As a lecturer, I’ve seen hundreds of students go from their first day at university through to graduation and beyond, and although they all have different experiences, the most successful share some common features. I thought new year was the perfect time to share some of these thoughts, and perhaps inspire some resolutions!
Before I do, I have one confession to make though. I am rubbish at keeping new year’s resolutions. Really rubbish. I get over excited, decide to pretty much change everything in my life, and then crumble after about a week. I’m going to try really hard therefore to make these suggestions achievable and I would love to hear how you get on.
1. Write your own reference
This is shamelessly stolen from an idea developed by Dr Jenn Cumming, but it’s brilliant so I want to share it with you. Put aside an hour or so to write the personal reference that you want to receive when you graduate. Think through what they will be able say that you have achieved, what skills and attributes do you have, what type of person have they found you to be. You can use this to start pondering how you’re going to develop these skills, and demonstrate these qualities. The best bit is, you can keep the reference and come back to it next term or next year, to see how much progress you’ve made.
2. Smile at your lecturers
Sounds small, but just smile at us. Say Good Morning when you come into the lecture theatre, and say thanks afterwards. This is not just because it brightens up my day! There are bonuses for you too. Just think – next time you need help with something, or an extension, or we have an opportunity for a limited number of students, we’re going to think of you and remember a smiley, engaged student. That can’t hurt! Don’t take it too far though – I mentioned this to two students, who then proceeded to sing-song “Hi Vikki” and “Bye Vikki” in unison at the start and end of every single lecture… Not entirely what I meant. But I do remember them fondly!
3. Now talk to us too
Students always say they want more contact with lecturers. But I still sit in my office, during my designated “student office hours”, allllllll byyyyyyy myyyyseeeellllllffffff. Some lecturers may seem unapproachable sometimes, but we’re all genuinely pleased if you come to us with sensible questions. By sensible questions, I don’t mean some high-brow amazing insight, but anything that you’re unsure of that you couldn’t just look up in a text book. The best opening lines, I find, are “I had a question about X. I’ve looked at XX book, and your lecture notes, and I understand this bit, but I’m still not quite sure why X is X”. That way, we know you’ve made an effort, and we can help you with the specific bit that you’re stuck on. Honestly, it’s what we’re here for.
4. Set up systems
Notice that this resolution isn’t “be more organised”. That has been on my list every year since ever, and I still despair at myself. Instead, set up some systems that will make being organised a bit easier without much ongoing effort. Firstly buy a folder that fits in your usual bag. So many students rock up at my office, and scrabble around in the bottom of their bag to find screwed up bits of paper. It stresses you out and it makes me impatient with you, and that’s not a good start for either of us. Even if you don’t get around to filling stuff away, at least it’s all in one, nice, flat, place. Also, get a diary if you don’t have one already, and pop in all the important dates that you know already – term dates, deadlines, that sort of thing. Now you can see when things might clash, or when you’re going to need to focus in a bit, or when you’ve got some time for exciting opportunities.
5. Book it in
So, in those diary gaps, it would be rude not to book something fun. The best thing about being a student is that you have endless possibilities to do all sorts of random activities, events, volunteering, placements etc. Rather than being overwhelmed with the choices, just pick something that sounds different and book it in. If it’s rubbish, then it’s rubbish, but you never know what might come of it. I spent seven summers working for an amazing adventure race company, being paid to travel to several different countries. I got those opportunities after I signed up for a one-day event in Milton Keynes, because my friend promised there’d be hot men there. She was right, too, so it was an all round win 🙂
6. Talk to an international student
Wherever you are studying, chances are there are decent chunk of students from overseas. I’d also take a pretty fair bet that you’ve probably said hello to some of them, but not got around to making much more effort than that. It’s understandable – at university we tend to gravitate towards people who are like us, and where we feel at home. But when we do this, we miss out on opportunities to get to know people who’ve often lived in awesome places and done interesting things. So consider making this the year that you make a conscious effort to have a chat, find things you have in common, and make the kind of friends you’ll be glad you have for life.
7. Be the hair-holder, not the hair-holdee
If you don’t recognise this metaphor, then you probably don’t drink enough to need this resolution! If you do, then you’ll know that the hair holder is the one that’s held it together enough to be able to help out in a crisis; they’re not necessarily sober, and they’re certainly not missing out on a night out, but they aren’t the one with their head in the toilet. They’re also not the one that has to send all the apologetic texts the next morning. Over the years, I’ve been in both positions I’m afraid, but as I got further through uni, I mainly worked out ways to keep it together. I tend to drink from small bottles, because no one can see how much is left in them so you can hang on to it and make it last for ages! I avoid shots at all costs because they get me into too much trouble far too quickly. Having said that, I did have to be taken home by my first ever PhD student because I drank too much at the School welcome drinks… So none of us are perfect….
8. Quit something
Students are always encouraged to take on new activities, to make a contribution, to get involved and so on and so on. I’m not going to argue against that (in fact, I have another post planned about why this is so important), but sometimes your best plan can be to quit something. We all often end up being torn in too many directions, and just feel rushed and stressed and don’t achieve the things we want to. Sometimes it’s better just to simplify a little bit and focus on the things that you really enjoy and where you can really make a difference. I quit gymnastics at the point when I realised that I simply couldn’t give it the time it needed for me to actually improve, and not improving just made me frustrated all the time. I still miss it, but it was the right decision. On the other hand, I didn’t quit a role that I was doing in our student union for the second year – I wasn’t learning anything new, I was doing it because someone needed to and it was *quite* interesting. Looking back, I would have been better to cut that off, and spend the time doing something else. Quitting something frees up time for something more exciting.
9. Change something
You might feel that you don’t have the power to change much at your university, but you’d be surprised. All unis are desperate to be “responsive” to students, which means there are loads of opportunities to share your ideas and make something new happen. Keep an eye on your student email for formal opportunities, or just talk to a member of staff if you’ve got an idea (see resolution 3!) One of my favourite students (Hi Chloe!!) suggested we advertised third year module choices as a Modules Fair, with stalls, rather than the usual lecture, and we’ve been doing it successfully ever since. You’re the ones that know what the student experience is like at the moment, so if you have an idea, tell us and we always try to listen!
10. Tell someone
This is probably the most important resolution of all. Over the years, I’ve seen so many students who are coping with health problems, family issues, relationship difficulties, or simply struggling to feel themselves at university. I’ve seen how much it can really affect your learning and your time with us. So often students are reluctant to tell someone because they think they’re the only one who has this issue, or because they don’t want to make a fuss, or to get any unfair advantage, or because they don’t know who to talk to. If you remember nothing else from this post, I want you to remember this – there is always someone in your department whose job it is to care about this and to make sure you get the support that you need. They might be called a welfare tutor or a senior tutor or pastoral staff but they exist and they are your gateway to support. Have a snoop through your student handbook, or website, or ask your personal tutor, but find out who they are and tell them what’s going on. You won’t be the first, and it really can make a difference to your life. Some of the students that I’m most proud of working with are the ones who have had eating disorders, chronic fatigue, psychiatric issues, or family bereavements; they sought support, and flourished in spite of their challenges. Just tell someone.
So, I hope this has given you some ideas! I’ve tried to make these suggestions things that you can do now while you’re feeling motivated, and that could go on to have a lasting effect on your time as a student. Maybe just pick one or two that seem most important to you, and see how you get on! I’d love to hear from you about your progress! For what it’s worth, my resolution is to post at least 3 articles a month about how to get the most out of your student days – so follow me on Twitter @drvikkiburns if you want to hear when a new post goes up! Until then, happy new year!