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Adapting to University Life: One small step for man, one giant leap for student kind

Myths & legends…

Mythological parables of eccentric lecturers and iconic professors dominate the popular image of university study.

You might have heard all kinds of crazy stories about the shenanigans that go on in the world of higher education. For instance, there’s the tale of the notorious MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) graduates who established a highly lucrative card counting racket during their university years, resulting in a 35-fold return of their gambling stake.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the rumour mill continues to churn out stories of Oxbridge undergraduates being recruited into the Intelligence Services whilst they’re taking a stroll through the quad.

I can assure you that these occurrences are very rare indeed! However, such glamorous tales do serve to illustrate a more pertinent point: university education is a far cry from the strict regime of sixth form study.

What’s the difference then?

The switch from teacher to lecturer is perhaps one of the most significant changes. Although a student may be assigned one specific lecturer to act as a personal tutor (their ‘go-to guy’ if you will), this academic professional is unlikely to be overly-troubled by their student’s lack of enthusiasm. Sure, they might give them the occasional ‘kick up the backside’ (figuratively speaking of course), but they are not going to hold the hands of lazy students and guide them through their degree.

Bumping into your tutor in the pub at lunchtime or after lectures is also not uncommon. However, don’t anticipate an enthusiastic exchange of niceties. You should probably expect an acknowledging nod at best!

Alright, I didn’t ask for a lecture!

Lectures are the staple food of any university diet; a chance to learn the basics of a module. Whilst attendance is highly recommended, although not compulsory, the odd missing person here and there will go largely unnoticed.

Indeed, lecturers have many other concerns which are more worthy of their time than chasing anyone who misses their classes. Miss a lecture and miss out, it really is your loss! It is vital to remember that lectures only provide the most fundamental elements of a degree course, no more, no less.

Furthermore, if you stop a lecturer in mid-flow to ask a question, you should expect a rather undignified response, somewhere along the lines of: “All answers to questions can be found in the relevant textbook.”

Do more! Do better!

Simply regurgitating knowledge gleaned from lectures in the end of year exams will gain you a low 2:2 (commonly referred to as 'a Desmond'). This is far from ideal. The higher marks are earned by demonstrating a wider knowledge of the specific subject; hence why spending your non-contact time in the library, reading around the module, is time well spent.

The best place to start is always the textbooks, articles and recommended reading on lecture handouts. From there, picking out the most interesting looking material from footnotes can prove to be a useful source of inspiration.

Seminar, na, na, na! I wanna start a fight (for better grades)!

Seminars, (a.k.a. supervisions) run alongside lectures. Typically, a seminar is a class of about ten people, which is led by a 'supervisor' or ‘seminar leader’ who possesses particular expertise in the academic field being taught. Often, seminar leaders set their students a bunch of work, which they expect to be completed before class.

The catch here is that attendance is compulsory and is usually recorded. Whilst failure to attend regularly will perhaps not result in life threatening sanctions (more likely a letter detailing what a naughty boy or girl you have been), it will perhaps make your supervisor less receptive to offering you help or guidance if you become stuck.

In a similar vein, turning up to a seminar without having completed the required reading is a sure-fire way to be booted out of class without any heirs or graces (speaking from experience, this is a somewhat embarrassing scenario!).

Preparation stations…

It’s highly probable that the material covered in seminars will feature in end of year exams, so spending time preparing it thoroughly throughout the year will pay dividends when the inevitable cram begins.

Of course, it’s far easier to lie in bed and forget about university entirely. After all, there is no need to place a “do not disturb” sign on your door; nobody will bother you! However, in this context, I feel I must use that old adage: failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

You’re on your own when you get to university and you’ve basically got two choices: lazy town or hard work city? The choice is yours. I’m sure you’ll make the right one!

Written by Chris Snell

Former Law Society President @ Birmingham University