5 tips for returning to higher education

Ever since I finished my first degree, I always wanted to go on to further study. I got a place on a full-time MSc straight after my BSc but then, before enrolment, decided that I didn’t want to get myself into more debt. A few years later, I applied for another MSc (part-time), but then realised that I perhaps didn’t want to go down that particular academic route after all. I’m so glad that I trusted my instincts and waited a bit longer as everything started to come together once I began working at London College of Fashion.

Taken in the library at London College of FashionI finally found a Master’s degree that ticked every box for me and, after meeting with the course leader for an initial discussion, put in an application for a part-time place starting in the 2012-13 academic year. In August 2012 I blogged about how excited I was to be embarking on this new academic journey and have written a fair few posts since then about all the things I’ve learned along the way. However, I have now realised that there are other aspects of my learning that it might be useful to pass on to anyone thinking of enrolling on a higher education course as a mature student. Tips that can apply to study on any course that has a written output. If you’ve been out of HE for a while, are completely new to it, or if you’re changing to a more academic specialism, here are my top tips for getting the most out of your course… and yourself!

1) Remember… everyone finds it tricky at the start
When I started my course, I was convinced that I was the only person petrified that I’d be found out as a fraud. I was certain that I was the only person who hadn’t already submitted hundreds of meticulously referenced academic essays, and so thought that everyone else was finding it easy. I was wrong. Everyone on the course came from different academic backgrounds and so we all found something hard at first. Although I wasn’t an expert essay writer and had never taken cultural studies, I knew a fair amount about how garments are made and was familiar with the work of a great many fashion photographers. Some topics were harder than others, but the most reassuring thing was finding out that no one is finding it all really easy. After all, if it wasn’t difficult you probably wouldn’t be learning anything!

2) Get stuck into your reading as soon as possible
The best thing I did at the start of my course was to make time for reading. When you don’t have all that background knowledge in your head, the sheer number of unread books on the recommended reading list can seem frightening, so it’s good to work through as many as you can in the first term to give yourself some background. Once you start to see books you’ve already read referenced in new titles, you’ll begin to recognise theories and everything will start to seem less scary. Also, if you get a lot of reading done at the start, it’ll help you get into the right mindset for academic learning. You might be able to ease off a bit after that, but put the ground work in first and it’ll pay off.

3) Block out time and set deadlines
If you are naturally super organised and have all the time in the world, perhaps this isn’t as relevant, but boy did I need this one. It probably goes without saying that this is especially important when you are fitting your course around work or being a parent. If you don’t have Google Calendar yet, get it, and share your diary with your nearest and dearest so that they can see where you have blocked out time to concentrate on your studies. Find a place where you won’t be disturbed and, if it’s noisy, find some background music that you can put on to help you focus. If you have an essay deadline and don’t want to be panicking at the last minute, set yourself some mini-deadlines in advance to make sure that you are organised. It might seem tricky the first time, but it will be worth it in the end.

4) Get someone to proofread your work
This was especially important for me when I was due to hand in my first essay as I had absolutely no idea whether or not I was on the right lines. If you know an academic, a teacher, or have a friend who has done some academic writing relatively recently, ask if they’d be willing to read your assignment and see if it makes sense. They don’t have to understand your topic inside out to be able to help, but they’ll know if you’re structuring arguments well and using quotes properly. They can also spot the sorts of typos that don’t get picked up by whatever wordprocessing package you’re using and give style advice if, like me, you have limited understanding of how things like semi-colons work. Also, do make sure you leave enough time to action any suggested changes before you hand in.

5) Don’t panic!
Seriously, just don’t. You were offered a place on this course by someone who believes that you can do it, so trust their judgement and remember that your tutors are there to help. Your university will have study support, help with academic writing, help for those with any sort of disability and also language support (if English is not your first language), so there is always someone you can turn to if everything seems too much. You can do this. Just take a deep breath and find some time to clear your head and focus on the task at hand. Talk to friends who have studied recently, or just find someone calming to explain your worries to and I guarantee that you’ll feel better once you’ve got all that worrying out of your head.

If you want to read some more posts written throughout my time as a postgraduate student at London College of Fashion, check out my Fashion Studies series. I’m also planning a few more on the subject of research and planning in the next few weeks, so watch this space.

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