Learning from essay feedback and experience

While you’re on the come-down from your essay deadline induced stress and euphoria, take some time to think about your experience of completing that piece of work and what you can learn from it. Did the research take longer than you expected? Could any of the stages be made more efficient by investing in an app or other piece of useful technology? Do you need to find a new way of working to help you focus?

Also take a look at how much time you allocated for research, planning, writing and editing. Did it feel about right? Or do you need to adjust what you do next time?

Hopefully, you won’t have to wait more than a few weeks to get our marked essay back. When you do, take plenty of time to carefully read through the feedback. If there are negative comments, don’t take them personally. The marker isn’t finding fault for the sake of it – they want you to learn and do better next time. If you disagree with a comment, don’t immediately dismiss it; the person marking your work has read hundreds – if not thousands – of essays and is an expert in their field. Try and take the feedback on board for next time – especially if you know this person will mark your work again – they will mark you down for the same reasons next time! If you don’t understand any aspects of the feedback, ask the person who wrote it to clarify. Keep a record of your feedback so you can spot reoccurring problems and get support if you need it.

Feel free to compare your work with your classmates, but don’t get hung up on who scored what. If a particular person gives everyone low grades, don’t be tempted to dismiss every comment as unfair – there will be a lot you can learn in these cases!

Don’t panic if you didn’t get the mark you were hoping for. Each piece of work will only count towards a tiny proportion of your final grade, so as long as you are always improving, you’ll be fine. Take advantage of any academic and pastoral support that is available to you if you feel you need it. Remember: if university was easy, everyone would write their final thesis in their first semester and graduate at Christmas!

You might instead find yourself in the happy position that you’ve passed the assignment with flying colours and there wasn’t a single negative comment on the whole paper. This can be a surprisingly frustrating situation, because in all likelihood you’ve been docked some marks somewhere but have no idea why. Go and chat to your lecturer and make it clear that you’re aiming for the stratosphere and you want some constructive feedback to help you get there.

If you find the prospect of feedback daunting, try to think about it from the opposite perspective: when you go off into the world of work, in all likelihood, you won’t get the opportunity to get this level of regular constructive feedback on your work from an expert ever again. A lot of employers will only tell you when you get something wrong, and very few will give you the praise you deserve when you smash it out of the park. This means you’ll have to learn to assess your own progress – so make the most of feedback while it’s there!

What’s the best piece of feedback you’ve received on your work? Let me know in the comments!

What to ask yourself when picking an essay question

When it’s time for assessment, some lecturers will provide one essay title or question. The reason for this is usually that the topic is so fundamental to the understanding of your discipline, that everyone needs to cover it in detail. On other occasions however, you will be given a selection of potential topics to choose from. How do you know what is the best one to go for? Ask yourself these questions!

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Is the question too broad or specific?

Have a look at each question and think about what they are really asking you. Broader questions that ask for a general overview rather than a discussion of a particular argument can actually be quite hard to answer, because so much information is available it is hard to narrow it down and make it into a compelling piece of writing. On the other hand, if the subject is too specific you might struggle to find enough information that will actually help you to meet the word count!

Has the topic been covered in class yet?

This might seem like a no-brainer, but if some of the topics have already been covered in class, you have a head start on these. You’ve already got a basic understanding of a topic, its themes and standpoints. You probably also have a recommended further reading list, and if you’re a particularly diligent student you also did some preparation reading ahead of the lecture! There’s no reason why you shouldn’t pick questions like these – you will still have to do plenty of extra reading on the topic to get a good mark, but a lot of the groundwork is already done for you in finding the key references.

Is this an opportunity to learn about something completely new?

On the flip side, you might see a question that is a bit left-field, or if you look ahead at your lecture topics, it’s not going to come up. This is an opportunity to discover something about your subject that is perhaps a bit niche or controversial. If this question takes your fancy, only go ahead with it if you know you are the right sort of student for this challenge. This is a real piece of independent learning, so you need to start early, find all the key research and make sure that you really understand the topic. If it’s particularly tricky it might involve a visit or email to your lecturer to clarify a few things. If the deadline is looming or you’re struggling to keep up with your workload, this probably isn’t for you.

Are there resources available?

woman in library
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Most resources are available online now, and COVID-19 has forced most students to get by without being able to access the library. If your module is well-established, your library should be equipped to help you answer the question. You should have access to the key journal articles online, and there should be plenty of books covering the subject on the shelves. However, if you are studying a new development, there might not be many books or articles around for you to research, particularly if they are behind a paywall that your university doesn’t subscribe to. If after about half an hour of searching online you can’t find much information, it’s not too late to pick another topic. Another thing to consider is that if there is a question that is very general to the topic, a lot of people will be tempted to go with it and all the books might be gone by the time you get to the library.

