16 life hacks from University life (How I ended up with a 1st)

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newly graduated people wearing black academy gowns throwing hats up in the air

This is a bit of a fun start to the week. I wanted to write about University. How I failed the first year and had to re-take calculus, but eventually how I ended up with a 1st.

Here’s 16 life hacks from University and how they helped me get a first.

They’re also hacks which I continue to apply today. When choosing how to develop professionally. What book I should read. How I can promote my product and myself plus much more.

1. Enjoy what you do.

The absolute most important thing to do. Enjoy what you do. You’ll find it really hard to stay motivated if you don’t enjoy it. The same goes for your studies and courses you choose. Pick ones that you like the sound of.

You won’t be able to stick at something in the long run if you don’t enjoy what you do.

2. Do your research.

Before starting on a course. Read about it, find reviews. Are there students in the year above you can talk to? Is the general feel that it’s a course worth doing.

The same applies to any product, or online course that you may consider doing today. This is even more true when it comes to signing up to the more expensive cohort courses.

3. Choose the “Introduction to” courses.

ballerinas resting on floor in dance studio
Introduction to Balet (Ok, I didn’t do THAT one).

OK – this one was a big hack for me. Surely an “Introduction” course is easier to pass than an advanced course. So in my third year I chose a lot of Introduction courses. It wasn’t always the case that these were beginner courses – but I found that learning about new areas was a better fit for me that going super deep into “Algebra 3”.

4. Find a place to work.

This one might sound obvious. Universities have libraries you can go in and study, or computer banks. For me, I’m incredibly nosey and do a lot of people watching. My hack here was to get the very first bus of the day, go to the Maths building and study before anyone else got in.

That, plus reading / listening to notes on the bus gave me easily 2-3 hours a day of uninterrupted study time. I’d found a place where I could work without interruptions.

The same holds true today. I write every day and I do this as soon as I get up (between 6am and 8am is “my” time). After that, I’m into the rest of my day. Weekends I might spend a little longer (check out a week in the life of Mike).

5. Stay at home / Avoid distractions.

Taking it that bit further. You could choose to not move away to university if you’re close enough to commute. You’ll save a ton in accommodation fees – but you’ll miss out on one of the biggest draws of university – gaining that independence and going out probably 6x a week.

You could choose to stay home for part of the week if you live nearby to campus, if you’re at campus you could also choose to stay “home” in your halls and focus on your idea or read that book rather than giving Mr Heineken all your money.

6. Surround yourself with the right people.

This is true literally forever. At University I made friends with some amazing people. I didn’t hang out with the football or rugby team (cos, cmon, look at me) – but having a close circle of friends really helped get through the tough times.

We’d study together – share tips and tricks and help improve each others chance of success. University can be hard, so can life. Have people around you that lift you up, not bring you down.

7. Rely on old connections.

When I failed 1st year calculus – I went back to school. Literally. My A-Level maths teacher helped me out (we’d kept in touch as we both played racquet sports). He helped me though the exam and past papers and guided me towards knowing what to do.

If I didn’t keep that connection – I’d have probably re-failed the chance to bring my mark up to 40% (which was just a pass).

8. Practice, Practice, Practice.

graceful woman performing variation of setu bandha sarvangasana yoga pose
Practice, Practice, Practice

Do as many past papers as you can. For one course module the lecturer didn’t really change up the exam at all – just some of the numbers in it. So practicing prior exams (with solutions) meant more often than not you were prepared and stood a good chance of passing.

The same can be applied to almost anything. That channel you follow on Youtube is really good – but they’ve got 500+ videos and have had a LOT of practice.

They’ll have crafted a process and a habit for creating ideas, scheduling, scripting, shooting, editing and their camera and audio equipment will have got better.

9. Be nice to people, including the lecturers.

I once got really stuck on a past paper. So I decided to knock on to a lecturers office (she used to get in early too) and just chat through it. She could have easily turned me away as I wasn’t asking in tutorial time or after a lecture – but it was first thing and she actually really helped (thanks Ruth).

The next day I knocked on again, but this time with a coffee as a thank you. Lecturers want to help you. You may feel angry at a lecturer if they didn’t explain something correctly and you failed that test – but more often than not – they’re doing the best they can.

