30 ways to prepare for university studies
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
However you sugar-coat it, life at university is always going to be challenging. And whilst getting a degree might be the eventual outcome, it might not always be your first priority. There is no harm in enjoying yourself as a student, but we have prepared a list of 30 study tips and hacks to ensure that you get the serious stuff done too!
Learning to manage your time
Perhaps the biggest challenge of all as a student is getting used to being ‘in charge’ of your own time. Especially if you are in university accommodation, you cannot rely on anyone else to get you out of bed in the morning in time for your 9am lecture, or remind you to do your ‘homework’ the night before. The following tips are aimed at making this transition to self-sufficiency easier:
1. Preparation, preparation, preparation
You will most likely be presented with a student planner (or some variation of this) at the beginning of each year. Although the temptation may be to stick it in a drawer and forget about it – use it! Make sure that each of your lectures is written in the ‘timetable’ section, along with room number/ID, time, and date/day of the week. This will help you to plan the week ahead. Not getting lost or turning up late to lectures is an unspoken guideline to success at university.
2. Did we already mention preparation?
Spending ten minutes every evening preparing your notes, arranging your work, or reading up on the topic(s) of the next lecture is a virtually painless way of ensuring that you are never the student that gets caught out by a professor suddenly deciding to encourage class participation. Are you taking your laptop? Is it charged? Do you have your notebook and a pen that works? Will you need a calculator or other equipment? Sticking to preparing the night before will prevent the last-minute rush the next morning, and will leave you with far less stress, which in turn will improve your concentration.
3. Check your university email account at least once every day
Make a point of checking your emails, preferably in the morning, as any lecture cancellations/room changes are usually sent out to the class prior to the lecture timeslot. You can even link your email account to your phone, using an app such as iCloud Mail or Gmail, that will notify you when you receive a new message. This way, important messages from your department, supervisors, or professors can be dealt with expeditiously. Email is the communication method of choice as a university student, and you will likely hear about news and events through this medium also.
4. Keep track of your deadlines
Although it might seem simple, having multiple different modules and courses will leave you with a variety of deadlines to consider. Make sure that you write new deadlines down in your planner, and keep these in mind when planning your week. Can you spend a couple of hours doing some research in preparation for starting to write your next assignment? By always knowing when your deadlines are, you avoid the possibility of being caught out the night before and having to hastily put something together that might not reflect your actual ability and may affect your overall grade.
5. Be early!
We know the second word here sends shivers down your spine. We don’t necessarily mean waking up before 7am to work (although studies have shown that getting up early leads to increased productivity). But if you can get started with an assignment as soon as you receive it, you will save yourself a lot of suffering further down the line. Beginning a couple of weeks before the deadline might mean that you only need to write a couple of hundred words each day/night, and this will seem a lot less painful than having to spend every single waking minute working on it the day before.
Using your time wisely
Not only is managing your time important, but the importance of using the time that you have wisely is vastly underrated.
6. Use lecture time to your advantage
Make sure that you take notes, and that these are informative enough for you to look back on and understand at a later date. If the lecturer refers to any specific books/authors, make notes of these – they might be hinting at a potential exam question, or the topic of your next assignment, and will always be worth a quick read! Make a few notes, and that way if you do ever need to come back to it, you have already made a start!
7. Use travel time to your advantage
If you regularly take buses and/or trains, think about how you spend your time. Do you usually listen to music or scroll through social media? Long journeys are an ideal time to do some extra reading, or to make a start on an assignment. This is especially true if you regularly travel far to get to and from university each day. Half an hour per day soon adds up to 2.5 hours each week, or 10 hours per month! That’s ten hours extra that you now have for sleeping, socialising, or more studying (we’re not judging).
8. Set yourself realistic targets
Any time you have dedicated to study – revision, reading, essay writing etc. – should be planned to include an aim or objective. Make sure that you spend as little time as possible procrastinating by setting yourself attainable targets for your planned study time. Do you want to write 1,000 words? Or read and make notes from 30 pages of a book? Keeping track of what you have achieved and what you need to achieve is a simpler way of measuring your ‘efficiency’, and you will actually feel as though you have accomplished something at the end of your allotted time. For more on working in manageable chunks and goal-setting, read our article on The Pomodoro Technique.
9. Don’t waste time trying to figure something out on your own when you can just ask
It might be that you are completely ‘bamboozled’ by the essay question. Or that there is a certain area of a topic that you just cannot get your head around. Rather than spending hours staring at the paper, simply send an email to your lecturer/supervisor. It might be that they are able to answer you in an email reply, or instead they might be able to offer you a meeting with them to explain the parts of the topic that you are struggling with. This is worth its weight in gold, and you should make sure to take these opportunities for 1-1 tuition if/when they are offered!
