This weeks blog post come from Sam, an Oxford University History Graduate. This is the first of two blogs that will be posted by Sam, and focuses on the transition from A Level study to being a successful university student. We know this post is longer than usual, but he has a lot of valuable advice to share!

Going to university is a watershed moment for most of us. It might not be flying the nest properly, but it probably is the first test flight. The changes and challenges that we face during the transition can be divided into two categories – academic and non-academic – with each, as we pass through them, changing us.

Your performance in these two categories will influence your performance in the other as they dovetail through your university time, so I’ll write a post on each of them. But this post starts with the academic side, for two reasons: firstly, it is the more quantifiable of the two; secondly, a solid academic performance should be your main focus, because it will provide an excellent, confidence-boosting platform from which to go and have a great time socially (and the same is not as true in reverse).

This post hopes to equip you for the academic transition from school to university by asking three questions: 1) How does the difficulty of the work change? 2) How does the nature of the work change and 3) What can I do to manage these changes? I studied History at Oxford University, but whilst this post is written from an Oxbridge perspective, most of the points will be relevant regardless of where or what you are studying.

That said, two qualifications. Firstly, being written from an essay-based perspective, some of my advice is less applicable to mathematic and scientific subjects, which vary in important ways (such as having more contact hours and quantifiably ‘correct’ answers). Secondly, everybody learns differently, so some (not all) of this advice takes the form of guidelines to be interpreted according to personal preference.

Your academic performance will be much better if you heed this advice than if you ignore it. This sounds arrogant, but it’s not. It is precisely the pain that has resulted from not heeding this advice that makes giving it such a doddle. It is heeding the advice that is so difficult.

How does the difficulty of the work change?

This is what freshers are must concerned about, both in terms of workload and conceptual difficulty.


Schoolwork is completed in regular classes and assigned in precise homework exercises. University work, on the other hand, is more independent; there is less routine and rebuke. This means your university workload really depends on how much you choose to do. A useful distinction here can be made between how much you should work at university and how much you need to work.

Let’s make it clear that you should work as much as possible: the more you work, the more you learn and the more you enjoy your work. This equation is a straight fact – the one will lead to the next.

Our introductory talk at Oxford recommended we work 40 hours per week. This represents the supposed ‘optimum’, and is only marginally more time than students spend in school lessons and doing homework (although admittedly an hour of university is probably more intense: a bit of Facebook, sure, but no paper aeroplaning for an hour straight).

But how much do you need to work? Even at Oxford, my friends and I averaged closer to 25 than 40. Most students don’t heed the advice. Providing you are relatively focused when you are working, you can get by with considerably less.

Don’t get me wrong: I genuinely regret not working more, and absolutely advocate doing so. But don’t panic about mythical workloads: the term ‘essay crisis’ will enter your vocabulary because you go out too much, not because you are assigned too much work!

Conceptual difficulty

Conceptual difficulty will increase more tangibly in mathematic and scientific subjects – where new formulas and theories are introduced more explicitly – than in essay-based subjects.

In essay-based subjects, although new theories and techniques are very much introduced, these tend to be more malleable and less directly applicable. The focus is less on ‘getting the right answer’ and more on utilising (rather than directly applying) the theories and arguments at your disposal to construct more creative and thoughtful arguments. This means that there are many ways of achieving an excellent grade (not just the way your friend has been bragging about!).

In reality, this means that whereas the potential quality of your work increases enormously in essay-based subjects, the ‘minimum-quality’ threshold doesn’t leap upwards. This is reflected by the fact that achieving 90% – 100% in mathematic and scientific subjects is relatively common, whereas achieving over 75% in essay-based subjects is pretty rare.

Moreover, remember that you have time. Firstly, your first year – in a bid to assist with the academic transition – typically doesn’t count towards your final grade. Secondly, remember that you are at university to learn and improve – not to smash out top grades every week. This progression (journey) is as beautiful as the top grade (destination) at the end.

Providing you work hard, engage with your work and follow the tips below, your work will far exceed this minimum threshold.

How does the nature of the work change?

It’s more independent

The most striking difference between school and university is the increased independence you are afforded. Academically, this independence is important in two ways: in terms of time and learning.

With the exception of mandatory tutorials and classes (a handful of hours per week for humanities students; much more for science and maths students), you are free at university to organise your time as you please. This is a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, you can do what ever you want whenever you please; on the other, it is extremely easy to become entangled in pub beer gardens. This independence is managed (see below) for you at school; at university you must manage it yourself, because it heavily impacts how well you do academically.

Your actual learning is also much more independent (again, less so with science subjects, where there will be a tighter curriculum). Whereas A-Levels primarily consist of guided textbook work, university work typically involves using a reading list (consisting of books, chapter of books and articles) as a point of departure. Reading through this list is more independent in itself, because you have to be selective in which items to read and thoughtful in how you use them (not just relentless in reading everything, although this wouldn’t be a bad thing). However, the real independence of your learning lies beyond the reading list, because there is a plethora of other resources and techniques that can supplement your learning. These are discussed in the tips below.

