Incentives. It’s important to incentivise yourself at every step of the way in your time at university. Deferring gratification when trying to develop self-discipline and consistent study habits, reminding yourself of how worth it all the effort will be when you throw your graduation cap in the air. Forcing yourself to study for X number of hours before you read that chapter of that book you just can’t put down, or watch that next episode on Netflix. These short-term and long-term incentives are helpful, but it’s good to have mid-term incentives too. After exams, this year, I hope to be enjoying some exotic food and culture, as well as getting a vitamin D boost, somewhere in the Mediterranean. I also look forward to chipping madly away at my nearly 2000 book-long to-read list, although I already sneak a chapter of fiction in on my study breaks. Most of all, I can’t wait to catch up with family and friends back at home in London. As I did lots during my year out from university, I didn’t apply for any internships this time around as I want to focus on catching up on my studies and preparing myself for Final Year, but I will continue working as an enquiry management assistant at the university to earn some money over the summer. I will also have to spend some time thinking about what I want to write about in my dissertation, as well as what I want to do immediately after I graduate, so I already have plenty on my hands for the summer.
As important as it is to enjoy the extensive time off while you still have it as a student, it is important also to not waste it. So, watch some Netflix, but not too much of it. I have friends who will be doing industrial placements and internships, while others will be volunteering or studying abroad. Some people choose to work the whole of summer, others travel, and some – like me – do both. Whatever you do, think through it and plan well, so that you ensure that you are using your time wisely. You don’t want to develop habits that will hinder you in your next phase of life, whether it be full-time work or the next stage in your education. Hence, for me, I want to be as prepared as possible to put my best foot forward in 3rd Year. So, I hope to fill in as many gaps in my knowledge as possible. In saying that, however, it is also not wise to burn myself out before September.
As with all things, it’s about moderation and balance. Work proportionately to your commitments, and rest proportionately to your work. Above all, enjoy the journey! Learn from every experience and savour every moment. After all, you’re only ever going to be an undergraduate student (for the first time) once!]]>
Learn Exactly the Way You Learn
Once you know how best you learn, stick to it. In Sixth Form, I enjoyed making colourful mind maps and posters and because I was studying English Literature, I had been used to annotating texts. When I arrived at university to study something new, I mistakenly discarded some of my most effective learning styles. I’m not saying watching one too many episodes of Suits had anything to do with it, but somewhere down the line I thought I could thrive on a photographic memory – a skill that only works for me when doing last minute revision on the morning of an exam. I realised this wasn’t good for me. I realised you should abandon a method when it is not appropriate for the task, or it does not work for you. In saying that, be careful not to make excuses for yourself. Many a time I have heard a student say that they work best under pressure, which is often simply an excuse for procrastination and poor time management.
Another part of knowing yourself is not just identifying how you learn, but also identifying obstacles to your learning. What are your barriers to effective studying? Social media? Food? Netflix? Socialising? Whatever the distraction, it is important to either set apart time for them, keep them to a minimum, or eliminate them altogether. Doing well in your studies will always require some measure of sacrifice because you only get out what you put in. So get rid of distractions and prepare the folders, binders, notes, and all the materials you need to put your best foot forward. Knowing yourself is about creating the conditions under which you flourish.
Learn Patience in Learning
Just as important as being able to identify the ways in which you learn, and sticking to it, is the time it takes to learn. As a student with a specific learning difficulty, namely dyspraxia, this has been a recurring lesson for me. Learning takes time for everyone, but I especially have had to learn to be patient with myself, and take things one at a time.
It goes without saying that before even applying to university, you ought to have an idea of how student finance works in general. Do your research on how the funding system works, how much you will be entitled to, when you may have to begin repayment, and how much might you be expected to repay, etc. It is vital that you understand as best as you can what it is you are committing yourself to for the next couple of years, and all its costs and benefits.
Once you’re sure about university, and have got your funding sorted, you can then begin to shop around for student bank accounts. Most student accounts come with incentives ranging from discounts on travel to food and clothing. It’s entirely up to you which bank you choose, but be sure to research plenty and compare the ones that attract you most. For example, I chose to open my student account with Santander as the incentive at the time was a free 16-25 Railcard, which has helped significantly with transport costs between university and home in London. I also know of foodies who chose another bank because it offered a TasteCard, which gave them discounts in various restaurants.
So, you’re off to university, you’ve set up your account, and student finance starts pouring in. What happens next? You resist the urge to splurge. Instead, you stop, think, and budget. As previous posts suggest, planning and preparation at university is crucial and encompasses almost every part of student life. You need to reflect on how you will spend what you receive. Will your student loans cover you, or will you need to work to supplement it? If so, how much will you need to cover the shortfall and where is this money coming from? These are the questions I asked myself at the start of the first semester. Using the Fudget app, I computed all my expected income and expenses, and then used the balance to indicate how much I will need to earn to live comfortably. I immediately began applying for part-time jobs online, I went into the town shopping centre to hand out CVs. Eventually, I decided to stick with student ambassador roles and working for the university, which offers me both good pay and flexibility. So, I currently work in the University Enquiry Management Team, answering queries by email and phone, as well as doing odd jobs as a Student Ambassador. Whatever you decide, be sure to consider all of the potential implications. Remember, being a university student means that studying is your occupation and it ought to be treated like a full-time job. Your academic commitments are your priority.