10. Minimise distractions when setting aside time to study
There really is no point trying to revise or write an essay whilst simultaneously holding a conversation, listening to the radio, and watching TV. There are very few people that can work effectively in these conditions! Chances are that you will not absorb any information from the pages that you are reading, or that you will not remember what you have already written about, and this will undermine your efforts. The more you focus when you are studying, the less time it will take to learn.
Take advantage of every opportunity to learn
Every university provides extra sessions in the form of study groups, extra classes, revision sessions, or study skills seminars. Whilst these are optional, they can be really useful – especially in the run-up to exams! These are an excellent chance to ask any questions that you might have, or to get further clarification on a tricky topic. You’d be surprised how many different forms of extra help are available to you!
11. Broaden your knowledge with group seminars
There are often a number of seminars for each module over the course of the year, and these are intended to give you the opportunity to discuss with your peers some of the main concepts touched upon in your lectures. Sometimes they will be led by a professor, or other member of teaching staff, in which case they are the perfect way to gain a little more insight into the upcoming topics for the semester, or to ask about anything you are unsure of. Make sure that you go and that you actively participate – it will allow you to better engage with the subject.
12. Personal tutor meetings are crucial to maintaining your goals as a student
Your personal tutor is there to help you. They will be able to address any of your concerns relating directly to your subject, or other concerns that you may have outside of lectures. Apart from anything else, maintaining a good relationship with them will help you in the future if you should need a recommendation letter for postgraduate study or for a job opportunity. Be on time, be prepared, and take your student planner with you, so that you can easily refer to any deadlines or assignments that are bothering you.
13. Don't forget reading lists
It may not be stressed by your lecturer at the time, but your reading lists are an easy way to make sure that you are reading all of the right things! Why spend time looking around for references for an assignment when you have already been given specific sources to work from as a starting point? Most or all of the sources contained here will be available either online or from the library, and even just selecting a couple each month will help you to gain some background knowledge for future reference.
14. Pay attention to your marker's comments and feedback
For every piece of work you hand in, you'll get it back marked with a grade and comments from the marker. What better way to identify any areas that you are struggling with? Reading these comments will allow you to see how you could have improved your essay, where you have not engaged with literature critically enough, and where you may have misunderstood or misrepresented a concept. Making these changes in the next essay that you write could be the difference between grade boundaries, and you can bear all of these things in mind during examinations. If there is something you are still unclear on – go back and talk to your lecturer, asking for constructive criticism.
15. Use your university’s online portal and any resources that may be available on it
More often than not, lecturers will upload extra files to their ‘site’ on these online portals, and you will be able to view these files as a member of the lecture group. These could be written-up notes of lectures (past or upcoming), extra reading, guidelines, or information on an assignment. They have been uploaded for a reason, and will be helpful to you, even if you simply make a note of them to use as a reference in your next essay.
Take something away from every lecture
And we don’t mean stationery. Your lectures should form the ‘bones’ of your degree course, and will cover everything that you need to know in order to succeed.
16. Perhaps an obvious one – attend lectures
Nobody can take responsibility for your learning. You will need to motivate yourself to attend each lecture, and to make sure that you are ready to listen, and to learn, when you arrive. Missing one or two lectures might go undetected by professors, but you run the risk of missing out on the topics raised altogether. If you absolutely must miss a lecture, send an email to your professor beforehand, outlining (briefly) your reasons for non-attendance and ask for any lecture ‘slides’ or notes to be forwarded to you. Or alternatively, ask a friend from your course to photocopy their notes.
17. Printing out available lecture slides prior to the lecture will give you some ‘structure’ for your notes
Most professors’ put their lecture slides onto the online portal just before the lecture, and it is a really good idea to print these out and take them with you. This way, your notes will be easily traceable back to a ‘topic’ or ‘concept’, and you will be able to assemble them in a way that will better enable you to return to them for revision at a later date.
18. Take notes in a style that suits you
There are many ways to write down and record lecture notes. Good note-taking is a skill that can take years to master. Think about what type of person you are. Do you write quickly? Or can you type faster? If taking your laptop with you would make it easier for you to make comprehensive notes then do not be afraid to do so. If you struggle to keep up, write down some key words, phrases, or readings that your lecturer refers to, and ask at the end of the lecture if you need to fill in any blanks. Try to write legibly, and space out your writing, otherwise it will look overly daunting when you come to revision and are faced with page after page of badly-written, cramped-together notes.
19. Write up your notes after each lecture
Writing up your notes is a good idea for two reasons. Firstly, when going over everything that you have written again, you will automatically start to recognise concepts that you remember from the lecture. Reading and writing this information again will improve the chances of the information being retained in your long-term memory. Secondly, if your notes are nicely written and presented, they will be more attractive to revise!
