How to survive studying English Literature at University

Sep 20, 2017

English Literature has always been my best subject. Throughout my school life even the idea of balancing equations or learning chemical symbols made me want to scream, whilst an hour of talking about books was pretty much my heaven. It didn’t really feel like work, which probably explains how I was able to get consistently high marks. I got through lower school tests, GCSEs and A-Levels without feeling like the work was ever too difficult. It was one of the subjects that I knew like the back of my hand.

Then university came along and I realised that a lot of what I knew about studying English Literature no longer applied. A love for books wasn’t enough to get me through (even though it’s still easily the most important thing). However, now that I’m heading into my third year I can honestly say that I’ve got better at getting through dense reading lists, referencing and writing essays without having a little cry at the end of each day. And I got firsts in year one and two, so I must be doing something right!

I know that the jump from A-Level to degree level can leave you feeling way out of your depth, but if you’re capable of getting into uni, you’re capable of getting through it too! I believe in you, even if you don’t. So, in the hopes of making that first month or so a little less terrifying, I thought I would share with you what I’ve learnt about doing an English Literature degree.

Get your reading done ASAP. 

With a degree like English you decide what you’re doing with the majority of your time. Apart from a pretty minimal amount of contact hours, you dictate how much work you are going to do every day. And trust me, it’s way too easy to put off reading until you can’t put it off any longer.

To avoid the stress (and to actually make sure that you’re getting something out of your reading experience), you have to work smart. I’ve found that the best way to do this is to read for an hour or two as soon as I wake up. That means no phones and no chatting to my flatmates! When that time’s up I let myself relax a little more and can afford to since I know that I’ve already got a decent amount of work done.

If you don’t read absolutely everything, it’s not the end of the world. At all. 

In first year, I read every single book on our reading lists. I’ve never been more stressed in my life and wish I’d know back then just how unnecessary it is. Whilst I’m not telling you to show up to your lectures completely uninformed and having got through none of the required reading, a couple of books here and there isn’t going to kill you. If it means you’re less stressed, it’s worth it. And hey, Spark Notes exists for a reason.

Other people matter. 

Here’s a fun fact for ya: University is 90% talking about other people’s opinions. Yes, you need to get through your actual material, but you also need to find out what other people think of it. Learning 5 critical quotes off by heart like you did before your A-Level exam will not cut it.

I try to read two papers or book exerpts about each text I study and way more if I’m writing an essay on them. It doesn’t take me long, but it makes a huge difference in being able to form a coherent opinion.

Make life easier for your future self. 

I’m a big advocate for living in the present, but not when it comes to uni work. If you take anything away from these tips, let it be this.

Firstly, always take notes whilst you’re reading a book. I create a big document of all quotes that jump out to me and, as themes become more clear the further I read, I organise them into categories. I often look ahead at the class synopsis for that week to find out what we’ll be discussing so I can focus on those topics in particular.

Secondly, take notes during class. Always. I don’t care if your hungover, do not allow the words “oh, I’ll remember that anyway!” to leave your lips. When it comes to writing essays and you have 2 pages of lecturer-approved information about the books, you will thank yourself.

Don’t forget to read your interests. 

With such a long reading list, it’s not difficult to get bogged down. But it’s so important to read outside of your course, if simply to retain your love for literature. There’s little I love more than picking up a novel and knowing that I don’t have to take notes. I think it’s what keeps me sane.

  1. Gabrielle Snow

    September 20th, 2017 at 5:56 pm

    This was so interesting! My degree isn't about literature (but I am a total bookworm) and always wondered how a Lit student studied so thank you so much for the first-hand information! I'm sure your tips will be very useful for other Literature students xxx Gabrielle

  2. BethanyAustin

    October 2nd, 2017 at 10:01 am

    Aw thanks, Gabrielle!xx

  3. Lucy Furneaux

    September 22nd, 2017 at 11:28 am

    As a fellow lit student just starting third year, this is such a brilliant post! I love the line 'if you're capable of getting into uni, you're capable of getting through it' – so so true! And you're so right about not needing to read absolutely everything. I totally agree with working smart, too; I had to read Moby Dick for this term and a bunch of my classmates are currently trying to get through it as quickly as possible, but reading it slowly and strategically over the summer meant I got so much more out of it.Good luck with third year!Lx | Lightly We Go

  4. BethanyAustin

    October 2nd, 2017 at 10:02 am

    Thank you Lucy! I'm so glad that it resonated with you. good luck with studying moby dick – I've heard it's a killer but you were definitely right to read it slowly xx

  5. Anna

    September 22nd, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    Thank you so much for this! I'm properly starting my degree next week, and it's a very happy coincidence that this came up in my follows feed. I've started to read one text because I'll have to miss that lecture, and have started taking down a couple of notes with it. I will try to remember to look up other people's opinions on texts though, that hasn't occurred to me yet and I think it's a fantastic idea. Best of luck in your third year!

  6. BethanyAustin

    October 2nd, 2017 at 10:02 am

    Ahhh Anna good luck! I'm sure you're going to love it xx

  7. Unknown

    September 24th, 2017 at 4:18 pm

    ahhh thank you for writing this, it is totally what I needed to read today <3 just entering my second week and the reading list is the most stressful thing i've ver seen ahaha!Love,Anne //

  8. BethanyAustin

    October 2nd, 2017 at 10:02 am

    You are so welcome, Anne! Good luck! xx

  9. libbyjade26

    September 25th, 2017 at 2:59 pm

    This is so interesting and funny that it came up on my feed today as I'm literally about to re-write my personal statement for English lit. I was never really sure what to study but I always came back to English- I think just the intensity of the course scares me but all courses are like that so I'm just being silly, but I love this post. It was very comforting

  10. BethanyAustin

    October 2nd, 2017 at 10:02 am

    Good luck Libby! I'm so glad that I could help xx


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