The Good Life University GuideBe the best veRsion of yourself
Routine - some university courses have limited contact hours and lecture or tutorial start times may vary day by day. With this in mind, it is easy to fall out of sync with your study habits. Try and maintain a productive routine, giving your working day fixed parameters (for example 9a.m. to 4p.m.) so that you are consistently working around your timetabled university hours. Although your outcomes in the first and second year may not contribute to your overall degree classification, your learning does, and building a strong foundation of knowledge will help make your final year(s) less stressful.
Reading - independent study skills are vital for learning at undergraduate level. You will be given long reading lists for lectures and tutorials and this can be quite overwhelming at first. Being smart about what to read will help you to be more productive with your time. Every academic paper has an ‘abstract’ which is essentially a summary of the whole piece. This can help you determine whether to invest more time in a paper or to move onto something more relevant. For books, websites like SparkNotes and Gradesaver are a great way to be efficient with time. Do not worry about reading every item on a reading list from cover to cover and try and be selective where you can.
Lectures - go to lectures prepared with the resources for that lecture. All of the PowerPoint slides should be available online and you can annotate these as the lecturer speaks. It is worth considering going paper free and using a stylus which is compatible with the new generation iPad (you can get student discount with Apple, although I appreciate this still comes in at a high cost). There is evidence to show that students who sit towards the front of the lecture hall tend to perform better than those who sit at the back so bear this in mind. To avoid distractions, put your phone on airplane mode.
Revision - the most effective ways to revise are no different to those used for A-levels. Retrieval practice, spaced repetition, interleaving, the protege effect and eloborative questioning are proven methods to maximise learning. Use a mix of these and see what works best for you. More information can be found here https://spark.adobe.com/page/8ZCwCqYdV83Xt/
Support - due to the high number of students, universities do not offer the same level of individual support as schools. But that does not mean to say that support is not there to access. Lecturers all have ‘office hours’ where you can drop in and you can also contact them by email if you have a question. Try and build a good relationship with your lecturer and/or tutor, and be proactive if you need help. At the end of the day you are paying high tuition fees and deserve to receive all of the support that you need.
Thoughts, feelings and behaviours - Dr Aaron T. Beck identified a link between our thoughts, feelings and behaviours following a given event. This has formed the basis for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and one of the most successful initiatives to help fight anxiety and depression. If you receive a poor grade in an exam (the event), then you have the choice of how to react to this. Thinking about this in a positive way (e.g. knowing what you now need to work on) will trigger feelings of determination or motivation and result in positive behaviours (e.g. working harder or smarter).
Challenging your thoughts - thinking about the way we think can help us to be more rational. Common thinking errors include catastrophising (blowing something out of proportion), discounting the positive (only focusing on the negatives) and personalisation (putting the blame entirely on yourself). If you can recognise these errors and consider them in a more objective way by identifying the evidence for and against these thoughts, then this may give you more balance to your thinking and overall happiness.
Goal setting - when we experience low mood, we tend to lose interest and ‘withdraw’ from activities. This can lead to a vicious cycle, in which we lose connection with people and our hobbies and feel even more isolated. By giving ourselves a purpose each day, we can help break this cycle and create a greater sense of worth and achievement. Goal setting involves coming up with short or long term targets to work towards. Recommended apps to help you with this include Strides, Habitify ad Atracker.
Mindfulness - this is the idea of paying attention to the present. The practice has grown in popularity over the last decade as our lives have become busier and busier. To get the full benefits of mindfulness, it is important to practice is regularly. This can be done using the Headspace app or via similar options including Calm and Breethe. However, meditation is not for everyone and any activity that allows you to fall into a state of ‘flow’ will benefit your wellbeing.
Pleasure-purpose principal - a more holistic approach to improve wellbeing could be to review your current lifestyle and consider what brings you pleasure (a sense of enjoyment) and purpose (a sense of meaning). This is a theory outlined in the book ‘Happiness by Design’ by Professor Paul Dolan, who advocates that we should attend to what actually makes us happy as opposed to what we think will make us happy. Experiences that have a mix of both pleasure and purpose may bring us true happiness.