20. Swap lecture notes with a friend
Your friend may have picked up on some information that you might have missed, and this way you can both ensure that you have a ‘full’ set of notes to revise from. It is also possible that someone else may have interpreted something in a different way, or looked at something from a different angle, and this differing perspective can be useful in writing a critical essay. This is a good way of making sure that you actually write usable notes – someone is relying on you!
Writing an essay
21. The most important part of any essay is the plan
Effective planning can be the difference between a well-structured and coherent essay, and a confusing and repetitive piece of writing. It makes the whole process of writing easier! If you have a word count to stick to, include how many of these words you are going to use for each section – introduction, methodology, literature review, conclusion, etc. The essay plan is also a good place to begin to assemble your ‘studies’ or the existing literature that you have come across into categories/arguments, and this will help you to form the main body of the essay.
22. Stick to the deadline, and allow yourself room for movement!
Handing an essay in late is never good, it reflects badly on you as a student, and you can be docked marks, or even just awarded a flat 40% for any work that you do hand in. You cannot afford this type of penalty, especially when avoiding it is perfectly plausible. Give yourself 'milestones' that you must hit on a daily/weekly basis and try to stick to these as far as possible. If you do need more time, let your lecturer know as soon as possible, so that you can arrange for an extension.
23. Do as much reading in advance as possible
It is useful if you already know what your argument will be prior to starting your plan. By reading around the subject beforehand, you should have a good idea of the key concepts that you should include, the main sources that you will use to support your theory, and those that you will use to show a consideration for both perspectives. For every book/journal/source that you come across, list the main details so that you can easily find it again if necessary, and can include it in your bibliography.
24. Try to engage critically with your sources
If you are using studies or experiments in your essay be sure to evaluate the methodology that has been used, the considerations for ethics that are in place, and the value of the findings. For example, a study carried out with twelve randomly selected participants may not be comprehensive enough to relate its findings to entire populations. If you are using someone else’s writing as a reference, take note of the date. Was there anything relevant happening at the time/has anything happened since to influence the validity of these findings? Perhaps there have been developments in the field since the date of publication, in which case, not all of their conclusions may be relevant. This is critically engaging with your source material, and will score you higher marks.
25. Make sure that you answer the question that is in front of you
It is easy to get carried away and drift from your main line of argument. Again, this is where a plan is useful in ensuring that you keep to the point. Try deconstructing the question, underlining key words, and highlighting what the question is asking you to do – analyse, evaluate, present, critique. For each new point that you make, you should link this back to the question, and emphasise how including it has helped you to reach your eventual conclusion.
26. Check the other requirements for your work
What referencing system do you need to use? How many sources should you include? What is the eventual word count? Most universities also have guidelines for presentation, including the font, font size, line spacing, and heading/subheading style. Referencing guides can be found online or in your university handbook and are fairly easy to follow. If you are still unsure, ask a classmate whether they can help you.
Revision and exams
There are people (we all know at least one) who don't seem to get stressed by stuff like exams, and seem to do well regardless of how little work they put into revision and preparation. You might be one such person. But like a lot of other things in life, you do get out what you put in. Not only will you feel more confident if you are prepared for sitting an exam, but your confidence will show in your writing.
27. Find something that works for you, and stick to it
Some people retain information better through reading, whilst others might need to do something a little more ‘hands-on’ to make sure the stuff they are revising sticks. Whoever you are, you need to find a way of revising and making revision notes that really works for you. Whether it is making sticky notes of key information, studies, or questions and putting them around your room, or making yourself a number of spider diagrams to provide a more ‘graphic’ representation of the topic at hand, there will be ways that help you study most optimally.
28. Make a revision plan – set out when you will study each section of each module
There is no telling what questions will come up during the exam, and you don’t want to open a paper to find that everything you have revised all year is missing. Instead, try to focus equally on each area and if there are one or two that you are struggling with, talk to your lecturer or personal tutor. They might be able to explain to you where you are going wrong, and point you in the direction of a book or journal article that will improve your understanding.
29. Breathe. Be prepared. Get a good night’s sleep
Cramming an entire year's worth of revision into the night before an exam is not an effective means of preparation. Studies have shown that the brain requires a good night’s sleep in order to function to its full potential, and it is better that you are able to think on your feet. Get everything ready – pens, pencils, water, calculator, etc. – the night before, so that you can wake up well-rested and arrive at the exam in one piece.
30. In the exam, try not to pay attention to others around you and plan your time
The person at the desk next to you has already asked for more paper, whilst the person sitting behind you is sniffling as though their life depends on it. Not idea. But you need to be able to tune all of this out. Make sure that you have read and understand the question, and make a quick plan of your answer. If there are multiple questions, give yourself a deadline for each, to avoid rushing the last one. Although there is usually the chance for students completing their exam early to leave, it is a better idea to thoroughly check through your work. That extra ten minutes could earn you an extra couple of marks and take you up to the next grade boundary!