Essential Skills for Undergraduate Life: the 13 Things You Should Know How to Do Before You Go to University

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Going to university places you in a whole host of new situations, and with them comes a load of new academic and social skills you’ll need to acquire in preparation.

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You’ll develop these during your time at university, of course; but it helps to have a foundation to work from so that you can make the most of your time at university from the day you arrive. After all, when you’re managing the changes in workload and lifestyle that come with going to university, you don’t want to be worrying about the little things you could have figured out in advance. In this article, we’ll take you through some of the essential skills needed in order to thrive at university, both from an academic point of view and socially.

Academic and practical skills

Let’s start by looking at the skills that will help you to be a more efficient learner and a more impressive student, allowing you to excel in the academic side of university life.

1. Written English

Image shows a fountain pen on top of a piece of paper with beautiful calligraphy.
Even if you’re doing a science degree, writing skills are essential.

First and foremost, having a strong grasp of the ins and outs of the English language (whether you’re a native speaker or not) is essential. You’ll need to be able to express yourself articulately in a number of written contexts, such as essays, dissertations and examinations. Academia is all about being able to argue a point, and to do that, you need the appropriate language skills and a vocabulary suited to the formal environment of academic research. What’s more, you’ll need to make sure your spelling and grammar are up to scratch; you can’t expect your work to be taken seriously if it’s littered with errors.

2. Essay writing

Following on from your abilities in English is the ability to write good essays, the demands of which necessitate very specific written English skills as well as other qualities, such as clarity of thinking and persuasiveness. You should already have developed good essay technique from school, but university essays are altogether more challenging. They’ll probably be longer, for a start; and they’ll require a great deal more research, with a much higher standard of academic exploration expected than any of the essays you wrote for A-level. You’ll also have to get into the habit of including footnotes and references whenever you cite another academic work in your essays. You’ll develop your essay skills as you go along, but you can get ahead by referring to our previous posts on essay technique, such as this one and this one.

3. Reading

Image is a painting of a young woman reading, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
Improving your reading speed pays dividends.

You’re likely to have a large volume of reading material thrown your way, and it may prove slightly overwhelming, so you’ll need to develop your reading abilities as well as your written skills. If you’re a slow reader, you may find it useful to learn some speed reading techniques, as this will help you get through your reading lists more quickly. Here are some speed reading tips to help get you started.

4. Note-taking

A very useful skill to have when it comes to every kind of teaching environment you’ll encounter at university is note-taking. Whether it’s in a lecture or doing independent research in the library, finding a way to summarise the vast amount of information to which you will be exposed is vital if you are to make any sense of it and commit it to long-term memory. It’s no good if you’ve produced a set of notes from a lecture that make no sense when you go back and look at them later that week, or when revision time comes around, so you’ll need to develop a note-taking method that works for you. Shorthand is one approach, but by no means the only one; there are also other techniques to help you in certain situations. Some students, for instance, take laptops into lectures because they can type faster than they can handwrite; others may prefer to take an audio recorder to tape what’s being said so that they can play it back in its entirety later on.
When it comes to note-taking from books, it can sometimes feel that everything is important enough to write down, so you end up simply copying out entire passages of books. This is a waste of time; it’s far better to try to summarise arguments and record only short snippets of quotes for later use. You’ll find this much easier to revise from, and it forces you to think about and learn from your reading material rather than just regurgitating it.

5. Independent learning

Image shows three students at separate desks, studying independently.
Can you motivate yourself to work on your own?

The ability to study independently, without that much guidance from teaching staff, is essential at university. You’ll need to be able to structure your time effectively, find things out for yourself without being told to, and learn how to make the most of the resources you’ve been given on your reading list. Learn how to boost your own productivity, so that you don’t end up sitting in the library with so much to do that you don’t know where to start. There’s nothing worse than that feeling of being overwhelmed when you have a looming deadline, so avoid getting into this situation by preparing for essays with lots of time to spare. We’ll come back to time management skills again later in this article.

6. Research

One of the most important academic skills is research; it is, after all, the foundation upon which the whole of academia is based. It may not sound like a skill, but in fact there’s an art to it that you’ll need to master. That includes things like where and how to find the information you need, spotting important information in footnotes and following it up, and even getting used to the very formal style of academic writing. As part of your course, you’ll probably have to undertake a larger piece of research, a dissertation, so your research skills will stand you in good stead for this as well as for your normal essays.

7. Presentation skills

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The more you practise presentation skills, the less public speaking will faze you in future.

