How university and school study differ

University study is challenging. It’s time to up your game

Jessica Moore
Wednesday 18 August 2010 00:00 BST

It's fair to say that high-achieving students are the ones who get the opportunity to go to university or college. You're probably the kind of student who's used to getting among the highest grades in your class. You probably contributed a lot in the classroom. You possibly supported friends who struggled. Perhaps you've even, secretly, been longing for a bigger academic challenge.

Well, here it is. No longer will you find yourself the class pet; everyone on your course at university, like you, can count themselves among the brightest high-achievers. Added to this is the fact that they share your niche interests and knowledge. For the first time, you may have some serious competition.

"At school, I got used to being the best in the class at one or two things", admits Gizelle Butler, 19, who is now studying for a BSc in psychology at Nottingham Trent University. "Here, people have a very broad intelligence. Nothing seems to faze them.

"In lectures, they ask questions that would never have occurred to me, and I often am amazed that, at this level, they have such a comprehensive understanding. But the nice thing is that you learn from that. It challenges you to think about things in a different way. You up your game. At school, I was one of the brightest. At uni, I realise I need to work to get to the top of my tree."

The way you work will change, too. "My A-level psychology course was quite narrow, whereas at university it's really in-depth. So for me, it was a complete change," says Butler. "At A-level, you have a book, you work through it, you're told what to study and what to write. At uni, you have to think carefully about what you're learning, what it means and how it relates to other areas. You're not directly told that; you begin to notice where you need to expand your knowledge, what you're interested in, what you should read more about. You do that on your own.

What if you don't adapt well? Is it a case of sink or swim? "A lot of people got a bit carried away with not being told to do anything, and therefore, at the beginning, they didn't. That can't last. There are people to help you if you're struggling. Your tutors are crucial in that. They can hold your hand a bit and show you how to work better." Students who access that support will settle in and flourish.

Your contemporaries (scarily bright as some of them may be) can also help. "Everyone at university is very nice about studies," says Megan Thornton, 20, who is studying zoology at Swansea University. "Everyone on my course arrived with different knowledge and different academic experiences. That means things that seem obvious to me, because I studied them at A-level, are totally new to some of the other people on my course, and vice versa. We help each other out.

"It's great to be able to learn from my new friends, and hopefully be able to help them too. It makes your work better, it's enjoyable, and it makes your new friendships stronger, too."

There is no denying that everything at university happens on a far bigger platform than it did at school. So where you may previously have balked at the idea of a 500-word essay, you will quickly get used to churning out 3,000 words on a regular basis. And where you may occasionally have been guilty of a "that'll do" attitude, you will have to give everything you've got if you want to do well at university.

"I've definitely found it a lot harder, and I'm enjoying that challenge," Butler concludes. "When you struggle with an essay but then get a good mark back, it's really rewarding. The amount that you learn is phenomenal. It's a really nice feeling, especially because you're focusing on an area of study that you've chosen. You can go deeper and deeper and deeper, and specialise in any way you want to. That's a very exciting thing."

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