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How to Succeed at University (or College)

Helen Lees’s new book offers compelling ideas for navigating university life.

Pixabay, Creative Commons, No attribution required
Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons, No attribution required

This post is inspired by my reading of Helen Lees’s new book, Playing the University Game: The Art of University-Based Self-Education. I recommend it for anyone involved in higher education, whether as prospective student, current student, recovering student, faculty, counselor, someone paying the bills, or (especially) the president of the place. It takes us below the polish and fantasy of the brochures and hype to an honest look at the highs and lows of university life.

Lees is in an excellent position to write such a book. She has experience as university undergraduate, graduate student, and faculty member and is editor in chief of Other Education: The Journal of Educational Alternatives. She is a long-time advocate of self-directed education, and in this book, she makes the point that to succeed at university you need to take a self-directed approach.

Before going further, a note on terminology: Lees is a native of the UK, and there and throughout most of the world, the term university includes what we in the US usually call college. In the US, if you are going for a bachelor’s degree, you say you are going to college, elsewhere you say you are going to university. I’ll use Lees's term, university, throughout, but be aware that this includes what we in the US commonly call college.

Most of the book consists of transcribed conversations that Lees held with seven scholars who are involved with university education. All but one are anonymous; the one who is not is Eli Meyerhoff, author of Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World. Of these seven, three live and work in North America and the others in the UK.

Rather than attempt to review the book in detail, I will use this space to summarize six ideas developed in it that strike me as especially useful for succeeding at university. The summaries and thoughts come not just from Lees and her colleagues but also from my own life-long experience in universities, as student and professor.

1. Be clear to yourself about what you want to get from the university.

In Chapter 2 of her book, Lees lists and describes a set of “Rules of the University Game.” These are guidelines for taking charge of one's own university decisions and experiences. Rule 5 (p 33) is “University fantasizing is a mistake.” Here she points out (p 34) that “It is a social fantasy that we all ought to go to university if we want to be someone.”

Many students go to university without giving much thought to why. Think about that for a moment. University involves a huge expense in money, time, and energy, and yet many people give less thought to why they are buying four years at a university than to why they are buying a new pair of sneakers. Some people, in the dominant socioeconomic class, just assume that university is a necessary part of life. But why is it necessary? If you think it is, articulate that; write it down in your own words, challenge it before accepting it, and discuss it with others.

Maybe you are going to university because you are quite clear on what career you want, and you know that in this world that career requires university. Be sure you are clear on that. Maybe you should try out that career, in a lower-level way that doesn’t require university, before you invest in university toward that career. For example, if you think you want to be a doctor, try working in a hospital as an orderly first, to see firsthand what doctors do and to experience being with sick people. (For more on that, see here.)

Maybe you are going to university because you are truly excited about spending four years engaged intellectually with new ideas or plunging deeply and expansively into ideas you already have. You want to expand your horizons. You want to make use of the knowledgeable, stimulating people you will find there, among the students and faculty, and you are thrilled about the university's wonderful library. That’s a great reason to go to university. As one of Lees’s conversation partners contends (p 91), university can be “a beautiful experience because of the time for thinking and reflection that this period in a person’s life can offer” and “A student can enjoy university if they are curious.” But truth be told, in today’s world there are ways of doing that that don’t cost so much and entail fewer restrictions on the range of ways you can explore and study. For less money, you could travel the world and meet interesting people everywhere. So think carefully.

Maybe you are going to university because everyone in your social group is going or because your parents expect you to and will be disappointed if you don’t, or because you see it as the top of the ladder that you have been strenuously climbing since kindergarten and will deem yourself a failure if you don’t get to the top. If any of these is your main reason, then for heaven’s sake, or really for your own sake, don’t go. At least, don’t go right away. Take a year or two off to do something in the real world, outside of academia, to find yourself in that world, and then think again about reasons for going or not.

My experience is that the students who get the most out of university are those who have a good reason for being there. Often, they are older students who have been out in the world for a while, who have learned something about themselves that has led them to a good reason for going to university.

2. Take ownership of your university experience.

School, up to university, is pretty much a place of spoon-feeding. That’s what makes it so tedious. You are told pretty much exactly what to do, and if you do it with drudging effort (little or no creativity required), you will get good marks. You may also, in your school years, get directions from home about how to live your life and meet daily requirements.

But in university—I hope—you will be liberated from that. Sadly, universities now do more spoon-feeding than they did in the past, but not nearly as much as high schools do. Sadly, the cell phone has allowed students to keep in constant touch with their parents, and some use it to allow their parents to continue to run their life. Don’t let that happen. Use your phone to tell them how much you love them, to share some of your experiences if you would like, but don’t use it to ask them or allow them to take charge of your university life and study. Now is the time for you to take responsibility.

