The days are so few between holiday breaks, which means you’re running out of time to actually accomplish the things you set out to, on your student news site this semester.

Whether you splurged and bought a site this year or simply committed yourself to recommitting to it, we sure hope you’ve been successful.

However, we also know how overwhelming it can be to get started — or restarted. It’s great to want your site to look like any of our Award Winners, to not be satisfied until it does, but those schools have been tinkering for years to get to where they are. It takes time, people!

We’re not going to magically send you there in one email, but we want to help you meet that New Year’s resolution. You wanted to actually make a difference in the appearance of your site. The best way to do that is by configuring a site design that’s functional. That doesn’t mean looking like any one of our Distinguished Sites necessarily. If you strip away their decoration, these are five things every functioning site has going for it…

Five fixes you can make before you begin Christmas shopping.

CUSTOM HEADER: Your site should have a brand — an identity. You do that with a color palette, often your school colors or black, white and gray. Those colors often come from your custom header image at the top of your site. You may call it a logo, banner or flag. Go away from the basic Text Header and design a custom header graphic — often done in Photoshop, working from a canvas that’s no bigger than about 200 pixels tall.

SHOWCASE: But not that showcase. Get rid of the Showcase Carousel and replace it with a far more customizable and user-friendly SNO Story Carousel or SNO Story Grid widget, commonly placed in the Home Top Full Width or Home Top Wide area of your website. This is where you ought to be displaying your best stories — not only that, your best photos. Create a category, like “Showcase” or “Top Stories” to be selective of what goes into that space. Take your pick of carousel and grid configurations in our own little shopping mall here.

YOUR PILLARS: We’re talking about the categories (or sections) in which you’re publishing most. Those should be displayed on the homepage of your site using Category Display Widgets. You don’t need to go crazy having 20 categories out on your homepage. Do whatever your capable of. Displaying 3-5 categories is exactly as many as you need, and those are typically your bread and butter categories — News, Sports, Features, Opinions. Well, whatta ya know, there’s four right there!

SQUARENESS: The places you put all your widgets should ideally come to a pretty even (or squared) endpoint at the bottom of your homepage. You should create a homepage that, when sketched out as boxes, looks like a square made up of smaller squares or rectangles. It helps sometimes to sketch out a plan for your site, or to sketch out your site as it currently looks and diagram where you could move blocks or where you could add something else to create a squared homepage. It’s OK to act like you’re John Madden or something. An underrated issue to getting and sustaining the square: Using horizontal photos as often as possible.

How about a quick example? Let’s say you have those four main categories and a carousel for Top Stores, as we’ve discussed. Carousel goes in Home Top Wide, pick a category to align next to it in Home Top Right, and then put the remaining three across the page in Home Top Left, Center and Right.

Boom. Roasted.

INTERACTION: If it’s an extra block your missing to fill that last remaining blank space on the homepage, consider something that can be done online only. Maybe it’s a widget displaying a Twitter or Instagram feed. Maybe it’s a reader poll. Maybe it’s a video widget.

This list is just five things. There are 23 requirements total for the Site Excellence Badge, of the SNO Distinguished Sites program. That’s #goals. Start with these five and you’re site will be fully functional, so now you can focus your attention on publishing content.

Your site already checks off all five? Well, then, what are you even doing here! Get out there and publish more content.