30 essential study tips to survive university
(Last updated: 3 March 2020)
Whoever said university is a 'breeze' was drifting on the wrong thermals. University is challenging, regardless of your IQ level, subject matter or level of study. And 'doing well' at university is about much more than just acing your essays and exams.
With that in mind, we wanted to share with you our very best study tips to help ease both your studies and your stress levels – and it turns out whilst writing them, we also spawned a kind of student survival guide; a holy grail of how to navigate your time spent at university, as it were. From keeping your girlfriend/boyfriend happy as long as you can bear(!), to the benefit of ignoring your phone calls/texts/pings/tweets/[insert relevant social notification here], our hacks will not only improve your studying technique (and likely nudge those grades a little higher too), but they'll also help you get through the academic-social-jungle that is university life.
So read on adventurer, and good luck.
1. Show up
Woody Allen once said that 80% of success in life is just showing up. Well, for as much as we might wish someone else had said that, it remains pretty much true. Don’t blow off a class because you think you can, or a friend says you can. Go to class – but not just class. Clubs, activities, or just general environs will keep you motivated and connected. And when you are in class, sit in the front – be seen, and be able to hear. We guarantee your instructors will appreciate having someone in the stalls, and there are potential benefits this will have on your grades (more about this later).
2. Do not break up with your girlfriend/boyfriend
The best advice we have ever heard for making it through your studies is to not break up with your girlfriend or boyfriend (at least not until a holiday). Of course, they might break up with you, but if that happens you will just have to dig in and troop through. Don't initiate a break-up because the blowback can be unpredictable: long explanatory talks, stalking, vandalism, etc. It can be a huge distraction. It may sound cold-hearted, but if you are losing interest in your love, plan a strategic break-up when you can afford the energy and time.
3. If you do not have a girlfriend/boyfriend – do not get one
Love is a sickness, a distraction, and if you fall in love your focus will suffer. And if it doesn’t work out, well see point 2 above. Besides, it's a trap! We are all just biologically wired to perpetuate the species, and love is Mother Nature’s way of conning us into playing her game. Take a cold shower and hit the books.
4. Be flexible
Mike Tyson, the American boxer, once said ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’. Fact of the matter is life, just as much as school, has unexpected setbacks and bad days. At some point you will get a grade you don’t like and your plans might just go pear-shaped. Don’t despair, don’t quit – just regroup and come up with a new study plan. Fight back harder. You may think that's easier said than done, but we'd beg to differ.
5. Track your progress
We highly recommend getting a planner. Not like a wedding planner; someone who can organise your entire needs, solve your problems and generally be a sounding board for every little problem you have (but wouldn't that be nice?!). We mean a planner of the paper variety. Our personal favourites are those little pocket-sized types that give you a bit of flexibility and portability. These are great for keeping track of what you need to do, but are just as good to track what you have done. Just like working out or dieting, it helps to know what you actually have been doing. Maybe you take the exam and get slapped with a low-mark. But why? You studied for hours and days! Or did it just feel that way? Log how much time you actually spend working and you will know whether you are putting the necessary time in.
Yes, there are genius mega-minds – you might even be one – but most people learn better in groups or with friends. The exchange of information can help keep you and your group up, you can cover more ground, and fill in gaps where they might occur. They can also help keep you accountable. Find study groups and show up. If you cannot find one, start one.
7. Don’t compare yourself to others
You know Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson? Big guy. Pro athlete. Pro wrestler. Actor. Billions of dollars. Loved and adored by men and women. You might look at him and think that guy has everything he could want, so he must be happy. Turns out he suffers from anxiety and depression. The fact is, you know yourself better than anyone will ever know you, or you will know anyone. Don’t compare your inside to someone else’s outside. A lot of people look like they have it all together, or act like they have it all together, and they don’t. Focus on you, and you’ll get where you need to go far quicker.