Is it your lecturer’s area of expertise?

scientist in lab
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In a research-led university, the idea is that lecturers are also active researchers and you get the benefit of learning about something directly from the experts who developed the ideas. If you see your lecturer’s name cropping up a few times in the reading list, that’s an indicator that they are right at the forefront of this area. The benefits of this is that if you get stuck you have access to the best person on the planet you answer your question! The disadvantage is that if you miss out something important, or misunderstand a fundamental concept, this is going to get noticed straight away. Writing about your lecturer’s niche is a bit intimidating, but can be very rewarding. Just make sure you put extra care into your work and your lecturer will hopefully be pleased that someone has taken the time to really understand their research!

Is it interesting?

This factor should not be missed out when picking an essay question! If you are going to spend hours researching and writing about a topic, it will be a much easier job if you find the subject matter interesting, and you’ll probably do a better job of it too.

If you’re still torn, it’s time to have a chat with your lecturer – you definitely want to do this sooner rather than later. Go with some ideas about how you might approach the question and you should come out with a strong plan of action!

How to find your focus

Writing is hard. Unless your deadline is in less than an hour. Then writing can become strangely easier – if not considerably more stressful! Under the right conditions, we can find ourselves in what psychologists call a state of ‘flow’. This is something that we have all experienced at one time or another. You’ll have been there a hundred times before without realising it. You know that feeling when you’re so immersed in something that the time flies by, you are energised and hell bent on whatever you are doing and totally indistractable? That’s a state of flow.

Experts say that to get into flow, you need to have a task that you enjoy that isn’t too hard, but isn’t too easy either. The trouble is, you will often find yourself set pieces of work to complete that you don’t find particularly interesting and are the last thing that you want to spend your time doing! However, there are some other variables that you can play around with to make the process a lot less painful.

But first, let me tell you about Pavlovian conditioning. In this famous accidental discovery, Pavlov was researching dog saliva. He would feed his dogs on meat power (sounds delicious…) and measure their saliva through small tubes in their mouths. Initially, they would produce saliva when they were eating. But, the dogs soon began to associate Pavlov’s approaching footsteps with food, and would begin to salivate when they heard it. Pavlov was so fascinated by this discovery that he changed his entire research focus for the rest of his career. He could make dogs salivate to pretty much any stimulus, most famously a bell.

The reason that I’m telling you this is that I believe that you can condition yourself into finding your flow state. While you might have little to no control over the work you are set, you can control other factors like your environment and the time of day that you work. What you can then do is consistently put yourself in this environment and commit to working without distraction. You will then find that over time, in this setting finding your flow state will become much easier and you will get better work done in less time.

One of the key things that you can control is noise. And I think it’s important that you play around with this one, because most people assume that absolute silence is best for them, but that’s probably just because that’s what was encouraged at school. Here are some other options:


Taste in music is very personal, but there are other factors to consider when choosing music to work to. The key here is that you are trying to condition yourself, so you need to be listening to the same music each time. So you need to choose carefully!

First you need to figure out what type of music suits your flow state best – and it is better to choose something that isn’t what you usually listen to. This is because you would be likely to hear this music when you are doing other activities, and you want to find music that you will only associate with a deep state of working. Test out listening to music with lyrics (which help some people but distract others) and instrumental tracks. Try something with a heavy beat and then something more fluid. Try jazz. Try classical. It doesn’t matter how cool you think the music is – you are going to be listening to it on your headphones and no one will be judging you!

One interesting genre of music is computer game music, particularly music written for games like The Sims. The purpose of this music is precisely to get you into a flow state! That’s because the game designers want you to be totally immersed in the experience and playing for hours at a time! There are YouTube videos containing hours of Sims music – give it a go and see if it works for you.

Once you have found music that helps to you to focus, keep it easily available and only listen to it when you want to be in that state. I would suggest even always listening to the same tracks in the same order. I get into my flow state by listening to The XX’s self-titled debut album. The band has a minimalist style and the singers have a lazy and understated sort of singing that doesn’t distract me. By the time I have worked through the first track, I am in a state of flow.

Background noise

If music isn’t doing it for you, try out background noise. This could mean working in the group study area of your library, or finding a corner of your local coffee shop. However, you can’t guarantee that the noise is going to be the right sort of noise for you, and that there won’t be someone really irritating in your vicinity. What you can do instead, is use an app like Coffivity that plays the noise of a coffee shop without actually being in one! This is great because you get the sound of lots of conversations without actually being able to hear exactly what anyone is saying.

There are other sounds that you might find interesting to experiment with. For example, you could try listening to white noise, which will block other noises around you. Alternatively, you could try long tracks of nature-inspired noises, such as rainfall, distant thunder, whale song or running water. These are available on YouTube, or I have found some excellent examples on the app Calm.