Bank account - before going to university, make sure that you shop around for the best student bank account. There are some great offers from banks, including a free rail or coach card. Check if the overdraft is interest free and also study the repayment conditions.
Budgeting - it will be worth finding out how much money you have coming in each year (loans, income from a job and any other financial support) and divide this by the number of months or weeks to give yourself a working budget. With all of the excitement of freshers’ week, it is easy to lose sight of your outgoings and you can suddenly find your bank account empty half way through the first semester. Distribute your spending evenly throughout the year and put some money to one side for the extended summer holiday. Good apps to monitor your spending include Yolt and Spending Tracker, whilst Monzo and Starling offer a modern approach to banking to keep you constantly informed.
Overdrafts - most student accounts include a set overdraft which allows you to effectively spend beyond your means. This money does need to be paid back once you leave university and interest rates start creeping up the longer you leave this. Whilst an overdraft can seem appealing at first sight, do be cautious when using them. You can simply end up having to allocate part of your graduate salary paying this off, on top of all of the debt that you have built up from tuition fees and maintainance loans.
Saving tips - as the saying goes, look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. You will discover innovative ways to save money whilst at university and there are numerous pages online for you to read. Some basic tips include weekly food shops at low-price supermarkets, preparing food at home rather than eating out, cycling or walking around campus, and buying second hand books. Sharing is a great way to cut costs, and you can do this with course resources, food shops and of course accommodation.
Jobs - maintenance loans may only take you so far and you might need to supplement this with extra income. Given that your contact hours are less at university compared to school, you do have the ability to balance part-time employment with your academic studies and other interests. The universities themselves are big employers and offer jobs to students with flexible hours and an understanding of your undergraduate commitments. In addition to this, student cities and towns are home to most nationwide companies, allowing you to potentially work at a different location whilst at home in the holidays. If you are seeking employment, try and be proactive and avoid the surge in applicants during freshers’ week.
Health - an increased intake of alcohol and high-fat foods for students can mean that weight gain is quite common at university. Exercise can help offset this and give you the energy needed to participate in academic, extra-curricular and social activities. Many undergraduates will not pursue their interest in sports whilst at university, and the challenge will be for you to maintain a healthy routine and build exercise into your weekly calendar. Walking and running are pretty much free to do, whilst gym memberships are heavily discounted for students.
Participation - no matter what your level of ability in a sport, there are options for everyone to engage in sporting activities at universities. Most universities will run a number of sides in each sport (1st team all of the way down to a 5th or 6th team) and then there will a layer below at a college or hall level. And the range of sports on offer is quite remarkable, including ultimate frisbee, quidditch and skiing. Do consider trying something new and research your university’s website over the summer to see what options are available to you.
Social - as well as the physical and mental health benefits of exercise, it also gives you a platform to meet new people. Team sports are a very unique part of university life as there is a great sense of camaraderie. Whilst there can be a competitive edge to playing depending on the level that you enter, university and college teams do place great emphasis on the social side and are keen to create a close-knit, family culture where long lasting friendships are formed.
Well-being - exercise can improve both your mood and reduce levels of stress. In terms of the former, physical activity increases brain serotonin which helps regulate your mood. In addition to this, regular exercise can help with your ‘fight or flight’ response, to decrease levels of tension in both your mind and your body. According to the NHS, adults aged 19-64 should do 150 minutes of moderate activity every week (brisk walking or cycling) to stay healthy.
Memory - studies show that engaging in regular exercise can increase the volume of certain parts of the brain. This particularly relates to the hippocampus, the area involved in verbal memory and learning. Even indirectly, exercise can improve mood and sleep, whilst reducing levels of stress and anxiety, all of which contribute to more effective learning.
Balance - as with most things in life, it is good to have balance and our food intake is no exception to this. Over the last decade, we have seen the rise (and fall) of a range of popular diets including Atkins, paleo and sugar-free. Whilst these may each bring their own benefits, the foundation of a good diet is to make sure that we fuel our body with items from a variety of food groups. ‘Eating the rainbow’ has become an easy way to reap the benefits of nutrients from different fruits and vegetables, and combining this with protein, carbohydrate, good fats and fibre will help make you both physically and mentally healthy.