8. Find your zone
By the time you arrive at university, chances are you know where you work best. Everyone really needs a space, somewhere that allows them say to themselves, ‘this is where I work’. There was a writer once, whose daughter told a story of how he used to wake up every morning, put on a suit and tie and walk down into the basement where he would sit and work at his novels. For him his place of business was the basement. Some people, like a number of us here at Oxbridge Essays HQ (thankfully), work best in crowds. Others in solitude. If you're of the latter party, we'd recommend investing in a set of noise-cancelling headphones to help when you cannot escape human company.
9. Know your rhythm
When do you work best? Your entire day needs to be built around this time, and scheduled around it. For many people the best time to get work done is first thing early in the morning. They are motivated by the 'freshness' of the day, when anything seems possible. What's more, there are fewer distractions, fewer people to engage in conversation, and usually fewer places open to call or visit. Of course, there are other people who work best late at and late into the night. It doesn’t really matter when you study, only that you study well, and at the same time each day with interruption or distraction, to glean the most productivity.
10. Ditch social media
Speaking of interruptions and distractions, ditch social media. Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook – whatever the kids are into these days – don’t install it, use it, sign up for it, or otherwise participate. These are a massive mental and temporal suck. Opening up any social app is a trip down a bottomless rabbit hole. You must guard your time and use it well.
11. Stay healthy
It is just common sense, but the healthier you are, the easier it is going to be to manage the stress that comes with study. Get some fitness in; 30-60 minutes each day in whatever form feels good. Eat right, consume your colours, drink lots of water. Many studies have shown that a good nutritious diet and regular exercise improve brain function. It certainly won't hurt, and you’ll feel better.
Did you know, and this is as sad as it is true, that there are students who never once set a foot inside their libraries? You should take the time to browse and look around. Maybe pick something out that isn’t really in your area but interests you anyway. This is how new and creative ideas are developed; when people find connections across disciplines and platforms. Don’t work inside a bubble. Get out and see what there is to see!
13. Fill empty time
So, there is a professor we know. We will call her Jude. When she was in her mid-fifties, Jude fell on some ice, dislocating something in her back or shoulder. When she went to the hospital she had to lay in the MRI machine for hours. One of her students asked, ‘weren’t you bored?’ ‘No,’ she replied, ‘I just recited through Greek verb conjugations in my head’. There was another professor, a guy, who dedicated one of his books to the walking trails where he lives, because without the trails that book would never have been written. What does this tell you? Answer: that most academic work is brain work, and your brain goes everywhere you do. Queues and waiting rooms are your best friends. You can write a whole paper in your head before you sit down to type it out. Fill empty time!
14. Go analogue
And while you are in queues and waiting rooms, there is nothing quite like a stack of index cards and a binder clip to help you along. Flash cards, notes, to-do lists. Yeah, you could put it on your phone, but break that phone or delete your notes by mistake and, poof! Hours of hard work gone. Index cards are stable, portable, durable, and easy to spread out and shuffle. The standard card will hold 100 words on one side, so write out notes on 10-50 cards and you have enough material for a standard university essay. And they are especially great for building bibliographies.
15. Stand and walk around
Sitting, so the Internet says, is the new smoking. Apparently it deactivates and demobilises your body and in addition to the obvious weight-gain issue of marathon not-moving sessions, it robs you of your youth and vitality. You are going to have to get up and move around – consider a standing desk, or a walking desk. Or just set a time so that you are up on your feet and moving around every twenty minutes or so.
16. Learn to do what you don't want to do
This is really the trick to success: learning how to do what you don’t want to do. This is basically when your smart and rational self lays a plan to trick your irrational and procrastinating self. It is finding ways of getting past resistance, where you don’t want to be doing your work, and into a state of flow, where you are so engrossed you don’t even know that you are working and time just flies by.
No matter how much you don’t want to do or don’t feel like doing something, you can do anything for three minutes.
There are several methods of doing this, but our personal favourite is the '3 then 20-minute' method, which is just an appendage to the famous Pomodoro method of productivity. It essentially goes like this: no matter how much you don’t want to do or don’t feel like doing something, you can do anything for three minutes. Set a timer, and usually by the time the three minutes are up you can push to twenty. Take a break, walk around, then go in for another twenty minutes.
