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Making the most of your time at university

Maria Jackson, a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow, gives us lots of food for thought regarding how to make the most of those few brief years that you will spend at university.

Making the right choice

There are a number of things to consider even before you enrol in a course of study at university. Think ahead to what you expect to gain from getting a degree – for many people their degree is the stepping stone to a particular career, in which case it may be important to select a programme of study that aligns with your career plans. Sometimes the career pathway may be obvious, for example with professional programmes like accountancy & finance, law, engineering, medicine, dentistry, nursing or veterinary science. Some undergraduate programmes are accredited or recognised by professional bodies, so it’s important to seek out the appropriate information to check whether the degree you are thinking about will help you achieve your career goals. The websites for most university programmes of study will have information on career prospects, so check this out to see if the information aligns with your plans.

Another important point is to ensure that you are selecting a programme that you are interested in. Sometimes Advisers meet with students who are not enjoying their degree programme, and on further exploration of the issues it turns out that the student actually wanted to study a completely different subject, but was persuaded by family or friends into particular directions. Whilst it’s important to listen carefully to advice, don’t forget that you need to have a real interest in a subject in order to succeed at university. Think carefully about where your interest lies, and about what you are good at; if you aren’t fully decided then you might wish to consider a programme which starts in first year with a broad range of subjects, only leading to a specialisation in later years. This might help especially where the full breadth of the subject area may diverge from the limited aspects included in the school curriculum.

Transferable skills

Once you start on a degree programme it’s still important to keep your career goals in mind and to be strategic both within and outside the curriculum. If you have a choice of courses within a programme then think about which options might work best in preparing you for the future. It’s especially important to think about what potential employers will be looking for in job candidates. Typically, they will look for what we refer to as “transferable skills”, which at the University of Glasgow are included in our Graduate Attributes. Some employers will be more interested in the skills you acquired at university than in the subject that you studied – for example, critical thinking, leadership and communication skills. So while at university you should make the most of the opportunities on offer to develop your personal skill set; every degree programme should include plenty of experience and training that is designed to help you develop Graduate Attributes. Some students look at activities in their programmes and make the mistake of only putting in effort to something if it’s assessed! Don’t fall into this trap – remember that activities that are not part of the final assessment may nevertheless be vital in developing a good skill set for making you attractive to prospective employers. A good idea would be to make your own copy of Graduate attributes and then keep a tally as you go of how you are developing under each heading; if there are attributes you feel weak on then seek out opportunities to develop these.

Finding a balance

Of course studying at University isn’t all about following the degree programme; you should also ensure that you find a sensible balance between study and relaxation time. Your brain won’t function optimally if you do nothing but study. How you fill the time when you are not attending course sessions or studying depends on your personal preferences, but joining one or more student societies can help you meet others with similar interests and may also help you to develop your transferable skills set, for example by becoming involved in organisational aspect of a student society. Many students require to work part-time in order to support themselves through university. Although such jobs may be undertaken primarily as a source of funds, they can also help you build your skill set! For example working within a team to achieve particular objectives (like customer satisfaction) or working in a care environment, which might help develop various “people skills”. It is important however to maintain balance: think carefully about which student societies best match your interests (don’t try to join too many in your surge of enthusiasm at Fresher’s week!). Don’t sign up for too many hours of part-time work (15 hours per week is a recommended maximum if you are also undertaking a full time degree).

Your personal support network

Undertaking a degree programme can be very stressful! Sometimes you will need help and support, and it’s important to ensure that you build effective support networks. Obviously you have your family and friends from your life before university, and it’s vital to maintain those links. However, many students are in a new city or even a new country and all students are embarking on a new phase in their lives so their support network needs to be extended. One of the most important sources of support will be other students, especially those on the same programme or courses. Something that many students find invaluable, particularly in preparation for examinations, is to form a study group, in which you discuss difficult areas and help each other to understand the course material. Discussing areas of difficulty benefits everyone: it can assist the learning process and even for those who thought they understood the material, explaining it to someone else (teaching in other words!) is the best way of learning!! Look for opportunities to set up a study group with friends from your courses (or if you don’t know anyone on the course yet, there may be a student forum or Facebook page on which you could post an invite to set up a study group) – you might be surprised at how many other students want to get involved.

It is likely that you will be assigned a “personal tutor” or “adviser of studies” from the staff, whose role may include advice on academic matters but also, and very importantly, pastoral support if you are experiencing difficulties of any kind. You may have a meeting scheduled automatically with your adviser, or your adviser may contact you to invite you to arrange a meeting. Make sure you know who your adviser is and how to contact them. It’s important to recognise that the pastoral role of the adviser is separate from the academic role: your adviser is there to support you, not to judge you, and any discussions you have with them should be considered confidential. Advisers are generally much more familiar with procedures at the university than students, and can help you to decide the best way forward. Most students don’t need this pastoral support, but it’s important to know who your adviser is, and to meet them early on during your studies, so that in the event that you do experience problems during your studies, you feel more comfortable in contacting your adviser because you have already met and interacted with them. There are many other sources of support: the student representative council (SRC), counselling services, etc. You’ll probably receive lots of information about the available services in your first week or two at university; although there is likely to be a lot of information overload, make sure you are aware of how to locate any services you require (often this will be via the “student” section of your university’s web pages. Don’t forget that university staff are generally happy to have students asking questions, for example at the end of a lecture (it demonstrates interest!), so if you have difficulties with the course material you don’t need to struggle alone to find solutions. Discussion with staff or fellow students can be much more effective ways of learning.

Managing your time

At university level students have much more responsibility for managing their own time. There can be a strong temptation to just “go with the flow” and plan only a day or two ahead. But you will have assignments to complete and deadlines to manage. A sure recipe for failure is to leave everything to the last minute. Start as you mean to go on and generate schedules to plan your study: start working on all assignments as early as possible, and “block out” time in your schedule for the different aspects of the assignment preparation and production. By planning your time carefully you’ll be able to generate a much more thoughtful and well-organised piece of work, and you’ll have time to proof-read and improve the original draft of the work. Allow time in your schedule for relaxation and any work commitments so that you achieve the right balance.

Planning ahead

Don’t forget the purpose of your time at university: for most students the aim is preparation for future careers. Be strategic and be on the lookout for opportunities to move towards your career goals particularly in the final year or two of your degree programme. For example, if your plan is to get involved in research, then attend relevant research seminars and talk to researchers in your chosen area. Whatever you intend to do after university, keep your goal in mind throughout your student years, and think about what particular skills and attributes would be most important to succeed in that career, then seek out opportunities to develop those skills while you are studying, so that after graduation you can produce a CV that will be attractive to your target employers. Getting into your chosen career can be very competitive so you need to be able to generate a targeted CV that addresses key attributes. A good way of exploring what is required might be to look at relevant job adverts and locate the “person specification” for those jobs. Then think about what you might need to do in order to be able to demonstrate these skills when applying for jobs in future, and generate an “action plan” for how you will acquire them. For example, evidence of leadership might come from a role in a student society, or as a student representative, or as a supervisor of one or more other staff in the workplace (even if it’s in a seemingly “irrelevant” environment like a fast-food outlet, it’s still leadership experience).

Plan for success

If you allow yourself to “coast” through your time at university and delay thinking about the future until graduation, then you may not be able to compete effectively with others seeking the same careers. Make sure that you are strategic, keep your goals in mind and plan ahead to make the most out of your time at university!

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