Also, in addition to a student account, I think it wise to have further separate bank accounts that will help you to be disciplined with your spending. For example, if your student loans all go into your student account, it can help you remember that the money there should go towards living costs like rent, bills and sustenance, and all other university-related expenses. Anything else, whether it be funds for miscellaneous activities or general savings, should go into a separate account. Some people leave their cards in a separate wallet at home, while others choose to have everything in one place, but carry only the amount of cash they’ll need for the day or week. You can also cut costs by preparing your meals for the week ahead of time (I do this on the weekend). I like to prepare my lunch, so I am not tempted to buy anything. Then I go home for dinner, or occasionally dine out with friends. I do often, however, carry small emergency cash which I can use to buy off-the-cuff snacks, but I mostly try to bring snacks with me from home to prevent unnecessary spontaneous spending. Whatever is wisest, safest and most convenient for you to do is what you should do.
I remember when I was just starting university and I had heard some students at other universities talking about how they had already spent well into their overdraft. Don’t be that person! Do what you ought, when you ought. But if you somehow find yourself in a tricky situation financially, do not hesitate to speak to your student union representatives or your student money advisor. There are people who will help you find a solution to get you back on your feet. Better yet, avoid the stress and budget well to begin with. Get researching because there is lots out there to help you. It really is true that there’s an app for everything!
If you have a concrete idea of what you want to do after university, all you need to do is find out what the requirements are for your desired career path. The legal, medical, and teaching professions, for example, have structured paths to qualification with specific requirements. However, some are more flexible than others which allow for people from different educational backgrounds to qualify through postgraduate courses. So, if you already know what you wish to go into, you can just research what it takes to qualify in that profession. Asking people you know who work in the fields you are interested, and getting work experience in them, will help you decide whether that career is suitable for you. If you are interested in a career that requires no specific degree, consider doing research on or contacting people who work or have worked in those roles, and ask them what they studied and how it benefited their role. That’s not to say that you must stick to the career you had in mind at the start of your studies.
If you have been following my posts, you will already know I am in my second year of a Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) degree. You will also know that I came across it quite accidentally during a conversation with a girl who was also applying to study it elsewhere. I had known it was possible to study any two out of the three, but it was not until after this conversation that I was made aware that I could study all three together. This was perfect for me because I did not know exactly what I wanted to do for a career, but I did know that I was curious about the world and the way it worked. PPE provided just that – a way of understanding society and the things we take for granted in everyday life, but from the lens of social sciences rather than hard sciences. I also knew that studying PPE would not limit my career choices. So, I chose my degree because I had an academic goal that would be nonetheless valuable whatever my eventual career choice. I also attended subject talks at open days to gain some insight into the content and structure of the course, which helped me gauge which modules I might enjoy. It is important to note that no two courses are the same, and their exact structure will usually vary by institution. So, PPE at Manchester will look different to PPE elsewhere, which is why you sure ensure you properly look at the course descriptions and the modules available to you, so you can identify your areas of interest. Speak to lecturers and other academic staff at university open days, and do not hesitate to share any concerns you have. There is no such thing as a stupid question, but even if there was, it is far better to ask it before you have made a decision.
Another way of choosing a course if you are not sure what you want to do for a career, or are not sure what it is you are interested in, is to choose based on what you are good at. This can be the riskiest of ways to choose a course because sometimes what we are good at and what we enjoy do not overlap. However, if you do find yourself good at something and you enjoy it, then it can be a good way to approach course choices. You can either choose a course based on what you do well in already or you can choose a course in an area that you would like to strengthen your skills in. The latter option can be tricky at times because it may require extra effort. For example, I chose PPE because I was curious about politics, philosophy was a pastime of mine, and I wanted to become more numerate and understand economics. My A Levels (English Literature, Religious Studies, Psychology and AS Sociology) were only marginally related to my degree. So, I was mostly taking on a new way of looking at things. Thankfully, all first year Economics courses at Manchester have compulsory maths and statistics modules to bring you up to scratch. The point is that if you are considering throwing yourself into something new, do as much research and preparation as you can to ease yourself into it all. Whatever you do, it is vital to ensure you are qualified to study what you want to study at the particular institutions that you are interested in. If you want to try something new, check the course requirements in the university prospectus or on the website to see if your post-16 qualifications are appropriate preparation for your university ambitions.
In summary, do your research and consider what’s important to you; career, curiosity or competence.
Plan, Plan, Plan!