After trying all of these sounds, you might decide that after all, silence is best for you. But how can you achieve this in noisy student halls? First of all, you could buy yourself a good set of noise cancelling headphones and see if they block out what you don’t want to hear. Alternatively, you could head out to your library and find the silent working section. If you’re still struggling then consider having an early night and setting an equally early alarm – if all of your flatmates don’t get up until at least mid-morning, you could get a good few hours of work done in total silence before they wake up! Another benefit of this is that you can get your work out of the way and then relax and enjoy yourself later in the day.


Time of day of working is something that everyone should consider. We all have slightly different circadian rhythms, with some people waking up easily with the dawn and others being really quite perky after midnight. Pay attention to your energy levels and focus throughout the day, and try to consistently work at the time that suits you best, and avoid working when you are at your most drowsy.

Bringing it all together

Now that you have found your ideal working conditions, organise yourself so that you can create them when you need to. Have apps or playlists downloaded to your phone, keep a pair of headphones on you and have your favourite snacks on hand to keep you going!

Remember that you don’t have to create the perfect environment to get work done, but by making a few simple changes you can make any environment more suited you your needs and preferences. Allow yourself some time to settle into a flow state and try not to get frustrated if it doesn’t seem to be working – it’ll probably come when you stop stressing about it!

Working in a focussed way is an important skill that fewer and fewer people have in the smartphone era. Whenever you try to work with focus you are honing a valuable skill that will serve you for the rest of your life and set you apart from your peers. Who knows what you could do with it!

Which of these tips do you fancy trying? Tell us in the comments below!

How to change your outlook on university

Are you feeling disillusioned with your degree? Maybe the grades you’ve received weren’t as high as you’d expected. Or, perhaps you’re struggling to settle in and miss your school friends.

Most of students have doubts from time to time.

It’s totally normal to feel like this. It can seem like everyone else is living their best life, but there are bound to be times when they’re not.

I’m lucky enough to have met a Paralympic swimmer, and she told me about how she overcame enormous anxiety and self-doubt to compete at her best on an international stage. Her sports psychologist told her to write down every negative thing she thought in a day down one side of a sheet of paper. Then, at the end of the day, she had to write down the opposite statement to each thought on the other side of the paper. I imagine it looked something like this:

I’m not good enough.I am good enough to compete at the highest level.
I’ll never be ready for the Paralympics.If I follow my training, I will be at my best for the competition.
I don’t belong here.I am here because experts have seen and believe in my ability.

When she started doing this exercise, she could fill at least a page a day. As time went on, the number of negative thoughts started to decrease. She told me that nowadays, when she catches herself thinking negatively or putting herself down, she automatically thinks of the opposite, positive statement. The take-home message for me from this conversation was this if you tell yourself the opposite of what your negative thoughts are, even if you don’t believe them at first, over time you can change your outlook.

So, lets have a look at students’ common negative thoughts and see what the opposite point of view is.

I’m not clever enough to be here

Ah, imposter syndrome. Everyone experiences it at some point, but no one ever talks about it! Feeling that we don’t belong because of perceived shortcomings in our abilities is so common. Imposter syndrome is something that never leaves us, even if we prove our worth to ourselves by progressing! I’ve spoken to so many people about this. People who I think are brilliant – cutting-edge scientists, bosses I look up to and people tipped to be the next big thing. They’ve all told me about feeling like they’re constantly winging it and sooner or later they’re going to get found out!

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Feeling like an imposter has a lot to do with being out of your comfort zone, and not being able to tell that everyone else feels the same way. Imagine if you found your entire degree easy and never had to push yourself – would you feel like it was worth it at the end? Would you put that graduate’s cap on with a sense of pride? Probably not.

I’m not clever enough to be here.I was selected from a competitive process to be here. I’m here because I’ve got the ability to overcome these challenges.

My writing isn’t good enough

This is another totally normal feeling to have. The brilliant author William Zinsser explains this in his book On Writing Well:

“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find writing hard, it’s because it is hard.”

Zinsser isn’t some strange case; so many famous and successful writers find writing a difficult – even painful – process. So why should the rest of us feel any different?

If you’re doing a degree then it’s likely that you’re going to end up in a job that involves writing to some extent. If you’re worried about feedback that you’re getting from your tutors, then university is a perfect opportunity to get better!

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Once you start working, no one is going to tell you that your writing is bad (or good, for that matter), which makes it really hard to improve. At university, you will have a regular critique from someone who wants to help you, and there is plenty of support available. Many universities offer extra tuition on study skills, including writing, and some even have people available to read drafts of your essays and give you feedback before you hand them in! And that’s before we get to all the books and online resources available to you from the library. If you have genuine concerns about your writing, now is the best time to do something about it.

My writing isn’t good enough.My writing isn’t as bad as I think it is, but I am going to use all the resources available to me to get better and improve my confidence.

