Essential Study Skills for University Success
As a young person, I always sneered when someone mentioned the phrase “study skills”. I’d complacently think: “dude” – in my experience it was always uncool middle-aged men with a penchant for tweed jackets that brought up the phrase – “I study every day for hours, I have been doing so for the past decade with un-lamentable results, reading and remembering stuff is not really rocket science, I think at this point I know what I’m doing.” Wham, bam, thank you, Dan – in my underdeveloped teenage mind. All uncool middle-aged men were called Dan, nothing personal against any of you Dans reading this.
Boy, was I wrong. I did not realise a human could be this wrong about something, and at the same time be so annoyingly righteous about it. When I got to university, I struggled with assignments in my first term: the concepts themselves were not hard, but I found it difficult to keep up with all the reading (I would measure my reading for each week in kilos rather than pages or chapters), and even when I managed to do all the reading it felt impossible to fit all I had learned into a few sides of A4. This is when, perhaps as a result of sleep deprivation and excessive caffeine consumption, the words “study skills” started echoing in my head, and memories of The Dans resurfaced. I had a revelation: in high school, I had coasted through and didn’t really need to do any studying. But at university, it was no longer enough to rely on what I remembered from a quick read of the material. Studying truly was a skill, and I was horribly out of practice.
So I started going to study skills sessions, reading up on the subject and talking to experts. I learned that the key was not to study more, but rather to study smart: reading a whole book was not going to help me, but knowing the right pages to read would. Essays were not an elaborate excuse for an information dump, and the strict word limit was there to force me to put an order in my thoughts. Since then, thanks to past and present Dans, I learned a few things – let me fast-forward your journey by writing up my most important lessons here:
Time management: you may be the smartest person in the world, brains alone are not enough to outwit a high workload or a tight deadline. It’s important that you create schedules and to-do lists for yourself and that you stick to them – having a battle plan is the first step to winning the war. Planning helps you ensure you don’t rush a task, and that you won’t find yourself unkempt and teary, pulling an all-nighter trying to finish something in time. On the flipside, planning your “on-time” helps you remember to make space for your off-time: burning out never got anyone anywhere.
Notes: when you think “oh, I’ll remember this, no need to write it down” you are lying to yourself. WRITE IT DOWN. Be it a reference, an example, or your own thought, note it somewhere. You really don’t want to find yourself really needing some information that you thought you were too cool/smart to write up. Always go over your notes at the end of the day or of the session to ensure everything is legible, and rewrite them in a more structured format: this will help you consolidate the ideas as well as get a head start on future revision as you’ll have the material ready.
Reading: before even getting started, take some time to research what you should be reading and what you should prioritise. Once you have figured this out, find yourself a quiet, well-lit space (for the sake of all that is good, do not read in bed, you will just fall asleep) and get going. Take notes on important information and points to follow up on. If you find yourself re-reading the same paragraph for the 10th time but the words have started dancing on the page and they have stopped making sense, it’s time to take a break or call it a day – don’t force yourself to go on if your body is begging you to stop, it will not be productive.
Exam Preparation & Revision: more important than the content itself is the format of the test: find out how things will be asked, and start revising with that in mind. Exams are less of a test of knowledge and more of an acquired skill: I would be worried if all I learned in a year could be expressed in a few hours. If you have anything you are unsure about, ask your classmates or teacher, you’ll regret thinking you were too good for asking for help when the topic you are shaky on comes up. Lastly, by all means, use props like apps and flashcards if they help you, but take a long hard look at your revision methods when you spend more time making studying material rather than actually using it.
The above are just the highlights (see? I’ve learned to prioritise!), but study skills are not something you become good at overnight, they are something you have to research and practice. The good news is that this is effort well spent: there will not be a time and place in your life in which optimising how you learn, categorise and express information is not a useful skill.
Maria Copot, University of Cambridge Graduate and Study Skills Coordinator at The Granta Academy