Much of the thrill of university, for many, derives from the experience of being in a setting where nobody is monitoring them. “Thrill” is an experience that involves a mix of joy and fear. Yes, it’s joyful to be in a situation where you are making your own choices, but it’s also frightening. Indeed, much of the joy lies in discovering that you can manage that fear. It’s like the thrill you felt at age 6 when you climbed that tree higher than you thought you could. It made you stronger psychologically. Seek advice from whomever you wish—from other students, from faculty advisors, from counselors, and even from your parents if they can offer it dispassionately in a way that respects you as the final decider—but remember that the decision is yours. You are not a victim here. You are the judge of what advice is worth following and what is not. Success or failure, by whatever are your criteria (and I hope it’s not just grades), is in your hands. Lees’s Rule 1 for playing the university game is (p 28) “Autonomy Matters.”

Part of taking responsibility at university, as Lees points out (p 31), is reading carefully and understanding all the rules and regulations, what you need to do to get a degree (assuming you care about that, and most do). Nobody is likely to tell you this. Your faculty advisor probably doesn’t even know what the requirements are. But they are all written down somewhere, probably in something called a student handbook. Get that, read it, and write out all the relevant stuff in your own words so you know it and understand it. Faculty members and university administrators have little sympathy for students who didn’t complete the requirements because they “didn’t know about them.”

One advantage of learning early on, about the requirements is that you will learn that you have more freedom than you might have assumed. Most of the courses you will take are your own choice. Choose wisely, based on your understanding of what you want to get out of your university experience. Most universities also offer “independent study” courses, in which you create your own course and find a faculty member to sponsor you. Some universities even offer students the opportunity to create their own major, so you don’t have to limit yourself to the university’s menu of majors. Many students don’t even know about these opportunities and few take advantage of them, but these are great ways to take charge of your own education and get from it what you want.

I have talked with some students and former students who grew up without conventional schooling (they were unschooled at home or attended a school for self-directed education), who told me they were able to make their university experience far more self-directed than most think possible. For example, one told me that if she found an assigned book to be boring or otherwise unhelpful, she would go to the library and find another book in the same general realm that was more interesting or relevant to her. Then she would go the professor and ask if she could read that one, and write about it, instead of the one assigned. Perhaps because this is such an unusual thing to do, and because she had clearly done the work of finding the new book and defending it intelligently, the professor would usually say yes.

3. Take care of yourself, physically and psychologically.

Lees says repeatedly in her book, in various ways, “the university doesn’t care about you.” It cares about your tuition money, and if you happen to be a great athlete, it cares about that (at least in the US), but otherwise it doesn’t care about you. That’s true, no matter what the brochures may say or imply. Maybe that sounds terrible, but I would argue it’s a good thing. It’s time for you to care for yourself. The university is impersonal. Its job is not to be a parent or a nanny. It is there for you to use or not, for whatever purpose you wish.

At university you can stay up all night if you want, drink as much alcohol as you can afford (legally or not), eat nothing but sweets if you want, get yourself mixed up in other people’s drama, and in various other ways set yourself up for physical or mental collapse. That’s up to you. If you want to succeed at university, you need to take care of yourself. Lees’s Rule 4 is “Breathe!” and her Rule 6 is “Be Aware of University Fear and [accept not knowing as normal]."

For nearly all students, university life entails lots of anxiety. You are anxious about taking charge of your life, about grades and the possibility of failure, about your status or lack of it in the university social scene. If you are like most students, you probably have a bit of impostor syndrome, wondering whether you really belong there. Accept the anxiety as normal, maybe even healthy, but don’t let it overwhelm you. There are ways to control it. When it is acute, deep breathing and mediation help. Learn relaxation techniques. But over the long run you can control anxiety best by truly taking charge of your life.

Anxiety comes from the sense of not being in control. Fundamentally, anxiety is the dread of things that are outside of your perceived ability to control. So the antidote to anxiety is taking control and realizing that you have much more control than you thought you did. Anxiety levels are much higher in universities today than in decades past because students are coming with less experience in self-control than they had in the past. Overprotective parenting, over-directive schooling, and the decline of free play have deprived children and teens of learning to take control of their own lives (see here and here). University is more of a shock now than it was in the past.

It is also the case that some anxiety comes from fantasies and false beliefs. Many students—especially those who got straight A's in high school—suffer from serious anxiety about getting anything less. Don’t let that happen to you. Some students who hope to go on to graduate school have become convinced, falsely, that they have no chance of going on if they don’t have all A's. I’ve been on enough graduate student selection committees and know enough about other programs to know that’s not true. Of greatest relevance for graduate admissions is evidence of real interest and ability related to the specific program, and most graduate admissions committee members are smart enough to know that grades don’t tell much about that. More important are letters of recommendation, essays the candidate has written or independent research they have done, and other evidence of real commitment to the area of study. Any graduate program that takes grades as the only criterion, or even as the major one, is not worth attending. Good graduate programs are looking for people who are already functioning as independent scholars, and those people are not necessarily the grade grubbers.

Another thing that can relieve anxiety is to realize that there is no shame in quitting or taking a leave. Sometimes that’s the smart thing to do, to realize that university life is not for you, at least not right now. (For more on the power that comes from freedom to quit, see here.)

