5 Dreadful Pieces Of Student Advice (And Why You Need To Stop Following Them)


Not all advice is equal. Even the best intentions don’t make for the best suggestions.

What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve been given at university?

You may have heard some of the following before. Don’t get sucked in!

1. “1st Year Doesn’t Count.”

When all you need to do is pass, you may think there’s no difference between getting 40% and 70% or higher. Just do what you need to get through and spend most of your time enjoying everything else.

Bad move.

Putting in the effort helps you to progress. Without it, you won’t be so prepared for the next year, when your marks do count. There is no easy way to catch up either, as a lot of the process is about technique and practice and abstract links. You can’t bring yourself up to speed with a bit of cramming and rote learning.

Dismissing the importance of your first year is one of the most misguided and dangerous pieces of advice around.

2. “Sign Up For Everything.”

No matter how tempting it is to do ALL THE THINGS, it won’t help your CV (or your schedule) by signing up to every society, every cause, and every extra-curricular activity you can.

Commit to just a few things and throw all your enthusiastic weight and interest into them. Make it count. Aim to come out the other side with great stories to tell and a sense of achievement.

By challenging yourself to be awesome in a small number of areas, you’ll likely have better experiences and you’re sure to look better on paper. Nobody cares that you were in seventeen different clubs; they care that you did amazing things in one or two of them.

Pro tip: Among the things you already have an interest in conquering, find at least one society or group that you think will push you in a new direction. The worst that can happen is that you’ll discover you have absolutely no interest. In which case, find another new path and see what happens. Rinse and repeat until something clicks. With an open attitude, it shouldn’t take long to find something that delivers.

3. “Only Concentrate On The Study.” / “Push Toward A First.”

Some students don’t sign up for everything. In fact, they sign up for nothing. Their degree journey is all about the magical First Class Honours.

Whoa there! Firsts are on the up (more on that later…) and a top grade is no guarantee of success and fame and wealth and [insert amazing thing you want here].

Yes, getting the top mark is fantastic. I wouldn’t want you to aim lower for no reason. But neither should you ignore everything else around you in your pursuit of that grade. In short, do your sensible best, not your perfectionist best.

I’ve spoken to students (and parents) who worry that they’re heading toward a 2:1 because they have been concentrating on other activities to the detriment of their study. But in many cases I hear, students are not so much ignoring their study, but rather improving skills and employability achievements.

One person, developing his own business, was worried that his academic work would drop in quality, risking a 2:1 over a First. Putting aside the risks associated with starting any new business, the potential gains on paper are bigger than the difference between a First and a 2:1.

I recently spoke to a mother who was worried that her son had gone from an almost certain First to a much more likely 2:1. Apparently he was spending a lot of time building up a writing portfolio, which had been getting in the way of his study.

But with his sights set on journalism and having managed to be published in various places, including one or two big names, the difference between a top mark and a good mark isn’t so important. The new achievements should more than make up for it.

4. Anything Too Specific – “Never do this…” / “Always do that…”

The diversity of university ensures that there are loads of things you can do and loads you’ll never manage to do, even in the three or so years you’re there.

All those lists on the stuff you should NEVER do as a student, or the things you MUST do before you graduate, are just a way to get you clicking on a link.

It’s like when a mate tells you the best club in the area. You may agree with their opinion and you may not. But that’s all it is. An opinion.

Be cautious of anyone advising you of a dead cert. Their advice may prove right for you in the end, but you shouldn’t assume it will. Blindly following risks stepping into disaster.

Next time someone says you HAVE to do it, by all means go ahead, but only after you’ve considered it for yourself and you’re happy to do it on your own terms and for your own reasons.

5. “Don’t Panic…Degrees Are Getting Easier.”

The preliminary results of the latest Times Higher Education Best University Workplace Survey contain many comments from academics that say increasing numbers of students end up graduating with a First or 2:1.

These comments, no matter how true, fuel advice to chill-out and not put too much effort into your work.

The ‘Don’t Panic’ bit is fine, but the reason not to panic doesn’t sit right. I’ve even seen online conversations that say you’d have to be an idiot not to get a 2:1 or better. That’s insulting to everyone; those who don’t manage the grade as well as those who do.

You may be tempted to try getting away with the smallest amount of work possible. The tactic doesn’t save time in the long run and does more harm than good. If you’ve not found enjoyment in your studies to the extent that you’re trying to minimise your workload like this, what do you really want from this?

So yes, try not to panic. But no, don’t expect your degree to be easy. If you do, the reality will likely emerge at precisely the wrong time.

Explore ways to make your effort effortless and your challenges enjoyable. You’ll be better placed to find an enjoyable flow in your work. Your degree will feel easier, but by no means will it be easy. The relaxed flow will, instead, be testament to your attitude.


Why proving what you can do is better than improving your qualifications

Scott Young is taking a 4-year MIT course in Computer Science. But he’s taking it in just one year. And for less than $2000.

