At the end of my first semester of my final year, I found myself sitting in the back of a car after my shift at work ended, on my way to campus, still writing and adding in the final pieces to an assignment that was due in 40 minutes. It was then I realised I’d made many mistakes in the run up to the end of term and I want to save you from ending up like me. People like dissing English degrees and English students, we’re an artsy and easy target but, despite the cheats and the perception of English being a doss, there’s also a lot of work that goes into an English degree. It’s a fun and versatile degree but it’s not going to be a walk in the park (or through a pub crawl).
- Be prepared for the transition from school level English to university level English. English at university level is in another world to the type of English you might be used to studying in secondary school for your leaving cert or A levels. English in university is less about memorising themes, quotes and character traits and learning off essays and more about researching, analysing and critically thinking about what you’re reading. You’re less limited in university and can explore a host of themes and ideas, and it’s one of the things I thrived on. You’ll need to be more open-minded and prepared to think and analyse but by your final year, it should come easy to you.
- Don’t buy all your books. Learn from my mistakes. It took me a year to figure this out so take this advice now. You’re doing an English degree and you’re going to be doing a lot of reading, but you don’t need to buy every single book on your reading list. There’s going to be a lot of novels, short story collections, poetry and drama anthologies your lecturers will want you to have and read but most of the time these don’t come cheap and the truth is that you’re probably not going to be able to read every single thing on your reading lists. Split costs by sharing books with friends, searching second hand book shops, finding free online versions, and making the most of your university’s library. There are plenty of free online and kindle-friendly versions of classic novels, poems can often be found online and I never bought drama anthologies because I could get single versions of the plays in the depths of the library. However, there’s typically limited numbers of books available so trying to get books in the library can seem like a literary Hunger Games; just go as early as you can and, if the copy you want is gone, see if there are other, older editions – they might not be exactly what you want but they’ll be enough to get the job done.
- Get yourself sticky notes. Not wanting to highlight and write in books and ruin their pages, I learnt that sticky notes were my best friends. The edges of my books were always covered with sticky notes but they made revising and writing essays so much easier. Always keep a little stack of sticky notes in your handbag, or book bag, or pockets – hell, stick a sticky note pad onto your forehead for all I care. I made sure I always had a little one with me in case I decided to read on the bus or if I had time to spare between lectures. Rather than having to sit down and make notes in a notebook as I read, I just attached a sticky note onto a page and quickly scribbled a note for myself. You can mark important passages and quotes with sticky notes and it makes skimming the book when it comes to assignment times much easier when you don’t have to flick through every page to find the one you really wanted. You might find yourself overloaded with sticky notes so try to write at least a word on them to remind yourself why they’re there or draw a star on the really important ones.
- Find a workspace that works for you. You’re probably going to be spending a lot of late nights furiously skimming 300 page novels and countless secondary articles, and rooting through piles of paper around you for a specific set of notes, and you’re going to want to be comfortable while you’re doing it. I could never work in a library and distractedly ending up using the wifi to send tweets or, if I went with my friends for a well-intentioned study session, getting no work done because it was more fun to laugh at the latest mishap in pop culture. My workspace was my room, with the ground usually covered in books and papers but I liked being alone while I worked and being at home meant I could get up and walk around more freely if I needed to or work in bed if I was really not up to it.
- Organise your time. I admit this is easier said than done but you’re going to have to do it in some capacity because there’s a lot of reading and writing you need to fit into your weekly schedule. Buy an academic planner or, if you’re feeling like you really want to procrastinate, make one yourself. (You’ll waste time making it but you’ll feel super productive). I used to get one of those giant A2 annual calendar posters, stick it up near my desk, and fill in all my assignment deadlines and other events to keep track of them. The calendar posters helped me to see what was due ahead of time easily, rather than always flipping through pages of a diary to see what was due next. Alternatively, you can set reminders on your phone or leave yourself passive-aggressive notes on your laptop screen – whatever works for you.
- Manage your deadlines. You definitely don’t want to end up in the final week of the term with 4 essays to research and write in 2 days. Typically I found that most of my essays used to end up being due around the same time in two parts of the term: the middle and the end. Know when your deadlines are and know how much time you’ll need to do each essay. There’s a high chance if you’re doing English, you might end up doing the dreaded D-word: dissertation. You don’t want other assignments cutting into your dissertation time in your final month. At the end of my first semester of final year, after finding myself finishing assignments on my laptop in the back of a car on the way to submit them, I knew I couldn’t let myself spiral out of control that badly for the next semester when I knew I’d also have the cloud of my dissertation hanging over me. Coming back for the next semester, I pushed up all the assignments that were clustered around the end of term by a week or two for myself, giving myself completely different deadlines with enough days between them and stuck to it as rigidly as I could. Learning from the horror of the previous semester definitely pushed me to be able to do this so you might have to make your own mistakes to learn for them, but it might save you time if you just learnt from mine. Assignment deadlines can be overwhelming so if you need to ask your lecturers for an extension for whatever reason, make sure you do – most of them are really helpful and accommodating.
- Know when to go to lectures and seminars. I spent my fair share of time in lectures that put me to sleep and awkward seminars in which nothing happened to learn by my final year that I could be clever and selective about my time and still do well. Some lecturers put everything they say onto their slides and others put up pictures and prefer to speak so if you’re thinking of not going to a lecture, see what you’ll get once the slides are put online. You don’t need to go to the lectures at the end of the semester if you’re stuck for time to write your final essays and know you’re not writing on the texts that will be discussed. Go if you want and can but don’t feel guilty if you can’t- you can always ask a friend to share their notes. Attendance marks in seminars and tutorials are easy to get so try and be there for them if you can – you might end up in an awkward seminar where no one talks or end up in one where there’s great discussion and helps you out with your own assignments, but try to go to as many as you can. Hearing other people’s opinions and sharing your own can help you to better understand what you’re reading and writing.
- Be flexible for exams. Look, I don’t know who decided that exams were an appropriate measure of assessment for research and analysis-based English degrees but whatever, you’ll probably have to sit an exam at some point in your degree and you should be ready for it. It might be the lingering effects of secondary school English but I found that a lot of people used to write and learn off essays for English exams – if that works for you, you do you – but it didn’t really work for me. The most useful skills you’ve gained in English are the ability to critically think, write and, no doubt, the ability to spin straw into literary gold, and you should use them. Be flexible, see what the essay questions on the exam want and make sure you know how to fit what you’ve learnt and know to what they ask of you. You don’t want to just write down what you’ve learnt off by heart and not tailor it to the question.
- Write for the student newspaper. My one regret from my time studying English is not signing up to write for the student newspaper. You probably don’t want more writing deadlines added to your already long list but, if you want to put your English skills to use and if you particularly want to a career in writing, journalism, editing or publishing, this will be a great thing to have under your belt. Join the English society in your university, try tutoring English to school kids, go to events and talks – there’s usually a lot going on and you should try to involve yourself as much as possible.
My English degree was often stressful but also one of the best times of my life – I met a lot of great people, I got to read and write on texts and topics I loved, my campus was fun and friendly and I grew up a lot. Make sure you make time to go out with friends or meet up with them for coffee and chats between trying to read 4 novels in one week and incorporating complex Freudian theories into the essays you write. And if someone questions your degree choice, throw your giant Chaucer book at them.