How I Got Straight A’s in My First Year of University
I was so proud of myself when I received firsts (that’s A’s for those not attending uni in the UK) on all of my assessments in my first year at university. Here are some tips for y’all to try at any point in university. They may be specific at times to my experience—my degree is in the social sciences and humanities, and I’m studying in the UK—but I did try to make them more generally applicable, and hopefully they should be helpful to someone out there.
Part One: Everyday Study Routine
- Before the start of the academic year, try to get in a little bit of preparation. See if there are any syllabi or reading lists posted online. You don’t have to pour over them, of course, but do attempt to do something, and have a basic grasp on what will be covered in your classes.
- Go to all your lectures and seminars. Unless you absolutely have to miss class because you are ill or have an important obligation to take care of, it’s really important to attend your lectures every day. (Note: if you are struggling with mental or chronic illness or a disability, don’t beat yourself up if you keep missing class. Please take care of yourself.) You may be tempted to just look at the PowerPoint presentation online, but it’s much more effective to be there in person. Often the lecturer may include information or extra explanations which are not included in the presentation. It will also allow you to process the information aurally as well as visually, and you will have the added benefit of taking notes too. You may also be able to ask questions.
- Do all the pre-reading for lectures. I know it’s tempting to put it off, but try to work it into your daily routine (because you will have reading to do every day). Inevitably, there will be times where you slip up and don’t have time to finish. If this happens, make sure you catch up on it at some point, because it’s very important to solidifying the concepts you are learning about. Also, the more you read in general, the better you will become at reading (and also writing).
- Take diligent notes (for both your lectures and pre-reading), and keep them organized. I prefer to handwrite in a notebook, as it helps me synthesize information rather than just typing it out verbatim—but it is totally up to you. If you do use a notebook, make a table of contents on the first page, where you write the date, topic, class, and page numbers of each set of notes you take. I think it’s a great idea to include your own thoughts and opinions in notes, or linking concepts you are learning to concepts you already know about.
- If you have the time, make sure to be reading books/essays/articles and engaging with ideas outside of your regular syllabus. This is one of the most important techniques (in my experience, at least) when it comes to writing essays and answering exam questions. Evidence of wider reading around a topic is a great way to boost the credibility of your argument. It also does wonders to solidify and broaden your conceptualization of certain ideas you may have covered in your classes.
- Where possible, try to contribute (as much as you feel comfortable) in seminars. If you are very quiet and reserved, that is totally okay too. I’m with you. But it has helped me tremendously in the past year to push myself to speak up more often in seminars. Talking in seminars allows you to clarify concepts and engage more deeply with the material being discussed (and it might impress your seminar tutor too, though this is secondary to the learning in my opinion).
- If you have some nerdy-ass friends, talk with them about your ideas and what you’re both learning in your courses. I can’t tell you the number of essays I’ve written which actually have blossomed out of conversations I’ve had with friends, where they’ve exposed me to topics I’d never heard of before or broadened my view of a concept. Learning from each other in a casual and fun setting is amazing!
Part Two: Assessment Time
- When you are given notice about big assignments coming up, such as essays or group projects, try to start working on them ASAP. Trust me, I know how hard it is. This is coming from someone who has dealt for years with chronic procrastination issues and nearly didn’t graduate from high school because of it. But you must start planning as soon as you possibly can, because the due date will come screaming up and before you know it, it’ll be the night before the deadline and you won’t have a clue what you’re writing about. Work it into your daily schedule if you have to. One great tip is to write down the deadline as being earlier (say, a week earlier) than what it actually is. This will prompt you to start earlier than you normally would have.
- Do a shitload of reading, widely, from multiple sources. Read everything you can on the topic you are doing your assignment on. For a basic literature review, this means looking through at least 20+ sources. That doesn’t mean carefully perusing each one front to back; it means looking through all the relevant literature to find a few great sources which will really give you a coherent argument and a big picture of the topic at hand.
- Keep your sources organized. I use Paperpile, which is a Chrome extension that allows you to save and organize academic sources. I make a folder for each assessment I am working on, and anything I find relevant to my topic, I save it to the folder. This will be a life saver for you when you actually go to plan your paper and also do the referencing.
- Content is important, but perhaps even more important is your argument and structure. This mostly applies to essays, but you can apply it to other types of assessments too. Try not to structure your argument in terms of blocks of content—e.g. Paragraph 1 is about Topic A, Paragraph 2 is about Topic B—but rather in terms of how you are laying out your argument. Make sure each part of your essay flows into the next, so that you are, for example, setting up a kind of dialogue or narrative between the different sources you’re using. Also ensure that any point you are making clearly relates back to your main thesis.
- If you’re a perfectionist like me: train yourself to remember that there is no such thing as perfect. Try to imagine what the perfect essay would be like. Can you imagine it? It’s probably pretty difficult, right? That’s because there is no such thing as a perfect assignment. Remind yourself of this, constantly. Tell yourself that you will be okay with just doing your very best. If you think about it logically: handing in something that is perhaps not your best ever, but handing it in on time and doing pretty well, is infinitely better than attempting to have a “perfect” essay but handing it in late and failing the assignment.
I hope this helped some of you! Best of luck and happy studying this year—go knock ‘em out! xo