Scott says the future of learning will be personal, rather than steeped in official qualifications. The Internet already provides learning for everyone, which is exactly how Scott is taking the MIT course himself, at his own (faster) pace.

Many top universities provide lectures and course content free online. And now startups like Udacity, Coursera, and Khan Academy have come along to provide even more academic classes for free. You can learn at no cost in the comfort of your own home, room, library, garden…whatever!

Scott won’t receive a formal degree award from MIT when he completes his class, but he doesn’t mind:

“Our society incorrectly equates knowledge with accreditation. Getting a piece of paper is great, and for many lines of work, it’s completely necessary. But the equation is made so strongly that people forget the two things are different.
“I have nothing against college. University was an amazing and worthwhile experience for me, and it could be for you as well. All I hope is that by showing an alternative, people who feel the current system doesn’t work for them can find another path.”

You have a chance to find your own route, whatever your current situation is.

Once you take this route, the key is to prove your worth in ways that don’t rely solely on the degree you’ve been awarded. Traditional methods of bettering yourself for career and job purposes rely heavily on improving your qualifications.

But that’s because many people are used to those methods. It’s ‘normal’. It’s ‘what everyone does’.

And, of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Taking your own route can be so valuable. For a start, you automatically stand out. Hopefully for all the right reasons!

Formal routes are sometimes necessary for legal purposes or compliance reasons. Not everything can be bypassed without another thought. And that’s fine. Make it part of your route and do your own thing where you can.

Like Scott, I also have a lot of time for university. I’m sure you guessed that. The name of this blog is a clue… And if you need further proof, I’m called @universityboy on Twitter. I’m not about to give up on the wonders of university.

With all this in mind, what is more valuable: experience or a degree?

This question was asked over at The Student Room. My take is that both experience and degree are useful for different reasons and in different circumstances. A direct comparison is unhelpful.

One person gave a good explanation to the comparison problem:

“…it’s like saying which is more valuable, lungs or a stomach.”

Think of your experience and your degree as a set of situations about YOU. Translate these situations into what you’ve managed to get out of them. Sell yourself, not your grades. Talk about a range of experiences with purpose, so you can include what happened at university alongside everything else.

When you take this view, remember these two things:

  1. Tailor your approach each time you reach out to others – Why? Because perspective changes. Both yours and theirs. Consider things like this: Why are you reaching out to them? What are they looking for? How can you help them? What are the variables in this situation?
  2. Embrace failure – Why? Because no matter how much you prove what you can do, the context is taken out of your hands every time you interact with someone else. There are numerous stories of now famous authors who struggled to find a publisher. They had to submit their first book to many different publishers before one of them said ‘yes’. Imagine if all those authors had given up after the first try.

Jane Artess is director of research for the Higher Education Careers Services Unit. Speaking in the Guardian, she said:

“…one student’s stretch is another student’s yawn; one employer’s view of what constitutes talent may be written off as simply average by another.”

Put simply, no specific route is guaranteed. That’s why your own route is valid and why you must be careful before comparing things that don’t need a comparison.

Your route should include a mixture of traditional methods and unique ones. Find what works for you and not what seemed to work for someone else. Do take their advice and find clues, but don’t bother emulating the same successes, because it’s already been done.

You may or may not have aced a whole bunch of exams and studied to within an inch of your life. What does it truly make you? Shape your qualifications around your own narrative and unlock the story of you.

It’s not the grades that stand out, it’s the individual.

photo by

photo by

The ‘Harrods’ degree: Gimmick or great idea?

Harrods are introducing a degree in the art of sales.  Staff will be able to take a 2-year part-time course while they work at the store.  But will it be recognised as a true degree by other employers?

Staff who take the degree, in conjunction with Anglia Ruskin, will pay no tuition fees or any other costs.  Other than agree to remain working at Harrods throughout the degree and for a period after completion, there are no other major barriers to gaining the qualification.

photo by raindog

photo by raindog

What would other employers think of the degree on a person’s CV?

Lisa Harris teaches online marketing at Southampton and she told me that this type of degree will become more popular.  She said, “Two-year degrees look the way of the future to me.  They are more attractive to business sponsors and combine work and study”.

Community Manager, Jas Dhaliwal is also positive about these degrees.  He said, “I suspect that other firms will continue this trend”.

They may have a point.  More degrees like this would be a needed source of income for universities.  And with the student population ever growing in diversity, people want greater flexibility in how they can study.  Business based degrees are a feasible alternative route.

The Harrods association gives the degree a reason to talk about it.  For now, a big brand association is a newsworthy gimmick.  I’m sure graduates would state their degree as a BA in Sales from Anglia Ruskin and only make the Harrods link beyond that.

There are already vocational degrees that work with local businesses to produce graduates who are relevant to that workplace.  For instance, Bucks New University runs a foundation degree in Business Management for staff at the bed specialist Dreams.  Ruth Farwell, vice-chancellor at Bucks New Uni, said: “Whilst we recognise the impetus behind the decision to allow companies such as McDonald’s to award their own qualifications, we believe that it is better for employers to partner with universities in initiatives such as this one.”

