What Are The 6 Essential Skills For University Students?

Attending university is the opportunity to really develop valuable transferable study skills that will support your learning, testing and future careers. Here are the 6 essential skills for university.

Author: Rob Needleman

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During your time at university, you will develop valuable, transferable study skills that will support your learning, testing and future career.

Attending a university is an exciting time for students to live independently away from home and to further develop their academic skills from studying at school. The huge step-up from your final years of school makes developing your academic skills mandatory to stay on track and become a successful, high achieving student.

You will develop the skills during your time at university but building a solid foundation now will make the transition from school to higher education much smoother. The graphic below shows the skills we cover in this article. Read on to learn the skills that will help you thrive instead of survive at university. 

Academic Writing Skills

At university, academic writing is a skill students use each day. A must for all degrees is a strong grasp of the English language (international students or not). Being able to write to a good standard is key for coursework assignments such as dissertations and lab reports as well as during exams, answering longer written answers and essay questions.

You are expected to build on what you learnt at A-levels where instead of outlining a point, you have to be able to argue it using appropriate formal language matching the writing style of academic research. If spelling and grammar is an issue for you, it is time to put the work in before you start your degree as lecturers will not appreciate reading an essay that is full of grammatical errors and misspelt words.

student-academic-writing

You will also be expected to know how to structure your essays or at least learn how to early on. Your essay content might be unbelievable, but if you cannot present your arguments in a clear and logical way, then you are likely to lose marks.

Referencing and Plagiarism

Two words students fear at the start and learn to manage throughout their studies. When discussing research by other authors, you must acknowledge their work through referencing. This will demonstrate to the reader and/or examiner the quality of your sources and the depth of your research and referencing will also allow the reader to visit the original sources for the complete research. You will come across multiple referencing styles throughout university such as Harvard, MLA, APA etc. but you will probably focus on one main style.  

Plagiarism is something you’ll get used to quickly and have to get used to quickly. There is no copy and pasting information directly into your writing anymore. Paraphrasing is also not enough to avoid plagiarism too, you must always reference the material you used. The same goes with collaborating with students and writing the same or very similar content as your friends. Universities now use software that will inform you and the examiner of the similarity that your writing has with other sources, such as fellow students, research papers and website content like blog posts. You will lose significant marks if you get caught and you will end up in a not so friendly meeting with university staff.

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Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking is a skill defined by thinking clearly, rationally and being able to recognise and understand good arguments and then create an assessment from the evidence presented to you. Most students find it difficult at first to initially criticise the experts in the field such as authors of ground-breaking research or even their lecturers. However, this is not being disrespectful or rude, this is essential as long as you back up your arguments with solid and explained evidence. 

Likewise, during your own research, you must be able to think critically about your own work. Ask yourself questions like: did I have a large enough sample size, was I unconsciously biased and am I interpreting my data correctly?

An example of critical thinking is identifying biases. This is a tricky skill but vital for research and incredibly transferable. A sign of a good critical thinker is being able to evaluate information objectively. Setting aside your own personal biases is not easy and identifying the biases from other parties is hard too, but it is necessary to understand different viewpoints. 

Time management Skills

“Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance”, you’ve likely heard this before but it is completely true. Effective time management is essential for university and it is something that will stay with you when you graduate. 

Time will become very valuable when lectures begin and the assignments start piling up. The way to cope with less time and a larger workload is through managing your time more effectively. It is completely normal to become overwhelmed when you first start university. Do not worry if you find this, it is now the time to start implementing time management strategies to stay on track and prevent yourself from becoming overly stressed.

Our advice is to plan ahead and make sure you are completely aware of deadlines. The key to planning ahead is to be realistic. You will hear stories from coursemates that declare that they can finish a 3,000-word essay the night before the due date and will start revising the morning of the exam. This might be true for some rare students but mostly this is rubbish. Give yourself plenty of time to finish each assignment to a high level and do not set yourself up for failure. Having one month to write an essay does not mean you need to spend a month doing it or then writing it the week before the due date, plan the time for it properly. 

Prioritising will help you greatly. We found the Eisenhower Matrix useful at university and we will work through an example together:

 UrgentNot Urgent
Important Important and urgent
Finishing an essay that is due this week
Important and not urgent
Typing-up lecture notes
Not Important Not important and urgent
Checking through your University email account
Not important and not urgent
Re-organising revision notes into alphabetical or subject order

Use of the most important tasks (MITs) will help you significantly. The MIT will be your main focus that day and you will not shift your focus from it unless it is completely necessary. An MIT at university may be to create and practise a presentation to present to your coursemates next week. You will focus solely on creating and preparing for the presentation and park your lab report that is not due in for 2 weeks.

Reading skills

Like writing, reading will dominate your time at university.

It is important to develop effective reading techniques to improve your speed and to choose the right content to read. When finding reading materials, as part of your active academic reading, there are questions to ask yourself to determine if it is relevant to you:

There are also different approaches to academic reading depending on the medium, for example, a blog on the qualities of a good doctor or an academic paper on the most effective approaches to cognitive diagnosis. Aston University suggests the following reading techniques: 

Skimming, Scanning and Critical Reading:

Skimming entails looking through text to create a general impression of the content. When skim reading, the reader does not read every word or a paragraph in-depth. Instead, the reader skims the introduction and conclusion of a book, the abstract of a paper and the opening and closing paragraph of a chapter. The aim is to form an impression and then decide if it is worth reading on in more depth.