17. Don't put it off
Many students think that procrastination is only something that happens, or doesn’t happen, when they have an exam to prepare for or a paper to write. But procrastination happens in other ways too, that are often worse. Classes that might be difficult are sometimes put off, or sometimes even whole terms. Gap years can be a kind of procrastination, too; and one which leads to an inevitable, very demoralising experience of starting university (or later, employment) when everyone you know is finishing or has been working professionally for a few years. The hard truth is, you are going to get older and putting off to avoid classes or school generally is just going to spin your tyres without getting anywhere.
Always have a day or part of a day set aside for recharging. You are not a machine and you cannot be ‘on’ all the time. Rest is just as important as work. Everyone should have a block of time where they don’t have to be working. But how you spend the time is just as important as having it. Getting together with friends and family is a great way to take your mind off work. Reading a book unrelated to studies works too. We met a graduate student once who had an interesting ‘rest’ day. He worked every Saturday unloading docked boats. He claimed it was a great distraction, kept him fit, and gave him a bit of extra coin.
So just to be clear, rest does not necessarily mean doing nothing, just doing something that restores. Hint: consider what the word recreation (RE-creation) means.
19. "Deep Work"
Cal Newport. Now here is a guy with some interesting ideas on productivity. In a time when everything is always 'on' and you should be too, Newport (MIT trained Professor of Computer Science who rejects social media as a time waster and productivity killer) argues that the hardest thing to do is stay focused amid so much distraction. The average person, so he claims, is really only good for about 90 minutes of peak productivity (what he calls “Deep Work”) each day. Every ping, ding and ring breaks that concentration and makes it harder to achieve flow. Peaked your interest? You should check out his book.
20. Know where to get answers
This is important. Don’t rely on anyone ever for information for graded assignments. Sure, there are times where you will have graded group/team assignments, but in those cases get the who-does-what sorted straight off. And there will be study groups, which you must participate in and contribute to. But when it comes to anything related to the actual course, there are two places for information: the syllabus and the instructor. Nothing and no one else is reliable, so don’t bother. If it isn’t in the syllabus, then ask the professor. There are two appropriate ways of asking your professor: send an email or stop in at office hours. Don’t call their home, don’t drop into their Facebook. Be professional and brief.
21. Be prepared!
Well begun is half done, so the old saying goes. This is as much a matter of having the big things sorted as the little things, and the mental as well as physical. When you sit down to work you want to make sure you have everything you need: writing instruments, sticky notes, index cards, written notes. You want to make sure you understand your assignment. Not just think you do, but know you do. You need to know what must be done so you can do it. This also goes for organising your time. If there are commitments coming up that will cut into your study time, you need to be prepared to work around them.
22/ Make the professor's exam
It is a classical epistemological dilemma: how can we know what we don’t know? Schrodinger’s Black Cat of unlucky students is that anything can be on an exam until you take it and then either you know or you don’t know the answers. The best study tip for this problem is to make your own exam, and be ruthless. When you go over the material look for the sneakiest, trickiest, most wicked questions you can ask and prepare answers for them. A brilliant woman was studying Latin at Oxford and when preparing for exams she decided to focus on a thorny patch in Virgil’s Georgics stuffed full of different names for trees and plants, just to be safe. That turned out to be on the exam.
23. Take good notes
Never ever walk into a classroom without paper and pen/pencil. More than likely your instructors will either write on a marker board or use PowerPoint slides for lectures. When taking your own notes, don’t focus on writing down everything they say. Listen for transitions and headings and write these down. At the end of lecture there will most likely be a summary or conclusion, and if there isn’t, don’t be afraid to ask: out of everything that we have talked about what are the most important things to commit to memory that will help me succeed in this class? Or something like that. Do not, however, ask: what do I need to know for the test? There is also a growing body of evidence that suggests taking notes with pen and paper is more effective than using a laptop – and lighter too.
24. Talk to your teachers
Teachers are people too, they just generally happen to be very interested in what they talk about. Think of them as a resource, like walking and talking books. The one quality that the majority of teachers like in students is genuine intellectual curiosity. You will benefit from their expertise and they will most likely happily give it if you know how to ask.
The one quality that the majority of teachers like in students is genuine intellectual curiosity.
