How to succeed at university

Are you going to university or thinking of going? Nervous? Excited? Or both? As a student therapist and coach, I know university can be a life-changing experience laying the foundation for future success. Over three or more years, university life offers students the opportunity to shape who they are personally, academically and professionally. With over 16 years of experience supporting students, I know how you can make the most of this stage of your academic journey. In my blog, I talk about the importance of remaining connected to your degree and managing your expectations and then share my top tips and strategies for how to succeed at university.

how to succeed at university. Three happy students students studying together on their university campus.

How to succeed at university: stay connected to your degree

Ok, I am going to get straight to the point. Never lose sight of the fact that you are there to gain a degree. Everything you do needs to be in harmony with this goal. While there is no right or wrong way to get through university, the biggest contribution you can make to your mental health and wellbeing is remaining connected to your course. When you are up-to-speed with your modules and meeting your deadlines, it is amazing how enjoyable the rest of university life can be. If you do become disconnected, whether self-induced or not, the sooner you respond to the sight of your degree drifting away from you, the better. It can be easy to fall quickly behind at university due to the volume of work, and I saw students who had never experienced poor mental health before suddenly find themselves struggling for this reason.

Self-induced disconnection. If you want to avoid being one of the many thousands of students failing or retaking their year, dropping out entirely, or retaking assessments in late summer, then be good to yourself and arrange your non-academic activities around your studies not the other way around. This does not mean having your head in a book 24/7 or camping out in the library, but it does mean ensuring your extracurricular activities support rather than undermine your progress. Disconnection through adversity. If events outside of your control, such as illness or bereavement, interrupt your studies, speak to your Personal Tutor or Academic Advisor as soon as possible. Universities know that students experience crises, but they can only provide practical support if they know about them.

Manage your expectations

Like any period of transition, going to university will challenge you in new, sometimes unexpected ways, so manage your expectations. Adopt a flexible mindset and be open to the possibility that university might at certain times bring out the best in you or prove too much. So:

  • expect to know or not know things
  • expect to find some things easy and others difficult
  • expect to be self-sufficient and to need help
  • expect university life to come with all of the benefits of your old life or none
  • expect university life to fix all of the problems from home or exacerbate them
  • expect your relationship with your course and university to fluctuate
  • expect your relationships to have ups and downs

Being open and flexible will allow you to accept the experience you do have, which will help you respond accordingly. And regularly deliver wheelbarrow loads of patience, acceptance, self-care and support as you navigate your way through the choppy waters of university life. Universities are not perfect institutions, and while this does not mean you have to accept poor service, their ability and willingness to support and address your concerns might fall short of your own standards and expectations. Sometimes a dose of reality is needed.

How to succeed at university: top tips and strategies

As a student coach and therapist for 13 years, I know a great deal about student mental health and wellbeing and how to succeed at university. And what I know is that student mental health and wellbeing is multifaceted. My top tips reflect the importance of laying down an extensive psychological, academic, and social foundation for your mental health.

  1. Be honest with yourself. If you have struggled personally, socially and academically, anticipate how this might affect you at university. Past issues often disappear because going to university can be such a positive experience, but if they don’t, have measures in place and ask for support. You can set up a lot of support in advance if appropriate to your circumstances, and you are well-advised to do so.
  2. It is undoubtedly true that universities offer fantastic social, academic and professional opportunities that these days cater for a wide variety of interests and personal preferences. Be true to yourself in choosing which to pursue, but feel like you belong above all else.
  3. It is a student cliché, but developing key life skills such as budgeting, cooking, and organising can make a meaningful difference. Feeling equipped to live independently can help you feel in control generally and bring specific benefits such as building relationships and improving academic performance.
  4. Play to your academic strengths. For example, if you know producing your best work takes time, plan your days and weeks accordingly as you will have several assignments on the go at once. Or, if you work best when faced with a looming deadline, plan accordingly. Either way, do spend time honing your academic skills such as critical thinking, academic writing, researching and presenting.
  5. Please get to know your academic flaws and aim to overcome them. University counselling services are full of students who lack self-belief, seek perfection, adopt last-minute-dot-com strategies, and fail to accept the need for hard work.
  6. Get to know your tutors to the best of your ability. Take it from me, when you knock on a tutor’s door in your final year, you want them to know who you are. They love their subject and will naturally connect with students who do too. And good tutor relations mean they can give you valuable feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. That said, not all tutors are warm and approachable. If you encounter one such tutor, you can appeal to Course Leaders or Heads of Faculties for appropriate action or even a change of tutor.
  7. Access student support services such as disability, mental health, counselling, coaching, employability and study skills. These services can be life-changing and make a significant difference to your university experience and outcomes. However, be realistic as they are often in huge demand, so where possible, be flexible in how you go about getting the support you need, e.g. can you get it from friends, family, other students or even outside organisations? Student Unions can also be a great source of independent support on a range of issues.
  8. Adopt different personal, social and academic strategies for each year of your degree. In your first year, avoid becoming too attached to success or failure regarding, for example, friendships and grades. Consider incorporating employability and professional development alongside your intellectual life in year two. And in your final year, form dedicated study and revision groups with like-minded peers.
  9. Living with other students is a unique experience and will be a significant factor for your mental health and wellbeing. Many students get on fine or tolerate those who live differently from them, but act fast if your living arrangements become intolerable. When living in university accommodation, get support from staff or university security if you feel unsafe. When in private accommodation, resolving disagreements can prove trickier, so carefully choose who you live with.
  10. One issue that can come as a big shock is the need to choose accommodation for your second year as early as the first term of year one. While it might seem crazy that such a decision comes so soon, it does, so think carefully about where you live and who you live with.
  11. Establish a relationship with your family and friends at home that works for you at different stages of your university life. If you need to feel close, then be close, and if you need to create distance, then create distance. Adopt this approach even if you live at home during your time at university. Living at home can sometimes result in feeling disconnected from your friends and peers, so be alert to this and, where necessary, work on staying connected.
  12. Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘too much of a good thing’? At times, consider spending some time away from university – go home if you can, explore your local community or countryside, but leave the campus from time to time.
  13. Attending university is sometimes the best of a bad set of options for some students. If deep down you know university isn’t for you, but you decide to go, at the very least be kind to yourself. Accept your misgivings and be open to gaining something from the experience. Similarly, if you have no strong interest in studying any subject and choose one for the sake of it, again be open-minded and challenge yourself to get as much from it as possible.

Getting advice and support

I hope you have enjoyed my blog, How to succeed at university. If you would like support or are the parent or guardian of a child going to university, I’d love to hear from you. My IMPACT Model and IMPACT Programmes have helped many students to flourish in the good times and build resilience during more challenging ones.

To book an initial consultation, visit my Make a Booking page. You will have the opportunity to tell me about what you are going through and find out how I can support you. Even if you choose not to work with me, I promise your consultation will give you more ideas, knowledge and insight than you had before.