Tip 10 – the secret to ultimate success

Ok, so the title is a bit of a marketing ploy, I admit.

But my final tip for freshers is to enjoy the amazing experience that university will be. Enjoy meeting new people, enjoy learning new things, enjoy being responsible for yourself, enjoy the amazing opportunities that education brings.

Smile. Laugh. Take joy in anything and everything that makes you happy (however small it is, and however much other people don’t think it’s worth finding joy in; the smaller those things are, the more often you will find them!). Spend time with people whose company you enjoy, but work hard and make the most of an opportunity to get an education at a level still denied not just to most children in developing countries, but also to many young people in the developed world due to financial circumstances or family matters. Education is a key to so many doors. Make the most of it. Cherish it. Use it. But for the next three years, more importantly, work at it and enjoy it.

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Tip 9 – I did it my way: the Frank Sinatra approach to university

One of the things I remember being surprised about when I went to university, and one of the things that continues to surprise me now I’m here all year round as an academic, is that during term, everything is so FAST. People even walk really quickly. But anybody who’s ever seen Dead Poets Society will know that we’re not meant to all move in the same way at the same speed. When Mr Keating (the late and genuinely great Robin Williams) asks his class of teenage guys to walk around the school courtyard, at first they all fall into the marching pace set by the person at the front. Not because they want to walk in that way, but because they want to fit in and walk in the same way as everyone else (clip here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnAyr0kWRGE).

Because study at university is so heavily self-directed, there is always a temptation to compare notes with your fellow students about how much work you’ve done. Only do this if you have excellent self-confidence. Otherwise, you will spend longer wondering whether you are spending too long or not long enough doing the work than you will spend doing the work. Preparation for classes at university level is only finished once you have understood the topic. Not when you have read a certain number of or written a certain number of words (although you will have to do those things too). Most academic staff will set long reading lists, with a suggested minimum number of books/pages/articles/cases. Resist the temptation to only do the minimum; although it will save you time that day or week, you’ll either have to read more later, or, if you don’t, you will simply have less knowledge than the people who did read extra! At university you will get used to setting your own limits. The most frustrating thing I have learned as a teaching academic is that I can’t make students want to achieve. They may be excellent, but if they are lazy, and determined to be so, then I can’t change that. You will set the limit on your own achievement. Work until you have thoroughly understood what you’re studying, and read around the topic to pick up other people’s understanding and view points of it and you are going to be able to do your best, whatever that is. If you are happy that you have done all, then don’t stay in the Library because your colleagues are experiencing a fit of ‘competitive working’. There’s no shame in leaving because you’ve finished. Similarly, work in a way and pattern that works for you. If you work best in your room, then don’t feel that you have to be in the library just because others are (but be honest with yourself about where you really work best; it’s easy to get distracted without having realised it and spend more time on Facebook than on those problem questions you were meant to be working through). If you want to do work early in the morning, and go to bed at 11pm, do that! If you prefer to have a lie in and then work in the evening, that’s fine too. Providing the work gets done properly, it doesn’t matter if you do it in fancy dress at 2am standing on one leg on a balance beam. Don’t let yourself feel that university is a competition. It is about being the best that you can be. Not about your achievement relative to anyone else’s.

Remember the scene in Dead Poets Society. Remember the second half of it especially. Your university experience will be more fun, and more successful, if you learn and work your own way.


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Tip 8 – Step away from the technology

I feel like an old fogey when I complain about technology. But, I am going to complain about technology (a bit, anyway). More to the point, however, technology is the point of this instalment of my blog posts on advice for freshers.

Many of my students would need to be surgically separated from their technology. For my part, I have a laptop, and a smart phone, and a tablet. But the thing I love most about them is the off switch. Electronic communication is just no substitute for spending time with real people. For talking to people in person. One of the worst social offences, in my view, is checking your phone whilst someone is talking to you. Put it on vibrate and put it in your pocket! Unless you’re waiting for an important call and have told the person that you’re speaking to that you might have to get it, leave it alone even if it vibrates. If you spend freshers’ week and the first few weeks of term constantly playing on your phone (even if it’s just ’cause you’re nervous!) you’ll look unapproachable and miss out on the chance to catch someone’s eye and get a conversation going. Resist the urge and leave it in your handbag/pocket – distract yourself by smiling at someone instead :).

