A lot of UK students received their exam results this week which means there is a whole new group of freshers about to take on an undergrad course. I’ve been out of university for two years now but I still remember student life and there are a few things I wish I’d known before I started my English Literature degree. So, I’m going to impart some wisdom today. Here are my top ten pieces of advice for English undergrads:
- You’re never going to read all the books on the reading list so don’t give yourself a hard time when you still halfway through a novel from last week and haven’t even started on the play for this week yet. Pace yourself and prioritise the texts that you feel you will be able to make the most out of for your essays, presentations and exams. What you don’t want to be doing is writing an exam or essay on a book you haven’t yet finished. Trust me, attempting to write an exam on how A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man functions as a Bildungsroman when you haven’t even reached chapter four yet isn’t fun…
- Film versions and plot summaries can be lifesavers, equally they can be the work of the Devil, you’ve been warned. Before delving more deeply into this point, let us all raise a glass to our good friend, SparkNotes. SparkNotes, Wikipedia and Shmoop are the golden trio when it comes to finding a quick plot summary. But, sometimes they can be your downfall when you start rambling on about a part of the story in your seminar and your lecturer asks you about a bit in the plot that the summary seems to have glossed over. Likewise, film adaptations can make the plot stick in your head much easier without you even having to open the book itself but filmmakers love putting their own spins on the source material. So, no discussing the significance of Nick’s retrospective narration from the psychiatric ward in The Great Gatsby please!
- English lecturers want originality in your arguments and there are a few easy ways of getting an original argument pretty much every time. If your essay is a comparison between two texts then choose texts that wouldn’t usually be paired together. You can find similarities in any two texts if you look hard enough and don’t forget that finding interesting contrasts in the texts if just as important as finding similarities. And, if you’re choosing your own question, choose to examine an uncommon theme, idea or theory when it comes to the text(s). Significance of doubling in Frankenstein? It’s been done before so anything you try to say about it has likely been said already in many different ways but there are many other topics you can sink your teeth into for this book anyway.
- Plays are meant to be performed so if you can watch them, then do. If there isn’t a stage adaptation of the play you’re studying on near you then take a look and see if there are any film adaptations you can watch or even if there are any scenes uploaded to YouTube. Reading a play is like reading a novel without any description so seeing a play performed in front of you by actors who have their own way of interpreting the lines can really help you get an understanding of exactly what is happening.
- Your uni library may only have so many copies of your course texts and books on context and literary criticism so find simple work-arounds. Find the books you need at libraries outside your university, buy them second-hand and, if a book is now out of copyright, you may well be able to find it for free on the Kindle store. Plus, you can find quite cheap copies of the complete works of Shakepeare and it’s really worth investing in one rather than buying a copy of each play separately. When looking for articles from critics, Jstor was always my go-to but Google Books and Amazon look-inside are also great tools for helping you find great quotes from critics for free and without having to fight for the last book on the library shelf.
- Shakespeare, Dickens, Shelley and Austen will be on your reading list so get used to them.
- Make sure you understand your literary theories because you will be expected to use them throughout your degree. Some of them are definitely harder than others and you’ll naturally warm to a few of them and get comfortable using them in essays again and again. Even so, as tempting as it might be, throwing Judith Butler and/or Sigmund Freud into every essay isn’t always the best way to go. Theories are hard, lecturers know that so if you don’t get it, just ask. Saying that, I don’t think I ever got my head around Cixous’s take on French Feminism…
- Make the most of your lecturers. Different unis give you different allowances on how much your lecturers can help you with your essays but even if they can only glance over a plan and give you some feedback in a five minute slot, make sure you take that opportunity. Just getting a nod from your lecturer to know you’re on the right track can help relieve a lot of that essay stress.
- Literature degrees have notoriously few contact hours which means you don’t spend that much time with the people on your course so make the most of the opportunities you do get to speak to your course mates. This is one I wish I had done more of when I was at uni but one thing I did do which I would advise was setting up a Facebook group for your course and year group (this goes for any uni course really). There’s always a general Facebook group for your uni or a Freshers page for your year so you can advise your group on there to find other people on your course. It really wasn’t long until the whole of my course were connected on this one group and we used it through our entire degree.
- First year usually either doesn’t count to your final mark or counts very little so use it as your practice year. It’s so important to get the balance right in your first year. If you spend too much time enjoying yourself and doing all your essays in a rush at the last minute then you won’t be giving yourself a good chance to see how well you can do from trying your best. However, the jump from first year to second can feel quite intense so enjoy your first year for what it is, a practice year that doesn’t count much to your final grade. So, make sure you try your best but not to the point where it’s keeping you up at night, you’ll probably experience quite a bit of that in your third year anyway (sorry!) so give yourself a break.
I hope these tips help you make the most of your first year as an English undergrad. The most important piece of advice I can give is just to enjoy the overall uni experience as much as possible. It really is a very unique time in your life so make friends, learn about yourself and throw yourself into the subjects you love and you’ll be fine. Good luck!