You have probably heard the phrase “failing to plan is planning to fail” several times already. As cliche as it may be, it is true. You might have been able to get away with living life spontaneously during sixth form or college, but university is an entirely different ball game. Depending on your course, you may or may not have a weekly timetable as intense and structured as you have had in secondary and post-16 education, but regardless of academic discipline one thing is universally true: you become entirely independent and responsible for your learning. So, the value of the time you put into planning and preparing cannot be overstated.
It is important to plan yearly, semesterly, monthly, weekly and daily. In terms of planning yearly, I create a table outlining my goals for the academic year and make them more concrete and achievable by detailing precisely what it is I want (“goal”), why I want it (“purpose”), how I am going to get it (“targets”), and what it will look like when I get it and when (“indicators”). This is best done during the summer holidays, just before the academic year starts as it is a great source of motivation and sets the tone for your entry or re-entry into student life. Once you have an idea of what you want to achieve over term-time, you can then move on to filling in your diary with important dates, such as those of campus careers events and for study abroad or internship application deadlines, as well as non-academic priorities. Doing this before lectures begin is crucial as you may find yourself pressed for time when weekly assignments begin pouring in and deadlines are fast approaching (the dates of which you also should write down ahead of time, along with exam period dates and things of that sort).
Once you have all of that sorted, planning monthly, weekly and daily is just a matter of breaking down those overarching plans. A monthly calendar gives you a general overview of what to expect over the coming weeks and what might be expected of you in relation to applications, events or assignments. More significantly, planning for the week is how you ensure you stay on top of your targets. I like to set aside a day of the week, usually Sunday, to reflect on the week gone and plan for the week ahead. Because I have already written down key dates, I just have to revisit my diary and my university timetable to remind myself of what is happening, what I need to do to prepare myself for each day, and what I need to have accomplished by the end of that week. Note, however, that the success of your planning and goal-setting hinges upon your ability to discipline yourself to revisit your plans and goals regularly. Of course, things won’t always go according to plan, but it’s still important that you have a general idea of what is happening. If you have to, create reminders on your phone, on post-it notes, posters, whiteboards, etc.
Preparation is key
The more specific your plan, the easier you will have made it for yourself during the semester. For example, when planning for finances, try estimating expected expenses for the academic year and compare that with your student loan. If you think you need to work, consider how much you will need to make to cover the shortfall? Roughly how many hours would you need to do? How will you spread these hours over the week? As you think through these things, remember your studies are your priority and should not be neglected. The spaces in your weekly timetable are designed for independent study, so make sure you are giving yourself enough time to do just that and to do it as well as you can. But if you must work, try to find a flexible role that is compatible with your timetable, such as, for instance, working as a student ambassador for the university, which allows you to work when you are able to. In my case, I work both as a student ambassador and as an assistant for the university Enquiry Management team. The way I balance this alongside my studies is by applying for work according to my weekly demands. I tend to work on the days that I have no lectures or seminars, but even then I tend to work a few hours at a time or as many as I can without compromising the time I need to spend in the library on those days.
You will find that at times you may have to make difficult choices, but doing well at university does not necessarily mean you must become a recluse. In fact, it is good that you remain well-rounded and carve out time for extracurricular activities and regular interaction with friends and family. One way I like to maintain relationships, for example, is by communicating while I commute. I spend a lot of time on public transport and on foot, so when I’m not taking a reflective walk, or not reading a book or lecture slides on the bus, I put my earphones in and try to have a conversation while on my way to and from university.
This means that when it’s time to work, I can work. It’s no use attempting something half-heartedly and you probably even end up wasting more time as a result. I have had days when it has taken me hours to do something because I approached it sluggishly, then after I completed it I realised it would have taken me far less time if I had put my all into it from the start rather than dragging it out. One way to counter this behaviour is by learning to defer gratification. So, if it helps to encourage you to increase your effort, create incentives for yourself. Tell yourself “if I write 500 words of this essay by 12pm, I can watch Netflix for an hour free of guilt”.
Another lecturer of mine also recommended eliminating unnecessarily time-consuming activities from my daily schedule in order to “create time”. One of the ways I do this is by preparing my meals for the week on Sunday, which, as I mentioned, is my planning and preparing day. This saves me so much time that would otherwise be lost cooking everyday and it enables me to stay in the library much longer as I don’t have to go home for lunch. Here are some snaps to inspire you from the Sunday I spent planning for my week and this blog post.
All in all, a good part of managing your time well is about mindfulness of how and where your time is spent and whether these habits will lead you to your desired goal. There are plenty of resources on time management available online (e.g. the Pomodoro technique) and through the university. I’ve also included some photos below of some tips from my sixth form planner. In the end, it’s all about prioritising, knowing how best you learn and achieve goals, then creating a schedule in light of that knowledge. After that, it’s all about being disciplined in following through. In the words of Earl Nightingale: “Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway”. Don’t forget to take it one step at a time, one day at a time, and enjoy the journey. Now, go forth and seize the day!
1. Chill at Chill FactorE