In my case, I fell victim to that kind of thought process in college. Just like I thought I couldn't dress tznius because I lived in a semi-tropical location. (Not that I've ever been an "immodest" dresser by just about anyone's standards.) I thought I could figure everything out after college ended, but I decided to stay for a fifth year (changed majors mid-senior year), and then I went to law school. School just was NOT ending. I think this quandary was a lot of the reason why I stayed on the fence about converting for so very long. Perhaps if I had started in a liberal movement, I wouldn't have felt so conflicted and would have converted, but that wasn't what happened.
In March 2010, I decided to give a "real" Shabbat a try for the first weekend of my Spring Break because I could avoid my schoolwork without worry. And I was hooked! I've kept Shabbos every week since that time (to the best of my ability as I learned what that entailed). I am not the most disciplined student by any means. I don't get everything done that I want to, but I think every shomer Shabbat person inevitably leaves things undone.
Part of the key to Shabbat for me is thinking, "My work for the week is done." Whether or not I accomplished everything I wanted to do, my work is done for the week. Anything that still has to be done can wait for next week (and remember that not everything has to be done - life is about choices). It is part of next week's work. And because I can't do anything about it on Shabbat, I've learned to push anxious thoughts about it from my mind. I admit, that kind of peace takes time, and I'm not always successful. Unlike some people, I find it helpful to remember what is in my control and what isn't. As long as I don't have control over changing the situation, I feel better.
In short, it's priority-setting. What is most important to you? We all think we know our priorities and that they're "right," but look at your actions to see what your priorities really are. Thinking something is important to you - but not acting in accordance with that belief - shows how you really value the issue.
All this said, as you enter each new form of school, you have to face these questions again. Case in point, I'm still figuring out how to study for two bar exams. However, I'm either busy or napping on Shabbat, which tends to make it a non-issue because there's no time left to study!
On the other hand, the following advice is going to go completely against my philosophy. However, what works for me doesn't necessarily work for someone else. And there is always that in-between time before you can fully internalize such a philosophy.
Is there a way for schoolwork and Shabbat to coexist? Yes, and many people do that, even if only during final exam periods (or Bar exam studying, hahaha).
Note that schoolwork isn't Shabbosdich ("Shabbos-y" or "in the spirit of Shabbat") by just about any definition. Some say this makes it prohibited on Shabbat because it desecrates the holiness of the day or for other reasons. Some full-time students even view school as their occupation, so they should avoid "working" on Shabbat. These are the questions you will face as you progress in your own observance.
You can't write. You can't highlight your reading. You can't use your computer. You can't drive to a study group or review session. What can you do for school that won't violate Shabbat? In short, you should talk to your rabbi about it. However, here are some common ways that students I know accomplish some studying on Shabbat when needed:
- Simply catch up on reading without taking notes or highlighting. This isn't an option for many classes, but should work well in most undergrad-level classes. It can be particularly useful to read supplemental readings that aren't required for your class but may increase your understanding.
- Read, but use post-it notes, post-it "flags," or other bookmarks to note reading you need to return to after Shabbat. This can be a halachic issue, so discuss it with your rabbi, especially if the flags/stickers won't be removed within 24 hours. However, it may be a problem regardless, depending on your rabbi.
- As an alternative to post-its and flags, you can mark passages and pages with paperclips. Just slide them on the page so that it lines up with the paragraph you want to review later!
- Study flashcards written before Shabbat. This is an excellent idea for professional students and bar exam takers. You can read them silently or aloud in order to memorize the information.
- Print outlines or your notes before Shabbat and study them silently or aloud.
Good luck as you face these kinds of difficult questions. Rest assured, this will not be the last difficult Shabbat priority question you face in your life! If you aren't totally happy with the answer you come to at this point in your life, remember that there are always second and third chances to increase your observance. Therefore, don't beat yourself up if you're not ready to take a leap of faith yet. Judaism, like life, is a journey.