Essential Software for the Successful College Student

Essential software for the successful college student is available in many forms and functions. Areas of interest include homework, organizing, staying in touch and data security. Schools offering Software Development & Engineering degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Student doing homework on laptop

Essential Software for the Successful College Student

Loading up your new PC or Mac with the right software can make back-to-school time a whole lot easier. This article will help you find the best software for all of your academic computing needs, from doing homework to taking a well-deserved movie break. Many of the applications listed below are free and can be found online, though some are only available for a fee.


Microsoft Office

Available for Mac and PC, this software suite is incredibly useful, and it's sometimes pre-installed on new computers. It offers Word for writing papers, Excel for spreadsheets and data collection, PowerPoint for presentations, as well as email, notebook and publishing applications. There are cheaper alternatives like Open Office, though it's features might not be as extensive and compatible as what Microsoft offers through its Office products. Tthe Office suite is one of the most practical pieces of software a student can have.


Need to edit a photo or fix up a figure? This Mac and Windows compatible image-editing application offers many of the same features as Photoshop - for free.

Student loves his computer



Homework, classes, big papers, group projects - half the battle at school is keeping your schedule and deadlines straight. The paper organizer may be a thing of the past, but there are tons of electronic task management options. Your computer probably came with something like Windows Live Mail or Apple iCal, and you can find free organizer applications online.


Many schools offer students free space on their servers to store files and backup homework. FTP, or file transfer protocol, applications are often the easiest way to upload and download files to your school's servers or your own personal website. Popular FTP clients for Mac include Transmit, Fetch and the free Cyberduck, although not all schools support these programs. There are more free FTP clients for Windows, including SmartFTP and WinSCP.


Most students these days rely on iPhones and other 'smart' devices to keep themselves in touch, entertained and organized. Keeping your portable devices synced with your computer's contacts, calendar, notes and other apps can make your life a lot easier. While most devices come with auto-syncing tools, many users find them short on features or not compatible with their computer's operating system. Mark/Space is a popular, inexpensive program that solves most compatibility issues - like making Windows Mobile talk to Macs - and is full of useful options.

Student chatting via computer

Staying in Touch


Of course, you have one email address already, and your new school is going to give you another one. Checking multiple email accounts can be a pain, but there are multi-inbox email clients that will make your life a lot easier. Just check with your school or email provider's documentation to learn how to use POP or IMAP to get all your accounts working with one application. Macs come with Apple Mail, many PC users rely on Outlook and Thunderbird is a very popular free, cross-compatible client from Mozilla.

Instant Messaging

Whether you're procrastinating with friends or having a long-distance project meeting, IM is a really useful communication tool. There are lots of popular chatting platforms, like ICQ, G-Chat or AIM, and a few great applications that will put them all together. Mac users can try the native iChat or the free Adium and Trillian is the free client of choice for most Windows users.


Skype is the hottest voice and video chat tool around and it works with the native microphones and cameras that come with most new computers. Use it to give your parents a glimpse of your smiling face or call somebody you met during your semester abroad - it's free between Skype accounts no matter how far away you are. There's a small fee for dialing regular phone numbers, but it's typically lower than most international long distance charges.

Data Security


Data Backup

Here's a typical student nightmare scenario: it's 2am, your computer just crashed, and along with it went that paper due in seven hours. But you're not worried, because you back up your data...right?

The first step toward backing up is having storage space external to your computer. Many schools offer limited space on their servers. Students who need more space should check out USB flash drives (also known as thumb drives) and external hard drives.

The next step is setting up an application that will automate the process. Carbon Copy Cloner is a popular free backup app for Macs. Many Windows users like to use 2BrightSparks, which is also freeware.


Protecting yourself against computer viruses, Trojans, worms and other malware is just common sense - especially for students, who often share files over a school network and do a lot of downloading from the Web. Avira offers free virus protection software for Windows and Unix. There are also lots of different free apps for Mac that have their pros and cons, such as iAntiVirus and ClamXav. You should check with your school's computer support department - many institutions offer free anti-virus software to students while they're enrolled.


Apple laptop users: Check out this fantastic 'car alarm for your Mac.' Need to walk away from your laptop in the library for a few minutes? Set this alarm with your remote and any attempt to use the computer while it's locked will set off a loud alarm and trigger your iSight to take a picture of the thief.

Tip: All students should consider getting a cable combination lock for their laptops. Public study spots are typically high-prowl areas and a lock can keep your computer safe during study breaks.

Student having fun on her laptop


Bit Torrent

Torrents aren't just for illegal file sharing anymore: Whether you're downloading files for school or grabbing some free new music, Bit Torrent is one of the fastest file sharing methods around. There are lots of popular free Bit Torrent clients. We recommend Vuze, formerly known as Azureus - it's free, bursting with extra features and compatible with both Windows and Macs.

VLC Media Player

It's time for a study break! But how are you going to play that DivX movie you got from your roommate? There are about a million video formats out there and VLC will pretty much play them all. It's cross-platform compatible and free, too.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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