When it comes to lectures and tutorials, I know that many students prefer to take notes on laptops. My (controversial) advice is to handwrite (at least some of) them instead. I don’t suggest this because I’m a real dinosaur, but because students tend to regret being so reliant on typing when it comes to exams, which, in most universities, continue to be written by hand unless a student has special exemption. Furthermore, it’s just SO tempting to check Facebook whilst the lecturer goes off on a tangent. Only problem is, in the time it’s taken you to ‘like’ your schoolfriends’ freshers’ photos, the lecturer has gone back on track and you have missed something crucial. You can’t go on Facebook from pen and paper, so there’s no temptation.

So by all means take your technology to university. but don’t let it get in the way of what’s happening right in front of you. Don’t be tempted to be messaging someone 3 hours away, when you could be talking to someone three feet away. When you’ve left university, you’ll remember late nights, sitting with friends, laughing until you cry about the most ridiculous things. You won’t remember nights where you paid no attention to what was going on around you because you were pre-occupied with gadgetry.

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Tip 7 – Why university is like a buffet

I love teaching my students. Every year I get some new students, and some who have taken a paper with me previously. A lot of students assume that academics only like teaching genii. That sentence is partly true; teaching very bright students can be great, and I have enjoyed having my own mind stretched by some phenomenally bright students in the few years I have been teaching (well, with hindsight I enjoy it. At the time I was thinking ‘that is such an interesting question, that I have no idea what the answer is’ and then laid awake that night trying to figure out the answer). However, the single word that means the sentence is not entirely true is ‘only’. Very clever students are not the only sort that I like to teach. In fact, I confess that they aren’t even my favourite students to teach. My favourite students are the triers. They try and they try and they try.

There are, in my experience, two types of triers:

  1. Whatever their starting level of understanding or interest in the subject (one subject I teach is compulsory) they put concerted effort into getting their head around it. And they keep putting that effort in until they get it. Whether that’s tomorrow, next week, or the week before the final exams next summer. These students are often 2:2/2:1 borderline students, which is a really crucial borderline for employers; increasingly online application forms automatically filter out those forms that do not state a 2:1 as the final grade (unless there are extenuating circumstances). So for these students, getting over that borderline is so important. The difference between 59% (a 2:2) and 60% (a 2:1) is, in real terms, infinitely bigger than one percentage point. When you get exam marks through, and these students have got their 2:1, and all its concomitant opportunities, you feel so pleased for them that dancing round your office seems a totally justifiable activity. Just make sure the curtains are drawn…


  2. The second type of trier are already very good students. They can comfortably get a 2:1 without really breaking a sweat. But they have a hunger for a First. And they go after it, not just by reading everything that they can get their hands on, but by going away and THINKING about it. Thinking is an under-rated activity amongst many university students. There is a focus on doing the reading, writing the essay, handing it in, and ignoring the feedback on it. Thinking between each stage makes learning much more likely to happen. Without reflection on what you have read, you can’t write a great essay. And without reflecting on the comments on it, you can’t consider how to make the next essay better; ‘if you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always got’. So if you repeat the mistakes, you’ll get the same grade again (and I’ll be frustrated because I spent an evening carefully reading and covering your essay in feedback that you have clearly ignored; I could have gone to the pub after all!). These students do a lot of thinking during the year, produce essays that make me jealous I hadn’t written them, and then, somehow, do even more thinking in the revision period and then blow the minds of their examiners. Cue more dancing when their results come through.

What unites both these types of students is that they are a joy to teach because they are actually making use of teaching. My role is not to spoon feed information to open, cavernous brains. My role is to lay out a buffet of tasty morsels of my subject, of which you should take a selection, chew over them slowly, and leave knowing which ones you liked and which ones were not your thing. Next time you come in, if you’re wise, you’ll probably take a couple of the things you really liked from last time, and a couple of new things, and repeat the process with the new things. Replace the idea of new things as food, and instead consider them as essay techniques and points, and you’ll see what I’m getting at (which you probably already did, but I have a habit of torturing a metaphor until it just looks like I genuinely confused essay-writing with fine-dining.)

I cannot suggest strongly enough that, whatever you study, you TRY YOUR BEST. I know it sounds twee, and by 18 you might be so sick of hearing it that it has lost any real meaning. But putting in effort is the only way to make the most of your university education, and because university is so much more self-directed than school or college, if you drop the ball here you’re much more likely to fall behind badly without anyone noticing. If you try all along, however, you are not only at less risk of falling behind, but if you do, your lecturers and tutors are more likely to feel more inclined to help you, because effort does show. If I know you’re really trying to understand something, I have more motivation to help you try harder; you’ve put down a solid foundation of effort and I can help you build upon that with the technical stuff.