Your questions should come from a place of real desire to learn about the material. Don’t ask in a schmoozy or grade-grubby way because, even though teachers know students want good marks, they usually believe that if you truly care about and want to understand the material, the marks will just come. Or to put it another way, if you don't do well in the course it's because you didn't have the necessary passion and interest. So paradoxically, the best way to get high marks is not to worry about high marks, but the material. Keep this in mind when you want to talk to your teachers about the course. And only during office hours or appointment.
25. Be noticed
This one is a bit of a cheat, and whilst we're a little ashamed to offer this advice, it can help and therefore it's worth sharing. You want to be noticed (in a good way) by teachers. How? First, there is what we said above about creating dialogue with them, which will make you stand out from students who never speak up. Make sure you sit at the front and ask relevant, engaging questions. Secondly, of course, you'll be noticed by always working hard and doing as well as you can on exams and essays.
But why? Well, these things can generally help you perform better, but the bottom line is that not all grades or grading processes are black and white. There may well come a time when your grade will fall on a line that can go up or down. Your teacher is going to have to have to look outside grades in order to mark you, and will ask themselves if you came to class, contributed and worked hard, or didn't pull your weight. Or maybe something comes up; a family emergency or an illness. You are more likely to get a bit of slack or assistance or a 'bump up' if you were noticed in a positive way.
Studying is hard work and mentally demanding. One of the upsides to being young is that you get to enjoy more energy than you will probably have later in life. You likely won’t feel so tired that quickly, and you'll recover faster. Nevertheless, sleep is not something you want to skimp on. Deep sleep is when all the work you do will be consolidated and committed to long-term memory. There are several studies that address the importance of sleep and the number of hours that should be devoted to it. In general, seven hours each night of good sleep appears to be the ideal, although naps also help with a little recharge. Consistency is also key, so sleep at the same times in the way that works best for you.
27. Know your teacher(s)
In as much as possible, know your teachers. Sometimes you will have a choice of teachers for the same credit. If they happen to be on ratemyprofessors.com, you can read reviews there. Gossip channels, while not as reliable, can be helpful. And with that, it helps to know the source as well. Poor students don’t usually have positive things to say about professors, so their objectivity is somewhat questionable. Personally, we think the best teachers are ‘tough but fair’. Always go for fair over easy, and this is why: teachers know they get discussed, and a fair teacher will never want to be called unfair. An easy teacher, however, never wants to be thought of as easy, and you may enrol in a class in just the semester that the instructor decides to overhaul the way they grade. Always go for the fair teacher.
28. Read the syllabus
At the start of every class you will be given a syllabus. Some teachers discuss them, some don’t, but this is basically your contract with the class. This is what you are entitled to, and what you are not. And what you can expect. A few teachers who have been so annoyed with students that do not read the syllabus have built in little clauses like “students who read and sign this syllabus are exempted from one exam” or the like. While you might suppose this is just school legend, we have known of at least one case where this was true. So read the syllabus.
29. Get help
Studying can be stressful and it is not uncommon during adolescence and adulthood for mental illnesses to emerge or for coping mechanisms to deteriorate. If you begin to feel inordinate degrees of stress, anxiety, or depression in ways that no longer feel manageable, you need to seek service. Don’t blow this off. Don’t superhero your way through. And don’t think there is something wrong with getting help. Most schools offer some kind of service to help with stress management. If you don’t get the help you need the first time, go back or go somewhere else. Bottom line: take it seriously. You want to work at your best, and taking action can have a tremendous impact.
30. Don't quit
The last helpful hack on offer is this: don’t quit. There will be times when you don’t want to go on, where you will feel more distracted than usual, or just plain tired. Don’t quit. Ultimately, success in anything is the habit of putting the time in. So rather than bail out, keep to your schedule, go to your classes, go to your study place(s), to your study groups and at the end of the day, go to bed. Consistency is key. Quitting violates the consistency you need to succeed.
Ultimately, success in anything is the habit of putting the time in.
There is more to studying than just sitting at a desk with a laptop. Success in school is an aggregate of influences. You want to create as many positives for yourself as you can.