Good morning, Dear Son (Daughter, Nephew, or Niece),
Congratulations again on securing a place at your chosen university. This is a real achievement in itself. Settling in, I hope? Freshers’ Week survived and out of the way, I trust? Introductory lectures starting now. Exciting. Very different from school, I am guessing. Anyway, I thought I would drop you a note to offer some practical advice relevant to uni life, tips gathered and gleaned during my recent undergraduate experience.
As you would expect from an antique Boomer like me, there will not be many of the kind of tip currently circulating print and social media, articles by bright young columnists offering advice on navigating university that appear mainly focused on making friends, budgeting, work, drinking and taking care of one’s mental health — most concluding that the important thing is purchasing the correct air fryer — all useful stuff, I am assured, and to be noted, I am sure. But among this youthful wisdom I have not found much mention of study, apparently germane to focus on everything else. However, I possess a parental outlook equally concerned with the primary purpose of your next three years — the pursuit of knowledge and the attainment of a solid degree. I hope you are sitting comfortably.
The good news is that this year, your first year, all achieved marks, however good, however bad, will not reflect in your ultimate degree grade (that is assuming you pass your exams and modules!). Therefore, this introductory year of university will be most usefully used to familiarise yourself with uni life and to develop decent independent study habits. Please note that although this is good to know, first year covers fundamentals and offers no excuse to take your foot off the gas. But it does mean there is no need to get particularly down on yourself or overly anxious if your first few assignments do not quite go to plan, or initially you find the coursework tough. It does mean there is plenty of time and scope to orientate and to find your higher educational groove. Happy days.
So, what are decent independent study habits? Well, a degree is not intended to be impenetrable, but to be intensive and time-consuming. You will find no success in looking for shortcuts. To achieve your very best you will need to put in the required hours, and then some more. So, it is often a beneficial technique to treat your study like your job. Set regular hours. 20-30 hours a week nose in books, plus tutorials. Evenings and weekend off (where possible). And to try to keep a week or two ahead with your reading. This last simple strategy should mean less stress, for if you get stuck on something or, one morning, you find it impossible to get motivated, you have a little time up your sleeve.
To reach your full potential, do not rely on lectures, tutorials, and workshops. It will be more profitable for you to fully digest relevant material before attending and using time with your tutors as refresher sessions during which you can dot i’s, cross t’s, and focus on any terms or ideas you did not fully understand during independent study.
Unless you are very fortunate, you will come across modules, assignments, or chapters, that upon first inspection you feel are of lesser relevance or little interest. But rather than coast through ‘boring’ topics that appear to be beyond your scope, treat such areas as excursions to places you will never visit again. That is, rather than stay in your room grumbling and wasting your time, double down and visit every corner of the subject as though you will not return. You never know what surprising nugget of interest you might discover. For example, my passion for the rebellious Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich resulted from digging deep into a classical music assignment that I assumed would spawn neither love nor interest. I am still a Soul and Reggae man, a lover of bass and beats. But had I not concentrated on that classical music assignment, my personal life would be Shostakovich-free and as such, less rich. Serendipity. Furthermore, an all-around knowledge of your subject and the ability to cite from the widest range of relevant source material will prove invaluable for your future modules.
Results. The scary bit. Be minded that most results fall into the category of ‘not as good as we hoped, not as bad as we feared’. Also keep to the front of your mind that you have elected to be measured by academic standards. Tutors are testing students’ ability to understand and interpret coursework, nothing more. It is also crucial to appreciate that your tutor is not looking to find out how brilliant you are, but how well you know your way around a specific subject and how accurately you can answer a set question. When you drift off topic, or your words are not clear enough, when you lean too often on quotes, or have obviously crashed out an essay in a panic, there is little point in railing against the system or complaining that disappointing results are someone else’s fault. When you do not achieve the mark you hoped for, take a day to be outraged and upset, I did, but then embrace some humility, speak with your tutors, and absorb and apply the feedback they give you.
If you find yourself really uninspired, really think you have made a mistake, never be frightened to consider switching courses or modules. You are the boss of you, you are paying for this, and only you get to live your life. Stay interested. First year is the best year to keep your options wide open.
Be curious about courses other students are studying. Make your social life a positive life. While free and available, join several societies. I would suggest at least one team sport. Hang out with motivated people who are going where you are going. Duffers going nowhere are to be avoided. Inertia is not the reason behind going to university, and individuals choosing not to take their studies seriously will only hold you back. As always, ignore dangerous and negative peer pressure (not Pier Pressure), be smart enough and tough enough to walk away from foolishness, and do not measure your achievements or judge your actions against those acceptable to others — you will always fall short of your best. Be home by twelve because all bad things happen after midnight (true story!). And as well as avoiding all bad things, you will miss nothing worthwhile (also true).
Ignore and never ever repeat the current nonsense spouting from right-wing politicians concerning ‘low value degree courses’. Hypocrites. For a surprising number of them took the famously ‘low value’ PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) yet are currently scrambling around in a panic hoping to stumble across a Daily Mail-appealing policy that may result in the Conservatives not being humiliated at the next general election. Ignore them, they will be gone soon (fingers crossed).
Remain conscious that for a fleeting moment you are stood on an ancient rock flying through infinite space. So, do not walk about with your headphones on. Engage with the universe, landscape, flora, fauna, buildings, and people. Eyes and ears wide open. It is all a miracle.
Never ever scratch jock-itch!