8 Ways to Push Yourself in the Subject You're Best At
Is there a subject that you just do really well in?
You’re getting full marks and your teacher’s comments are just variations on the word ‘excellent’ with no more feedback to give. Your friends come to you for tips if it’s a subject they’re struggling in. You’re pretty sure it’s what you’re going to study at university and everyone knows it’s your thing.
If this sounds familiar, you might wonder what more there is that you could possibly be expected to do, and whether your efforts would be better focused on the subjects you find more challenging. The answer is that you might well not be expected to do more – for instance, some though not all universities will be happy with top marks and not much other engagement – but you might well want to.
If this is a subject that you’re not only good at, but love, it can be very exciting to know that there’s a lot more you can do to excel in it than just carrying on working hard in the classroom. And if you want to get into the very best universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, you will need to have evidence of having pushed yourself a little harder, as well. If you’re keen to go further but don’t know what direction to take, here are our top tips.
1. Ask your teacher for more feedback
If your marks are as good as they can get and you haven’t yet shown that much interest in pushing yourself, your teacher might be happy enough to let you rest on your laurels. This is especially the case if your marks in other subjects aren’t up to the same standard, as they won’t want to knock your confidence for no good reason. But at the same time, no good teacher will want a pupil who’s happy to be challenged to become bored and complacent. If you’re trying to push yourself in your favourite subject, the best place to start, then, is one of your most accessible resources on your subject of choice: your teacher.
Ask to have a quick chat after class sometime, and explain that while you’re very pleased with the positive feedback you’ve been getting, you’d like to push yourself further to improve, so you’re also happy to hear more detailed criticism even if it goes above and beyond what’s required of you at this stage.
Your teacher might take this on board, act on it in future feedback and leave it at that. But they might also be willing to help you out beyond this, and could provide you with guidance about what you can do to explore the subject in more depth in your own time. If you explain that it’s a subject you’re thinking of studying at university, that may well make your teacher even more amenable to supporting you in your ambitions. They might also be able to provide tips to help you with the ideas in the rest of this article.
2. Interrogate how the subject is studied
For almost any subject, there’s probably been a whole lot of debate behind the scenes that’s informed how it’s studied. In English, there’s the entire world of different theories of literary criticism, ranging from the idea that all literature should be studied without the clouding effect of historical context, to the Marxist approach that explores literature through that particular ideological lens. In History, there are philosophical questions of how we learn and establish truths about the past, especially when different accounts – such as from victors and losers – come into conflict. And in sciences, there is the whole history of the development of the scientific method.
Most of the time at school, we study subjects using a single one of these approaches, or something approximating a compromise position between different popular approaches. That means that’s there’s a whole kaleidoscope of other ways of looking at your subject, some of them valid, some of them more dubious, but all of them interesting in one way or another. It also means that even if you think you’ve exhausted a topic, there might be more you can glean about it by thinking of it from a completely different perspective. For instance, if you’ve been taught about ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ from a feminist perspective that looks at the roles played by male and female characters, there might be a whole lot more to learn if you think about it instead from a Marxist perspective that looks at the power and wealth differentials between upper and lower-class characters.
3. Read something that’s wrong
You might have read the above and thought that some of the approaches sound like complete nonsense; for instance, you might think there’s nothing valuable in approaching a piece of literature from a Freudian perspective, given that Freudian theory has been mostly discredited in Psychology. But you can, in fact, learn a great deal from engaging with something that you know or believe to be wrong. That’s not just in order to keep an open mind and be able to reconsider your opinions. Even if there isn’t the slightest chance that you’re going to change your mind, reading things that are wrong can still teach you something about your subject.
