So as another rainy Irish "summer" draws to an end, and with it my time at university, I feel like it's an opportune moment to pause and look back at what was undoubtedly the best and most unforgettable 4 years of my life.
My uni experience, like most graduates will tell you I'm sure, had it all... Ups, downs, tears, tantrums, laughs a minute, surprises, adventures, many many a hangover, and even more late nights spent in the library that I would care to remember (or admit for that matter). All shared of course, with some of the most amazing people I'm proud to count amongst my best friends. To come out of it on the other side then with a BA First Class Honours Degree in Business Studies and Hispanic Studies, really has been the icing on the cake. And to be honest, I'm still not really sure how I pulled it off! I wasn't really what they call "the model student". That said, it's got me thinking over the past few days...
|Graduation Day con los amigos|
For those of us who have ever undertaken a course, whether it be a university degree or a knitting class at the local college, we always begin it with the best of intentions. For me, I remember almost 4 years ago being adamant that I was going to do my utmost to earn a First, how I was going to do this and do that, how I was going to become a goody two-shoes and do whatever it took to get there. However, the path taken was anything but the one planned. If you take a moment to type into Google "How to get a First" and have a quick scan at the results, no doubt you'll see various articles and blogs all setting out their 10 point plan or list of specs which they say you need to implement in order to achieve such. Yet they're all pretty unanimous about how you should go about it. And in short, it would seem that you have to be pretty much bloody perfect! From attending every single lecture to burying your head in further reading from week 1, having any sort of a life outside of your studies is pretty much forbidden. Work from home instead of the library? "Not conducive for productive learning." Trip to the pub instead of preparing for next week's interpreting class? "Do you want to fail?" Mistakes and hiccups, meanwhile, are just not allowed.
Well from my experience, I say they are. Often necessary, in fact. University is a very steep learning curve, and more than just learning about whatever you're chosen field is. It's about learning what motivates you to work and what doesn't. It's about learning not just how to overcome challenges, but knowing when and when not to challenge yourself. It's about learning that you're not so unflappable in the face of adversity as you thought you were, while at the same time learning that you're more resilient than you ever thought you could be. To go along this long and bumpy road without a few and stumbles is nigh on impossible. The most important thing is that you learn from your mistakes as you go along, so that when push comes to shove and the stakes are high (i.e. final year), you're in the position to deal with it and hopefully excel. I'm not going to completely disparage all those articles and other blogs, because they do point out some sound advice, however I do think most of them are just a tad unrealistic. Three years is a long time, four in fact for my course, so everyone's experience is going to be fairly unique. It's all about finding a balance that works for you. So after a bit of reflection, I've compiled a few general and more specific steps I took which I think contributed to me stumbling over that magical 70% line. (NB. These are not intended to be taken as Gospel, but were merely just what was successful for me. I still reckon they're a pretty good place to start though ;)
1. Be strategic when picking your modules. This doesn't just mean picking modules or areas you think you'll like because you "aced an exam in it at A Levels without doing a scrap of revision". For me, it was key to pick modules which I knew I would be motivated to work at, especially if things got tricky. For some people who have been very career-focused from a young age and know exactly in what area they want to work, this probably won't be much of a problem. For others who aren't so certain, this can be a problem. For example, it wasn't until half way through 2nd year and after 2 resits that I recognised I really ought to avoid accounting modules like the plague, and instead stick to marketing classes (which I found engaging and enjoyable). After compiling a short list of modules I was interested in, the next step I took was taking a look at their assessment breakdowns. Did I really want the stress of having to sit four 2 hour exams in the space of 2 weeks right after Christmas, and which carried practically all the weight of assessment for that semester? Hell no I didn't. Or did I want a mixture of exams and written assignments, spread nice and evenly over the course of the year? Ding ding ding, we have a winner. I know picking your modules can be a bit of a pain, especially if you're like me and don't know what you want for dinner that day, never mind knowing whether in 10 months time you'd rather be taking a class in Post Dictatorial Latin America or 14th Century Basque Poetry. However, with a little bit of forethought and research, you might just save yourself a whole heap of stress, and even set you on the way to that First.
2. Get reasonably organised. Although this may sound obvious, I know a stack of people who are the most disorganised people in the world yet still walk away with the best grades, time after time. And vice versa. That said, I'm not advocating doing nothing, neither that you need to create the most extensive filling system or something equally OTT (although by all means do if it works for you). A nice middle ground will do. For me, getting organised took place at the start of each semester by having a quick read through the module handbooks and making a note of all assessment components on my miniature whiteboard which hanged on the wall. This ensured I knew straight off the bat what was expected of me and, more importantly, ensured that I didn't accidentally miss a deadline - we've all been there. Then, when I had handed in an assignment I would tick off it off on my wee whiteboard. This might not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but at times it brought a nice little psychological boost. Uni is a marathon, not a sprint, so breaking it down into smaller, more manageable short-term targets helped me to stay focused and push on to the next assignment/exam. Furthermore, don't listen to anyone who says at the start of term "it's too early to look at past papers." It's never too early if you want to get ahead of the game. Besides, I've witnessed actual physical tussles over them in the library during exam periods. Get in there early.