The first graduates of the Dreams foundation degree came through in 2009.  This type of vocational qualification is, therefore, not new.  Over four million vocational qualifications were awarded last year alone.  And today is VQ Day, especially for vocational qualifications.  There is clearly a big market.

Some of these degrees are not for everyone.  Indeed, Harrods and Dreams only offer the degrees to their own staff.  However, universities need to diversify and attract business sponsors, as Lisa Harris has mentioned.  Interest in alternatives to current degree routes will come from both prospective students and from businesses.

What of the future?  These are specialised vocational qualifications.  If more businesses took these degrees on, would current graduates need to work toward another degree once in employment?  Would any degree be enough, or would we begin to see people in the workplace with several degrees due to obligatory business training?

I don’t think there are any proper answers to those questions yet, but we may need to start thinking about it soon.

Do you see these business degrees gaining in popularity or are you convinced they are still a gimmick?

What is the point of studying a degree?

Last night, thanks to @Jim_Dickinson and @AaronPorter‘s Mum, I found out that BBC current affairs show, Newsnight, had a feature asking about the point of studying a degree at university.

I feel the Newsnight piece asked the wrong questions. I’ve always argued that the student experience is the whole experience, not just the degree. That’s why the experience of someone who doesn’t go to university can be just as rewarding. It’s what the person, as an individual, makes their experience.

photo by Abulic Monkey

photo by Abulic Monkey

Jeremy Paxman talked to Pam Tatlow, Chief Executive of Million+, and Michelle Dewberry, 2006 winner of The Apprentice.

Dewberry said, “I wanted to earn money”, and she set out to do that without university. Making money, even lots of it, doesn’t require a degree.

This may be a misconception among some people. So just to make it clear, if your main aim is solely to make money, university isn’t the solution. University may or may not help, but it’s not the way forward if all you want to do is roll around in cash. And the sooner someone starts putting their money-making plans into action, the sooner they’ll start to see money coming in. A few years at uni may just hold things up!

Therefore, taking the non-university route is most successfully travelled in one of these two circumstances:

  1. With a clear vocation/career in mind that does not require university. It may require an apprenticeship, no formal education at all, or education ‘on-the-job’ at a later stage;
  2. With a passion and will so great that the individual knows what they want and how they’re going to get it.

Much of the magic of university is that higher learning can help uncover passions, it can bring about opportunity that may not have presented itself outside an academic institution, and it can allow intense focus on learning and teaching that may not be available elsewhere.

Higher Education (HE) has many benefits. That doesn’t mean everyone should go to university, but it does mean everyone should be given the choice.

The other question asked on Newsnight was that of qualification inflation. Why does a job or career now require a degree if it once required only GCSEs or A-Levels? Pam Tatlow hit the nail on the head when she said, “I don’t think that any job just stays still”. She went on to suggest that qualification inflation is created by employers, rather than universities.

I have no argument with Pam Tatlow’s remarks; she held a good argument to the question asked. The question itself, however, is not entirely relevant for students. With 43% of school leavers now going into HE, it’s clear that the situation has indeed changed over time. But regardless of what qualifications are required to get on in life, there is more to uni life than simply studying.

Granted, there are people out there who don’t make much use of their three or four years at uni. Maybe they just don’t care. But most likely, they probably don’t know how to make the most of their experience.  If I could go back, I would do things differently to enhance my experience, yet I’m this passionate about university ANYWAY!  It just goes to show how much is possible.

An important question to ask is, how can students discover new opportunities at university and actively develop opportunities that have already come their way?

Going back to the Newsnight feature, Pam Tatlow made these points:

  • “There’s not one path to success.”
  • “One size does not fit all.”
  • “There is not one route into success.”

You’ll notice these all make the same point. Tatlow was speaking in terms of whether or not you choose to study a degree. She’s absolutely right. And the same can be said for students already studying a degree. The future success of a student is not guaranteed because of the degree, it is because of the path they have taken. And different people walk down different paths.

I’m sorry if that sounds too philosophical, but you can’t compare HE with success. You can use HE to find success and you can use HE along the way to build something successful, but nobody should suggest that all who go into HE will be successful.

Don’t get me wrong, the aim should be to help all who go into HE to find success. So arguing about the point of a degree is pointless in itself. The question is too broad and ends up working off subjective opinions as opposed to proper facts.

The Newsnight piece questioned degrees such as Golf Course Management. But if your passion is to be heavily involved in the golfing business, what is so wrong in following a vocation and using HE to help get you closer to your dream? And what is the harm in a degree that covers professional practice, project management, events experience, finance, coaching, staff management, and so on? Surely these are all transferable skills?

My passion for Higher Education doesn’t come from the degree I studied. But I wouldn’t have found that passion if I’d not studied a degree.

The degree is the start of a journey, not the destination.