My grades are too low

Much like writing, if your overall grades aren’t what you’d hoped, there are lots of opportunities to get specific support and guidance to help you improve. It is okay to find things challenging and make mistakes. You will learn more through making mistakes and learning how to correct them than getting things right first time! Problem solving is an important skill to take into the world of work and you will need to learn to do this independently. Try and not think about university as being in competition with other people – compete against yourself and see how much you can improve!

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My grades are too low.As long as I have tried my best then that is enough. I will carry on working hard and getting support so I can improve.  

I miss home

Moving away to university is a huge step. If you’re missing the comforts of home and your old school friends, then there are positive aspects to this! If you’re feeling homesick it means that you come from a close and loving family – remember that they are only a phone call away and will be there for you. If you just want to go home and hang out with your school friends, this shows that you’re capable of building strong and meaningful friendships – which means that you can do it again! As you move around locations and jobs as you go through life, you’ll be making lots of new friends as you go along. While you should cherish the childhood friendships that mean a lot to you, don’t let them hold you back from meeting new people and enriching your life.

I miss home.I have already built a lot of meaningful relationships, and those people will be there for me when I need them. I can make new friends wherever I go in life.

Nobody likes me

Even Donald Trump has friends.

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Universities are huge. You will get thrown in with a few people at the start, through your course and accommodation, and the chances of you finding a friend for life in those random allocations are pretty slim. But the chances of there being no one you can relate to or get on with on a campus of thousands are equally slim! If you feel like the people around you just don’t get you, find the people who do. Put yourself out there, join clubs and societies to help you find like-minded people. Put your phone down and talk to someone – you never know where it might lead!

Nobody likes me.This university is full of a diverse group of people, and there are bound to be my kind of people among them.

I can’t cope with all the pressure

The most rewarding things in life are usually also the most difficult. It is going through these challenging times that teaches us who we really are and what we are capable of achieving. You don’t have to go through this alone. Talk to your peers about how they feel – they’re probably experiencing something similar to you. If it is all getting too much – seek out the pastoral support that is on offer at your university – recognising when you need help is a strength, not a weakness. Take stock of what you have achieved so far in life – you have spent years in a pressured education system (or adulting, if you’re a mature student) – and there have bound to have been times in the past when you felt like this. But you came through it!

I can’t cope with all this pressure.You are more resilient than you realise. With hard work and the right support, you can achieve anything you set your mind to.

What are the negative thoughts that you need to counter in your day to day life? Comment below and tell us what the opposite positive statements are!

6 ways to redecorate your student room (and keep your deposit)

Brown Bear Plush Toy on White Bed Comforter Inside Lighted Bedroom
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Whether you’re in campus student halls, or have signed up for a private let with your mates, the same thing is true:

Student accommodation is DRAB. Magnolia reigns supreme. Carpets are so thin they feel like concrete.

Of course, not all student accommodation is made equal. You might be lucky enough to be living in something quite new, with an en-suite and nice shared living area. Even though this is possible on campus, if you decide to move into a private rental, things will probably go a bit more, shall we say, authentic?

My first year halls were pretty grim. I shared a first floor flat with five other people, none of whom cleaned. It was built in the 1960s and had received precisely zero upgrades in the intervening 40 years. We were lucky in that our rooms were all carpeted (downstairs had lino), but unlucky in that we didn’t have a shower. We shared an avocado green bathtub. It was gross. One of the boys tried to hook up the taps to a rudimentary shower head, but it didn’t combine the hot and cold water particularly well, so a bath was safer if you wanted your skin to be intact.

My bedroom looked out onto thick woods, so I needed to have my light on all the time. The walls were magnolia, the carpet was green. There was a black desk chair and a brown comfy chair that wasn’t particularly comfortable. There were a couple of shelves, a bedside table and a wardrobe.

I spent my second and third years in a private rental that wasn’t too bad. It had been a family home beforehand so the décor wasn’t too bad, and the carpets were fluffy. There was a problem with mould and the bathroom door didn’t shut properly, so it wasn’t without its challenges! I now also know how to deal with a blocked sewer pipe, so it came with a whole host of useful life lessons.

Finding your own style

My childhood bedroom was last redecorated when I was about 12 or 13. I made some questionable choices that I now have to live with every time I go and visit my dad (in short, lilac flowery wallpaper). But it doesn’t matter so much, because my house is decorated just how I like it and is very special to me. I started to develop my own style properly in my second year at uni. I went along to the poster sale that was held every year, and instead of getting the really tacky, massive posters, I picked up a few small art prints by the Japanese artist Hokusai.

(NOTE! I have been studying/working at the same university for 13 years. Every year, a company turn up for a few days selling posters. Then, about six weeks later, with all the exact same stock, but it’s all half price. Every year without fail!)

I loved my (half price) prints, and with a new, more minimalist approach, I managed to create a bedroom that really felt like it was mine, even though it was in a temporary rental. Today, a big print of one of those paintings hands above my fireplace and the whole décor is coordinated around it. So, being at university is a great opportunity to break away from the teenage version of yourself, and find out what a more sophisticated, adult version of you likes. It’s a lot of fun, and can be done so cheaply these days. While mementos are really important to all but the most severe of minimalists, you shouldn’t completely surround yourself with them, because it will stop you from trying new things.

