How to Succeed at a British University

It goes without saying that each person has a different perspective on what it means to succeed at university. This depends on whether they think of university as being a closed part of their educational experience in which one succeeds by acquiring good exam marks, or if they think of it as being a springboard for their future career. In the latter case, one could then gauge this success based on the level of achieving their goals while using the available tools provided by the university. In this episode of my regular blog posts, I will partly focus on both of these schools of thought and I will also try to intertwine them with own personal experience with the British tertiary education system.

Before we proceed, however, I would like to point out that I in no way hold a monopoly on success and that my gathered insights and advices stem from my experience of studying natural sciences in the UK. Furthermore, I am not yet in a position to comment on my post-university career as I have not finished my last year of university. On the other hand, what I can provide is a perspective of a rather busy student who has managed not to fail in any of his exams three years in a row.

With these clarifications in mind, we may begin.

Insight number 1. First year at British universities usually carries a very minimal to no weight at all, in terms of the overall degree grade average. The aim of the first year of university is to bring all students from different educational backgrounds to the same level, to give them time to acclimatise to the university environment, to settle down in their new accommodation, and to find a new group friends. If you want to properly enjoy at least one year at university, do so then, as one could argue it is implicitly expected of you. If something does not go your way in first year, do not fall into despair, you will have many opportunities to make up for your mistakes in the following years, when you are expected to show higher levels of concentration and engagement.

Insight number 2. Even though first year marks are not arithmetically as important as in subsequent years, the right numerical constellation could help you tremendously in your quest of finding a summer internship. This is even more crucial to those who long for research opportunities.

Insight number 3. Good grades are worth it, yet at what cost? In almost all instances, grades are only of secondary importance – they will allow you to get your foot in the door, nevertheless, what decides in the end is your knowledge, work experience, and recommendation letters.  

Advice number 1. Choose your courses depending on what you find interesting or useful, not on the basis of what appears to be the least amount of work.

Advice number 2. If you can, do any type of physical activity (or perhaps meditation) regularly at least once a week. It will help your sleep cycle, your ability to concentrate and think, while giving your busy week a better rhythm. This especially applies to the exam season, when one may be extremely reluctant to “waste” just a single second on something study-unrelated, nonetheless, I can guarantee you that even just the short-term benefits outweigh any temporal concerns you might have. This brings us to the next insight.

Insight number 4. The exam season is not a sprint but rather a marathon. In the UK, the academic year is split into three trimesters – one before Christmas, one before Easter, and one after Easter. Students tend to have the majority of their exams following the Easter break, i.e. in the last trimester, which means they have time to prepare for exams in the order of weeks or even months. It is vital to plan ahead how long and when you will study for each exam, depending on the relative weight of the exam and your level of comfort with the topic. The exams can (and probably will) get quite hectic, especially towards the end.

Insight number 5. No one will ever mark your pretty notes, the number of hours spent on preparation, nor your knowledge. The assessment is based purely on your written answers. A specific type of answers is often required – the one who is able to answer the questions well is the one that succeeds, not necessarily the one who is most knowledgeable. It also important to keep it mind that each partial mark matters, you need to learn how to not lose points on easy questions. Practice makes perfect – practise structuring your answers, even those that might seem trivial.

Advice number 3. Reach out to someone from year above to ask what to expect from different courses and what to focus on. Communicating with seasoned students can potentially save you a lot of time. Work smarter, not harder.

Advice number 4. Shower and wash the (dirty) dishes you used.

Advice number 5. Work hard, play hard. As long as you need to work on something, focus all your attention to that task until its done. Having worked hard, you will value more your rest, play and sometimes even the most mundane things.

Advice number 6. Enjoy it! You can be almost certain that you will never have so much freedom in your life again or perhaps the ability to “live like a student” (no matter what you think that means). Explore new things. Take part in student run organisations, volunteer. Learn how to cook.

Necessity number 1. Thank everyone that has helped you and supported you during your studies – your family, friends, the Foundation.

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