Letter to my undergraduate self: Alison Marshall – ‘Freewriting is liberating for people with perfectionist tendencies like me’

Inspired by the Big Issue’s regular feature Letter to My Younger Self, we’re asking staff to think back to their own experiences as a student and tell us what advice they would give to their undergraduate selves.

Next up from the Study Skills team is Alison Marshall, Study Skills Tutor.

Photo of Alison, the author of this blog post

What and where did you study?

I went to Exeter and did a BA in Ancient History and Archaeology (largely because I liked watching Time Team on the telly and thought archaeology looked like fun). After that I did an MA in Medieval Studies and a PhD in Medieval History at the University of Bristol.

Did you experience culture shock when you started university?

Various family members went to university before me, so I had the advantage of being able to visit them and experience a bit of the culture. The biggest shock for me was going from a full timetable at college to having only a handful of contact hours per week at university. I’ve always struggled with self-discipline, so I slept late a lot and watched loads of rubbish daytime telly. At the time I thought it was brilliant, but in retrospect I think I’d have been a lot happier if I’d created a routine for myself and spent some of that ‘free’ time a bit more productively.

The other thing I found difficult to adjust to was suddenly being surrounded by lots and lots of people I didn’t know. Obviously I knew that was part and parcel of going to university, but I was excruciatingly shy and the thought of not knowing anyone was really daunting, so I buried my head in the sand. I wish I’d spent some time thinking about how I was going to make friends and settle in before I started – joining a few more societies (and actually going along to them) would have been a really good idea.

What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?

My biggest failure happened just before I started university: I messed up my A-levels and missed out on my first-choice university due to an unfortunate combination of laziness, stupidity and bad luck. I tend not to let go of things quickly, so I beat myself up about it for a good few years afterwards. With the benefit of hindsight, though, I can see it all worked out for the best. I mean, what’s so good about Oxford anyway? I’d have had to work really hard, and knowing me that probably wouldn’t have gone very well! I ended up having a great time at Exeter and I loved my degree course. I also met my husband there – we’ve been together for 22 years and have three beautiful children – so you could argue that messing up my A-levels was the best thing I ever did. In essence, what I learnt is that every cloud has a silver lining: you might not see it for a while or sometimes you might have to look really hard, but it’s there.

What are you most proud of about your time at university?

Well, I survived an archaeological dig which involved camping on a wet and muddy hillside in Wales for four weeks. There was a copious amount of rain, boozing, late nights, early mornings and digging very big trenches with a mattock whilst still hungover. I fell down the spoil heap several times, accompanied by the wheelbarrow. It was character-building, but the word ‘camping’ brings me out in a cold sweat even now.

Ultimately, though, I’m most proud that I came away from university with a First. I wish I could say that I’d learnt from my A-levels and put in a huge amount of hard work, but that would be a lie. I left every essay until the last minute and had some horrible cramming sessions before exams. I made it much more difficult for myself than it needed to be! Thankfully, luck was on my side when it came to my final exams. I’m really proud of my degree result (if not, perhaps, the way I went about achieving it) and it helped put a few demons to rest.

What was the best bit of feedback you received?

I ashamed to say that I can’t remember. I liked getting positive feedback because it made me feel pleasantly smug for a while. But most of the time I don’t think I really understood the feedback I was getting, and I was too shy to ask the lecturers to explain it to me. We didn’t have a study skills team to talk things through with, so I mostly just forgot about it.

What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?

It would be tempting to go all mumsy and give myself a lecture about boys and booze, but nobody appreciates that sort of advice, so instead I’d probably tell myself to look into something called freewriting. I used to find academic writing completely agonising because I’d put pressure on myself to get every sentence perfect straight away. As a consequence I’d procrastinate, which led to lots of stressful last-minute essays. With freewriting you just splurge out a very rough first draft, then spend lots of time editing later on. It’s really liberating for people with perfectionist tendencies like me!

 

Student perspective: Study Skills – Your Studying Companion

Photo of Iskandar, the author of the postby Iskandar Bin Suhaimi, Bristol Futures Advocate

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t panic. Even if your winter break was naff and you didn’t get much studying done, there’s still time. Perhaps you just barely managed to pull through the assessment period, and now you have a massive backlog of revision to handle while also juggling term-time work. Why don’t you head on to the Study Skills website on Blackboard and you may find some tricks at your disposal.

Cartoon character Hey Arnold performing a magic trick
Credits: @nicksplat.com / Giphy

Managing your time

First, a schedule. You would likely want to identify your tasks and plan out how you are going to get back on track. Head on over to the Study Skills tab on Blackboard and click on ‘Time management’ under Online Resources. From time management apps to schedule analyses, I’m positive you’ll find something handy.

Talking it out

You know what you want to do, now to actually go about it. If you’re unsure how to proceed, I suggest booking onto a Drop-In with a friendly student advocate. Once you book in, you can relay any questions or concerns you have about your studies and they can direct you to various useful resources such as subject librarians, the Centre for Academic Language and Development, and the Student Wellbeing Service – all tailored to your needs. Besides being specifically trained to signpost you to the University’s services, they can also be equally fun to chat with as well (just don’t ask us to work on your essays please)!

Getting things done

A few essays here, a coursework there, and a research project to finally give attention to. The Study Skills’ online resources tab is jam-packed with useful tips from critical writing to exam tips – all at your fingertips (excuse the bad joke)! For some writing practice, you can also book on to a weekly Wordsmiths workshop where you can hone your academic writing with zero judgement! Once you’re done with a draft, it might also be prudent to book a slot with one of our specially trained tutors who can assist in reviewing your work.

Naturally as a law student I may a bit biased towards essay-based resources, but Study Skills also run a Maths and Statistics club, Coding club and other ad hoc workshops you may find useful; so keep an eye out for them!

A conducive ecosystem

You’ve got your tools, you’re cracking on, and everything is going great isn’t it? Until you realise that studying alone can be isolating at times. What’s more, you may find that the new blended learning approach may not provide as many contact hours as you were used to. The library could be an option, but not if you’re studying remotely and even then you can’t communicate with people.

Under these circumstances, might I suggest booking onto an Online Study Lounge? This Study Skills initiative provides a space to study with other people with a scattering of interesting conversations and activities throughout, including an opportunity to have some structure to your day which if you’re like me, is much needed.

All best

As a fellow student trying to stay on top of things, I hope this article has proved useful! Study Skills is part of a larger framework called Bristol Futures that also includes the Bristol Plus Award, the PDProject, and a lot more. While I encourage you to explore what’s on offer, remember that your friends and/or family are always just within reach if you ever need extra support 😊

Goodluck!