Friday Special: University Q&A
Welcome to my new miniseries here on the blog! Twice a month I’ll be posting some more personal, interactive content discussing my journey through education, my lifestyle and my goals. I’m aware that my website is primarily focused on study tips and discussions about the higher education system here in the UK, but I’ve had messages asking me about my personal story as a first-generation student at the University of Reading.
My #studygram on Instagram is a great place to find me as my DMs are open and I love interacting with other students over there. My handle is @tibbotttalks_study, and you can find a sample of my newest posts on the front page of my website; just scroll to the bottom! If you follow me over there, I often share nuggets of advice, as well as personal anecdotes and words of encouragement too. A few weeks ago, I asked on Instagram and Twitter (find me @abbie_tibbott) for questions surrounding my university experience, so read on for my answers!
[[ All answers have been anonymised. Where there were duplicate questions, I have paraphrased them]]
“Is university anything like what’s on social media?”
Yes, in parts. I’d definitely say that the partying, studying, and general lifestyle depicted on the internet isn’t too far from the truth. I like also that more people are talking about financials, mental health and healthy eating on their platforms, and social media has become a space for people to evaluate their experiences. However, photos and videos won’t show loneliness, homesickness, tense relationships with flat mates and the stress of balancing a degree and a job. Not everyone will have a fantastic first week; not everyone will like who they live with and not everyone will enjoy their course. Just like anywhere, it’s important to look behind the glossy prospectus and try and get a feel for the place before you attend. This has been made much more difficult due to Covid-19 restrictions, so I’d recommend sites such as The Student Room if you want to speak to current students.
“What is the mental health support like?”
It’s patchy. I’ve never accessed it, but I know of people who did. They were often bounced from a counsellor to a GP and back again. Waiting lists are long and students often don’t seem informed about how to access it most of the time. More needs to be done across the NHS to improve provision within universities, especially since the pandemic. Protecting your mental health is very important in what can be a stressful environment, so making sure you have the correct support is essential to many people. My advice would be to ensure you are aware of what services your university has to offer before you arrive.
“How far was your university from your home?”
About 3 hours, door to door. I’d be driven to the port, catch the fast ferry, hop on a bus, a train and then another bus. I got a Railcard so it wasn’t too expensive, but I only went home two or three times per semester. I’d say it was a nice distance, as I could get home easily but there wasn’t the temptation to pop home every weekend when I was bored.
“What A-Levels did you take? What were your grades like?”
I took English language, history and biology, as well as music for AS, and I got ACD(C). I picked the wrong subjects if I’m honest, partly because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study at university when I was sixteen and looking back, I also think I was given some dodgy advice. If I went back, I would take English language, history, classical civilizations and government and politics. I’m not happy with my A levels, but that’s a discussion for another blog post entirely!
“Does working for the university mean that you can’t say anything bad about it? I don’t want to lie to people.”
It’s more of being diplomatic. I was very honest about why I chose Reading and obviously emphasized the best parts of my experience (the course, the campus, and the support) and carefully tackled the negatives (the library disruption, accommodation maintenance issues and study space) when talking to prospective students. Working on campus was so flexible and convenient for me, and I didn’t feel like I lied to anyone. A thing to remember is that everyone has different tastes! For example, the library refurbishment was disruptive to me, but a student who doesn’t want/need to use library spaces probably wouldn’t care. I also couldn’t offer perspective on everything, especially on science facilities, so I’d find another student who had personal experience or offer to tour the area.
“Is it all presentations?”
Not for my course at my university. I had two presentations that were assessed; one was a group project and one was for my dissertation, both lasted just ten minutes each! Special accommodations can be made if you have a diagnosed condition that makes presentations stressful, but I’d encourage you to get up and give it a go if you can. University is a great place to develop public speaking skills too. There were some informal presentations in seminars, but they were literally so chilled out and I delivered them from my seat most of the time.
“I’m going to university in September, but I don’t know where to buy anything for my room. Where did you get your stuff from?”
Some was second hand, such as my crockery, and the rest I bought from Primark, Dunelm, Morrisons and Tesco. I also borrowed a few bits from home too. Primark do great bedding and linen for affordable prices and it washes well. I’d advise a 10.5 tog duvet as that’s what I took with me. My plates and bowls didn’t match but it didn’t matter! Have a hunt around the supermarkets for pots and pans as they’re often available quite cheaply and take décor with you from your room at home.
“Do you think students should have got their tuition back from the Covid disruption?”
