From IELTS to University: The university advice I wish I’d had

Going to university is a challenging time for any young person, and the university years will almost certainly include some life-defining and character-forming experiences for every student. There are some students who have a very clear sense of how to navigate university life, and know exactly how to optimise their time. However, other students, perhaps who haven’t had close family members or siblings go to university, are more likely to feel disoriented, and could benefit from some of the ideas in this post. The paragraphs below bring together some of the best advice I’ve heard given to undergraduates, and one or two of the strategies I advocate when advising pathway students.

Advice number 1: Study regularly and steadily

One insightful way of thinking about a university module is that the learning each week is like a piece of a jigsaw, and the full picture (or finished jigsaw) doesn’t become visible until the end of the year’s course. For this reason, missing a week’s study can be a significant problem, as can working incredibly hard one week but doing relatively little study the next. Equally, remember that the learning in each week has thematic elements which re-occur during the whole course, and that the end-of-year assessment is likely to require an ability to construct arguments which combine these thematic elements. For example, in a year one business course, the advantages of a democratic management style link with stages of team formation as well as basic employee motivation.

Advice number 2: Start as you intend to continue

Personal organisation is crucial to success at university, so establishing the right study habits and routines around your lecture and seminar schedule is fundamental to success. I’d recommend creating a personal study plan in the first week of the first term, where you allocate reading and study time into the unscheduled slots on your timetable. It’s important to get the basic structure of your working week set up quickly, as the first coursework assignments in term 1 will add extra layers of work and study to your weekly timetable, so managing these as well as your normal weekly study schedule is a challenge. Aiming to study (read, research, write, make notes) for three or four hours a day outside lectures and seminars is a good rule to start with.

In fact, I often conceive of personal organisation as a concrete structure which has the function of diverting and trapping large volumes of water. Imagine a maze or series of ranked causeways positioned alongside an inundation-prone stretch of coastline or on the floodplain of a river which often bursts its banks.  As the excess water comes in the concrete structures both contain the water and reduce its kinetic energy, so what at first might seem like an overwhelming incursion is arranged, stored and deprived of destructive capacity. So, I guess the point is that personal organisation both creates structure and control, but also prepares you more effectively to cope with unexpected events and problems.

The productivity expert David Allen, well-known for his Getting Things Done (GTD) approach, uses an idea I find fascinating. He argues that one of the principal objectives of effective personal organisation is to clear the mind to allow a person to think well and responsively.  Allen’s argument is that being disorganised leads a person to be preoccupied with everything they need to do and haven’t done, whereas someone who is well organised has cleared their mental space, and therefore is better able to engage with immediate situations.

Advice number 3: Aim to hit your stride for year 2 

I love the English language expression ‘hit your stride.’ Stride means to walk in a manner which is strong and confident, and ‘hit’ in this context means ‘find’ or ‘achieve’. In all, the expression refers to a student aiming to reach their full capacity for study at the start of year two. I like this approach for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it recognises that university study is a complex and arduous undertaking, which usually requires a student to make some deep-seated changes to the way they study and learn. The phrase accepts that it can take a year to make these changes. Some of these can be quite simple, like working out a study routine which suits the student: some people study and write better early in the morning, whereas others are more productive in the evening or at night. However, other changes can be harder to make, and require substantial reorientation. For example, a change in attitude towards studying, where the student begins to see studying as less of an external burden imposed by others and society, and more as a set of choices they’re making towards a motivating final objective.

Secondly, it shows an understanding of the deep structure of three-year degree programs, where the first year is an introductory year, designed to teach the basics of the course and fill in gaps from students’ high school knowledge of the subject.  It is in the second and third year where the degree-level learning really gets underway, and the serious process of the degree occurs.

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