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Tip 6 – Timing is everything

Research today from Warwick Business School (@WarwickBSchool) told us what anyone who teaches in higher education has known for quite a long time; last minute essays are not the key to success.

I have had students who, I can only assume, think that I am either very silly, or was never a student myself. If your essay is two thirds of the word limit, with no coherent conclusion, no referencing, and you’ve spelt your name wrong on the title of the Word doc, I’m pretty sure that this was not a carefully considered masterpiece. Every now and again, we all drop the timing ball. As a teaching academic, however, if it happens more than once in the year from the same student, I start to feel that you have no respect for the subject or for me (I spend a long time marking each essay; if a student has invested time in writing it, then they deserve me to pay it my full considered attention when I read it for marking).

Slapdash work not only compromises your grades, it also compromises your supervisors’ opinion of you ability to manage your time, and that is not a good impression to give.

It is, however, possible to fit an awful lot in at university. For examples, just look at the University Boat Race crews; as well as doing full time degrees in a variety of subjects, these guys and girls train for around 1200 hours; 6 days a week over 7 months. I marvel at their time management. In fact, I wish I had half of it (I have studied at Cambridge and know the workload well). Some students claim they don’t have enough time, that reading lists are too long and essays too frequent. I resist the urge to tell them they have 1200 hours more of free time than a Varsity rower. For many students, they do not intentionally waste time, but leaving home means learning a whole new efficiency. For many of my students, their stumbling block is planning.

Here are some (really easy) tips;

1) Buy a diary

2) Write the things you need to do in it! (so many of my students fail at this step)

3) At the beginning of the week, look at everything you’ve got on, and try to foresee where you will be short of time and what you can do now, when you have a bit of spare time, to get things ready for when you will be busy. Teach yourself to multitask; if you’re leaving the house knowing you need to get milk, go to the bank and post a letter, then you can do all three. If you leave the house to get milk, forgetting to take the letter and not having realised that you need to go to the bank, then you’re going to have to go out again later, when you could be doing something else.

4) Do work in the order it is due in, not in the order it is set. This may sometimes mean stopping one thing part way through to work on something more urgent. Don’t be afraid to do that.

5) Subject to 4, if you’re given a piece of work, do it as soon as you can. Even if it isn’t due in for a while, and you have nothing else due in before it, once it is done you can out it out of your mind and do something fun, without it hanging over you.

I can’t promise that excellent time management will give you a 25th hour in the day, but it’ll probably make you feel like it has. You’ll get super-efficient much more quickly than you expect, and that’ll set you up well for life, not just university.



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Tip 5 – Talking: it’s like vegetables, but for your brain

So I am now half way through my more unusual tips for this year’s Freshers. I couldn’t quite decide whereabouts to put this tip; first, last or middle? The reason I pondered about where to put it is because for some students, it won’t be important to them at all. For others, they will think now that it isn’t important, but will sadly turn out to be wrong. So in the end, it is marking the middle of these tips.

A lot of students suffer from mental health problems during their time at university. These may take any of a vast number of forms, all different, but all equally debilitating and deserving and needing of support. For those students who do not themselves suffer from a mental health problem whilst at university, many will have friends or others they know who do.

Having a mental health problem can feel scary. Knowing someone with a mental health problem can feel scary. For both parties it’s often because no-one’s quite sure what to do about it. I am a big believer that the single biggest hurdle is talking about it, hence the title of this post. In the same way you need to eat vegetables for good physical health, talking is good for mental health.

If you are feeling ‘down’ (and by that I include everything from routine transient miserableness that happens to us all, to serious mental illness) at university, please talk to someone about it. Many universities have a fully confidential and anonymous phoneline which is answered all night, so even if it is the middle of night, there will be someone who you can speak to, who will not judge you or tell you what to do, but will listen to you for as long as you need to talk,  and whatever you need to talk about (they are usually called NightLine or Linkline). For those at universities without a NightLine/Linkline, or if you need someone to talk to at a time when those lines are closed, the Samaritans run a 24 hour anonymous and confidential telephone service on the same basis; non-judgmental listening.

