Friday, 28 June 2013

Five Thoughts From First Year

Hi, everyone. It's been a shamefully long time since my last update. Since then, I've navigated through exams, cramming, parties, more exams, procrastination, even more cramming, and even more more exams, and have somehow emerged none the worse for wear. I can say with complete confidence that I have just had the most challenging, and best, year of my life. I feel far more mature and happy than I did 9 months ago, waiting nervously to trundle down to uni and face up to the unknown. I've learnt so much, most of it away from work and essays and study. Therefore, here are the five things that I think have been the most useful for me to recognise during my time as a fresher.

1. The best thing about university is the people that you meet
I have met too many wonderful, amazing people over the last 9 months to count. I know I'm incredibly lucky to have done so - it's true that many people find it tough to settle in for a very long time. I definitely had moments of insecurity and loneliness in my first term, but after a while that fades away and most people develop a network of close friends who are as much a support group as everything else. Going to university, where people have specialised beyond A Levels, means it's an amazing opportunity to meet people with such deep diverse interests and learn from them. I've spent tutorials discussing aspects of my subject with my course mates and learnt as much from them as from the tutors. University life is so different from school life and as such you can do so many ridiculous things that are just amazing bonding experiences. I'm so excited to see everyone again in the Autumn - 3 months can't go by fast enough!

2. Unfortunately, don't expect too much in terms of academic support
I know what I thought about my particular university prior to starting; how organised it would be, how clear things like exams would be for students. I recognise that there is a lot of pastoral support there if necessary. However, university is not like school. Tutors do not spend their time helping us - they spend their time on their own academic work and we, unfortunate though it may be to admit it, are (rightfully) left to fend for ourselves. This sometimes means that things that would be ridiculous at school (a large number of unmarked essays that, at this point, I don't expect to ever get back) just have to be accepted. Also, things we take for granted at A Level - the availability of mark schemes for past papers - just aren't even produced. I guess the fact that exams are now set by the university rather than nationally means that things like mark schemes and syllabuses are organised by a far smaller group of people, so they have less time, but in my view it means we are more at risk of never fully understanding a concept than we ever would have been regarding an A Level topic. At school, you get taught something, you do a piece of work, you get it corrected to plug any gaps in your understanding. At university, it's common to not be taught something at all, then to have to do a piece of work, find yourself completely lost, do terribly, and due to the small amount of feedback, never really understand it at all. For most degrees there is some degree of flexibility about what you choose to learn - for example, you can avoid a difficult topic for a paper if you've prepared for 6 topics and need to answer questions on 4 - but that isn't always the case, and it's a bit frustrating.

3. You will take a while to find your feet
Some people go from coasting at school to being way out of their depth at university because the expected standards are so different. I was never one of them, because I never coasted at school, but I did take a while to adjust to the 'university standard' of work expected. In my first term, I routinely struggled through problem sets that should have been completed over a few days in the few hours before dawn/the tutorial. Having a particularly bad first period of mock exams really changed my attitude and I spent probably about 5 times long on my work for the second term; I got much better results and I was so much happier. It really is worth the effort. Everyone takes time to adjust but I do wish I'd been sterner with myself sooner. Now I've finished my first year exams I'm excited to move on to preparing for Finals (which are the only exams that count towards our final degree classification) being more sure of myself and how I work best. Also, if your brain tries to convince you to work in your room instead of the library, don't listen to it. Your room has a bed in it. One thing leads to another, and you'll be working in bed, then napping, then oops the whole day is gone, and you are an idiot.

4. It's ok to need support
It's not abnormal to struggle. Everyone does at some point, whether socially or academically. I found that, particularly in the first term, it's really common to think that you are the only one who is feeling alone, or scared, or frustrated. Having your own room means you have your own space, but it's still different from living at home with your family where you can roam around as you like, and if it's early in the year and you don't know the people around you very well it's easy to feel boxed in. There were a few days over the year where I probably only saw one or two people. Shutting yourself in like this might be necessary because of upcoming deadlines occasionally, but it's so important to take a break. I spent the days before my first exams locked in my room eating ready meals and cramming desperately, but I eventually realised that hanging out with everyone else, and being mutually encouraging and motivating, is so much better and is a much healthier attitude to have around exams. Also, when you're in trouble, it's likely that everyone around you is feeling exactly the same way. At university, a problem shared is definitely a problem halved.

5. Enjoy it while you can
I can't believe it, but I am no longer a fresher. I am a third of the way to being a graduate. Next year, I start preparing for my final exams. Next autumn, I will be applying for the things I want to do after university. In a year and a half, I will finish learning for my degree. It has gone so, so unbearably fast! Yes, that's a good thing when considering all the tedious bits like essay writing and all nighters. However, it's such a bad thing when considering all the things that have become so important to me so quickly - like all the amazing silly things I've done with my friends this year, and all the challenges I've set myself and mostly managed to overcome. I moved back home a week ago and, in some ways, university feels more like home than my actual home (kidding, parents, if you're reading this). I've grown so much there as a person and I miss it loads already - and I bet graduation will be like this, times a thousand. That's definitely an intimidating prospect.

That's it from me! As always, if you have any questions or comments leave them below and I'll get back to you as soon as possible. Have a great summer everyone!


Saturday, 23 March 2013

Philosophy and (Work) Ethics

So, term's over. Know how I feel? Gutted! I've had a really, really great time these last 9 weeks. They've been as intense as anything and on various occasions I've felt Atlas-esque when struggling with the workload, but it's all been worth it. Challenges have been overcome, new friends have been made, and I've enjoyed myself, again, so much more than I ever thought I would.

