A shelf of old, vintage hardcover books in several different colours

4 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My English Degree

English literature is often looked down on as a degree, but it’s actually incredibly versatile, transferrable and interesting. It teaches you original thought, critical thinking, deep analysis and so many other skills you can use in later life.

Like every degree, however, it has its challenges, and there are several things I wish I’d been told before starting my degree that would’ve made the process a lot smoother.

The biggest takeaway and piece of advice I’ll give, though, is enjoy it. Even when it feels like your teachers and peers are talking gibberish in your seminars, sit there and enjoy the fact that you are in an incredibly privileged position and in a degree that puts you rather than academics first.

1. Your lectures will not teach you your texts

An empty lecture hall viewed from the front full of black chairs and a lecture podium

When people tell you uni isn’t the same as school, they aren’t kidding. Lectures are not at all like lessons. Yes, you’re being talked at by a teacher for an hour, but lectures don’t have the same goals as school lessons do in the slightest. You come into lectures having already done extensive reading for the class, so you technically already ‘know’ the material. At school, you’re taught the material. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise this until I got to my first few lectures.

Advice: do at least SOME of the reading. I certainly haven’t done all of my required work for my lectures, but I’ve understood them the best when I’ve at least onced-over the texts that have been assigned. Lectures are all about encouraging further thinking that often deviates from the texts’ orginal intents and purposes. You bring in secondary thinkers to analyse literary works or apply today’s age to the text, not go through it line by line. Going into your lectures with this mindset can make a serious difference.

2. EVERYTHING is your responsibility

It was a shocker when I realised I had to buy all of the set texts myself. It was even more of a shocker when I realised my lecturers and seminar leaders were completely relying on me to show face in their classes and put in the work myself.

The dangerous part of uni is the ability we have to slack off and not actually do anything required of us. I wish someone had told me beforehand the extent of responsibility that was on me going into my degree. If you miss a class, you’re not going to be chased by your lecturers and seminar leaders. If you don’t do the reading, you’re not going to be punished. If you don’t have the material – tough.

The dangerous part of uni is the ability we have to slack off and not actually do anything required of us.

All this makes it so easy to let yourself go, and I certainly have, so if you are about to start your degree, consider the level of responsibility you have to uphold beforehand and seriously think about whether you can hack it or not, because you have to step up for yourself. No one else is going to.

3. Plan your assignments early

A table covered multi-coloured with sticky notes, some filled out, some empty

I have written some of my assignments the night before they’re due, and trust me, it’s not a fun experience. What is ironic about this point is that I WAS told by many people to start my assignments early, I just ignored them. But from experience, I assure you – it’s worth looking at them before their due date. Or at least deciding what you want to write about before you start writing.

Planning takes the stress and pressure off, and genuinely makes you feel so much better as a student. You feel productive which puts you in a better mood to write. Planning is just a good decision in general and I wish I did it more!

4. Original thinking > ‘correct’ thinking

A wooden silhouette of a person standing on a stair thinking, with spheres hovering above their head like thought bubbles

I was properly shook when my seminar leader told me that they are more likely to give a first to an essay that tried to have original thought and didn’t do it very well over an essay that was very well executed but was not original. English degrees are seriously all about forming your own opinions and arguments, and about reacting to the texts put in front of you, rather than just absorbing them.

If I’d been told this earlier on, my essays will have looked so much better and I would have enjoyed my classes way more, because especially in first year, it’s about training your brain to think originally, not about getting it right.

If you’re going into your first year of an English degree or even just feel like you wanted a refresher, I hope these four things were helpful, but like I said, my biggest piece of advice is to enjoy the moments while they last. Uni is a special time and you can learn so much from it, both inside the classroom and out.

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