Budget - eating well does not require you to break the bank. Bananas, apples and oranges are the lowest priced fruits, whilst carrots, cabbage and potatoes mirror this value in the vegetable market. Sources of protein do tend to be slightly more expensive, but there still exist cheap options in the form of canned beans, eggs and white meat. Giving yourself a weekly or monthly budget can help control your expenditure on food. Over the course of an academic year, saving a few pounds on food a day can add up.
Shopping - universities are surrounded by plenty of small convenience stores and given their guaranteed demand, they are likely to charge inflated prices to students. Those that are self-catered should consider making a weekly journey to the supermarket. If you don’t have the means to do this then you can consider doing an online shop. There are plenty of offers on first orders from large supermarket chains. Work out what items you need for the week, buy this all in one shop and avoid unnecessary spending on a daily basis on snacks and drinks (which accumulates overtime).
Sharing - grouping together to shop and cook is a great way to reduce your costs as a student. Buying a higher quantity of something will reduce its price per unit, whether this be done individually or as a group. Working out a rota between your friends to cook a meal for everyone can be fun and allows you to test your skills in the kitchen and get some feedback on your cooking. It does require some forward planning, but these small moments can add to your overall university experience.
Recipes - the internet is home to thousands of basic recipes. One of the best places to start is BBC Food, where you can search by ingredient to create a dish to your fancy. In addition to this, Jamie Oliver’s 30 minute or 5 ingredient meals allow you to get plenty of flavour out of a meal without it consuming too much of your time and money. Start by mastering the basics and then once you accomplish this, move on to more experimental dishes. It may even become a hobby of yours.
Memory - sleep helps consolidate knowledge by strengthening the synaptic connection between neurons. When we sleep, our memory moves from short to long term, making learning more durable. A common misconception is that our brain is not functioning when we are sleeping, when in fact it is very active. Staying up late to do last minute work or revision can actually impede performance.
Health - the workings of the immune system are very much reliant on getting a sufficient amount of rest. In short, sleep helps create t-cells that help fight off pathogens. A lack of sleep leaves us more exposed to coughs and colds. In addition to this, it is worth mentioning the link between sleep and our diets. A goods night’s sleep will allow the brain to regulate the hunger hormone, telling the stomach that it is full and making us more inclined to select healthy foods over heavy and unhealthy options.
Well-being - we are all aware that when we are sleep deficient our mood tends to fluctuate and we can become quite emotional. Science can explain this exact process. Studies have found that our amygdala (the part of the brain associated with processing emotions) is much more active following a lack of sleep, increasing anxiety and stress. Sleep is a therapeutic state for humans, and the common advice of sleeping on a decision may actually have evidence behind it.
Routine - how we prepare for sleep will determine the quality of our sleep. Pre-sleep strategies such as having a hot bath, switching off your mobile phone and reading will help your brain and body ‘shut down’ so that your eyes close once you hit the pillow. Working up until your bedtime will mean that your brain is still very much active and could see you lying down with your eyes wide open. Try and establish a pre-bedtime routine to act as a ‘trigger’ to your body that it is time to decompress.
Consistency - as important as a routine is, having a consistent sleep pattern is the first adjustment to make if you ever feel that you are sleep deficient. Our body has its own 24-hour internal clock called the circadian rhythm. Part of this rhythm is controlled by outside factors like lightness and darkness. When it is dark, our body releases melatonin which makes us feel tired. Aligning your circadian rhythm with the cycle of day and night will help you sleep better. Regular sleep habits will allow this rhythm to run efficiently and given the lack of routine at university, this can prove to be particularly challenging.
Academic - undergraduate study is very much independent in its nature, but that does not mean that you should not seek help. Try and form some good working relationships with your peers on the course and meet up outside of lectures and tutorials to work together. Dividing up tasks such as reading lists can help reduce individual workload and allow you to share each other’s insights on articles and books. If your help goes beyond the expertise of your friends, then do speak to your academic tutors or supervisors. Support is not always advertised, and therefore you need to be proactive with this.
