What You Actually Learn At University - Part One
I’m often asked for advice on university courses.
Which one should they choose?
Should they even go to university at all?
Parents will give the usual suggestions:
“Go to the most prestigious one, so that it impresses employers”
“Pick a course with safe job prospects”
My view is slightly different.
Let’s look at what you actually get from a degree. These are some valuable skills, but maybe not the ones they advertise at Open Day…
Find things that interest you
Most students have no idea what they want to do in ten years’ time. You might have an inkling but not a firm idea. This is the advantage of generalist courses that teach you how to think, rather than a specialization or practical skill.
Examples include: Arts, Science, Engineering, Business and Design.
These courses are like a canape dinner: various little bits of food, some delicious, some strange, some disappointments and some that surprise you.
If you think you’ll love every subject, you’re in for a rude shock.
Take the good with the bad, and hopefully you find 4-5 subjects that inspire you – then use these as launch points for your career.
Learn the fundamentals of your field
It’s important that you’re across all the basics of your chosen area, not just your favourite bits. It’s vital that you don’t have the wool pulled over your eyes when you’re working full-time.
In my business degree, this meant everyone needed to be able to read a balance sheet, market a product, manage a team, analyse data, and understand the law – irrespective of their major.
This ensures that you won’t make any horrible mistakes or embarrass yourself out in the real world.
How to work in a group
You’re going to spend a lot of time working in groups, and it’s easy to see this as a drawback.
“These idiots are ruining my grades! If they weren’t here I’d do much better on this assignment”
Here’s the problem: Those idiots are the assignment.
The work you produce sucks. Nobody will ever ask to see the reports you wrote at university.
This is about the skill of working with other people, even (and especially) difficult people.
You will always have to work with other people. You won’t always get to pick who they are.
Learning how to make the most of your team is invaluable, and is a skill that will stay with you forever.
How to get a high grade
At some point in your degree, you should do what it takes to get a great score. Pick one of the 4-5 subjects you love, and go the extra mile.
It’s good to know how to get a high distinction, so that when you need to do something well, you have an idea as to what a good effort looks/feels like.
How to coast and get a Pass
“P’s make Degrees”
I hated that expression.
The problem is, there’s some truth to it.
Your career is going to be full of projects that you don’t enjoy. Some of these just need to get done, and 51% is good enough.
This is the skill of not exerting yourself on the things that don’t matter to you, but still doing enough to get the job done.
How to make friends
Every university exists outside of your comfort zone.
Everyone finds the first few weeks tough; when you’re meeting new people and trying to establish your own identity.
This is not a once-off event, this happens over and over again in life.
Work, conferences, social events, moving suburbs, moving countries.
University is practice: getting comfortable with introductions, small talk, socialising over a coffee or a beer, and turning strangers into friends.
The mechanics of a great presentation
Some odd people, including myself, are inspired and educated by bad presenters.
You watch them and ask yourself “What’s going wrong?”
Why isn’t this working?
What’s wrong with their slides?
What are they doing with their hands?
The problem with good presenters is that they make it look easy. A bad lecturer highlights the craft of public speaking, and accidentally teaches you some brilliant lessons.
How to present on your own
You will bomb a talk at some point.
Before you freak out, think about this: Where would you like it to happen?
The safest place in the world? An 8:00 Monday morning class where nobody cares.
You will make mistakes, and if you’re sharp, will never make them again. It will be the worst presentation you ever give, and there will be virtually zero consequences. I found that really heartening.
How to present as a group
Your team will be required to give a presentation. Most read that as:
“Get your whole team up the front, standing awkwardly in front of the projector, everyone waiting for their turn to read out the slides word-for-word with their backs to the audience”
You’ll make mistakes, learn the craft, and be forever stronger for having cringed so much at your own work.
How to write a report
Being able to write a good report is a useful skill. You learn how to be interesting, make a point, and support your arguments with references. The work itself will be terrible, and nobody will read it once it’s been graded. You’re building a muscle, not a back catalogue.
How to bluff a report
Here’s another valuable skill: being able to take a topic you know nothing about, and five hours later you have a neat 2,500-word essay with 10 different citations.
Sure, it won’t be the best work, but what a talent!
Life is full of situations where you need to become an “Instant expert” and pretend you know more than you do. This skill is 20% trickery, 30% creativity and 50% sheer work ethic.
You will work with international students. Maybe you ARE the international student.
The temptation is to let the locals do most of the work, because their English is better.
Don’t fall for it.
Your career will have you working with people from all over the world.
Sometimes you’ll be the one that nobody understands.
By becoming patient and skilled at pushing through cultural and language barriers, you’ll make the most of your group’s talents and create better work. You’ll also make some strong friendships and valuable contacts for the future.
How to work with unfair authority
“My university was always fair and justified in its decision making” – Nobody.
The trade-off for attending a prestigious institution is that you’re going to be dealing with an institution.
That means bureaucracy, red tape, cryptic decisions and unanswered questions.
Just like a lot of other aspects of life.
You might leave feeling robbed of a few extra percentage points, or upset that you got stuck with a group member who plagiarised their section of the group assignment.
What you’ll learn is how to go about the appeals process, make a case, and accept whatever judgement comes to pass.
It may also teach you about yourself, and your tolerance for working in “Institutions”
In Part Two - which courses have the most potential, and what you should do next...