Change is good, University tips

How I ended up in top 10% of my year without studying in the evenings

A little while ago I had a very nice surprise – an email from my university saying that I have finished the year in the top 10% of my cohort. I was a little bit surprised, but also very happy with myself. Because, you know, I’m not really a person who spends all days in the library. I’ve neither time nor will to do that.

Can you imagine a nicer email in the middle of the summer?

So today I wanted to tell you how I achieved high grades while working part time, never studying after 7pm (I actually finished closer to 5pm during the revision period) and taking Sundays off. If you think it’s impossible, or that I’m some Einstein-level genius, then you’re wrong. Also, if you’re looking for some no effort, easy fixes, sleep-on-your-textbooks type of advice, I won’t provide that either.

So, how do you make your life easier, happier and less busy?

Planning is king 

I know. Planning is boring, you should be spontaneous while you’re young, blah blah blah. But it’s really the most important thing in achieving success. When Mr Arguably Honest first noticed how overworked I was and suggested I finish studying at 7, I literally laughed in his face, and told him that if I can’t finish by 9, how will I finish by 7? So he sat me down, like a slightly slow kid, and helped me draw up a weekly schedule. He asked me what things I want to do, counted in my work days (and forbid me from doing any studying on those), hobbies I wanted to sustain (like a twice weekly yoga). Turned out that despite counting in long lunch breaks and the 7pm finishes, I could get away with doing 3 days of independent study a week (4 during exams), when before I did 6. If you really sit down and think what you want to do, what you have to do, and decide what things you will only do if you’ve some spare time, you will have a much clearer idea what your week will look like. Then take a piece of paper or use a calendar on your computer (I made a colour-coded iCal weekly schedule for that), and organise everything, giving yourself time to rest and enjoy your hobbies. If you plan well and stay organised, you will soon realise that you’re able to get away with much less studying than you used to do. How? That brings me to the next point, which is…

Maximum focus

Nothing will happen if you don’t check Facebook/Instagram/Twitter for an hour or two. What you’re probably suffering from is FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Or are a serial procrastinator (e.g. if you feel a sudden need to check the price of that dress you saw in New Look last week, then spend 30 minutes browsing their sale). The truth is, Internet isn’t going anywhere, and will still be there, waiting to swallow your time, when you’re finished with your study session. Seriously. I promise. Since setting myself a stiff 7pm finish line, I have learnt to better focus on the task at hand. I try to limit all distractions, put my computer to the side, and forget I own a phone. Switching back to hand written notes and using actual, physical books helps a lot with that. If you’re having trouble ‘switching off’, Mr Arguably Honest has written a great post about it, which actually helped me become much more productive overnight. When you know that after 7pm (or whatever time you set yourself as the ‘finish line’, it can be earlier than that) you will be free to do whatever you enjoy, it suddenly gets much easier to focus and get things done. Set yourself realistic goals on what to achieve in a given day, do that and then… well, the world is your oyster. It’s up to you if you want to volunteer, read books, binge watch House of Cards or start your own business in that free time.

Respect your time 

Whenever you have to do something for university, unless it’s graded, ask yourself “Do I really need to do it? Will it bring me any value?”. I’m not encouraging you to not do your work. But let’s face it, not everything uni throws at us is useful. So unless it’s graded, if it won’t bring you any benefit… just don’t do it and move on to something that will bring you benefit. I did not do a single tutorial exercise in microeconomics until a week before the exam (when I used them as revision exercises), nor did I go to lectures because they were basically a repeat of the textbook, and got an 85 in the exam. If you are studying something that involves doing multiple exercises, such as maths, just do as few or as many as is necessary for you to grasp the concept. If it’s reading in a module you find boring and useless, do a bare minimum and instead spend that time on doing extra reading on your favourite one. However, if you find that you’re disinterested in most of your modules, you might want to rethink the point of studying that very degree (like I did when I ditched Oxford), or talk with people in the year above to ask if they had similar feelings about those modules. It might be that this particular term modules are just bad. Also, if your uni doesn’t really care which tutorials you go to, try making your timetable as convenient for you as possible. Last term I somehow ended up with a total disaster of a timetable, and this year I decided that I refuse to have my time wasted like that and instead… will go to uni just 2 or 3 days a week.

Love your body

Yeah, you can work till you drop. Or you can even finish at 7pm, then go out partying all night/watching movies till late/eating junk food, and you won’t be fresh and ready to achieve maximum focus the following day. I know, that’s what student life is meant to be like but… it doesn’t have to be. There’s nothing wrong with partying and occasional all-nighter movie night. Everything is for people, the thing lies in the dosage. If you do it once a fortnight or once a month, all is well (provided it’s not the night before some big deadline). If you do it 4 times a week, I’m sorry, but you’re not gonna ace your degree, unless you pump yourself full of coffee/drugs/are indeed Einstein-like smart. Your mental capabilities on a given day don’t just depend on your natural abilities. How much you’ve slept, what you’re eating, whether or not you’re exercising regularly, or even if you’re experiencing difficulties (cortisol, the stress hormone, has been shown to inhibit memory), all have impact on how much you’ll be able to perform on a given day. Respecting your body is one of the most important steps in achieving academic success.

I think these four elements: planning, distraction-free working, prioritising and taking care of one’s body are the most important elements in being successful in anything that you do, not just in academia. But at university, surrounded with distractions and countless offers of cheap drinks and free club entries, it’s sometimes easy to forget why you’re on campus in the first place. But I don’t want you to go ‘all work and no fun’ on me right now. In your schedule, put in regular nights with friends or parties, because taking time off and unwinding is as important as eating your greens. You can also be flexible, moving study periods around. I know having a stiff schedule sounds like something that goes totally against the free-spirit nature uni life is supposed to have. But, to be honest, I’ve never been happier or more relaxed than since adopting those four steps.

Try giving them a go and let me know how it goes.

6 thoughts on “How I ended up in top 10% of my year without studying in the evenings”

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