If you are worried about someone else, then there is no shame in going to your university’s pastoral/welfare support service (whatever form that takes) and telling them that you have concerns. This is not ‘snitching’. If it is someone who you know, even a bit, make an effort to include them if they seem lonely, but be wary of putting too much pressure on them to participate, as for some this may exacerbate their distress. If you yourself are suffering, don’t be afraid to go to welfare/support services and ask for help. If you don’t get the help that you need, keep asking until you do. Many universities offer counselling services internally, and you also have the option of going to your GP for help. Don’t be afraid to be honest with those who teach you as well, especially if the pressure of deadlines is exacerbating the problem. Although many students feel embarrassed by discussing personal issues with academic staff, when it comes to universities, there is nothing new under the sun. Should you encounter unhelpful academic staff (which I sincerely hope you wouldn’t) then, again, mention this to welfare/support services, as this person is probably being unhelpful to more people than just you, and they need to be pulled up on that.

I am not an expert on mental health. But I have seen and experienced first hand the huge difference small acts of reaching out to people who are struggling can make. I encourage all of you to talk. To someone, anyone, if you are feeling low. You may be amazed by the support that fellow students are willing and able to give you; some may even be able to identify with the way you are feeling (whether they say so or not) .

Everyone will have a struggle of some sort at university. It may be major or minor (wanted to put a music joke in there, couldn’t think of one). It may be trying to keep up with the work. It may be trying to get selected for varsity-level sport. It may be the end of a relationship. It may be friendship troubles. It may be family events back home. Whatever it is, DON’T KEEP IT TO YOURSELF. For some people, they will seem to cruise over life’s disappointments, others will become stranded on a speed hump of despair. Don’t judge people for how they react, just because you would have reacted differently.

But my final piece of advice is for everyone. Keep talking. About things that matter. About what is going on in your head. Be honest if you feel sad or homesick or worse. You never know what is going on in a person’s life that they are not telling you. By keeping channels of communication open, and by being honest, we can all set up communities where people can be open about their struggles, and be supported through them. The more people there are offering support, the more support there is to go around.

We can’t all keep calm. But let’s keep talking and we’re half way there.


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Tip 4 – And then, in the 25th hour, I rode my unicycle up the biggest hill to a Q&A with the Lord Chief Justice

The point of going to university is to study (or, if not, it’s a really expensive way to improve your social life). For most people studying most subjects, there will be quite significant amounts of work. As this is the reason for getting saddled with significant debts, it goes without saying that it is sensible advice to attend all your lectures and seminars/tutorials/supervisions, hand in work on time and revise hard for exams.

It’s unlikely, however, that studying will take up all your time. In fact, I tell my students quite forcefully that it shouldn’t; if it is, they either need extra help with the material, or they are overworking themselves to no useful end. But then, what to do in that spare time? My answer?


Well, perhaps not quite everything, but as wide a variety of things as you can. Whatever floats your boat (literally, for anyone who joins the boat club), there are likely to be other people at your university who are into it too. From Gilbert and Sullivan to Winnie the Pooh, rugby to extreme ironing, you’re unlikely to be alone. There will be clubs, societies and teams, many of which are free or not very expensive to join. Try a different one every term or year if there are too many to choose from. There will be student politics, journalism, activism, religion and volunteering. There will be music, drama (both planned and unintentional) and choirs.

There will also be lots of one off events. Often talks by the political, rich, famous or downright notorious happen in universities, and often entry is student-only (or reduced price for students). I can’t encourage you enough to make the most of these. They’re usually advertised on email or noticeboards, so keep an eye on both, and put things in your diary if they look interesting but are advertised a long way ahead. You will get chances to see in real life people who are having a major impact on your subject, your life, and the whole world. The most exciting such events are often those that also involve a Q&A afterwards; a wonderful opportunity to ask that question that’s really been bugging you about the speaker’s theory or manifesto pledge. Opportunities to interact with powerful people and engage in mature debate are precious, and certainly something that reduces outside of university. Although you might feel like a bit of a swot heading off to these sessions in evenings when you could be going out, you have the rest of your life to go to the bar, but probably not so many opportunities to see Katie Price in debate; if you look at the poster or the email and think ‘wow, I bet I’ll never see that happen again!’ then GO TO IT NOW! Because you probably never will see it again. And then you’ll wish you’d gone now.

University is about so many more opportunities than just academic ones. It is an opportunity to broaden your mind, experiences, and friendships in every direction. You will meet people at these things who aren’t on your course, don’t live in your halls, and who you might otherwise never have come across. Although it may not feel like it, you probably have more free time whilst you are at university than you will again before you retire (which, at this rate, will probably be in your 80s). Make the most of it. Go and have experiences. Some of them will be great, some of them will be so boring you will start counting the ceiling tiles. But you never know unless you try. And this is the time to try.

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