Organising your Studies for University Success.

Organising Your Studies for University Success

It has occurred to me recently that I really, really, miss university. For me it wasn't all about the socialising, don't get me wrong I made some truly awesome friends, but I'm the sort of geeky person who revelled in simply having the opportunity to be studying. In my final undergraduate year, I spent twelve hours per weekend in the campus library ... out of choice ... because I knew I was going to miss it. 

I like to organise things. There aren't many things I find more satisfying than crossing off items on a to do list or writing in next weeks tasks on my calendar. Ok, so maybe I lean towards the 'Monica Geller' side of the spectrum; but a lot of the tips I'm going to share really did help me succeed in my degree(s) whilst maintaining some sort of work/life balance.

I hope this guide appears motivational as opposed to patronising!

You need a weekly calendar.

... and you need to pin it in plain view in your study space. Mine was homemade and looked like this ...
University Study Tips
Pin it up, number the weeks of the term according to your university's system ... mine didn't work with dates. Freshers week was week 1, then they continued numerically (including holiday weeks), which got mighty confusing when you had a tutorial assignment due in week 22 ... huh?

This tip is particularly important if your schedule changes from week to week. At the start of term, as soon as you have each module's lecture/tutorial/seminar schedule, write each class on your weekly calendar. That way there is no turning up for a painful 9 am lecture in the wrong week.

Top Tip: Rip off the pages as the weeks go by and the long, dark, winter term will feel like it's flying by.

Know what you've got to do and when you've got to do it.

For each module, write in the deadline for each assignment as soon as you've been told it. Then make a note at the bottom of the week you think you should start the assignment and at the bottom of the week before the deadline. This includes essays, presentations, tutorial problem sets ... the lot.

Schedule specific tasks.

My Sunday's end with planning my time for the week ahead. Around your lecture/seminar/reading timetable assign time for specific tasks. Find books to read for essay x, have a go at problem set y, do the assigned reading for lecture g of module z ... you get the idea ...

Also add the fun, non-study related activities you've got planned - give yourself things to look forward to.

By this point, your calendar will look something like this ...
University Study Tips

Be ready with your study materials.

If you want to annotate lecture notes (do this!), make sure you print them off in good time. Need to book a slot for a short loan library book? ... do it ... then you can make use of that pesky two-hour break between lectures.

You'd be amazed how many people forget to print the lecture notes; they either end up asleep, waste time copying down the slides (to ensure their additional notes make sense) or have the painstaking task of matching up their notes with the slides at a later time.

Lectures are valuable.

Some think it's fine to skip lectures - I don't. Lectures are the staples of your university education. 

The true value of a lecture lies in the additional information you glean from the speaker. Their slides are often brief, vague or open to multiple (most of them wrong) interpretations ... they often fail to make sense if you've not been in attendance. Your lecturer is going to be marking your paper ... by going to the lecture you are on the same page.

Top tip: Record lectures on a dictaphone (or your phone). Check that this is ok with the speaker. I'm not saying you should re-listen to every lecture, but I've often been saved from a mid-revision panic by being able to re-listen to tricky sections. It's amazing how much you miss while trying to write things down and who knows you may grab that nugget of information the lecturer is really looking for.

Get into a reading routine.

First of all - always do the recommended reading, even if you have a maths heavy course like I did. If the assigned reading is truly excessive, do enough so that you a) fully understand everything from the lecture and b) have put what the lecturer said into some sort of context.

Annotate your lecture notes with a different colour for each source. Write down things that reinforce what the lecturer said and go that little bit extra by adding related content you think you can get into an exam answer or essay. This may require jumping around your lecture notes, it's rare that a book or paper has been written in the same order, but it's worth it. You'll take in more than if you were mindlessly copying the text, it reinforces the things you learnt in the lecture.

Top Tip: I never bothered reading anything assigned that wasn't linked to the lecture. You're being examined on the lectures, so simply work on understanding and reinforcing that material.

My lecture notes ended up looking like this ... disclaimer: they 100% made sense to me!

University Study Tips

... don't worry, you'll condense and tidy them up before revising!

Have a go at everything.

Attend every lecture, attempt every problem set, do all of the assigned reading. After all, this is what you've paid for. 

Problem sets: even if you're struggling to find the answers, it's really helpful to have had a go. When your tutorial teacher goes through the solutions, you'll be able to find where you were going wrong. If you're still struggling, it's easier to ask for help at the time than wait till you realise you still can't do it a week before the exam and need help at the exact same time everyone else is trying to contact your teaching assistant.

Top Tip: Once you've been given the answers to a problem set, work through them again until you know how to solve them. You'd be surprised how many exam questions are simply minor variations of tutorial questions.

Discipline. Discipline. Discipline.

You've set yourself a relatively specific schedule - stick to it. I promise you'll enjoy your Netflix binge watching time a lot more once your work is done and your conscience is clear.

It doesn't have to be a chore. I always told myself to 'make friends with the work' - try to enjoy it. Curl up under a blanket with a hot chocolate and do your reading. Challenge yourself to get the work done twenty minutes early so that you can watch an extra episode of Friends.

Procrastination can happen because you perceive the work to be too difficult. If you try to face the problem it's often not as tricky as you initially thought, maybe the reading isn't nearly as long as it looks. Even if it is difficult, at least you'll have started on the road to conquering it ... stalking people on Facebook doesn't have the same effect.

Be flexible.

I know this contradicts the last point, but let's face it, the rest of the world isn't going to stick with your schedule. You've been invited for a catch-up coffee right when you planned to try that pesky problem set; the book you need isn't in the library when the computer said it would be; you are just so damn tired from a week full of lectures that all you can do is nap ... that's fine. Just make sure that you can swap the block with a free space on your weekly calendar.

Look ahead ... be ready to revise.

During my first year at uni, I found that the exams can really sneak up on you, particularly if you're being tested in January. At school the teachers gear everything towards the exam, they finish everything in good time and gradually start helping you to revise. At uni, it's all go, you're still learning right up until the last day of term, then you can have as little as four weeks to learn an entire twelve week course for five modules (... yes I was on a course that decided to put more exams after Christmas than in the summer).

You need to get yourself in the position such that as soon as your 'holiday' begins, you're ready to start smashing that revision. For me, this meant making sure that my annotated lecture notes were condensed and written up into coherent revision notes before the end of each term. I used one of these books for each module and found that writing up the notes made sure that I understood everything before the end of the term so that my revision could be focused on remembering it ... but hey, maybe I'll write a whole other post full of my revision tips!

So there we go, that's how I got myself a first class degree. As annoying as it sounds, I would recommend getting into the habit of this in your first year. It's a lot harder to succeed in year two if you don't have a solid grounding from the first. Also, you'll probably be applying for internships during your second year, your first-year results are all firms can see about your university academics  - I'm pretty sure the elusive 40% isn't going cut the mustard!

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