So, you want to make your room look a little less like you’ve landed on the set of Orange Is The New Black. But, you don’t want to do anything that will risk you losing your hefty deposit. What can you do?

1. Cover those walls

3M Command Picture Frame Photo Poster Canvas Hanging Adhesive Strips - Large

A really quick way to make those bare walls seem a bit more homely is to cover them up with something of your own choosing. However, putting something on the wall risks damaging the paintwork and you getting fined for it a year or so later!

Many renters swear by Command Strips, but make sure that you test one in an inconspicuous area first. These make it possible to hang things on the wall without hammering in a nail. This is good news because even using Blu-Tac to stick up pictures can actually damage the paint. You might also want to stick up things that can’t be stuck to Blu-Tac, and putting pictures in a plain cheap frame (hello IKEA Ribba!) can make them look much fancier and keeps them in much better condition. This comes back to finding your own style. Stuff in frames looks grown up, stuff stuck straight to the wall looks like a teenager’s bedroom. Fact.

2. Bring some things from home

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If you’re worried about being homesick, then bringing some items from your bedroom at home can help you to feel settled in. Bear in mind that you don’t want to be unnecessarily carting everything back every time you visit home, so leave a larger items behind. Print some photos of friends, family, pets and favourite places and put them onto a cheap pin board. Make sure you leave plenty of space for all the new ones you’re going to want to add though!

4. Colour and pattern

Bringing pops of colour into your room is the most important thing you can do. Your room is in all likelihood going to be bland beyond belief. I’ve seen quite a few dorms that have breeze block walls painted in brilliant white. But there is a lot of opportunity to bring colour into your room. When you’re initially picking out things like bedding, you might play it safe with neutrals because they ‘go with everything’. The truth is, neutrals only go well with similar neutrals, and making them work together without looking like some uncared-for staff room is actually quite tricky. Be bold, and go with colour.

You are free to just go wild and pick things up as you like them, but if you would like to try a more coordinated approach then try one of these rules:

Monochromatic – choose everything in the same colour, but make it interesting by using different tones. This one might sound like the easiest but it’s actually the hardest to do in a way that doesn’t look boring!

Analogous – if you look at a 12-spoke colour wheel and pick three colours next to each other, you will have yourself an analogous colour scheme!

Complimentary – these are colours that appear opposite each other on the colour wheel. It’s a good idea to aim for using 80% of one colour then 20% of the other as an accent.

Triadic – this is where you take three colours from the colour wheel that are evenly spaced apart. A tricky one to get right!

3. Bedding

Available from Amazon

Pick a couple of sets of nice cheerful patterned bedding. There’s a good chance that your bed will end up getting used as a sofa by your mates, so something that will be forgiving to minor stains will keep it looking better for longer. Make sure you wash it before you go! New bedding, especially if it’s from a budget range is really scratchy, so get plenty of fabric conditioner in the washing machine to make it soft and cosy. Make sure you buy a decent pillow that suits your sleeping position. Also get a mattress protector, and if the mattress that is there when you move in is totally ruined, think about buying a cheap replacement. You can’t put a price on a good night’s sleep!

I had a double bed in my second and third years, and decided when I went out bedding shopping that I was going to invest some really nice bed linen that was going to last me. I still have the bedding I bought on the go many years later, albeit as the set for my spare bedroom. But it’s good quality and is standing the test of time, so was obviously a sound investment! I actually broke the rule above and bought white bedding, but I also had a huge colourful throw that made the whole setup look really grown up. Said throw is still on the go in my living room and gets used pretty much every day of my life!

6. Cushions

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One of my housemates brought around two dozen bright (mainly shocking pink) cushions with her when she moved in. They were tacky as hell, but it turned out to be a genius move. We didn’t have anywhere comfortable to sit in the whole flat, so every day, her bed turned into the household sofa. We’d all huddle round her small (pink) TV and watch Friends every day. This was back in 2006 when Netflix and BBC iPlayer were a long way off and a double bill of Friends was still a daily TV staple. Things have moved on a very long way since then!

The point is, pick up a few cushions in a style you like, and colours that complement the other things you have bought, and it will make your room look and feel a lot more comfortable. There is a huge range of cheap cushions out there to suit every taste, and you don’t have to worry about what anyone except you likes! Cheap cushions tend to have pretty limp fillers, but if you have a cover that you really like, you can always replace it with a better one later.

