University – many look back on this chapter of life as the time when they had the most fun, independence and when they truly ‘found themselves’. Many also remember it as the peak years of studying in their lifetime. However, finding the perfect ‘balance’ between excelling academically and extracurricular accomplishment can often prove to be a challenge.
Imagine that you have just been accepted into your top university for the subject you wish to study. Your parents and teachers have instilled into you the importance of staying focused and not falling behind on work. During your first tour of campus you see dozens of societies that you wish to get involved in, activities to try and events to attend. Throughout term your schedule is looking more and more busy, meanwhile the workload is piling up. At university, the experience of studying is quite different to school. There is no one to spoon feed you and it is up to you to build your own study regime. Often you even need to find your own sources of information, instead of having just one key textbook for each curriculum. How do you figure this all out and stay on top of things, whilst not missing out on all the other opportunities that university has to offer? It is not uncommon at exam time for students to find themselves asking the question: “did I take on too much?”
Everybody’s experience of university is unique, and their preferred structure for studying and number of extracurricular activities they embark on can differ greatly. I myself have had a proactive involvement in numerous societies, ongoing activities and volunteering (as well as a busy social life), and have simultaneously managed to achieve the grades I desired in my degree. However, at times I also found that I might have been over-ambitious in trying to do “too much”, and required a re-think of my plans for the year. To help you feel better prepared in advance of your university years ahead, I have prepared a few tips to bear in mind:
1) MAKE A LIST – after you have gotten an insight into the activities and societies that interest you, make a shortlist of the ones you really want to be involved in and how much involvement you would like in each. Remember, you have three or more years at university so you can spread it out over the years. Also, your interests may change over time, so be flexible.
2) TIMESCALE – what will be your busiest times of year? For example: exams in January and May, dance show in February and sports competition in December. Only commit to what you know you can commit to, and be realistic. Do not underestimate the time required for training leading up to the big events, as you do not want this to eat into your allocated study time. If you find that there are overlaps, you may have to sacrifice other activities in order to spend enough time on each.
3) “ME TIME” – often one can get so carried away with this extracurricular-academic balance that they are left with no hours of “free time” in their week. Underestimating the importance of this can lead to tension and stress, as no time is dedicated to relaxation. Having time to reflect and meditate is so important to keeping you motivated, and will avoid you “burning out”.
4) FAMILY AND FRIENDS – if you find that you are constantly having to cancel plans or miss out on social events, you are probably taking on too much. You should always make time for the important people in your life – they can often be a relief to your busy schedule and help you to feel yourself again.
5) SAY “NO” – do not feel that once you have committed to one thing, you must say “yes” to everything else that is asked of you. For example, I choreographed for a show in February and then agreed to participate in a dance competition in March. The latter took up more time than I had anticipated and I ended up having to sacrifice other activities I wanted to get involved in to make sure that I could keep on top of work. You may have to be firm, even if others are very persuasive -just remember what is important to you and that your degree comes first.
6) STUDY TIMETABLE – plan ahead. Find out your timetable for the year in advance, and plan your other activities around that. Allocate time before each week to know your schedule, prepare your work and have all the resources that you need. Doing these things in advance rather than leaving till the last minute will help you to not become overwhelmed and disorganized in your work, especially if you have a busy extracurricular schedule. Also, do not leave work to catch up on at the end of the year – you will find that it will all build up and can overwhelm you. You can even use commute time – I always bring work to read on the tube, and nowadays you can even get apps that condense work into flashcards for you!
7) TALK TO OTHERS – talk to people in older years who have advice to give on how to stay on top of your degree, recommended textbooks and resources. Ask lecturers and course advisers any questions you may have. Take note when they emphasize important topics or resources. University offers a wider variety of learning styles, so different people have different preferences. Also bear this in mind when listening to different people’s opinions – you may have to take their advice with a pinch of salt. Take the best from different advice given and find what works best for you. Be open to trying new ways of learning, e.g. group brainstorming sessions with a whiteboard, rather than just working on your own.
8) SCHEDULE BREAKS – taking regular breaks from work often helps to reboot your mind and get you back into focus. It also allows you to practice recall to see how much knowledge you have retained. When taking a break, I mean leaving your desk and going for a quick walk or run (or any light activity) to release some endorphins and get your circulation pumped. This can especially help if you are having a mind block. Some people (like myself) may prefer to work in solid blocks, so I have to force myself away from the desk to take allocated breaks.
University is a time to get focused and work hard to achieve your desired career path, but it is also important for developing yourself in other areas of life. I learnt how to better manage my time, developed skills such as leadership and teamwork, and also was able to express my creative side in ways that my degree did not allow me to. Keeping on top of work also gave me a sense of responsibility and helped me to hold on to the “bigger picture” of how my work now would impact my future career.
Proactive involvement in hobbies allows you to challenge your brain in other ways, and can even help you to study better. It provides a relief from studying, and can help to keep you motivated. I personally feel that my extracurricular involvement allowed me to develop skills that complemented my degree, and ultimately helped me to get into postgraduate Medicine. For me, university life and its opportunities provided a source of inspiration that I could do more, and allowed me to reach higher. That is why I believe in the importance of choosing a university that is suited to you, your interests and desired lifestyle, as well as the degree that you choose.