10. Create a habit.

Remember number 4. I got into a habit of the early bus, study mornings before 10am lectures and this really helped. I started doing it even on days when I had no lectures.

Was I a nerd? Probably. But this is the one thing I really chalk down to what helped me get a first. In particular it was doing the same even on “days off”. Get into a habit and good things will happen.

11. Don’t take on too much.

When you’re at uni, there’s so much you can do and experience

  • Your normal class schedule
  • University clubs
  • Sports clubs
  • Athletic Union (AU) socials (yay)
  • Student unions (oggy oggy oggy, oi oi oi)
  • The city’s culture if you’re in a new place
  • Plus loads more

I actually also failed “Probability 1” – the weekly lecture was at 9am on a Wednesday, which was the morning after the AU socials on a Tuesday night. AU socials were when all the different sports teams would meet up back at a pub / bar / club after the sports event.

Each week you’d either host a visiting university, or travel to another university to play their team at the sport. It was fun, but that and the combination of a class at 9am meant I’d taken on too much. The class suffered.

Don’t take on too much. Saying no (you don’t have to go to every single AU Social) or just doing a little bit less is a university hack I follow to this day.

It’s easy to say yes to everything – but there’s only so much you can apply yourself to without other things taking a hit.

12. First impressions count.

brown framed eyeglasses
Marketing – hell yeah.

Remember when I said choose the “Introduction to” courses. I did that, but I also made sure I used the first two weeks of the semester (where you could switch courses) to go to as many as I could.

How was the lecturer – did he explain things well. What about the rest of the class? I once chose an “Introduction to marketing” module. Attended the first lecture and

  • It was in a completely different building.
  • There was no one else from my base course (maths) on it.
  • It was practically a full base course of fashion students.
  • The coursework was “paired” (and I knew no one).

While it was an introduction – the first impressions scared me off. Would I have to dash each time between lectures (there were other lectures in other buildings book-ending this one).

Would I be able to make friends with the fashion crowd. I ended up switching and doing Introduction to Project Management instead. So now I’m really good at making sure projects are managed to completion, but I suck at marketing them :P.

13. Try new things.

This one is all about venturing out of your comfort zone. Doing this will help you learn new things. Sure I was good at maths, but I also wanted to try out different things.

One of my friends was a wannabe pilot (he actually is a pilot now) so I’d spend some time with him on his socials and the ACU (Air Cadets Union) that let me experience new things like how do they actually plan the best route to take on a flight.

Always keep learning and try new things.

14. Mix social with study.

This was a godsend. Rather than study alone I’d join study groups and study with friends. We’d work on a problem together and help each other through the solution.

Doing this helped us learn from each other and find new ways of looking at a problem.

15. Master exam technique.

This is one of the main things that helped me get a first. Mastering the exam technique / writing technique. It’s linked to writing clearly. In exams you only have a set amount of time to get your points across. You may have a question with a set number of marks – which dictates roughly how much to write. For example:-

Explain the advantages and disadvantages of writing fast (15 marks)

For this, you know OK – I need to cover pros and cons, so that’s two heading. It says explain and not list so I need to explain each of them. It’s 15 marks, so I have 15 minutes (say). Let’s GO.

How do you know you have 15 minutes? Well, past practice. The past papers always add up to 100 marks, and the exam is 2 hours long. So this gives me:-

  • 20 minutes to plan
  • 100 minutes to answer the Qs

The planning is the most important. It’s going through each question like above, pulling out what the question in answering and how long you’ll have to answer it.

Doing this also means you get an overview of what the whole paper is covering. There may be a 1 mark question which you have literally zero idea on (as question 1) rather than spend 10 minutes going “huh” – skip it, and do it last if you’ve got time.

16. Change it up when it comes to learning.

Finally – change it up when it comes to learning. When going through university there’s:-

  • Lectures
  • Tutorials
  • Libraries with reading
  • Past papers

But, there’s also

  • Study groups
  • 1:1s with lecturers
  • Mentorships with students doing MSc or Phd’s
  • YouTube (OK, now there is)
  • Audio books
  • Podcasts

All things you can switch it up when it comes to learning. Don’t just rely on one thing (only past papers) as really a deep understanding of the topic you’re studying is the best way to be able to answer any question (even if the current paper throws you a curve ball).

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