4. Lighting

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My first student bedroom had a big strip light on the ceiling (nice) and a lamp on the desk. I bought an extra lamp for the bedside table (in cream which was a mistake – shoulda picked a colour) and that was all I needed. My housemate with all the cushions also had a string of fairly lights that totally transformed the room and made it feel like a violently pink cocoon, so I would definitely recommend getting some of those if you like the style of them. Another option is LED strip lights that you could put under shelves to give out ambient light. There are a lot of faux neon lights around too that you could hang on a command strip.

Available from Amazon

5. Rugs

Available from Amazon

You won’t get any choice over your room flooring, but you can certainly get a cheap rug to cover it if it’s bloody awful. You could get a small one that just covers the available space, or if you’re feeling particularly flash you could try and cover as much of the room as you can like a carpet. Make sure you can still open and close the door though! Choose carefully and you could end up with something that you take with you to every place you live in, and it instantly makes anywhere feel like it’s yours.

6. Themes

If you go into any homeware shop you’ll find items relating to fashionable themes. Tropical décor is really popular at the moment, whether it comes in the form of a gold pineapple ornament, flamingo cushion covers or crockery with palm leaves painted on to them. Picking a theme and running it is an easy way to get a coherent look, and you should be able to find cheap items at shops like Wilko and The Range. However – trends disappear as quickly as they arrive. Be careful about investing too much money in something that will seem like a cliché in a few years’ time.

Turned on Flat Screen Led Television
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Which of these tips are you excited to give a go? Or have you already tried some of them? Let me know in the comments!

Think before you start

If you’ve been given an unfamiliar task to do, give yourself time to think before you get started. If you just jump straight in, you’ll probably soon find that as you start to realise what the task is about that you’ve gone about it in the wrong way. Let me give you an example.

When I was doing A Level English Language, we had a module called Editorial Writing. It had a strange exam. A week beforehand, we were given two big fat booklets containing real material from a variety of sources on a particular topic, like tattoos, Glastonbury music festival or the legend of King Arthur. There would be magazine articles, leaflets, interview transcripts, all covering the same topic from totally different angles.

Our teacher warned us that lots of people would fail on the first attempt in January and would have to re-sit in the summer. He wasn’t wrong! Nearly everyone in the class re-sat, and I was one of them. This is how it went down…

We would have a week to get to know the content of the two booklets. Then on exam day, we would be given several options of a completely new format and audience to write for, using the text provided as a resource. It’s an exam that people really struggled with, because if they hadn’t also done a lot of research about how to adapt your style for different audiences and formats, they totally missed the mark.

The other reason that people struggled was that they didn’t prepare the materials effectively so they could find information easily during the exam. We’d get the booklets and everyone else would pull out a highlighter. Second time around, I had a plan…

I asked one person what she was highlighting, and she told me ‘the important information’ as if it was obvious. But how can you know what the important information is before you’ve been told the question? I took a completely different tack. Next to each paragraph I wrote a very short summary in the margin so that I could quickly glance through the text and find the information I was looking for. Once I’d gone through the whole book and got a good feel for the recurring themes and arguments, I took the staples out of the book and grouped the articles by theme. Then I wrote myself a new contents page with details on the key points in each article and the kind of information it contained.

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

On exam day, I opened the question paper and read something along the lines of,

BBC Radio 3 [a classical music station] is broadcasting the premiere of a new opera, Arthur and Guinevere. Write the script for a programme that will play in the interval that will discuss whether or not King Arthur was a real person.

That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in an exam. It was the last A Level exam I did, my pen leaked all over my hands, and I got 100% for it.

Have you ever started a task again because you realised you hadn’t planned it properly? Tell me about it in the comments below!

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Why academic writing is the Oscars, not the Met Gala

Left: © Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue
Right: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Take a look at Saoirse Ronan in these two photos. On the left, she’s attending the 2019 Met Gala, and on the right the 2018 Oscars ceremony. Two red carpet events, yet two totally different looks (for the record, I love both!).

The Met Gala is a highlight of the fashion calendar. The world’s hottest models, actors and musicians gather to raise funds for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York. The event also opens the Institute’s annual fashion exhibit, which has a different theme each year (2019’s was Camp: Notes on Fashion). The guests are expected to wear a creative and unique outfit that fits into the theme, and they do this with varying degrees of success. Saoirse looks totally epic in the Gucci gown, with massive dragon shoulders and sequined chevrons.

Compare this with the pink Calvin Klein gown on the right. It has much simpler lines, and the decoration is on the back, with an oversized bow and train. In 2018 she was nominated for the Best Actress in a Leading Role category for her performance in Ladybird. Nominees know that if they win, the photos will be used again and again for years to come, so they wear the most elegant and timeless pieces. In the end, she didn’t win – the award went to Frances McDormand for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – but I’m sure her time will come around seeing as she has three Oscar nominations under her belt already.

Even though these are both red carpet events, one calls for the outlandish and innovative, while the other is rooted in elegance and sophistication. When you write your next essay, channel your inner Oscar winner. Be simple and understated, and don’t bury your best arguments by endlessly embellishing your writing with unnecessary words and never-ending sentences.