It’s not just ‘what you know’

As mentioned above, (essay-based) university work becomes more of a creative exercise than a checklist of tasks. In essence, university – much more than school – measures not just what you know, but how you think. You will be rewarded at university for drawing thoughtful connections, observations and conclusions more than you were at school. It is also worth noting that the ‘what you know’ will take care of itself if you do a reasonable amount of reading and think carefully about what you are reading, because doing so will see you naturally using facts and figures that you have been reading about to construct those thoughts.


Practical tips

Below are nine tips to help you seamlessly manage the changes outlined above. I’ll try to keep them snappy (not my forte).

1. Know the details of your course. Know your course structure, your module choices, your timetable, your deadlines, your exam schedule and your exam regulations. Know your academic world. Knowing all of these things will not only give you peace of mind by ensuring that you don’t miss deadlines or classes; it will also allow you to optimise your own schedule, routine and priorities and to spot opportunities to combine modules that complement and cross-fertilise one another.

2. Go to lectures. Missing lectures is the quintessence of what it means to be a carefree, even rebellious student. Missing lectures is also stupid. I’m not pretending there won’t be boring and, worse, pointless lectures. However, many of your lectures will – if you pay attention – provide solid introductions to the topics you study. They may even introduce more advanced arguments that will be great in essays. They will also almost certainly provide bibliographies and other ideas for research avenues (at the very least they will provide a lecturer to whom you can ask questions). Moreover can get you up and out of the house in the morning; they can get you into productive mode – something not to be underrated.

3. Explore resources. Take a concerted amount of time to explore all the learning resources your university has to offer. Libraries, virtual catalogues and databases, journals, members of staff with academic expertise in your area events, academic societies, – explore them thoroughly and then utilise them accordingly. If you don’t you will regret it. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. It was by some distance my lowest grade – dragging my average down – largely because my reading wasn’t nearly focused enough. Having since left Oxford and realised how much I under-appreciated the opportunities it offered, I recently found myself browsing one of the online journal databases for general interest. There I found, as a serving of karma, an extensive and commentated bibliography titled ‘The Beat Generation.’ I haven’t found the courage to read it yet, but I already know that a more apt title would be, ‘The Marks That Lost Me A First.’

4. Take good notes. I’m not saying they need to be extensively colour-coded, elaborately doodled and printed and filed in alphabetical, chronological and thematic order into crisp ring binders. However, writing accessible and thorough notes will pay enormous dividends come exams; you will thank your previous self a thousand times over. Moreover, I would take the following advice: type your notes, so you can search for words and terms to quickly find and reference things; use different styles or fonts to differentiate direct quotes, paraphrasing and your own comments and analysis; insert cross-references to other things you have read; cite page numbers.

5. Don’t be afraid to speak up. If there is anything that would make your academic life better – be it a change of module, the purchase of a book for the library, a clarification of something on the reading list, extra details about something, a change of course (seriously, anything!) – don’t be afraid to ask. Providing that you are working hard and being thoughtful about your studies, this is exactly how your request will come across: thoughtful and borne of hard work. The worst case is that your request isn’t granted, but much more likely is that your request is not only granted, but remembered as a mark of your motivation and enthusiasm.

6. Find a workspace that suits you. Find a place – or better still a number of places – that you like to work in. Be it a library, a cafe, a park, your bedroom or your toilet (lock the door), finding space in which you enjoy working is important, even if it takes some exploration (which is exciting anyway, right?).

7. Get a routine. Some people hate routines and some love them, but in reality, most people benefit academically from having some kind of regular slot in which to work. If you really hate routines, keep yours flexible and use an egg timer. Making things habitual makes them easier, which means that if your brain comes to recognise 11am – 1pm on a Tuesday as work time (work periods needn’t be early nor long), then it will become, after a short time, much easier to settle down and work during that time.

8. Ask tutors for grades if they don’t give them. This is quite Oxbridge-centric, because I found that I rarely got given grades for tutorial essays (again, less of a problem in non-essay subjects). However, if you are the type of person who benefits from receiving grades – which are updates on the quality of your work – then ask away; tutors will be happy to oblige.

9. Learn from your peers. Of all the wonderful resources mentioned above, your friends – at Oxbridge or otherwise – will teach you more than the rest combined. Daily conversations and debates – some academic, many conceptual, hundreds stupid; in the library, in the bar, on the sports field – will teach you enormous amounts organically and subconsciously.

But don’t stop here: go further and organise group discussion and revision sessions. Talking your ideas through and having them supplemented and challenged is an extremely effective (the Oxbridge tutorial system is founded upon it) and accessible way to learn. Not only is knowledge pooled, but ideas and arguments are compared, combined, amended and improved as a result. A minority of people may be touchy about sharing their work, but this is their loss.

“Tuition … is an important item on the term bill,” wrote the great American thinker Henry David Thoreau, “while for the far more valuable education which one gets by associating with the most cultivated of one’s contemporaries, no charge is made.” This encapsulates how to thrive academically at university: utilise all of the simple things – and there are many – for which no charge is made and for which you will be richly rewarded.


The idea that university presents a choice between the library and the good times is a myth borne of our paranoia that when we are working, everybody else is having the party of their life. Not only is it possible to excel academically and socially, but the two complement one other perfectly. Having the run of a new city – new friends and new independence in tow – is a world of temptation. But mark my words: cycling from the library to the pub with a few fruitful hours of work under your belt is infinitely more rewarding than cycling straight from your bed to the pub.