with gadgets is the most useful tool of all, and that tool is the Wolfram|Alpha app. It’s not an all-knowing supercomputer, but only because those don’t exist yet. And it’s friendlier.

Wolfram Alpha iPad example

Know It All with Wolfram|Alpha for iPad

Wolfram organises and displays everything you could want to know, calculates equations, and it can even sequence genetic codes. It’s not meant to do your homework for you — learning how to let machines do everything for you will only make you that much more unemployable when they get better, and they will — but it saves an incredible amount of time on research. It’s the perfect starting point for any assignment, and even when it works out an answer for you, it shows you every step of the way so you can follow along. It’s one to start using straight away, as there’s still a little bit of learning curve in inputting questions. But once you get the hang of it, you’ve got the entire Internet not only as a huge echoing resource, but as an actively helpful research assistant.

iTunes Store: ($1.99)


We’re rapidly reaching the point where writing on dead tree won’t just be inefficient, but expensive. It’ll be a luxury. With electronic devices, there’s no need to spend each lecture desperately scribbling, only to spend the night before the exam even more desperately digging through the drifts of resulting paper, turning your entire life into Sisyphus of the sheets of paper. Electronic files mean you can search, edit, update with sources, enhance with later thoughts and notes (another good habit to get into), and most importantly mean you’ll never be left reading from sticky stains because you’ve knocked coffee all over them.

Notability App Example

Notability Lets You Take Better Class Notes

Notability is extremely popular and very cheap. The combination of typing, handwriting, images and drawing tools mean you can take notes in whatever style works for you, and keep them forever. An excellent university bonus is the ability to annotate PDFs — the professor’s favorite way of downloading course files — meaning you can update the incomprehensible during tutorials, putting notes where you need them for later review.

iTunes Store: ($0.99)

Image credit: CollegeDegrees360 / Flickr