This is not just about being a student but being a good student. I need to warn everybody here, this is a rather didactic piece. What I will argue is that there is no point going for an average degree, not so much in terms of the university that you’ll go to or the subject that you’ll study, but as regards the final degree classification. A qualifier here: If you are among the 1% of the world student population who come from the richest backgrounds and you’ve found yourselves at Harvard or Oxford or other similar places by default but you have no interest in your studies, this text is not for you. Please continue to enjoy uninterrupted, be careful with the drugs and the STDs, thanks for stopping by, keep in touch and all my best.
Now, if you are in the remaining 99%: You MUST make sure you get a good degree. The reasons make a very long list but let’s stick to number 1 for now. There aren’t enough jobs for everybody – there just aren’t. Even if there were, you’ll still get the worst ones with your ‘just about passing’ degree, if that. But there aren’t. And they keep becoming more and more of an endangered species too! It figures, badly educated societies become uncompetitive, jobs move elsewhere, vicious circle. So, where do you come in? Well, you have to be the one who stands out in the crowd of graduates, and it is a big big crowd, from what is now becoming a global marketplace. People with degrees from other countries will want one of the few remaining jobs, why should you get it? More importantly however, you should ask yourself ‘HOW can I get it?”. Well, here goes:
You need to go for the best marks, and make sure you put enough effort to be top of the class. You don’t need to kill yourself if you are not the top student as you may be in the same year with a hard-working genius, but try to be in the top 5-10% always. It gives your professors and future referees something very solid to say about you when it comes to that and that will get you interviews. Use more sources for assignments, think about topics more, challenge what you are reading. Write and write again – you’ll get better and quicker at it. Great marks will come.
Do a lot of extra-curricular things. Join societies, contribute to the uni media (newspapers, magazines, radio, tv station, student website), engage with sustainability initiatives (here is a great one in the uni where I work) because …after all we only have one planet, do volunteer work, do sports – join societies for that too, it is better, and engage with the students union. All these will have immense benefits for you (and for the uni, but let’s focus on you for now!) You’ll put yourself on the map, you’ll get better at many things, your confidence will grow, you’ll learn from experiences that are better to be had there than later in life! So, by the end of your years of study, you’ll have more friends (ok, you’ll probably have a few more enemies too, but this is great preparation for life…). You will improve your social skills. You’ll have a clearer idea of what you actually enjoy doing and possibly you are any good at – crucially other people will also know that about you, you’ll know who else is in this position, you’ll know who to talk to for more issues, in other words there will be more of you visible to others, and I don’t mean it in the “Who ate all the pies?” kind of way. These activities make for a great graduate CV. Oh, and I almost forgot: Your chances of getting a boyfriend/girlfriend will increase hugely, if you want one.
Talk to people about what you are doing. This goes for research projects, group work, as well as other activities. You’ll get to know who is doing what, how good or enthusiastic they are about it but also, who …to avoid. Talk to professors as well, in all probability they won’t bite you and some of us have good suggestions, good connections, we even come up with ideas that you may not have thought about yet – probably the only good thing that comes with age, take advantage.
Help others if you can, but only after you’ve asked them and they accepted it or they asked you. Otherwise it is a very muddy territory to go in, it can cause more problems than it solves.
Now, here is a very (very) important bit:
Organise your life on the basis of weeks. It is better than days or months or any other unit because in terms of structure it is repeated steadily, at least for a term but maybe more. So, create a plan around your lectures and work, including regular socialising events in it. Include some sport if you can do any, and some media exposure, cinema, theater, maybe a movie night at a friend’s, you get it. By this I mean planned media exposure, not the other kind, everybody gets plenty of that! Do (and schedule in) things that make you happy. If you spend your student life feeling sad that this super cool guy or girl doesn’t even know you are there, or because you are jealous of someone because they are richer, skinnier, taller, more popular, prettier, cleverer, more confident and so on, everything you do will be done less well and will be less effective. Ignore them, they probably have their demons too, they are just invisible to you. They probably have someone in their lives that makes them feel all of the above too, you just don’t know it. And their parents are both miserable alcoholics fighting all day, no question about it. So, going back to my previous point, if you schedule in your week activities for every day and evening, even night if you can handle it, every time you’d be likely to go into a bad cycle, there will be something positive to do that you’ll have chosen and possibly like. Try going for 2- or 3-hour slots, they seem to work well for some people and you don’t get bored. Extend them if you are enjoying a lot! Cancel them if something else exciting comes up, or keep them as back-up plans. (Note: As you know you’ll need to study systematically too, but not to worry, no known casualties from studying have been confirmed yet)
Other good ideas: Don’t put yourself down. Don’t tell yourself “This is not for me I am too shy, too young, too ugly, too stupid, I am a foreigner, I am too working class” or any of that. You may well be some or all of that, but if you have any chance of overcoming them it is at uni – and in all probability you are just suffering from low self-esteem. Kill it, it is legal in most universities.
It may sound like much but it should do the trick or at least give you a good shot at it.
You’ll be doing your best to put yourself at the center of the map! Best thing about it, you get to learn things along the way – Now, there is a way to make £9000 a year (or however much you’re paying) worthwhile.
Fellow academics are especially welcome to share this in any way they see appropriate!