Scanning is all about looking for a particular piece of information such as data to support or disprove your hypothesis. Whilst scanning, you ignore the content that is not relevant to you and you keep your goal of finding a particular piece of information in the forefront of your mind. This will help the words or images stand out when you run your eyes across the page. Like skimming, this technique will support your decision making of reading the text in-depth or choosing a different text to look through.

Personally, we found skim reading and scanning particularly important when trawling through hundreds of papers for our literature review dissertations in final year. It saved hours of reading less relevant information and the more we used this technique, the faster and more effective we became, so practising frequently will save you a lot of time when you start your own degree.

Critical reading, similar to critical thinking is ensuring you continually analyse, question and evaluate the information in front of you. The Open University list some useful questions to ask yourself whilst reviewing a text:

Note-taking skills

You must take notes during tutorials and lectures. The lecturers will provide useful information that will be essential when it comes to exam revision. Some lecturers will speak quickly so try to write very brief notes on what they are saying rather than fall behind writing everything they say. After a lecture has finished, add any comments and fill any gaps in your notes from the presentation slides posted online so that your notes are ready to be used for revision.

Communication Skills

Your student life will not just be reading and writing. University studies will also develop your communication skills. There will be many opportunities for working in teams, a great transferable skill that will look great on your CV. This can occur in group presentations, group projects and lab work. Hopefully, you will also have the opportunity to practice public speaking as we did each year. 

From day one of first year, you will be conversing with senior academics which you may find intimidating. They are experts in the field you are interested in so use the opportunity to ask questions and discuss aspects of your degree, or something you learnt from wider reading that you found fascinating. Make sure you go to your tutorials or supervisions prepared with the work set by tutors, but also with any extra questions you may have.

Supervision-at-Jesus-College-Cambridge

Attending university will open many doors for you, especially if you are proactive. One of the best ways of doing this is through networking. You will develop strong working and social relationships with your coursemates which is brilliant, but do not overlook the opportunities you have from the senior academics at the university. They themselves will have a bountiful supply of contacts, whether this is for help with your thesis, to gain some data or quotes, or to aid your job searching strategy. 

The key to effective networking is being a good listener, being confident, preparing what you might say and then following up properly after speaking to someone. We are not suggesting leaving business cards with the Economics Senior Lecturer, but asking to connect on LinkedIn and emailing them 48-72 hours after meeting them with an engaging email will go a long way.

Less academic skills and other Soft Skills

We have already mentioned some soft skills in this article such as communication and time management but in this section, we will focus on the less academic skills which are still important for university and life after graduation. 

A crucial skill is being able to budget and manage your finances effectively. Our number one tip is to make use of spreadsheets. They are not the most exciting way to spend your time but very helpful at keeping track of your spending. Like with time management, the key is to be realistic. Spending will be more than you probably expect and your location will affect this. Consider everything from rent to shopping and from drinks on nights out, to textbooks and stationery. Make sure you have a weekly limit on how much you can spend and try to follow this.

Living costs vary across the UK and it is something that catches a lot of students out. You can budget for university, but if you do not budget for the area you will be living in, this can make for a nasty surprise. For example, using the ‘metric’ of a cost of a pint of beer, in Lancaster, a pint can cost around £2.80 but in London, you can expect from £5.20 upwards. Accommodation tends to differ in price across universities so make sure the accommodation is within your budget. You can see the variation in prices in the table below:

University
Student Accommodation Weekly Costs (£)
Royal Veterinary College
259
University of Oxford
174
Newcastle University
126
Falmouth University
72
National Average
146

Cooking and home skills sound rather strange whilst discussing academic skills but they will be a large part of your time away from studies. Each one of us at UniAdmissions has met a student who did not know how to use a washing machine or couldn’t open a tin of beans, you’ll meet these students too. Learn some staple recipes that are easy to master, such as spaghetti Bolognese and chilli con carne at home before you leave for university. Nutrition goes hand in hand with effective learning and studying, support your academic life by eating properly each day.  

Lastly, self-motivation is a constant theme at university. It will become apparent on a sunny Saturday afternoon when you have two essays due the following week, 5,000 words to write and then you receive a text asking if you would like to go to the beach or play football in the park. 

University life is unstructured which makes motivation important to keep yourself on track and to avoid falling into the cycle of trying to catch up each week. As we discussed in time management, having a good plan will help you stay focused on your goals. Sometimes, setting yourself up in the library away from distractions will help avoid the temptations of a sunny afternoon. Finally, make sure you build in time for leisure activities and reward your hard work!

Final Words

We have covered the essential skills for university including academic reading and time management. You have time to start working on these skills now before you start your degree, to make your transition from school to university much smoother. Your time at university will be great fun but make sure you use the opportunities around you to open every door possible and leave as the best graduate you can be.

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