3. Go to most of your classes. It's amazing how what seemed impossible in first year i.e. getting your lazy ass into class anytime before lunch time, becomes a doddle by final year. "Sh*t has got real, and I am not paying the best part of 10k to lie in my scratcher all year." It's common knowledge that going to your classes will allow you to enhance the basic material found on Blackboard or whatever online resource tool your uni uses. However, I found doing so was beneficial for a number of other reasons. The first of these is that, again, it made me more aware of exactly what each module tutor/convenor expected assessment wise. This was especially important as my course was split across two departments. Furthermore, if you're attentive enough, and depending on the charitable nature of your teachers, you might just be able to pick up some invaluable information and pointers regarding the assessment. For example, I was able to successfully anticipate a number of exam questions, something I wouldn't have been able to do if I hadn't bothered to turn up for class. The second advantage is that it allows you to be in contact with your tutors, week after week, and to subsequently build a rapport with them. Now I'm not implying that being pally with tutors will lead to favouritism in exams (everything is marked anonymously and externally anyway), but it can certainly do no harm. Plus they can give you ongoing feedback on where you can improve in your work.
4. Do some extra reading & learn how to reference. Something a bit more specific now, and two tasks which tend to go hand in hand. It's no lie when you're told that you need to go above and beyond the material provided in class if you want to get higher marks. It's also no lie that being told this usually results in a collective sigh from you and your classmates. We were so used to being spoon-fed everything at school, so the thought of having to source our own information can be quite daunting. And even more so when you're handed an 8 page handout of 'Essential and Recommended Reading'.... "I have to read all this, and find my own sources?" However worry not, as it doesn't have to be such a hard long slog. Nor do you have to bury your head in the library from day 1. The key, I found, was to be selective about what you're looking for, and then know where to find it. And this is something that becomes easier and quicker with practice. For example, if you know the areas which you're going to be assessed on in the exam, then only do extra reading for those areas. Unless for comprehension purposes, there's no point wasting time and effort reading papers and text books if they're not going to help you in your assessments. Likewise, often you don't need to read entire papers to be able to reference them in your work. 9 times out of 10 the abstract will contain all the information you need. A further shortcut, is to take a look at the bibliographies of papers you've already used, as it's likely that you'll find even more relevant sources there which you can avail of. In terms of where to start your search, my first port of call was usually Google Scholar or the university's electronic library. A useful tip when using Scholar is to look at how many times an article has been cited by others, as this is a fair indication of the quality of its content. I also tried to mix up the types of resources I used by reading the odd text book from the library or online periodicals in my field of study. I realise now that it may sound like a lot, but like I said, once you get into the routine of it, it almost becomes second nature. Almost lol
Once you've found your sources and included them in your work, you need to reference them wholly and correctly. This is for 2 reasons. The most important being, that you will avoid accusations of plagiarism, which as we all know, is a serious crime at university. The second, is that having spent all that time and effort researching, you want to demonstrate to whoever is marking your work that you are able to write up to an academically high standard. It gives your work authenticity and the impression that, basically, you know what you're talking about. So please, learn how to do it right. It's such a silly thing to throw away marks over. I tended to follow my university's online manual for Harvard Referencing and hand type each reference, but I know of various tools and programs that automatically create the reference. Again, whatever works best for you. A quick point on referencing in exams. It's usually sufficient to include just the author's name and year of publication, although it's always good to check with the module tutor.
5. Pray and hope that the stars align. The unfortunate truth is that, despite your hard work, some things will be out of your control. From the people you're placed in a group with (it might be that not everyone pulls their weight), to your exam timetable (two exams in one day - really queen?). All you can do is adjust the best you can, and pray for some good old fashioned divine intervention. That's what I did anyway, and thankfully it paid off. For those of you who are religiously inclined, here's a prayer for exam success which I've used since I was 11 and it has never failed me once.
Well, I think I'll leave it there as I've rambled on more than I intended to. With this blog I've aimed to share a few of my own experiences, tips and stress-saving shortcuts which I think are more than useful if you're hoping to bag that First. However most importantly, I hope it shows that it is OK to make mistakes along the way, it is OK to skip a few classes, and it is OK to have fun and enjoy the wild ride that uni is. As long as you learn as you go, then there's (almost) always time to pull things back and come out on top by the end. If you've managed to make it this far, firstly: well done, and secondly: feel free to add some of your own tips advice below. Thanks for reading! :)
¡Hasta la próxima chicos!