How To Survive Your University Course

It’s that time of year when the students go back, and partly because I am bio-rhythmically set up to expect students requiring help across the autumn, I thought I would extract the salient points from those years of study support and offer them here in a handy guide to the hopelessly at sea. If you are not yet accustomed to the life of the university, or can’t seem to get your expectations straight, I hope this will help.


1. Academics will not be like any other teachers you have met. Up until now, teachers have been in loco parentis – discipline, crowd control, your general behaviour and well-being, have been part of their concern. Now, although the set up seems more personal in some ways than it was before, it’s actually much more impersonal. Academics will rarely know who you are in any meaningful way. You will meet over the work, and that’s the place you interact with them. So, if they seem cold or distant, they do not ‘hate’ you, they are not focused on you in that way and are probably just thinking about other things entirely.

2. You will not get everything done that you are told to do. Again, academics are motivated by their subject rather than by the needs of the individual. They will tell you what you need to do/read/study in order to become what they consider proficient in their subject. You must bear in mind that for academics, the words anal, pedantic and obsessive are compliments. They will also be looking back from the vast heights of their experience and giving you the best of it, but compacted somehow. They will have forgotten how long it took them to read the books in question.

3. Do as much as you can, but don’t waste time and energy beating yourself up over what doesn’t get done. Life will take over, as it always does, and some things will happen and others won’t and some you will do well and some will be shoddy. Try to keep your eye on the big picture – what are you learning here? What do you need to master in order to make you feel comfortable with your subject? Your heroism lies not in scaling vast mountains of work, but in applying yourself to the things you do not understand. Understanding is all. You simply cannot know everything there is to know at this level.

4. Schedule free time for yourself and take it. Students head for the rocks as soon as they decide they have no time for anything but work. Then, the very real and necessary needs of the brain for downtime will start intervening every moment of the day. You will sit at your desk for hours at a stretch achieving very little out of a toxic mix of tiredness and resentment, entirely buried under the anxiety of not getting everything done. This is a disastrous state of affairs. Relax in your free time so that you can work when you want to be working.

5. The very biggest favour you can do yourself is to stop worrying about making mistakes. Mistakes are good. They are the way you actually learn something (rather that what we hope learning will be, which is a process of reassuring ourselves that there is nothing we need to learn). No one minds that you made a mistake apart from you. In fact, everyone who teaches you at university level will be expecting you to mess up, be confused, and completely fail to understand things. They will only be irritated if you do not speak up and say so. Speak up: this allows your teachers to do the work they are there for – helping you understand things they know to be complex.

6. Everyone struggles with the fact that, up until now, being ‘good’ at a subject has been a stable and reliable part of identity. And now you’ll have reached a level where you don’t feel ‘good’ at your subject any more. Psychologists have discovered that starting a course in higher education can provoke the same feelings in people as a major bereavement. Of course – you will have lost, to some extent, the person you used to be. To the best of your ability, let your old self go. Have confidence in the future and your own resources. You are in a transitional state, in the act of learning, and there’s a reason why university courses are at least three years long. You’ll need that time to move up to the next level, so be patient with yourself.

7. Up until now, learning has too often been about pleasing other people – pleasing your parents, pleasing your teacher, pleasing some abstract god of achievement. This is all going to have to stop. What you really need to find is intellectual curiosity. Whatever you are working on, try to find the part of it that actually appeals to you, that makes you curious to know more. Wherever you have choices, take time to make ones that correspond with what you are truly interested in, rather than what you think you ‘should’ do. Follow your gut instincts. It’s time to discover what you really like and what properly intrigues you.

8. Do not compare yourself to others. That way madness lies.

9. When people tell you that you are responsible for your learning now, what they mean is that you are responsible for finding the pleasure, the satisfaction and the reward in it. For some reason these are things we stubbornly sit back and expect others to provide for far too long (often in the form of good grades if all else fails). You probably will be among some of the best teachers you’ve ever had, but unless you engage with the work and find your curiosity, it won’t make the slightest bit of difference. You really do get back what you put in willingly.

10. There is only one thing you really do need to find time for, and it’s the thing that my students always used to insist they simply could not spare time for: you need time to think. Yes, think. Let a problem roll around in your mind, reflect back over what you’ve read, mull over what you’ve been asked to do and why, just let all the information you’ve squeezed in have a chance to digest a bit. Everything goes smoother and better if you spare time for thinking. You can think doing the washing up, or going for a walk, or doing the laundry. You’ll find yourself thinking if you arrange to have coffee with a few friends from class and chat over what you’ve been doing. You’ll think when you are an arts student explaining something you are reading about to a science student. Or vice versa. Thinking: I cannot recommend it highly enough. Will you be insisting mid-term that you absolutely cannot find a moment to think? Undoubtedly, sigh. But trust me, it’s the answer.



