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.