The university doesn’t care about you, but it would be a great idea to look for people within the university who do. Perhaps the best hedge against anxiety is good friends—people with whom you can be honest and with whom you can have a mutually caring relationship. Don’t try to climb the social status hierarchy but look for people who will care more about you than about status. The best way to find such friends is to demonstrate that you care about them and are there to help when you can. That is empowering as well as comforting. As part of taking control, don’t wait for potential friends to find you, go out and find them.

4. Schedule each day and keep to the schedule.

As one of Lees’s discussion partners points out (p 64), “One of the greatest triggers of anxiety and stress is when people understand they are out of time. A timetable, on a daily basis to handle difficulties with writing, helps …”

When I started university, many years ago, I found the best remedy for my anxiety was to write out a schedule, every night before bed, of what I would accomplish the next day and when I would do it. To me, the biggest fear was that of getting everything done that I felt I needed to get done. I worked off campus 20 hours a week, had a full load of courses, was doing independent work in a lab, and knew that for health reasons I needed to include recreation (such as tennis and pick-up basketball) and socializing in my daily life.

So every day I carried in my pocket a schedule. I still do that. I’ve been doing it all my life, though now I put it on the Notes app on my iPhone rather than on paper. This is my way of taking control of my life. My schedule shows me how I can do all I need and want to do that day, and it relieves me of the fear that I will lose track and fail to do what is good for me (and now, for my family). The schedule is not completely rigid; some things need to happen at certain times, but, by knowing that, I also know when I am free for new things that happen to arise that day.

My schedule saved me from a problem that plagues many students. Anxiety tends to lead to avoidance of whatever you are anxious about. If you are anxious about a paper you must write, you avoid the paper until just before it is due, and then you get a poor grade on it, which leads to even more anxiety about writing papers. The schedule—if you discipline yourself to stick to it—prevents you from doing that. The schedule gets you started on the paper many days before it is due. You do it a chunk at a time, so it is not so scary. One day you will do a little library research to get a better sense of what you want to write about. The next day you will do more library research to find the most relevant references. And so on. Each step is manageable, not frightening. You get the paper done before the due date and have time to reread it, revise it, maybe ask a friend to critique it, and finally proof it. Then you get a good grade and your anxiety about writing papers goes down.

5. Find ways to engage intellectually with the course contents.

Lees’s Rule 7 (p 36) is “Want to Know.” I’m going to be brief here, even though this is the most important item in the list. It’s so important that I plan to devote a future blog post to it. The primary purpose of a university, presumably, is to provide opportunities for intellectual engagement. If you don’t do that, you are missing the point of a university education.

To be a self-directed university student is to be a scholar, not a pupil. A pupil is someone who thinks their job is to “learn” and that learning means memorizing and feeding back. You might pass your university courses that way, but in the long run you will get nothing out of the experience. A scholar is one who is curious, has questions, and strives in various ways to answer those questions. The trick, in every university course, is to figure out how to be a scholar in that course and not a mere pupil. I will suggest some ways to do that in a future post.

6. Write, write, write.

Perhaps it is not surprising that, as editor in chief of an academic journal, Lees places great emphasis in her book on the value of good writing. As she and her conversation partners point out in various places in the book, writing is the means of communication in most university courses. It is how you express your understanding and thinking in term papers and on tests. No matter how profound your thoughts might be, they count for nothing to the professor if you can’t write them out in a clear and compelling way. The biggest complaint that professors make about students is that their writing is terrible, and I confess to being one of those complainers. I’ve also observed in my career that the people who become most successful in most realms of academia are those who not only have interesting ideas but are truly skilled at writing.

The best academic preparation for university is to learn to write well. As a guide, I recommend the classic little book by Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, which you can get as a Kindle for 99 cents. It will be the best 99 cents you ever spent. In clear, concise prose, in less than 100 pages, it tells you how to write clear and concise prose.

But of course, to be a good writer you can’t just read about good writing, you must practice. The more you write, the better you will be, if you pay attention to being clear and concise in that writing. Don’t just write when a course requires you to do it. After taking lecture notes, write out your notes in your own words, in a way that makes sense to you and would make sense to others. In your own words is the key phrase here. If you just parrot what the professor said, you are not expressing your own understanding of it. After reading a chapter or a book, write out your own thoughts about what was most interesting or informative to you in that chapter or book or any questions it generated in your mind, again in your own words. Such exercises not only improve your writing but also help you consolidate, in a way that you will remember, your own understanding of what you read. This is a major step toward becoming a scholar rather than a mere pupil, and it will improve your performance immensely on tests and papers for the course.

You may also find it helpful to keep an academic diary. At the end of each day, before writing out your schedule for the next day, write out the most interesting thoughts and ideas that you confronted that day. This may be a major move in taking control of your own university education and becoming a scholar rather than a pupil.

A mark of a good book is that it stimulates one’s own thinking. As reflected in this essay, Lees’s Playing the University Game has certainly done that for me. If you read it thoughtfully, with curiosity, I’m sure it will generate thoughts for you that go beyond what I have reflected here.


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