Skip to Main Content

New to university?

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

One consequence of being an independent learner is that you will have to take more responsibility for organising your studies: what and how you study is individual to every student, so no-one can organise that for you. For instance, you may find that you are timetabled for lab work or lectures every day from 9.00-17.00, and still have to find time for writing up lab reports and completing maths worksheets. Or you may have only a few hours of contact teaching a week, but be expected to do a lot of independent study that you have to organise yourself.

You will probably be used to making timetables and work schedules, and perhaps even setting up a filing system. As being organised will become much more important, it's a good time to check out the ideas in this section to see how managing your workload will be different, and if you could do these things even more effectively. These include exercises you can try to practise the skills you will need. These are in Word documents so you can fill in your answers without printing them off if you prefer.

Planning your time

You will be expected to make sure you have up-to-date information about your academic commitments, and have made sure that you can keep them. That includes lectures, seminars and other teaching sessions, meetings with tutors and assignment deadlines. It's a lot to organise, but if you get on top of it early, you'll have plenty of time for work and play.

 How is this different from previous study?

  • You're more likely to have a more complex set of commitments that you have to juggle
  • You'll also need to spend more time on 'invisible' tasks like laundry and shopping
  • You're less likely to have a similar timetable/work schedule to your friends
  • You won't have teachers, tutors or parents reminding you to check your schedule

Here are some suggestions to help you plan your time at university.

Use your mobile, computer etc... You're probably used to making paper timetables and using a diary or wall planner, but e-tools like calendars on smartphones and Google, or even programs like Microsoft Outlook can also help in more interactive ways. You can set them to remind you of upcoming deadlines, or add links to resources, maps and contact details, for instance. They're also highly portable - though diaries and wall planners do have the advantage of not running out of battery power!

Tip: What tools are you going to use to help you plan your time? Diary? Wall planner? Mobile phone? Online calendar? Start setting them up by entering semester dates and anything you need to remember like important birthdays.

Spread your workload... It is very likely that you will find lots of deadlines for assignments all happening at the same time (usually the end of the semester). You will be expected to manage this workload yourself - no-one will accept it as an excuse if you don't get them all done. So decide on your own deadlines for starting and finishing work on your assignments, and spread the load.

Decide when you're going to study... You will be expected to build in time for your own independent study. It's easy to keep putting this off - which means that you spend a lot of time feeling guilty about not working, and not enough on getting the job done properly. Make a study timetable and decide when you are going to do reading, seminar preparation or work on assignments. Then you can enjoy your free time without feeling as if you should be working!

Prioritise your tasks... Everyone does the things that they enjoy first - but the other things may be the ones that get you more credits, or need more time to complete well. Consider the best way to prioritise tasks to get everything done and achieve the greatest success. If you find you're persistently putting off starting a piece of work, talk to someone who can help.

Set achievable targets... It can be hard to keep yourself motivated, so set goals to work towards. It's better to have lots of small, achievable goals ("finish reading this chapter", "write my introduction", "check my references") than big ones ("write my report") that take a long time to achieve and are difficult to pace.

Getting organised

Organised students are happy students, because they are the ones who have the extra time to spend chatting, playing or relaxing, while the disorganised ones are still searching for that one important piece of paper they need. You will have a lot to keep track of when you're studying in higher education, and you will be expected to work out a way of doing it for yourself. Set up some simple systems early and give yourself lots of extra free time.

How is this different from previous study?
  • You will need to keep on top on administrative paperwork, and perhaps things like bills, housing and employment contracts, as well as documents relating to study.
  • Correct referencing and avoiding plagiarism can be the difference between passing and failing a course, so knowing where to find bibliographic details in your notes and building in extra time for thorough proof-reading is vital.
  • You may get a lot of information at the beginning of your course that you don't have cause to think about again until the end of semester - by which time it could be at the bottom of the 'filing' pile.

Keep yourself informed... There will be essential information you will need for your studies: for instance, when and where your classes are. Universities provide most of the information you'll need online now, usually general information through extensive websites and information that's more specific to you through Virtual Learning Environments (at the University of Reading, the VLE is called Blackboard). Before you start your course is a really good time to explore your university's website and see what information is available and where to find it.

