Nearing the end of my first year at university has led to a lot of thinking. Starting university has been the biggest challenge of my life to date, and I would like to believe that I was adequately prepared by the schools and colleges that I passed through.
My (slightly procrastinatory) considerations have yielded a few negative results – areas where I have not felt prepared at all – but also some positive ways in which I feel my school experience has stood me in good stead at university.
Starting with the negative, in my experience so far, there are two main categories that comprise “university life” – academic studies and personal care and development. Well, and socialising. But regrettably, teachers can’t really prepare you for that, however great they might be.
In terms of academic studies, university is markedly different from secondary school, as it should be. Instead of being told exactly what I should revise for an upcoming test, I am confronted by lecturers who prattle on for two hours with no visual aids, and am expected to take from this the information I need to gain a degree.
Although I am slowly becoming more practised at this kind of note-taking, it was a huge shock at first. I understand that schools have to cater for all students, and that giving information readily is the best way of doing this, however some students need stretching.
Spoon-feeding is all very well to gently encourage students to learn, but when I look back over my school career, I can see plenty of opportunities where my intellectual abilities could have been tested further. This would have made my eventual transition to university learning much smoother.
Another problem with this kind of learning, I have found, is it’s a memory-based approach. In both university and the real world, there is little need for vast amounts of memorised facts and figures, ready to be regurgitated upon an exam paper. University places more value upon the processing of this information, with students required to carry out data analysis, criticise methodology and theories, and generally break down their knowledge.
In our increasingly digitalised world, it is surely important that students leave school with a sound knowledge of how to deconstruct data, instead of simply being able to remember it?
Furthermore, university requires “critical argumentative skills”, which are generally not taught at school level. I remember being genuinely shocked to discover that a perfectly crafted Point, Evidence, Example, Development (PEED) essay simply would not cut it at degree level.
Although it is fairly common for a first essay at university to be of poor standard, I feel that this is just an excuse. Were students to be taught early on that not all pieces of work have to follow a set formula, and that sometimes imagination and originality should be used, these grades would be much higher.
This brings me on to my next point – personal skills and development. One of the biggest shocks for many first year students is the sudden need for budgeting. Luckily, I was taught how to be financially savvy by my mother at an early age, so I have never struggled with making my student loan last the term.
However, many of my fellow students claim that finance is their biggest worry, coming far above academic studies and career prospects. I know of students who blew their entire student loan in the first week of term, and consequently ate nothing but economy baked beans for the next 10 weeks.
In a less extreme example, the vast majority of students, including myself, are clueless about the finances involved in renting a house. When signing the contract for the house we are to live in next year, my future housemates and I found ourselves completely flummoxed.
One of the most common questions in my GCSE maths class was “when am I ever going to use this in the real world?”. My teacher used to reply with vague examples concerning algebra which I’ve mostly forgotten. Had she replied with an explanation of how weekly rent is calculated to account for the different month lengths, I am sure I would have understood more of the important paperwork that I had to sign the other week.
As important as real maths is, I believe that part of the curriculum should be used to deliver sensible, useful life-advice to students, setting them up for their future lives.
On top of the lack of financial advice, most of the friends I mentioned this article to claimed they would have liked more practical advice concerning self-care.
Cooking, cleaning and washing are traditionally things that should be learnt from parents, however in our current culture this rarely happens. Therefore, schools could be providing opportunities for us to get information on these crucial aspects. This would allow students, whether they go on to university or not, to look after themselves successfully.
I would like to stress that there are many positive aspects to the way my school prepared me for university, not least when it comes to diversity. As schools become more diverse and open to our multicultural society, young people will face a considerable amount of diversity during their school careers.
On beginning university, I was met with the biggest range of cultures that I have ever experienced – international students make up more than 10 per cent of the student population, and that doesn’t count EU students. However, the diversity of my school years allowed me to feel much more comfortable in working and socialising with students from all walks of life.
In addition, my secondary school placed considerable emphasis on the role of students in decision-making. This meant that I understood and felt a part of the student union, feeling able to join in with voting and helping make decisions.
As a result of being involved in extra-curricular activities and holding positions of responsibility at school, I have felt able to put myself forward for things and take every opportunity sent my way at university.
Many of my fellow students, who do not have such experience, have found it more difficult to get immersed into the many voluntary and recreational activities that university offers.
Overall, the most important university preparations that I received were things that cannot be taught. At the risk of sounding exceptionally cheesy, I had several teachers who made me believe anything was possible. At the time, my secondary school experience was overwhelmingly positive and has set me up with a level of confidence that’s still helping to this day.
Despite feeling unprepared for the academic rigour of my course and the challenges of being an independent learner, I had other experiences to draw on. The academic stuff was a learning curve that I guess I had to go through. More important was the personal development that occurred during my school career, giving me confidence, and the “get up and go” attitude that I’m certain has helped my university life so far.
If I had to give one piece of advice to teachers aiming to prepare students for university, or indeed life in general, it would be simple. Show them that the world is out there, and tell them that it’s just waiting for them. Show them that with confidence, anything is possible.
• Jess Elliott is a first year university student who is studying psychology at the University of Bath.