A few years back, sitting on a train home from work, I pulled out one of my study books and set about highlighting everything I deemed important. After a short while, a man sitting across from me leaned over and said:
“You highlight too much. You’ll never learn like this.”
He had an all-knowing, benevolent smile. He wished well. Unfortunately, he didn’t know me. I had a system. The system worked for me. I’d underline whole sentences so I could read the book again comfortably, block-highlighting only the key words. I’d even highlight random words across the page so, when read together, they made for coherent sentences and smooth argument flow. I had four different colours of highlighters for different levels of discussion within a piece of text: yellow for major themes, green for sub-points within those themes, pink for juicy detail and orange for counter-arguments. Occasionally, I’d throw in blue or purple for good measure as well. I had four colours of Post-its I used in a similar fashion, labelling them with a key word so I could easily find any argument I’d read and couldn’t perfectly recall. In a similar fashion, one of my friends had a system of his own. Every time he picked up a study book, he’d pull out his highlighter (he only used yellow), and block out the title and the author’s name.
“You’re supposed to highlight the important stuff,” he’d say a little belligerently if anyone tried giving him a funny look. And he was right.
The point of this lengthy introduction should be quite clear by now: it doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you do it and it works for you. What might have been a waste of time to somebody else, for me was vital preparation. Yes, I spent ages underlining and making labels. But once that was done, I could whizz through a book again and again in no time. By the time the exams came around, I would have read all my study books once cover to cover, at least three times the highlighted gist of it, and about ten times the key words. The day before the exam, I could pull out my notes and do a complete revision of a subject within an hour. Because by then, I didn’t have to search and read whole paragraphs. By then, a single word underlined in orange or green was enough. And if it wasn’t, I knew exactly on what I had to read up.
Here, then, is my second point: there’s no substitute for studying, no easy fix. I can tell you what I did to keep on top of my studying: I found a library I liked and made sure it was my ‘happy place’. The staff were nice, the chairs were comfortable, and there was a great cafe right outside. I got up early and exercised before hitting the books. I ate well, slept well, and made sure I took regular breaks. I carried pocketfuls of apples and energy bars with me everywhere. I gave myself Friday evenings and Saturdays off, no exceptions. If the weather was good, I took my notes to the park. If it was bad, I made myself cocoa and read curled up in a blanket on the sofa. But I was never without the books. I watched no TV, I rationed my time with friends. I imposed on my partner and made sure everyone knew that degree was my top most priority. I was lucky that my family and friends were understanding, for I must have been insufferable.
The third and my final point is this: be nice to yourself. Know what you want, and arrange your life to make it happen. You cannot drift through your time with the External System, it’s not that kind of a degree. But if you can take the responsibility for your studies, then at the end of it you’ll find you’ve managed to get your life in order too. Keep up the good work. And good luck!
Cameron graduated with First Class Honours in BSc Sociology in 2008, receiving the Academic Achievement Award 2007 and 2008, the Graduate Merit Award, and the 150th Anniversary Award, and went on to study MSc Sociology (Research) at the LSE. To do justice to all the grounding the External System has given her, in 2009 she completed that degree with distinction, and was awarded the Hobhouse Memorial Prize in recognition of achieving the best overall performance in the Department of Sociology Masters’ programmes. She currently works as a Clinical Research Associate, single-handedly project-managing a major study for NHS Blood and Transplant. To put all this in perspective, five years ago she had no higher education and was working as a kitchen porter. So there you have it.