Have simple filing systems... Box files are an easier option than ring folders for storing paper materials - have one for each module and one for general admin. If you need to carry notes around, use a document folder and empty it once a week. Set up folders for your computer files too, including your emails - avoids the dreaded full inbox and makes important information easier to find.

Set up a study space... If at all possible, it's good to establish a working space where everything you need is close at hand. If you have to use a temporary space, keep all your work essential together in something like a plastic crate, so you can quickly set up a working space.

Get e-organised… It's also a good idea to separate your study and leisure activities online when you need to avoid being distracted - better to turn off social media notifications when you're writing your essay, for instance. You will probably be able to 'bounce' your official university email to your personal email so that you can check all your emails in one place, but you might consider keeping them separate so you can focus on study in study time.

Put it into practice…

- Clear your email inbox, by setting up folders and deleting or filing everything in it. Then think about what folders you might need in the future for emails connected with university (e.g. admin, different subjects, clubs and societies etc).

- Get some box files and start setting them up by downloading any information you have on your course and filing it away. Stick important information like timetables and assignment deadlines inside the lid so you have instant access.

- Have a look at maps of campus and town to get orientated. Better still if you can, go for a walk round campus. Or try a campus treasure hunt, like the one below.

Making the most of the time you have

Planning how you use your time is going to be vital in your higher education studies, but using that time as efficiently as possible can give you an extra edge. Everyone has a different way of studying that suits them, so you will be expected to reflect for yourself on what works for you, and what you need to develop to make it work better.

How is this different from previous study?
  • You will have more commitments to fit into the time you have, and more opportunities for social and leisure activities. You will need to boost your efficiency to do all the things you want to do without getting stressed or underperforming.
  • Deadlines are taken very seriously at university - they are a way of showing your ability to work in a disciplined fashion which is central to working academically. If you miss one, you may get a seriously reduced mark, or fail your course altogether.
  • You will meet with your academic tutor regularly, but it won't be the same kind of relationship as you may have had with your teacher or FE tutor. You will be expected to be pro-active in thinking about anything you may need help with and seeking it out yourself. 

Get 'study-fit'... Just as if you were embarking on a fitness regime, now's a good time to consider your strengths and weaknesses in study practices. Do you need to improve your punctuation? Learn about referencing? Find a way to focus on study and avoid distractions? Have a look at our Study Guides for self-help guides on these topics and many more.

Use your best times of day... Everyone has a time of day when they find it easier to concentrate; don't waste this time when you could be doing your most productive studying. For instance, you might be better first thing in the morning, but think that you ought to tidy your room before you start studying. By the time you start, your concentration is poorer and it takes longer to understand what you're reading. So save the tidying for your poor concentration time, and make the most of the good time.

Spend time to save time... Making essay plans and writing drafts might feel like using more time. Actually it will save you time in the long term, and make for a better assignment. Having a plan keeps you on track, so you don't waste time wondering what to write next, or going off-topic. Writing drafts gets your ideas down fluently, without having to constantly stop to check and make it perfect.

Give yourself a break!... No-one does well if they try to study 24/7. For a start, your brain needs time to process the information that you're feeding into it, or it will struggle to make sense of it later. But you also need to stay fit, sleep well and have a social life; you may have other commitments that you need to fit in, like family or paid work.

Put it into practice…

- Do you know what time of day you are at your best? Reflect on how you work and when you find it easiest to concentrate - how will you make sure that you use this time appropriately and don't waste it

- The first thing you are likely to have to do in your studies at university is not write an essay or report, or do a lot of reading. The first thing is likely to be to take notes. So have a look at our guide on effective note-taking (link below) to make sure your notes are useful from the start.

- Set aside a little time to look at the webpages for current students on your university's website - it'll be more difficult to find time once you start your course. Familiarise yourself with the different people on campus who can help you with things like studies, finances, accommodation and just life generally - there will be plenty of them!