Friends - strong friendships are formed at university which can last a lifetime. People may respond in different ways to being away from home and therefore it is important that you look out for one another. Whilst university is a sociable experience, it can also be quite isolating for some. Without staff being able to keep a constant eye on the wellbeing of students, the responsibility may shift to friends to support one another and guide individuals to the right source of help. Common behaviours to look out for in someone who is going through a difficult time include withdrawal from activities, loss of motivation and a general lack of energy.
Counselling - all universities offer a counselling service to students if things become more challenging and you need someone to talk to. Counsellors aim to listen to people in a non-judgemental and confidential manner, providing proven strategies to help make life more engaging and enjoyable. We may all experience difficulties at some point in our lives and reaching out to external support is the first step towards improving. There are some wonderful organisations that are trying to reduce the stigma of mental illness and you can access a fantastic range of resources online. These include Mind, turn2me, Time to Change and Young Minds. For those students who have accessed counselling in the sixth form, it may be worth contacting the counselling services at your university prior to your arrival in September.
Parents - quite simply, keep in touch with them. Your parents have sacrificed a huge amount for you to get to where you are and it is very easy to forget this. You may not believe it, but it is not always easy for parents seeing their children leave home for the first time so it is important that you keep in touch with them regularly and arrange dates to go home. In addition to this, many of you will be receiving financial aid from your parents throughout your undergraduate years so do bear this in mind when deciding how to spend your money. Making the most of your university experience and participating in all that is on offer will be one of the best ways of repaying your parents for their support.
Volunteering - it can be easy to to find yourself in a ‘bubble’ at university and forget about the world around you. We are all very lucky to have the opportunity to take our academic studies beyond school and others are not so fortunate. Undertaking voluntary work can help us keep things in perspective, whilst also supporting those in need. It is a practice which brings benefits to both parties and can help with your character development. The universities themselves may run volunteering schemes in the community from working in local schools to helping the elderly. In addition to this, there are countless schemes for volunteering abroad during your long summer holidays.
Clubs and societies - there are such a wide range of clubs and societies at university and freshers’ fair is the opportunity to continue with an existing hobby or try something completely new. Sport can be played at both a university level for those wishing to challenge themselves or at a college/hall level for those looking to take the more social route. There are some very ‘niche’ options out there including Cheese society, Extreme Ironing society and of course a Game of Thrones Appreciation society. These extra-curricular options provide you with the chance to broaden your friendships beyond your course and halls of residence and give you some balance to our academic studies.
Leadership - we may stress it a lot at school, but its importance continues onto university. Holding a position of responsibility helps develop your character and skills which will prove vital for the workplace. Graduate employers all hold these experiences in high regard and it is a chance to differentiate yourself from the masses. Leadership positions may come in the form of the clubs and societies mentioned above, or as a student representative for a group or under outreach programmes that the university runs. Emotional intelligence is the buzz word in the world of employment and putting yourself forward to a position of authority will help you to nurture your strengths and become more self-aware.
Travel - finances may be tight at university, but this should certainly not stop you from making the most of your lengthy summer holidays. The final semester tends to finish at the start of June and you will return mid to late September, giving you a minimum three month break to explore the world. If you are savvy with your money, try and save a small amount each week to use during the summer months or even find a full time job on finishing the summer term so that you can go away late August or early September. It may be your last opportunity to have such an extended break before entering the world work, so bear this in mind during your undergraduate years.
Internships - as highlighted above, the long holidays also offer you a chance to get some paid work experience. All of the biggest companies run internship schemes for undergraduate students with a view of trying to employ you once you finish your degree. They are competitive to get onto and you may also need to frequently keep an eye out for openings, but the financial reward, skills acquired and potential career that follows should be enough to encourage you to apply. Going into your final year at university having to balance job applications with your exams can be an added stress and you may look back wishing that you had been more proactive when it really mattered.
Enjoy - most importantly of all, enjoy your university experience. Three or four years may seem like a long time now, but they really do fly by. You are investing a good proportion of your future wages into your undergraduate study so it is important that you get what you want out of it. You may make some bad choices along the way but just make sure that you learn from these experience to grow into a better person. As the title of booklet reads, ‘be the best version of yourself’. Good luck!