This packaging copy was so badly written it became a meme.

There is no single definition of academic writing, as there are variations between disciplines and different forms of academic writing for different purposes. For an undergraduate essay, I would suggest this:

Good academic writing provides clearly written arguments for and counterarguments against an idea, and provides reputable and referenced evidence to back up these claims.

Don’t get weighed down by the whole history of academia when you sit down to write. All you need to do is get your ideas across in a clear and simple manner. You don’t need to write like Shakespeare to get high marks – in fact if you did, it would probably go against you! Don’t add in flowery phrases and unnecessary words to bump yourself up to the word count. Go and do some more research – more facts mean more marks!

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Why you need to plan your time

When I was little, we used to listen to an audiobook on tape in the car called Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers. It was based on a 1990s sitcom set in space three million years into the future. One of the characters was a self-important caretaker called Arnold Judas Rimmer, who repeatedly tried and failed to pass the engineers exam. It went like this:

“The first week of study, he would always devote to the construction of a revision timetable. Weeks of patient effort would be spent planning, designing and creating revision schedule which, when finished, were minor works of art.

The only problem was this: because the timetables often took seven or eight weeks, and sometimes more, to complete, by the time Rimmer had finished them the exam was almost upon him”

Grant Naylor

They say that failure to plan is planning to fail. But for goodness’ sake, don’t do this either.

Smeg-Head-in-Chief Arnold J. Rimmer. Don’t be this guy. Image from Good Characters.

Planning a whole semester shouldn’t take much more than half an hour, and your plan should be flexible enough to incorporate some changes along the way. If you are a spontaneous sort of person, sitting down to plan the next few months of your life might sound like the last thing you want to do – you might even find it daunting. However, there are lots of good reasons why you should give it a go.

Without a good plan, you will have no idea of what you should be spending your time on from one day to the next. You’ll go back and forth to lectures, spend the odd hour in the library and devote countless hours to Netflix (watching Red Dwarf, if you have impeccable taste). When essay titles get handed out, the deadlines might seem just that bit too far away to start on immediately, so they’ll get pushed to the back of your mind, ready to be picked up again at some miraculously productive day in the future.

What lengths will to go to, to avoid getting some work done?

Procrastination is actually a form of self-sabotage. If you lack confidence, it is your most powerful weapon. If you wait until the last possible minute to start, pulling an all-nighter wired on caffeine tablets, you have a ready-made excuse. When you get your mark back, you might be pleasantly surprised. But if it’s not what you hoped for, you can console yourself with a thought like, ‘well, of course it’s not good, I did it in five hours’. Bizarrely, this can seem preferable to actually trying your best and finding out what the best mark you are capable of is.

Planning your time is a hugely important factor in success at university. Without it, you will spend more time on the pieces of work that you enjoy the most, rather than spreading your time more evenly, or dedicating more to what you find harder. It can be tempting to think that because each piece of work only contributes a tiny proportion to your final mark, that if you let a few assignments slip in standard then it won’t matter on the grand scheme of things. But you don’t want to find yourself with one semester to go trying to play catch up because you’re at the top end of a grade and want to push yourself into the next one.

Find the balance between getting your work done and enjoying yourself. Sitting on high walls optional.

Time can just run away from you, once you factor in lectures, socialising, societies, sports, visiting family and just generally enjoying yourself. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be doing all of these things – you’re paying a fortune to be a university so make damn sure that you have a good time! The benefit of planning is that you can factor in all of these things so that you can do them without that nagging feeling that you should be sat at a desk. One of the most exhausting things about university is that your time is never your own. While people with day jobs can clock out and go home to unwind, for students the opportunity to work follows you everywhere.

Being in control of your time is a powerful way to fight stress. If you know you are up to date with your work and on schedule to meet your deadlines, then you know when you have time to take a break. Whether it’s for a couple of hours or a whole day, time to really switch off is the equivalent of sending your brain on a spa break. It needs time to do absolutely nothing.

Freshers flu: it’s a matter of when you get it, not if. PS congratulations if your halls look like this!

Planning ahead also has the benefit of giving you back control when the unexpected happens. Colds and flu will run rife around campus, but few universities will grant deadline extensions for minor illnesses. If you’re on schedule and a cold strikes, you won’t have quite so much to battle through to get your work finished. When you find a particular piece of work difficult, you will have plenty of time to go and talk to your lecturer. Don’t be one of the hoards who turn up the day before the deadline saying that they don’t understand the question. You can also avoid needless last-minute panics like not having enough ink in your printer.

So, as you can see, there are plenty of reasons why you should plan ahead. Not sure how to go about it? Sign up to be the first to read new posts and I will be covering it in detail soon!

