There’s a wealth of advice for university students, so here’s my current advice for how to approach your time at university.
1: Turn up.
10: Fail Better.
1: Turn up.
It is the simplest, but for some reason most elusive, of issues. You pay incredible fees and don’t turn up. Doing readings isn’t as good as being in a class. Also the routine and social dimension of getting yourself ready and in on time will help shape your days.
A colleague of mine has likened University to gym membership. If you pay for it, but don’t use the equipment, and only turn up for the minimum number of sessions… then you might come out worse than you came in.
This also might explain how some people get the idea that sessions don’t matter, and then get disappointed with their results… Learning at University is also like exercise, it’s done slowly, with improvements that you can’t always see. Turn up and you’ll see the results sooner and have a better time achieving them.
Your preparation for a class can be a major factor in what you get from it. The routine before a class should be: Do the reading or preparatory work, and get a good nights sleep. Then in the morning shower, dress, eat breakfast. I’ve seen students achieve only ‘one’ of these…
Also, doing the preparatory work isn’t just for you. It’s for your classmates and your lecturer. You do the work so that you can can understand your subject, you do it for your lecturer so they can give a better class and teach you more advance materials, you do it for the class to make the whole thing more rewarding and productive. The more this happens, the more the return to you is multiplied.
If all of the class do it, the result is enhanced even more. It’s like a cumulative power-up in a game. If you do the reading/work, get some sleep, and eat breakfast and so on, your session has a much greater chance of having some effect.
The ideas and practices developed at university are difficult. The lecturers find them difficult. We have to reread them, practice, and work on our understanding of things. So don’t expect to just understand everything, or find it easy.
There is a simple technique to help. The famous physicist Richard Feynmann had a theory that if you can explain something properly to someone else, then you yourself understand it.
So, talk to your classmates about your subject, explain the things you are learning to each other. Use each other to bounce ideas around. When a lecturer asks a question have a go at answering, if you get it wrong don’t worry, it’s useful. The tutor can then shape an answer for you in your own language, showing you how close you were. The more you talk, do, and explain things to yourself, and others, the more you will understand.
There’s a hidden location in the university, it’s an odd place where students dare not go, and where the secrets of getting a good grade can be unlocked. The library.
Like middle aged men who say they can run half-marathons without exercise, there are students who claim to be able to get a good degree without going to the library. Both crash and burn.
In Harry Potter JK Rowling wrote that Ron would grab books randomly, Hermione would approach the library methodically, and that Harry headed straight for the restricted section. To be honest, as long as you read something, properly, all the way through, and understand it. Then you can pick the method that suits you.
The fact is that there is great enjoyment in reading books on the subject you love. University may be one of the last times you get to read serious writing on that subject. You will have time, space and a reason to read and understand significant texts all the way through, and be rewarded for it.
I can’t always remember the books I had to read, but I remember the ones I enjoyed (For those studying Performance: Etchells, Goulish, Phelan, Cixcous). Make sure you build yourself a foundation for the future by filling up on the good stuff before you go out into the world.
Education before university is often about absorbing a lot of information, or building skills practically. Also education before university involves a fair amount of routine, and direct support.
However university life is full of unparalleled freedoms. You should enjoy these freedoms, you won’t get them again. But please go slowly and carefully. Just because you can eat nothing but pizza, never sleep, flirt with everyone, binge watch the entire history of television, and do all kinds of inadvisable things… it doesn’t mean you should.
Education at University is about independent research and thought, creativity and the application of methodologies, responding to tasks creativity and group management. You may take to this quickly and easily, or it may take a year to get to grips. Take time to get used to a different way of working and thinking.
Finally, just to keep you on your toes, each new year also needs some adjustment. Take time to settle in again at the start of the new year, pay attention to the differences and requirements.
If you’ve read this far well done, stop, take a breather. That’s all fairly intense, and university can be like that, so you need a really critical survival strategy. Points 8, 9, and 10 on this list are that strategy.
First of all, do nothing.
No really… find time not to think, and not to be ‘productively’ doing anything. No: watching TV, gaming, updating (insert relevant social media), or numbing your mind with (insert substance here) do not count as no productive activities.
Here are examples of good ‘idling’ activities. Watching the weather, going for a walk, meditation, knitting/sewing, colouring-in, making chicken soup from scratch and watching it simmer for the entire two hours.
Why? The time not doing anything is almost as good as sleep, if you ‘don’t think’ an idea will come, if you are not ‘trying to relax and have fun’, you might actually relax. You need time that is unscheduled, where things happen naturally, slowly and by accident.
Get off campus. Three years in a new city/town… and will have you visited its galleries/museums/parks/tourist attractions/rubbish shopping centres/excellent charity shops? Probably not.
Many students will select universities on the city, and never explore it. Many students claim to want to go to a big city campus for the nightlife or the attractions, and yet never access them. Often this happens because you cannot afford it, and you are very busy with study. But don’t miss the chance to explore, roam and wander around the interesting places of your new home. It’s a reward just in itself.
Mange your expectations. Lets start here, you will very likely not get a 1st. It is not anyone’s fault. Your course will be as good as you make it. Your lecturers are cannot make you work harder than you are willing to, or magically give you a silver bullet of ‘one easy thing I can do to make this essay great’.
Critically, it should also not be about getting a 1st. When people try to have a child, they don’t hope for a future Prime Minister… okay some strange people do. But most just hope to have one at all, that it can be healthy, and then happy. Everything else is just window dressing.
So you are doing a degree, congratulations! Can you stay healthy and happy doing it? Everything else is window dressing.
When studying for your degree, don’t reduce your three years to a stressful and joyless grind to achieve a number on your c.v. Go to Hogwarts and have an adventure.
At the same time, just raise your standards and your aspirations a little. Your degree leads to a range of careers, what’s the best one? The one you really want? The one you would love to do. You are aiming for that… not the grade, but that career, that life. More importantly, the three years at university can lead to personal growth: confidence, resilience, flexibility. You are aiming to become that person… not a grade, but that graduate.
A degree is just one of many starting points, it won’t give you everything you want, but it can set you on the right path.
Leaving the routine of home can be tricky, as the safety blanket is pulled away and you have to start doing ‘Adult’ fast. In that context of lots of new things to do, and lots of things to think about, it’s incredibly easy to forget about yourself. Are you getting a good balance of rest and activity? Are you taking care of your body, and your mind?
As such, remember all that good advice about turning up and working hard and reading and researching? Only do that if you can. Try, but if you can’t, tell someone why and get some help. There’s plenty around from new friends, the tutors, to support services run by the university, to your family at home.
Also, apply this to other people, those you live and study with. Everyone else is in the same boat as you, so if you feel down, exhausted, anxious, alone, someone else right next to you will be too. So care for your classmates and housemates, and maybe give a thought to your tutors, and all the staff of the university. Everyone is only human.
10: Fail Better. (Paraphrasing S.Beckett)
In the end, and perhaps the most subtle, is to expect things to go wrong, and not to worry.
University is not a time to get everything right, it’s a time to take risks; it’s one of the few times that you are legitimately allowed and even encouraged to get things wrong, and learn from them.
That means you can try, fail, then try again, go that bit further, do something more adventurous, and fail in a different way, but do better. It’s just like life in that respect.
If you understand that, you may or may not be top of your class, but you will have the time of your life.