For most people, going to University or College is a big change, leaving home, and taking the very first step towards independent living. From a structured learning approach at school to a more research-led learning at University, it can be a difficult academic transition for most to make. Often the first term slips by in a blur and by the time the student starts finding their feet, they might already be struggling. But, you can be prepared for this. The long summer holidays are great to get ahead and be organised for the start of your course at University.
Here are 5 things you can do now before you start your undergraduate degree to make that transition from school to University smoother for you:
1. Research your course
Use the summer holidays to research your first-year modules and familiarise yourself with the content of the first term. These can usually be found on the course web pages, or if you email the departmental tutors, they should be able to send the module outlines to you. Try and see if you can contact any existing students to find out more about the course, and the modules. The more you can know now about your course, the easier you will find to settle in.
2. Read Widely
Learn to read around the topic, not restricting yourself to what is covered in the lecture notes. Try and find a reading list for your first-year modules. Most Universities regularly send out a list of recommended books or journal articles. Locate recent research articles online or in your local library. Find the magazines and journals that are seminal in your discipline, and get into the habit of reading them regularly. This kind of independent research would come in very handy at University too, where you will be expected to find information and write essays independently.
2. Be Critical
Get into the habit of questioning things and reading critically. What this means is not to take everything on face value, but instead exercise your judgement, and question the source and the author’s motivations. Be engaged, and try and summarise the main argument being presented. Think of the limitations of the study and what interpretations are being made, the evidence is that it is based on and if there are any underlying assumptions. This kind of critical reading and thinking would be helpful when you have to start reading a vast amount of new material. This kind of questioning will help you remember the material better, and frame your own argument while writing essays and answering exam questions.
3. Learn study skills
You can get a study skills book out from a local library or buy one easily second hand. It will be really useful to read about essay writing, academic referencing, presentation skills and note-taking. This will also be a good time to reflect on your own learning style. There are several quizzes and self-assessment questionnaires online, two primary ones being VARK and Honey and Mumford. This will help you consider the obstacles and challenges that you might face, the kind of support you would require and also determine how to use your learning style most effectively.
4. Organise yourself
The biggest challenge that students face at University is to manage time and organise all their social and academic activities. Unlike a structured timetable for most A-level students, the freedom of being away from home and the range of social activities on offer at University can be challenging to manage. Try and get into the habit of keeping and writing a planner, noting down deadlines and key dates and commitments in a diary. This way you can plan weekly as well as for the whole term. It is important to look ahead so that you can manage your time well, and not get stressed or overwhelmed. There are some organisational tools and apps that could be useful such as Evernote for note taking, and various such as Listastic, Any.do, Finish and To.do for making lists and scheduling tasks. Nothing is, however, better than an old-fashioned planner or diary for lists and schedules, and a pen and notebook for note-taking during lectures.
Dr Pragya Agarwal is an Academic Mentor and Coach. She has decades of experience lecturing in top US and UK Universities and helping students through University Applications.