3 tips to start uni the right way

Evenings are starting to draw in, leaves are turning golden brown and university terms are just round the corner. Before you go, there a few things you can usefully be doing in the weeks before term starts.

1. Find the syllabus and ‘scope’ each subject

In looking through the syllabus you’re aiming to get an understanding of the whole subject, and a rough idea of how different parts of the course fit together. Do this for each of your subjects.

For example, a course of Modernist literature might be structured around, first, Georgian literature in the early 1900s, then High Modernism from December 1910 (Virginia Woolf) through the 1920s, and then reactions to Modernism in the 1930s. You would then look at which authors and texts can be categorised into which structure.

Similarly, for Criminal Law, scoping the subject might mean understanding that each crime must have a mental element and a physical, causative element, that there are 7 main crimes on the syllabus, each with their own definitions and some with their own unique defences, that there are general defences too, and that their are some periphery crimes which can ‘piggyback’ onto the main 7. You would then go into a little more detail for each node of that basic structure.

Understanding the scope of your course before you start will allow you to slot new things into your mental palace as you learn them, which is both easier and more effective.

There are several other ways of getting the same benefits:

  • Talk to someone who did the same subject last year and get them to characterise the paper for you in detail. The key is to make sure they actually explain the lie of the land, and don’t just say that it was interesting or that some bits were hard.
  • Read an introductory book (accessible through google scholar etc.). The important thing is to make sure it’s the right level; check your university reading list for guidance. For Romantic Literature, The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism was for example excellent. Only read the introductory chapter and a few chapters that spring out to you.
  • Listen to something like In Our Time, which has an enormous archive of interesting podcasts on arts and culture and is perfect for giving an overview of an area

2. Use past papers to focus your learning from the off

If you can get hold of some past exam papers, this will be fantastic for focusing your learning. Through reviewing past papers you’ll firstly work out which topics you’ll focus on, and second work out which bits of them to focus on.

The first part, which topics to focus on, depends on your exam format. For my English literature exams, the paper was 3 essays in 3 hours, with some essays on single authors and some comparing texts. Thus the most authors and texts you could feasibly write about in one exam was 6, and so I’d normally learn 7 or 8 through the year to give a bit of leeway and choice.

Second, when working out which parts of topics to focus on, create a document, like this, collating relevant topics and themes together. English, for example, is a very thematic subject, and so past papers are often structured around a set of recurring themes. Other subjects may have clusters of issues around certain topics. If you can get hold of the examiner’s report, that’s also great for honing in on what’s worth learning and what isn’t. However don’t spend forever poring over these because chances are you won’t yet understand a lot of what they mention; better to revisit these during revision, after you’ve answered the question in the actual exam paper. I used to print out this document and put at the front of my file. Every time I finished a text I’d flick through it and have a think about how what I’d read related to each theme.

With subjects like Law, reading past papers can be tricky because you won’t yet necessarily understand the question! THAT SAID, looking through past papers is still worthwhile. For example, in Law, the essay questions always focus on the contentious areas. I would make a document listing each of these, and fill it in through the year with readings I’d done and opinions I had on the questions. Doing this as I went meant that by the time it came to actually answering exam questions I didn’t have to stop and ask myself what I actually thought. I had already formed an opinion on the general issues raised, and so could focus on making my answer to that specific question as good as possible.

Doing both of these steps means you know what you need to focus on through the year. Knowing this is advance means that, throughout the year, you can pay closer attention to the particularly important ideas. It also reduces your workload because you don’t waste time learning things you’re never going to use.

3. Make a gentle start on some reading

By this point you should know what papers/modules you’re going to do and should also have a rough idea of what they’re about, which texts or authors or topics you’re going to focus on in the exam, and which themes and ideas you’re looking for within them. Knowing all this means you should be able to plan pretty well what you’re going to read for the rest of the year.

In the month before your course starts, try and make a decent dent in this essential, ‘primary’ reading. Not only does it mean you’ll hit the ground running, but also you’ll understand the start of the course better, and will be able to spend more of your term time reading secondary material on these texts/doing other things you enjoy.

Action plan for pre-reading:

  1. Fairly obviously, you should start reading the things you’ll study earlier in the course first.
  2. Circle/highlight important passages or quotations and make sure they’re easily accessible and, preferably, searchable (see my article here on the wonders of the Kindle highlight function).
  3. Whenever you finish something make sure to write down a few thoughts about it straight away; this will quickly become a treasure trove your later self.
  4. After finishing a text, it’s usually worth at least skim-reading the introduction and giving it a quick google/google scholar search.
  5. Finally, get out your ‘themes’ document and think about which themes or areas the work most resonates with.

I hope you’ve found this useful and that you can stride into uni next term with your head held high, knowing that, at least for the first few weeks, you have set yourself up for success.

Please also see my YouTube channel for other study tips.

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