Studying at University vs. Sixth Form

As you go from primary to secondary school, and then GCSEs to A-Levels, the academic expectations keep changing. In response, your study habits also evolve slightly. Going from sixth form to university is no different. In this post I’ll share a few of the study-specific differences I noticed when I made the transition to Imperial.

1. You don’t have textbooks at university When I was doing my GCSEs and A-Levels the exam board specified textbook formed the cornerstone of my study routine. I took great solace from the fact that everything I needed to know for my exams was contained within its covers. I should clarify here that I studied A-Levels in Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics; this may not be true for other subjects. However, much to my dismay, I learned that at university there is no one textbook which our course follows. Many of our lecturers have published textbooks themselves which they may reference but I find the prospect of grappling scores of books, each with only a couple of relevant chapters, overwhelming to say the least. As a result, when I came to university, I had to adapt to making my own notes on the content delivered in lectures and tutorials to act as a surrogate for a textbook. This certainly took some getting used to but now I feel (almost) comfortable studying without my textbook companion.

2. No-one will force you to work This statement will seem liberating at first glance, and in many ways it is. Most people will have had to hide under a common room table at some point during sixth form to evade an irked teacher looking for your homework. Many of my teachers would set us dense booklets of questions at the end of every lesson to make sure we had understood what they taught us that day. While at the time being constantly under pursuit for overdue work may have seemed suffocating to a lot of people, I found a strange sense of comfort in the routine it provided. At school I knew that, if I kept doing the work provided by my teachers, I would be okay. There was always an opportunity for feedback with each piece of homework. However, at university, once a lecturer has left the lecture theatre (or zoom call) they will not take it upon themselves to check you’ve understood what they said. That responsibility lies with you. University requires you to take charge of your learning in a way you were never expected to at school. Of course, lecturers are always happy to clarify something if you email or ask them about it, but that relies upon your initiative. Again, it takes getting used to, but independent learning is an important skill to learn and university gives you the opportunity to develop it in a secure environment.

3. Rote learning won’t cut it Certainly for Biology and Chemistry A-Level, there were certain facts that I knew I just needed to memorise and I would be fine for the exams. This was largely feasible as well. However, as you transition to university, the volume of content you need to grasp becomes monumentally greater such that memorising everything becomes nearly impossible. It is also unhelpful for the large part as our exams test understanding as opposed to regurgitation. Therefore, at university making sure you understand content is far more important than memorising every detail of it.

4. You’re studying a subject you enjoy (hopefully) With the breadth of degree subjects available, most people are able to choose a course they are truly passionate about. At least for me, this was a big difference from sixth form. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my A-Level subjects, but none of them were purely what I wanted to dedicate the rest of my working life to. Medicine is. In sixth form there were always elements of my subjects that I was learning just to pass an exam. This is largely in contrast to university where I see the practical value of everything I learn about. Particularly in Medicine, the consequences of not studying core concepts are much more far reaching than failing an exam. To me, this makes the learning experience all the more stimulating.

I hope you found this post somewhat insightful and remember that transition is a natural process. Some people adapt more quickly than others but in the end everyone gets used to studying at university- be patient and you’ll be just fine!

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