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Top 10 buys that will help you to study

Stationary in a briefcase

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

So you’re heading to university!  If you’re straight out of college or high school, you’re probably heading towards the most significant change you’ve experienced in your life so far and are careering between nervous and excited on a minute-to-minute basis. If you’re a mature student, you might be wondering how on earth you are going to fit this study in when you already seem so busy all the time, and you’ll be thinking that things have probably moved on a step or two since you were last hitting the books.

Here is a quick guide to what can really come in handy to help you with your studies. Prices are correct at time of publish. If you’re really interested in some of the more expensive items but put off by the cost, think about buying it with a housemate and sharing it.

1. Notebook

In my first year I had a notebook for each module I was taking, but this became a bit of hassle to make sure I had the right one and I never filled any of them with my small handwriting anyway. If you’re not planning on taking a laptop or tablet to lectures, buy one spiral bound, chunky notebook that last the year. Make sure it has good quality paper so your ink doesn’t bleed through.

Oxford notebook
Oxford notebook: £5.88 from Amazon

2. Laptop

“Don’t pay full price for a Microsoft Office package – get in touch with your university library and ask them if they offer a discount rate.”

Relying on there being a spare computer in the library is not much fun, and you’ll definitely want to be able to work from your room, in your pyjamas for most of the time. If you don’t already have a laptop, you will certainly be able to find a good deal in the run up to the start of term – the tech companies have cottoned on to students’ needs. At other times of the year you will definitely be able to find a good student discount on in high street shops. Don’t pay full price for a Microsoft Office package – get in touch with your university library and ask them if they offer a heavily discounted rate (I paid £12).

3. Extra computer screen

Photo by XXSS IS BACK from Pexels

There’s nothing quite like working with multiple screens to make you feel like a total badass. But once you’ve started doing it, you’ll wonder how you ever coped with just one. Being able to look at two documents at the same time is a lifesaver when you’re writing an essay, especially if you are using the method in my soon to be published book! You can even turn a screen round 90 degrees so that it’s the same proportions as a piece of paper so you don’t have to scroll around as much. Don’t fall into the trap of having social media on hand to distract you though! Not when there’s a deadline looming anyway.

If you’re keen on this but it seems like an expensive thing to splash out on, remember that you don’t need it to be large or flashy, and second hand is a great option here as long as it has the right sockets to connect it to your laptop or desktop.

4. Digital Highlighter

Available for £95 from Amazon

I did my MA part-time while I had a full-time job. This is without question the best thing that I bought. I honestly don’t know how I would have got all the work done and kept my sanity without it! A digital highlighter allows you to scan text from a book and instantly convert it into editable text in Microsoft Word. You can gather notes in an absolute fraction of the time compared to manually typing them up and I can assure you that you don’t even need to be sober while you’re doing it. This might seem expensive, but I promise you, it’s worth missing out on a couple of nights out for.

5. Stationery

Available for £2.99 from Amazon

It’s a dangerous world for anyone who loves stationery. Go wild if you must, but if you couldn’t care less about organising anything, do consider some page markers. When you go to the library to gather research for an essay, you’re going to come out with a bag for life full of books that you need to extract the relevant information from. You’ll need to go through the contents and index to find out what pages you actually need to read, because you certainly won’t have time to read each book cover to cover! Mark each section that you need to read with a little post it. Easy.

6. A pencil

Available for 20p from Amazon

As you read through your books you need to mark the sentences that you want to use later. Don’t be that prat who does it with a biro.

7. A printer

Available for £23.81 from Amazon

An entry-level printer will see you though your course and will save you paying through the nose for printing in the library and having to leave your house to do so. Avoid any last minute ink panics by always buying a replacement cartridge as soon as you put the new one in. You can also bulk buy very cheap compatible cartridges for any printer from sites like Cartridge People.

8. PDF annotation app

“Believe me, you are going to be reading PDFs by the dozen.”

If you have an iPad then iAnnotatePDF is a fantastic tool that makes reading and pulling information from PDFs really easy. And believe me, you are going to be reading PDFs by the dozen. You can highlight relevant sections and then email them to yourself in one easy step. It also works seamlessly with a range of clouds. Doing this on your tablet rather than at a laptop is great because you can sit nice and comfortably on the sofa or even use your time on public transport efficiently to get ahead with your assignments.

9. Blue light-blocking glasses

Available for £19 from Amazon

All that time staring at a screen is going to make your eyes tired, dry and itchy. The blue light also interferes with your circadian rhythms, which stops you getting to sleep. A pair of blue light blocking glasses will reduce headaches and make you look like you know what you’re doing!

10. Lumbar support

Available for £22.99 from Amazon

The desk chair in my first year halls was a very sturdy but uncomfortable thing. It had a bit of built in padding, but by Christmas, it was totally squished flat. Once I moved out into a private rental I literally had a dining chair in my room. Be kind to yourself and buy some extra support for your back if the chair you have is not up to much. Your 40-year-old self will thank you!

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