How to do well at university

If you are about to start university, you may have high high hopes for the teaching you’ll receive. University education will be the most rigorous you’ve ever experienced, you might think. How do these expectations compare with reality? How does undergraduate teaching differ from A levels? And what can you do to get the most out of university?

University wasn’t the experience I’d anticipated at all, and I had to adjust my expectations soon after arriving. But I got a lot out of university learning, once I’d figured out how to approach it. In fact, when I finished my degree course, I went back for more.

These are my tips for undergraduates who want to do well at university. If you find this useful, share the link.

Get the lowdown from the year above

The students in the year above you have been through what you’re now going through. As a result, they’ll have opinions on the lecturers which they’ll be happy to share. They’ll also have a view on which modules to choose, if your course offers a choice – some modules sound great in the university’s blurb but turn out to be boring, and vice versa.

Find a space to work

My work space was the library. It was quiet and had everything I needed for studying: window seats for reading, PC workstations for writing.

Working in the library had other benefits too. The separation from my living space allowed me to focus, and it stopped me going into the kitchen to hunt for snacks. Perhaps most importantly, working in the library meant I got essays written quicker, leaving me time to do more interesting stuff.

Make your first assignment a good one

During my first term, I discovered a simple cheat. If the first piece of work I submitted to each of my lecturers was top quality, they’d perceive my subsequent work as good too, even if I hadn’t spent as long on it, because they would look for quality in it. It works as long as they remember your name.

At the age of eighteen, I thought I was some kind of genius strategist for devising that ruse. Turns out I’m no genius, and neither was I gaming the system; what I’d done was make a good first impression, a ‘strategy’ which applies to… pretty much everything. Who knew?

Proofread your essays

The few times I’ve read the work I handed in at university, I’ve thought, ‘Oh, that’s actually pretty good… But what is this sentence?… That makes no sense at all… It’s not even English!… Oh! it’s a typo… What a lazy dick I was for not reading my own essay.’ Even better, I could have asked someone else to read my stuff: we don’t see our own mistakes; we see what’s meant to be there.

Read stuff that you’re interested in, even if it’s not on the reading list

You’re in the library, looking for whichever books your lecturer put on the reading list, when you see a title that looks far more interesting. You might choose to ignore that book. My tip is: don’t. Borrow it and read it some time.

Remember before university, when reading was something you did for fun, because you were curious about stuff? That was real learning, because that was you discovering material and reading it out of interest. Get back to that.

You get out what you put in

A third year student told me, “on this course, you get out what you put in.” Something clicked. University is unlike A levels, because you have to make the learning happen. These are my tips:

  • ask plenty of questions of your lecturers
  • find connections between the different pieces of knowledge you already have and get those into your essays
  • question your assumptions, like your best teachers encouraged you to

Truly, you get out what you put in. And there’s a flipside: you get out only what you put in. Those who choose to do practically nothing at university can and will get away with that, but they don’t gain much.

 

To sum up, get the inside intelligence, by taking opinions on your modules and lecturers from students in the year above.

Consider physically separating work and leisure. A big part of your work is reading and writing. Choose to work in a place that’s good for these activities.

It’s easier to make a good first impression than to salvage a poor one. This means giving your first pieces of work your best shot. And if you want your marker not to be distracted by your typos, ask a fellow student to proofread your work before you hand it in.

Universities expect you to manage your own learning, which means tying together different strands of your prior learning and pursuing your curiosity. Your university teachers will be far less involved in this than your sixth form teachers were. This doesn’t mean university education is less rigorous (although it may seem that way at first); it means, if you want to really understand stuff, you need to go the extra mile. Push yourself – the skills and confidence you’ll gain from doing that will prepare you for ever bigger challenges.

 

Alex Bailey has an arts degree and two postgraduate teaching qualifications. He works as a technical writer and an English language tutor. His tutoring programmes focus on student motivation, placing learners’ interests at the centre of the curriculum. Read more.

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