34 thoughts on “How To Survive Your University Course

  1. ‘Do as much as you can, but don’t waste time and energy beating yourself up over what doesn’t get done.’ That’s advice I still need every day. And the point about mistakes is so important. There is a line in Salley Vickers’ book ‘The Other Side of You’ which I am probably going to misquote but basically a character says “It’s the mistakes that let the light in.” I used to drum that into every first year class I ever taught. I don’t care if it’s cliché, (almost) every mistake is a learning opportunity.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more about mistakes, and it’s a notion that takes some drumming in, doesn’t it? Shame, guilt, are so quick to rush to the fore. And like you, I constantly battle my need to get everything done (and perfectly). I wish I could find the roots of that particular weed and pluck it out. It’s amazing how much time I can put into fretting over the undone….

  2. This is the best post I never read as a student. (Of course we didn’t have blogs in those days, only Usenet.) I was totally miserable as a student exactly because of points 6, 7, 8.

    I’d say it’s slightly different for scientists than arts students though (I’m a maths graduate). You can’t get everything done, but your aim should be to understand everything. I was so hung up on getting everything done that I skimped on thoroughly understanding.

    The key to understanding is that you have to be humble enough to admit when you don’t understand. Then you have to be humble enough to badger colleagues, older students, tutors, anyone, until you *do* understand.

    • I agree that things are somewhat different for sciences and arts – the scientists have so much scheduled time for one thing with lab work and so on, and the approaches can be quite different in places. I completely agree with you about understanding – that’s just as important in the arts, too. And pretty much every student I’ve ever taught has been dazzled by the Getting Things Done laser beam. It’s probably a right of passage. I find your closing words particularly insightful – apparently, it’s a skill of higher intelligence to say ‘I don’t know’ than it is to fabricate some sort of answer.

      • I think you must have done some really valuable work with your students and they are really lucky to have had you there.

        As you say academics aren’t always interested in students as people. As it was and will ever be… school doesn’t prepare you for that and these days, with government pressure for boxes to be ticked and the onus on schools to heave pupils over the hurdles put in their way, it is probably getting worse.

        Yes, that was just me and my insecurities, not to be able to admit weakness. It took me several years to get over it. I hope that although my children have a different upbringing from the one I had, they will be more prepared for the real world, including the difference in university culture, when they get out there.

        I always wish I had been more prepared as I would have got more out of it and been less stressed and unhappy. Specialist student advisors would definitely have helped! But I understand from friends who are lecturers that this is being cut right back 😦

  3. “So, if they seem cold or distant, they do not ‘hate’ you, they are not focused on you in that way and are probably just thinking about other things entirely.” True I suspect, but many of us academics are trying to move to a point such that when we interact with our students they are indeed our primary focus. I’m very research active and I have a senior administrative role in my university too, but I try very hard to focus on my students for some part of my working week too.

    The best thing I’ve done which I hope will really help my teaching role is to become again a student (music) and thus get some idea what life is like from the other side of the desk.

    • There are indeed lovely teachers in the universities – but they are lovely and don’t cause the students worries. 🙂 When I look back at my department it was a pretty mixed bag, but there were definitely some fantastic teachers in there. I so applaud your return to being a student. It’s a very noble thing to embrace the not-knowing again!

    • I guess all professions have their difficult characters, but somehow difficult academics really do take it to another level. I do hope you can avoid him as much as possible!

      • i wish i could. he’s my first hour prof. it’s not that i mind reading all of the material, it’s when they give me bad, or poorly written material. grr.

        thanks again for your post. my classmates appreciated the advice 🙂

      • Oh bless you for bringing it to the attention of your classmates – I wondered where the hits were coming from! As for the prof, well, I send huge sympathy. And hugs.

  4. I enjoyed this article a lot like the other commenters. I wonder though if it’s true that ‘for some reason…we stubbornly sit back and expect others to provide…(pleasure, satisfaction and reward in learning)..for far too long’. What I mean is – it’s clear what the reason is for this lamentable state of affairs. We are taught to ‘stubbornly sit back etc.’. I think it would be good to reverse the situation and teach self-motivated love of learning as the foundation of all later learning. Thanks for the thought provoking ideas.

    • Yes, I think you’re quite right. The focus on marks and examinations is completely excessive at the moment, and not doing anyone any favours (I don’t expect the teachers much like it, either). It’s a psychological fact that when you offer children rewards for what they are doing off their own initiative, they a) refuse to do it without the reward from that point on and b) lose their interest. I can understand that the exam tests certain skills and that it’s worth keeping, but it would be good to see it accompanied by other ways of valuing learning.

