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.


How to identify your transferable skills (and why they’re so important)

A letter in the Telegraph reads:

SIR – As a mathematician, I would like to share a numerical insight.

I always remind colleagues on an interview panel that the only significant numbers on an academic certificate are those pertaining to the date.

This would be funnier if it didn’t make an uncomfortable — albeit generalised and not entirely reasonable — point.

photo by Let Ideas Compete

photo by Let Ideas Compete

In the ever-changing realm of higher education, the year in which you graduate can lead employers to assume many things.  Things that won’t always be accurate.

Clearly, you need to combat these assumptions. You also need to stand out amongst the sea of graduates that wash in to the jobs market each year.  Because the number of graduates out there doesn’t matter compared to the range of skills you hold.  Many people rarely show their skills off, selling themselves as individuals.

Transferable skills are the accomplishments and understandings you have developed in various situations that can be used in many other situations.

“A comprehensive definition [of transferable skills] was provided by the former Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) in which transferable skills were defined as those skills that are central to occupational competence in all sectors and at all levels (DfEE, 1997), and include project management, leadership, communication, working in teams and problem solving.” [Source]

Transferable skills go beyond what you learn in a formal context.  Everything you do has the potential to help you gain and develop transferable skills.  Examples include:

  • Presentation – Clear communication to others, visual representation of concepts, passing knowledge over to others clearly.
  • Computer / Social Networking – Adept with technology, communicative, involved.
  • Administration / Organisation – Prioritisation, maintaining control, strong time management.
  • Literacy / Writing – Make points clearly, argue with reason, persuade and convince, communicate information to a range of people.
  • Evaluation / Critical Thinking – Provide solutions, take a broad perspective, confidently engage with concepts.
  • Information Gathering / Research – Quickly uncover what’s important, know where to go and how to find information, able to assess a broad selection of ideas.
  • Numeracy / Economic / Monetary – Mathematical solutions, data processing, interpret/produce/explain statistics.
  • People / Groups / Teamwork – Communication, empathy, dealing with others, open both to debate and collaborate.
  • Customer Service – Helping others, calm under pressure, public facing, listening to others.
  • Management / Past Responsibility – Delegate, set up projects, deal with difficult situations.
  • Communication / Verbal / Explanation – Discuss clearly, deal with wide range of people, put concepts across competently.

The above list is a vague start to all the competencies you may have and/or may need.  You may see a list of skills required in a job advert and feel you don’t have many of them.  But you may be more able than you think.  You may already have — or be close to having — all sorts of skills without realising.

Now is the time to identify your future from your past.  Consider your achievements, however minor, and give yourself credit where it’s due.

For a start, don’t simply highlight past roles and describe jobs. In order to shine, you should highlight your achievements.

By highlighting your transferable skills, you’re creating an identity for yourself.  According to Hinchliffe & Jolly, there is “a four-stranded concept of identity that comprises value, intellect, social engagement and performance”.  When looking to show off your skills, consider the four strands with these questions:

  1. Value = What can you bring to the role/company?
  2. Intellect = How academically prepared are you to take on the responsibility?
  3. Social engagement = How involved are you already, why are you doing this, and what potential links can you bring with you?
  4. Performance = To what extent can you maintain progress, continue to improve and enhance, and deliver what is required?

Get as much as you can down on paper so you can see exactly where you stand.  Leicester has a useful SWOT analysis document you can download so you can start identifying your skills, employment goals, and the potential weaknesses you need to address.

photo by 姒儿喵喵

photo by 姒儿喵喵

Once you start uncovering these transferable skills, relate them to opportunities.  Identify what each employer is looking for and tailor applications so you’re getting the right points across each time.  For even more help on what you can demonstrate with key transferable skills, Cambridge explains further via their Skills Portal.

You may not yet be able to identify what you are passionate about in a career context, but you can still get a sense of what is important to you and how you meet particular criteria.  I’ve sold myself short at times in the past and it’s usually down to a lack of preparation or misjudgement, not embarrassed modesty.

But it’s important you don’t sell yourself short. Universities can’t guarantee you a clear path to a job after you graduate.  Even if “employability is a performative function of universities” (Boden & Nedeva), a broad brush idea of employability for all graduates cannot work in reality.  The term ’employability’ is subjective, as is the term ‘transferable skills’ .  To be employable does not mean to hold a rigid set of qualities and achievements.  Not for the employee and not for the employer.

In which case, should universities teach students how to find a job?  Is it important for your institution to give you the tools to go out into the world with the confidence to find employment with ease?

With marketisation of higher education looking to grow and as students are labelled even more as customers, one expectation will be to make each new graduate ready for the employment market.  Prokou states that “the special emphasis on employability is strongly associated with the emergence of the ‘market-driven’ or ‘pragmatic’ university”.

In the circumstances, there is an increasing trend in supplying students with ‘corporate skills‘ while they study, in preparation for when they graduate.  Even arts and humanities subjects will cover certain business ground to help boost transferable skills to the workplace.

Newell Hampson-Jones explains that arts and humanities already cover important skills that can be transferred to the workplace, even when they’re not flagged as such:

“My degree taught me to analyse and look for unique perspectives of situations. I understood how to communicate, how to understand and analyse what stakeholders I work with need from me. Most useful of all, my study has helped me understand how to adapt to and thrive in different situations, working cultures and job roles.”

Should you view your degree as nothing more than a further step toward a possible career?  Before you do, consider the possible limitations.  Politics lecturer, Neil Davenport, argues:

“Education is not a process of spreading transferable skills to the next generations. Students are not automatons who can be programmed with the requisite skills for a working life. In developing young people’s minds, a rounded education should give them the ability to pick up skills that they need when they need them and to work out problems both intellectually and practically.”

Nevertheless, more students attend university in order to increase employability and to gain transferable skills.  As Nicolescu and Păun suggest:

“Obtaining employment after graduation is conditioned by having the abilities employers need and ask for. And in some instances, the ability of an institution to ensure employability has become an indicator of institutional quality (Maharasoa & Hay, 2001).”

So how do transferable skills fare?  Is a general set of skills the best way to stretch you further as you progress past graduation?  Or should you be more specifically trained up?  Are you a lifelong learner, or are you learning a lifelong trade?

In most cases now, general transferable skills are more relevant to employers, even when you study toward a specific vocational degree:

“Employers want adaptive recruits, people who can rapidly fit into the workplace culture, work in teams, exhibit interpersonal skills, communicate well, take on responsibility, perform efficiently and effectively, they want adaptable people, people who can use their abilities and skills to make the organization evolve through bright ideas and persuading colleagues to adopt new approaches and they want transformative employees, people who can anticipate and lead change, who have higher level skills, such as analysis, critique, synthesis, etc. (Woodley & Brennan, 2000).” [Source]

Transferable skills are, therefore, a big deal.  Even if you’re only at uni to learn, you will develop all manner of abilities and extend your skillset for the better.

Even if some employers really do think the only significant numbers on your degree are those pertaining to date, your ability to showcase your transferable skills will give employers the real story of what you gained in higher education.