Yes, of course, but I think rent rebates, waivers and refunds are much more useful to students. Tuition fees are paid directly to the university from Student Finance England, so you never see the money, but many parents and students top up the maintenance loan that’s spent on rent and your university lifestyle. Lots of landlords won’t let students out of contracts early and some university accommodation hasn’t allowed students to pull out either which is completely unacceptable! There was no clear strategy from the government, so universities had to act independently which hasn’t always ended in the best outcomes for students. I believe that maintenance loans should have been refunded to students or rolled over onto the next year.
“Was your MA worth the money?”
This was a very common question! I paid around £7k for the course which was fulltime for one year. However, I had to pay for 51 weeks of accommodation which I received no refund from Covid disruption, which was extremely expensive. Living away while doing a postgraduate degree definitely had its downsides, and I’m not happy with how my university managed their accommodation in the 2019/20 academic year, but thankfully it has changed for the better this year. It’s honestly hard to quantify how much higher education actually costs, but the support from my department was fantastic even when I had to take an extension for my dissertation. Even through Covid lockdowns, certain members of staff really went out of their way to not only continue our education long-distance, but also to challenge the university’s handling of postgraduate taught courses. I think in a normal year, it would have been totally worth the money, but my year of MA was completely derailed by Covid, the university’s response, and financial issues stemming from me becoming unemployed. It’s controversial, but I must have paid around £16,000 altogether for my entire experience, and it simply wasn’t worth that much.
“What was your lowest point?”
In my second year of undergrad, my car failed its MOT, needed to be taxed, insured and fixed all at the same time. It completely wiped out my savings and I struggled to pick up shifts at work due to competition among employees. For four weeks I lived on cheese toasties, beans, and water whilst I wrote two important essays and prepared for exam revision. It was tough! I felt low at that point as I was very stressed about the lack of work shifts, I was getting. My diet gave me headaches and I lost a lot of sleep. It all worked out okay in the end, as (not to brag, but okay, maybe a little bit) I got an 80% and a 75% on the essays I wrote during that time. Not many people knew that I was struggling, and I wish that I’d reached out for help during that time. Money issues are common among students, but the stigma of being poor really hits hard, especially when you’re surrounded by richer students. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
“What was your hardest exam like?”
I have two horror stories. In my second year, I took a module called ‘The Making of Modern Britain’, which I’d really enjoyed. The exam for that module was my last one of the year, and I just so happened to come down with a horrible summer cold a few days before. I honestly don’t remember a lot of the exam as I was tired and ill, but I managed to push through and actually do quite well! The second nightmare exam was in third year and was essentially two hours of analysing primary sources from autobiographies that I had studied. I’d never taken an exam like that before and the whole thing was a complete rush. There was so much to do in two hours, and by the time I’d reached the last question I’d run out of things to say without repeating myself. It wasn’t my best performance!
“How did you choose a dissertation?”
For my undergraduate dissertation, I came up with the idea of the Women’s Royal Air Force and female bodies in the summer before my final year. I’d written a proposal for an entirely different topic but had received some quite damming feedback that really drove me away. I was researching around women’s history in the early 20th century, and I came across the auxiliary women’s force, which I’d never heard of. What was a random idea suggested by my mum (who has been a fantastic supplier of ideas for my coursework over the years) about women in uniform became 10,000 words on female agency within the military after 1918.
My postgraduate dissertation concerned the Conservative Cabinet of 1924 and their attitude towards women voting on the same terms as men, which was initially suggested by my supervisor in June 2020 to replace my former topic concerning women’s employment and the development of the modern woman. Archives were closed, and the sources for the Cabinet were completely digitized, which meant I could write a dissertation without needing to travel. The topic evolved into a discussion about disenfranchisement and citizenship in the late 1920s and convinced me (eventually) that I’m a political historian! I loved both my dissertations and found them the most interesting and rewarding outcomes of both of my degrees. It is daunting to choose a topic, but I’d suggest identifying topics or essays you enjoyed and investigating whether they can be expanded into a larger work.
This Q&A threw up a variety of fantastic questions, and I’m grateful for so many of my readers for asking what they most wanted to know! Thank you to everyone who interacted with me on Twitter and Instagram as you helped to build this entire post which will hopefully be the first of many. This attempt was so successful that I’m thinking of doing these posts more regularly, so I can answer even more questions. If you want to catch up with my current life, follow me on Instagram while I search for a job and recall my university experience.