  5. Such good advice! I learned it all the hard way. Perhaps you could go back in time to 1986 and have this appear in a typewritten letter slipped under my dorm room door? I know past me would really appreciate it 🙂

    • Lol! The past me from 1986 would quite like to come in and say hi. Wouldn’t it have been great to know each other from back then? Though I’m mostly just glad we know each other now. 🙂

  6. excellent advice – wish I had received this all those years ago when I was embarking on that new life. Mistakes are part of the learning experience – how true. I’ve remembered those failures far more than my successes….

    • Oh I couldn’t agree more! I could probably go through every failure and recall them all in detail (though that might not be healthy either….). But mistakes mean change and change means growth and goodness knows we need that.

  7. These are not only pointers for a course, but for life, litlove. #9 in particular is so important. Aren’t we suppose to take responsibility for all that we do, and for all that we are? I wish I’d had a mentor like you when I was in U., and have taken classes from you. 😉

    • Bless you, Arti. I think you would be a wonderful student to work with! I agree with you – I think that the ‘how’ to learn is as important as ‘what’ we learn, because the ability to learn is necessary from start to finish. Remembering how good it can feel to learn something new is so helpful whenever we need to instigate change (which can always look difficult!).

  8. And I’ve just come out the other end of my (lengthy) student experience! Two days after I submitted I had a Gaudy, and thought how much happier I’d be doing my undergraduate years now – everyone seemed so much more mellow and friendly. I didn’t hate my undergraduate experience, but I was tired and worried a fair bit of the time. My chief problem work-wise was that there simply wasn’t time to think about the topics – because we were writing an essay every two or three days. That was something wonderful (and terrifying) about the DPhil – being able to roll a topic around my mind for four years.

    • That’s the problem with Oxbridge – the sheer volume of work is crippling. I used to be very subversive and tell the students not to do it all, but to make decisions to drop certain topics/authors whatever so they could have a decent shot at the ones they really wanted to learn about. I was bad, wasn’t I? 😉 But I am thrilled to know you’ve submitted and many, many congratulations! That is such an enormous achievement. I hope you’re celebrating still. You deserve to!

  9. All great advice.

    I’ll take mild exception to number one. I’m in the middle of writing a story for an alumni magazine for a small, regional university here in NY and focusing on four prof’s who have, and continue to have, excellent personal and professional relationships with their students, one on one after the students have graduated.

    I attended a huge, impersonal, prestigious (yawn) university, U of Toronto, where we little piddling undergrads were made to feel fairly meaningless (compared to grad students) — totally off-putting. It’s pretty tough to simply gin up, in the abstract, a deep passion for Victorian poetry (or whatever) when your profs have NO idea who you are and couldn’t really care less. Yes, they were brilliant, world-class scholars and held us all to a punishingly high standard (useful “real world” prep, for sure.) But need it be quite so cold?

    I don’t advocate becoming BFFs with students, not students being all needy and clingy, but it’s arrogant and a little weird to expect young adults to really apply themselves while knowing full well they are a number on a sheet of paper, and wouldn’t be missed if they dropped out — or dropped dead. It left me with a profound distaste for formal higher education, sad to say.

    • I’m so sorry you had such a rotten experience – that doesn’t sound good at all. Most students have some bad profs to contend with, and some good ones too to compensate and give them a decent learning experience. What a shame that yours were uniformly unpleasant, and I’m really glad to know you’ve at least met some good teachers now, even if it’s too late for your own studies. I hope it will write over some of the bad memories!

  10. Such excellent, succinct advice that, like many others here, I wish had been available to me as an undergraduate. Should either of my sons have the privilege of attending university, I will be passing on these wonderful points.

    • How old are your sons? I don’t think I know that! Oh lucky you to still have them at home…. I’ll bet they’re lovely boys. And bless you, as ever, for such an encouraging comment. You are a dear heart.

      • Hello,Litlove, thank you for your kind reply and apologies for such a long delay in responding. Our elder son, Alex, will be 12 in January, and started secondary school this term. (We only moved to this area a year ago, so he doesn’t know that many other children.) Sadly, he is not enjoying it, whereas he absolutely loved his junior school. He’s a thoughtful, well-behaved boy (generally!), and unfortunately, ‘kindred spirits’ seems a little thin on the ground. He has a couple of friends, who have moved up with him from junior school, and are lovely boys, so it’s not all bleak. We will see how things go, but another concern about his unhappiness is that it may also result in him losing his love of learning, which would be very sad indeed. He’s very interested in Native American history, and also the ways in which Native Americans have suffered from being stereotyped in white culture. I’m ordering him lots of books from the USA on the subject to keep him interested. Our younger son, Hugo, has just turned 9, and, after a difficult first year at his new school, now seems to be settling down more and regaining his confidence and enjoyment of life, which is a huge relief. We love having two boys, they are wonderful – mostly!!

    • And you, dear Grad, are the original dear heart! Gotta love learning, I say, because goodness knows we can’t avoid it, and life is better if we can do it with some grace. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s