Most of us hate giving presentations, but they’re an unfortunate fact of university life. You will almost certainly have to give one at some point, if not regularly, but there’s plenty you can do to prepare for this perhaps worrying eventuality. First of all, you can learn how to create an impressive presentation in PowerPoint or Keynote, so you can wow your audience with something to look at that isn’t you (this will take the pressure off you a bit). Prepare a useful handout to accompany your presentation so that they have even more to look at. You can also practise speaking in public or even take classes to help boost your confidence.

8. Exam technique

A hefty percentage of your course is likely to be assessed by exams, so to give yourself the very best chance of success, it’s worth developing your exam technique to account for the fact that university exams are tougher than A-levels. You’re highly unlikely to have multiple-choice questions at university level; rather, you’ll probably have to answer a number of essays in a short space of time, and within those essays, develop sophisticated arguments and deploy a wide range of knowledge to support them. Read our guide to exam success to find out how to develop your exam technique.

Social skills

Now that we’ve covered the academic side of things, it’s time to look at that other all-important part of university life: social skills. In this section, as well as interpersonal skills, we’ve also included other personal skills and qualities you can develop that will help you succeed at university.

9. Conversational skills

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Other usual conversation topics in the first few weeks of university include where people are from, why they chose their course and whether they took a gap year.

You’re going to be meeting a lot of new people at university: students from all walks of life, staff who might be leaders in their field. You’ll find yourself in a variety of social situations with these people, in addition to the time you spend with them in an academic environment, so you’ll therefore need to go to university armed with excellent conversational skills. Master the art of smalltalk. If you’re not that confident in these sorts of situations, try reading up on some conversation starters to help break the ice and avoid those dreaded awkward silences. A good trick is to ask the other person about themselves; not only does it take the pressure off you, but you’ll show them that you’re interested in them and make them feel valued. Even simple questions such as “how are you finding the course so far?” are a good starting point. You’ll almost certainly have to introduce yourself at some point, so practise this beforehand and think about an interesting fact about yourself that you might want to talk about. Also, don’t be scared about talking to senior academics; they’re people too, and not nearly as intimidating as you might think! By the time you’re a confident third-year, you’ll probably be on first-name terms with them.

10. Cooking

Not really a social skill as such, but cooking is nevertheless an essential life skill for university – and if you’re good at it, you’ll be able to entertain your new friends with your culinary prowess. You’d be surprised how much you and your friends will appreciate a home-cooked meal when you’re away from home, and it’s important to eat healthily to nourish your brain ready for all that studying. If you’ve never cooked before, learn a few basic recipes before you go up to university (we don’t just mean baked beans on toast), and more importantly, learn the principles – such as how to cook chicken safely, different methods of cooking an egg, what foods go with what, how to make a sauce, and so on. A few staple recipes will stand you in good stead; spaghetti bolognese, chilli con carne, a basic chicken curry and a risotto of any kind are all great examples of recipes that are both delicious and easy to make, as well as sure to impress your friends.

11. Home skills

Image shows a hand holding out an iron.
Trust me, this is not a skill you want to be figuring out for the first time on the morning of a job interview.

You won’t have your mum there to do your laundry and other such things for you, so take some time before you go to university to learn basic skills such as how to iron a shirt, if you don’t already know how to do this. There will definitely be occasions on which you’ll need a properly ironed shirt, so don’t think you can get away with wearing T-shirts all the time even if you relish the idea of being a scruffy student!

12. Self-motivation

It may not sound like it, but the ability to motivate yourself is a skill that you can develop, and one that will come in very handy when you’re faced with the choice between an afternoon off or an afternoon in the library. A lot of the time you spend at university will be unstructured, unlike at school when you had a detailed daily timetable laid out for you; it’s therefore important to be able to motivate yourself to make good use of your time. The students who enjoy the greatest success at university are those with a high level of self-motivation, and you can develop yours in a number of ways. Start out with a clear idea of what you want to achieve in the long-run; having this end goal in sight at all times will remind you of what you’re working towards. In the short-term, you can motivate yourself with the promise of small treats or breaks at regular intervals, to reward yourself for your hard work.

13. Time management

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You don’t want to get a reputation as the person who’s always late.

Following on from our point about self-motivation, effective time management skills will be essential at university if you’re to fit in all your social activities alongside a busy programme of study. With many demands on your time, it’s vital to be sensible about how you manage your schedule to avoid becoming stressed. Keep a calendar on your phone with all your appointments, so that you always have it to hand and can therefore avoid double booking, and maintain a ‘To Do’ list with all your tasks and deadlines. Tick them off as and when you complete each one, and break bigger tasks down into smaller ones to make them more manageable.

We hope you’ve found this a useful introduction to the kind of skills that will help you to succeed at university. This stage in your life is a learning curve, so don’t worry if all this seems too much to remember; you’ll pick up many of these skills without even realising it!

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