For example, take the works of physicist Fred Hoyle. Hoyle is now remembered – perhaps unfairly – for two key things. The first is his work as a science fiction writer. The second is for coining the term ‘big bang’, which he invented to mock that theory of the origin of the universe, as he thought it was utterly ridiculous. In the intervening years, though Hoyle’s mocking nickname stuck, we’ve found more and more evidence that the theory of the Big Bang is, in fact, correct. Reading Hoyle’s work, especially in conjunction with that of his opponents, will help you understand the process by which we became more and more certain of the accuracy of the Big Bang theory versus Hoyle’s preferred steady-state universe theory – and by extension, how scientific theories are formed and tested in general.`
4. Start a blog or discuss the topic on social media
Starting a blog about your chosen subject is unlikely to make you famous or lead to a book deal – or even all that many pageviews. But it will give you practice at thinking and writing about your subject in a format that’s different from your work at school, which can be invaluable. You won’t just be thinking about what will get you good marks, but about what might be quirky, or interesting, or even funny. Tricks that you use to disguise points of confusion or lack of information in an essay might be harder to cover up in a blog, which can help highlight areas where you could use a bit more studying. While you might choose to blog about what you’ve learned in class every week, you could also use a blog as an avenue to explore new topics and figure out which areas are of greatest interest to you.
Similarly, there might be a whole community in your subject out there, waiting for you to join them on social media or blogging sites. Begin by following academics and writers in your field whose views you find interesting – seeing who they interact with on social media can be a great way to get to know the thoughts and opinions of a network of people in your subject area. The unfiltered nature of social media has its disadvantages, but it also means that you can get an insight into the discussions going on in your subject that might be edited out of published books and articles. And if you’re brave and confident enough, you might even want to get involved in some discussions yourself.
5. Become an expert in something specific
You might, right now, be dreaming of becoming an expert in your whole subject. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing. All the academics you’ve been interacting with on social media or referencing in your blog are likely to only consider themselves experts on one small topic, even if you might disagree; that’s simply the way that academic specialisms work. You’re not going to become as much of an expert as any of them for some years, but you can nonetheless pick something very small and get to the point where you know it inside out. That might be a particular poem or short story; two or three years in the life of a particular nobleman; the relationship between one village and the river that supports it; one sketch by a famous artist; one organism; one bone; one element – there should be something that you can find regardless of your subject of choice.
Whatever it is that you choose, study it in as much detail as you can. Look at it from the perspective of all the different approaches that you covered in point #2. If you picked something small or obscure enough, it might well be possible to read every article or book chapter ever written about it; you might be able to give yourself the satisfaction of being of one of maybe a hundred people in the world to know as much as you do about your specific topic. The only danger in this is that once you know one thing this well, you may start to view your whole subject with your area of expertise as your point of reference, which can colour the rest of your studies. You can fix this by finding a second small, obscure thing and becoming an expert on that as well.
6. Get to know the experts
You might have found this one PhD student who has some really great ideas, writes a hilarious blog and is reliably both well-informed and entertaining when she discusses her subject on Twitter, who might become your go-to source for interesting thoughts on your subject of choice. All the same, if you’re looking at university interviews and the like, you will be expected to have some working knowledge of the leading experts in your field as well, even if their writing is rather less enjoyable to read.
That means having a read of all the key books in your field (your teacher can help you in working out which ones these are) and seeing where there are points of disagreement. Follow up on footnotes or interesting references in the bibliography to guide your further reading. If the writers are still alive, it can be worth looking online to see if they have blogs or have written any updates on their older work. This will help you get a better broad perspective on what’s going on in your subject today.
7. Find out what students of the topic do for fun, and get involved
Not that many people can read Old English, and fewer still know the language well enough to write in it – especially given the number of modern English words that don’t have an Old English translation that we know of. All the same, there are enough people who have studied Old English and arguably had a little bit too much time on their hands, that an alternative Wikipedia exists, written entirely in a language that no one has spoken for nearly a thousand years. You can find it here, and do note that it has over 2,500 articles. Also note that this is more than Hawaiian, which is a language that people use in their daily lives.
Why does it exist? Presumably because some Old English nerds thought that it might be fun. There are almost certainly similar things out there for whatever your subject of choice is, and if you want to increase your understanding of your topic in a fun and slightly ridiculous way, you should find out what those things are and get involved. So much of your education as a teenager is goal-orientated, from exam results to university admissions, but if you really want to enjoy and get to grips with your preferred subject, do it by doing something that is both educational and essentially pointless. If that turns out to be dull, perhaps you only like the subject because you’re good at it. But if it’s fascinating, then who knows where the love of your subject of choice might take you?
Image credits: thumbs up; lily; bored cat; signpost; big bang mockup; magnifying glass; books; sutton hoo helmet