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Studying at uni compared to college

Week 45

15 July 2019

One of the biggest differences you may find when you get to uni is how you study, and the amount of work you have to do. Gone are the days of learning information by rote - now you're in charge of your own learning: research, reading and writing essays. We highlight the main differences to help you get ready for when you start in September.

You've just done your A-levels or BTEC, so you know everything there is to know about studying. After all, you did tons during your two years and the run up to your exams (you did, didn't you?). So, studying at uni should be a doddle, right?


Well, yes, it shouldn't feel too alien to you! But uni study is quite different to college study, which is why it's good to be aware of this now so you're prepared for when you start in September and you jump in at the deep end.

So, what's the difference?


Independent study

Probably one of the biggest differences first year students find is that there’s very little directed study. You go to lectures and seminars, and you’re given an assignment, and then you’re on your own.

Ok, you’re not actually on your own – there’s always plenty of academic support available at uni. But, you’ll find there’s much less contact teaching time with your university lecturers than your teachers at college. 

How much work?

One of the most common things first year students notice is the increase in the volume of work. There's simply more of it. And because you're expected to study more independently, work doesn't just take place in the classroom - you'll be spending a lot more time in the library. And you'll probably need to do more at home as well.

Getting to grips with research

You’ll also be expected to conduct more independent research, rather than having facts thrown at you that you can learn and retain for later use. You’ll be expected to consult your reading list and research relevant information for your essays. So, it’s probably a good idea to find where the library is sooner rather than later!


Some key things to consider:

  • Search strategies - plan your search process to help you find relevant information from appropriate sources. Think about the key issues relating to your topic before you begin your search.
  • Identifying information - think about which sources are most likely to provide the information you need. Will it be online/digital, or would a printed resource be better, or maybe a conference paper? Your uni library will be able to offer guidance if you're not sure.
  • Evaluate the information - make sure your information source is good quality (Wikipedia is probably not the best source to base your research on!). Try to stick to reputable sources, such as industry journals or verified research papers.

The dreaded essay

500 word essay? No problem. 5,000 word essay? Errr… Essay writing is also a key skill you’ll need to acquire during your degree. You’ll have to get used to academic writing and referencing. Plus, you’ll also need to do plenty of research (see above).

Read Solent's succeed@solent essay writing tips

Critical and reflective thinking

Critical thinking
This is the ability to evaluate the value of ideas, statements and points of view - it underpins all successful academic work. Critical thinking is also a skill employers are keen to see in graduates. Critical thinking is questioning; looking for reasons or justification behind any point of view; giving a confident argument showing both sides of the story and bringing in theories and concepts you may have studied; constructing bits of information that provide solutions to problems or persuasive points of view in arguments.

Reflective thinking
To think and write effectively, you have to:

  • Experience something
  • Think about what happened
  • Learn from the experience.

Reflective thinking and writing is an important part of university work. The ability to reflect on your experience and knowledge, and use that to make improvements, is a key part of university-level thinking and work.

Practical v theory

Depending on your degree, you may actually need to do more practical work than you’ve done before. This is great, as you’ll likely be using the same or similar equipment you’d come across in the workplace after you graduate. Also, depending on your degree, you may be expected to get workplace learning, either through placements or internships that forms an assessed part of your degree.

Staying motivated

You’re independent now, answerable to only yourself. So, why not stay out until 2am every night partying with your new friends? Of course you want to go out and socialise – it’s a massive part of uni life after all. But, it's important to try to find a balance between uni work and socialising that works for you.

Why not swap a night out for a night in with your classmates and come up with some fun ways to study together – making sure you do actually get some work done, of course!


  • Set a rule that people have to leave their phones at the door.
  • You could put some quizzes together, swap notes, teach each other and help anyone out who’s maybe struggling a bit in a certain area.
  • Create simple ways of remembering things – something visual or mnemonics, or even songs!
  • Try to make it a fairly regular thing so you all stay on track.

Working with other people is a great way to stay positive and focused. If you’ve been stressing before, you’ll most likely find that you’re all in the same boat. A problem shared is a problem halved!

It's not all bad!

Don't let any of this put you off. It's important to remember: you're not alone! Watch the video to hear some of our recent graduates share some tried and tested study tips to help you on your way.

Seek help

If you do find you're struggling with the workload, or getting to grips with this new way of studying, or even the content of your studies - speak up! Talk to your lecturers or a student support adviser. Whatever you do, don’t suffer in silence and let it build up so it ends up affecting your overall uni experience. Your lecturers will want you to succeed as much as you do, so they will be there to provide some guidance.

Take our quick quiz

Tasks for this week:

  • Before you start, see if your chosen uni has any study tips online.
  • Have a read of Solent's essay writing tips.