Purchasing textbooks, starting new classes, and trying to hammer out a schedule can be hectic when starting school. We put together a guide to some of the best apps and discounts to help you make the most of the new school year.

Photo by Svadilfari

Make Sure You’ve Got The Basics

First, of course, you’ll need to make sure you’ve got the basics covered.  It’s fairly cheap to get up-to-date software as a student, so there’s no reason to skimp.  Microsoft is currently offering Office 2010 Professional for $79.95 and Windows 7 Professional upgrade for just $29.95 if you’re a college student.  For more on this check out this check out how students can upgrade to Office 2010 and Windows 7 cheap and easy.  Your college bookstore may also offer discounted software, so be sure to check it out too.

If you’re currently running another edition of Windows 7 on your computer, such as Starter or Home Premium, you could use this discount to upgrade to Professional with Anytime Upgrade.  Or, if you’re still using XP, you make sure your computer is ready for the upgrade with the Upgrade Advisor.

If you find you need to use programs designed for Windows XP in your school, you can always run them in Windows 7 with XP Mode.  We recommend using XP Mode in VMware Player, since it offers more features and also lets you test out other operating systems such as Ubuntu right in Windows 7.

Windows 7 from Flickr via twicepix

Get Educational Software Cheap or Free

Depending on your classes, you may need a wide variety of other programs to get through college.  The great thing is, many professional programs are available absolutely free to students.  Here’s some of the best deals we’ve found:

Save on Textbooks With eBooks

We’ve whittled down your college software bill, so now let’s see how you can use your computer to save on textbooks.  Even if the only reading device you have is your laptop, it can still be a good option for reading textbooks, especially if you can save hundreds of dollars.  Plus, you can save your back and keep from carrying around half a dozen heavy textbooks everyday.  Some ways to get your textbooks as eBooks include:

  • Barnes & Noble’s NOOKstudy offers many popular textbooks for digital rental or purchase.  It lets you copy and print select amounts of text from your textbooks, and allows you to keep your textbooks on up to 2 computers.
  • Amazon’s Kindle for PC and other devices offers some textbooks for purchase.  You can keep your Kindle eBooks usually on up to 5 devices, including an iPhone, iPad, netbook, Android phone, and more.
  • Coursesmart offers almost all popular textbooks in eBook form.  You can purchase online textbooks which you can read from any modern browser, or choose downloadable textbooks to one PC, iPad, or iPhone.  Coursesmart lets you purchase individual chapters of many books, which can be a great way to save if your class isn’t using the whole book.
  • Project Gutenberg offers many out-of-copyright eBooks for download, so you can find many classics for literature classes here for free.
  • Can’t find your textbook in eBook form?  Try renting it from Chegg.com, or look for a used copy on Half.com, Amazon.com, or eBay.

There’s no reason to rely on your classes alone for information.  If you’d like to learn more from top-notch professors around the globe, check out iTunes U.  Simply download iTunes and install as normal, and you’ll have access to thousands of lectures for free.  Your college may even add video or audio from your classes on iTunes U, which is a great way to catch up on lectures you may have missed.

Tools to help you in College

While you’re in college, you’ll need to keep up with tons of information from your classes, research, and more.  If you have Office 2010, you’ll already have OneNote, which is a great note taking application that works especially well for lecture outlines and more.  You can also use the Office Web Apps to backup your notes online, collaborate with classmates in OneNote, work on Office projects in Facebook, or even take advantage of Office features without purchasing a copy of Office.  Another great note taking application is Evernote, which is free for Windows, Mac OS X, and a wide variety of mobile devices.  You can use it to save information you find online, or use the Geek’s tips to integrate it with Windows 7.  If you want to take notes collaboratively with your fellow students, check out Writeboard which is a free and very easy to use online collaboration tool.

Microsoft Office is an essential application suite for college, but there are some ways you can make it even better.  The free Microsoft Mathematics add-in lets you create beautiful graphs, solve complex equations, and even integrate or differentiate equations, all inside Word and OneNote 2010!  Then, if you’re studying Chemistry, check out the free Chemistry Addin that lets you insert advanced chemical diagrams in Word.

You’ll have to fill out more forms than ever in college, though thankfully many college let you digitally submit PDF forms nowadays.  Adobe Reader doesn’t let you save changes to PDFs, however, so check out Nitro PDF Reader, which is a free PDF reader that lets you edit, save, and create new PDF files.  You can even backup your PDFs to Evernote directly from Nitro Reader.  This will help you be able to keep up with your filled forms so you can always get them easily again in the future.

You’ll also need to keep all of your important files backed up and accessible from any computers you use.  Dropbox is a great free tool for this; you can use it to save 2Gb of files online, sync them with all your devices, and share folders with friends and classmates.  Another great option is Windows Live Sync, which lets you sync any folder on your computer with other computers, and backup up to 2Gb of files to Skydrive for free.  With these tools, you’ll be sure to have your most important files, notes, essays, and more always accessible.

Start a Blog to Help Fill Your Portfolio

If you haven’t already started a personal blog, now’s a great time to do it.  You can share your thoughts on your classes with your peers, write about your interests, and show off your work.  Your blog might even be helpful when you’re out of school and looking for a job, as it’ll show your potential employer how talented you are.  Check out our articles on How to Start a Professional Blog on WordPress.com and How to Create a Beautiful and Easy to Update Blog on Tumblr.

Once you get a blog started, make sure to check out all of our article on blogging to get it working just like you want.

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No matter what you’re studying, sometimes you might need some tech help, want a new desktop theme, or crave a dose of Friday Fun.  The How-to Geek team will keep publishing exciting and helpful articles throughout the school year, so make sure to keep up with us.

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Matthew Guay
Matthew Guay is a veteran app reviewer and technology tip writer. His work has appeared on Zapier's blog, AppStorm, Envato Tuts+, and his own blog, Techinch.
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