My last post was after the collections (mocks) that Oxford decide to foist on us whenever we return from vacation. I'd spent the winter holidays in a meandering funk and, as I detailed in the post, returning to uni to be greeted by the sight of two incomprehensible exam papers was a massive wakeup call. I can say now that I'm so, so glad that happened. The day after I finished the papers, I got up early and made my way to the fabled establishment known as the Social Sciences Library. In theory, this building should have been my second (or third) home. In theory.... and I'd probably been there twice during my first term?

As a result, the combination of constant academic pressure and actually physically placing myself in a vaguely public library with questionable WiFi set me back to doing something I hadn't done since Year 8 - actually doing the work when it was set. Totally foreign concept, right? I soon realised that the reputation for PPE students as 'lazy' is because, truth be told, we can probably get a low 2.1 comfortably without doing too much work. However, if we want to get beyond that, you need to do an unbelievable amount. It's hard; but it somehow clicked in my mind that this is university, and hard work is worth it. So, from the work-sleep-play triangle, I chose work for the first time in a while! No regrets yet.

What else? Well, I'm currently making plans for Freshers' Week 2013! I was elected Freshers' Week President for my college for 2013, which means I have the intimidating responsibility of trying to organise a week that ought to be at least as good as our amazing freshers' experience. Putting preliminary work in place has made me appreciate what they did for us even more; there are provisions for international students, stash, evening activities, college fairs, sponsorship; you need to attend a series of committee meetings and liaise with the college to ensure your visions for the week are aligned. If you're going to be a fresher in Autumn 2013, please hit the comments with some ideas about what you want from your freshers' experience - I'd love to hear from you!

Finally, now, I'm back home. There's a revision timetable all set up, which I stuck to pretty rigidly (still allowing for 11am lie ins, obviously) for the first 12 days or so before deciding it would be a good time to pause all that and just marathon old Skins episodes for a while. Good decision. I really miss all my uni friends! However, the holidays go way quicker than you'd think (especially as I have mock exams waiting for me as soon as I get back). It's good to catch up with everyone from home too, and it's so exciting to hear about what they've been up to. I can't wait to see what challenges are in store for the summer term.

As always if you have any comments or questions, let me know below!


Saturday, 26 January 2013

Exams at University

It is a very deliberate decision at Oxford to call the periods in between each 8-week term "vacations," rather than "holidays." The point being that you are 'vacating' the premises, but yet the work goes on. There are no holidays.

The most annoying part of this vacation was the fact that it was ruined by the looming prospect of whatever was coming afterwards. This Christmas I was procrastinating away, as I always do, when a little nagging voice surfaced and perpetuated in whining at me about how there really wasn't any time for fun, and I ought to be cocooned in a nest of thick dull textbooks and learning everything there is to learn about Logic, Utilitarianism, and the intricate workings of microeconomics.

The first exam session of my time at university was, to put it bluntly, grim. My university has an exam at the start of every term, except when you take Prelim exams at the end of the last term of your first year, and Finals at the end of the last term of your third year. These are 'mocks' officially, testing you on whatever you learnt over the last term, but they felt a lot more serious than that. If you don't get a 2.1 (over 60%) you have to retake them. If you don't get a 2.1 in the Prelim exams, you have to retake those too, and if you fail the retake, you'll be, quite simply, booted out. 

Having talked to the Second Years, people stop caring about Collections (the start of term mock exams) as much as time goes by, but for us they were also our first ever university exams of any sort, and given that I hadn't received any official marks during my first term, they were for me and for several others the first chance we had to see where we are. Here's some advice I would give to anyone wondering what uni exams are like (or to my past procrastinating self).

There's so much of the same stuff to say about how to prepare, but in essence it's everything you've ever been told about exam preparation... times 100. If you happen to be one of those lucky people who can skate through A Levels by cramming, that absolutely doesn't cut it here. Long term revision is the key. There's no set textbook, you can't just read that 100 times and know all you need to know. You need to really and truly explore outside the subject, know the core principles like the back of your hand, practice every single past paper you can. The work you've been set during the term is supposed to introduce you to what you need to know, and never does it ever cover everything. If you only read over past essays when revising, you won't be able to answer anything. 

I felt like I had done a lot of revision, but when it came to the actual exams I realised it absolutely wasn't enough. I guess an upside of making a really serious error in one of the questions is that you'll never forget what you got wrong (mixing up truth functionality in my case, oopsies). I was disappointed in myself. However, two weeks later, I realise that I've learnt from it and it was good for me. 

Whereas an essay might have been completed in the dead of night or a few minutes before the deadline, I'm making a major effort to get up early, stakeout the library, have time to truly think about the question and I'm enjoying myself so much more. When you have time to pause and reflect on what you're writing, instead of completing everything in a frenzy, it's so much easier to understand it all, relate it to other concepts with which you are familiar, and it pays off in your marks.

I was originally a little scared by being around people who are incredibly dedicated and brilliant and inspiring. Now, it's motivating. Everyone feels lazy and reluctant at some point, but I had a kind of bizarre realisation that I want to do well. That's hardly an uncontroversial thing to say, but I felt like it was never something I'd directly said to myself for various reasons - I felt like I couldn't, I wasn't sure how to go about it, I got distracted by other things. We've all worked so hard to get where we are and we don't want to look back in 10 years and be disappointed in ourselves for wasting this opportunity. Having difficult goals forces you to put in the hours, and that's what I intend to do, this term and for the rest of my degree.

As always if you have any comments or questions, I'll be happy to answer.