Congratulations on making it this far! Being an Access student is no mean feat. Especially not in these times. Hence: well done, you! To make life at uni hopefully a wee bit easier for you – here are a few things that I wished I had known earlier.
A quick introduction: my name is Jessica, I’m in my mid-40s and I did the Access course (social & economic history and Scottish history) from 2018-2019. Here’s more about my story, in case you’re interested. I started my first year in September 2019 with history and Scottish literature and well… we all know what happened in early 2020.
Right now, I’m in my 4th year. But because I’m also working as a freelance journalist, translator, and writer, I’m doing the last 2 years of my single honours history degree in part-time (2 instead of 3 courses per semester). Mental sanity, so important.
All right, buckle up! Here’s what I know:
1. General Advice
Sit down with a calendar at the very beginning of the semester (first week), look at the deadlines, and then work out time slots in which you will write each of your assignments. Check the reading list early and start reading instantly. Making a plan helps tremendously. I know, we all sometimes would rather not deal with reality. But it will come back and bite you. So prepare.
Oh, and don’t make any plans from mid-October to the end of November and from mid-February to the end of March. You will be reading and writing.
You don’t have to be the best in all aspects of life. It’s impossible. Just good enough is just that: good enough. You do the best you can with the available resources in the circumstances you’re in. That’s all anybody could ever ask of you, including yourself. You will have good days and less good days, all perfectly normal.
Remember: you’re not at uni because you already know everything, you’re there to learn. Ultimately, as another student wrote in our WhatsApp group: ‚Cs get degrees!‘
Not everybody learns in the same manner – some people have to write things down to sort their thoughts, others prefer to listen, and some understand things best visually. Plus: not everybody is good at or motivated by the same things. So observe yourself. How do you learn? What’s your motivation? When’s the best time of day to read – mornings, afternoons? How many pages can you read before your mind starts to drift off?
In my case, the answers are emotions, story, audio – food! – between 9 and 12 / 19 until 21 – six to nine pages. Thus, I try to design my studying for myself, working with myself instead of against myself whenever possible. Example? If I have to read dry texts in the afternoon, I partition the pages, take a break, and go out to get a donut. 🙂 Don’t forget to be generous and forgiving with yourself. There will be topics that bore you, while you won’t be able to shut up about others.
Look at the essay topics you want to write about early on in the semester and narrow down your reading a bit. Yes, I know – ideally, you read all the books thoroughly. But frankly, there’s life plus work and care commitments – and everybody needs and deserves a break. So choose your topics, do that reading first and move on to other things that interest you later. And don’t feel bad about it.
Plan for breaks and recreation.
Essays are like sourdough (which we all tried during that cursed pandemic): you need to give them time and let them rest. It’s never good to rush them and pull awful all-nighters. Also: you’re human – chill. The brain works best when it’s not thinking all the time, that’s when it makes all those fascinating connections and epiphanies are born. Thus all the inspiration while brushing teeth.
There are classes and courses on almost everything you could possibly need. Essay writing, using the library, career advice, and much more. Also, take advantage of all the tours during Fresher’s week, like the one in the library. Did you know that there’s a piano in there? Or a dedicated family room where you can bring your child to study? Exactly!
Ask for help.
There’s zero shame in that. On the contrary: asking for help is distinctly clever, smart, and mature. Going to uni as an adult with a lot of responsibilities can be daunting and exhausting sometimes. That’s normal. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s support – organisational, mental-health wise, financial… Everything. But it won’t come to you by sheer magic. So reach out.
The people I met on the Access course are the ones that I still hang out with, at uni and elsewhere. Yes, even throughout a pandemic. And you will meet each other again – right now, I’m in my Special Subject course with four other Access people.
2. What does going to uni look like?
As I come from a working-class family in Germany and never went to uni myself before the Access course – let alone in Scotland – I had not the flimsiest clue of what anything would be like. It was like the foggiest of fogs. Or a strange planet. That made me feel slightly helpless and uneasy. Maybe you feel similarly. Fear not! I’ll try to explain what awaits you.
First, you apply through UCAS. Access gives you a pretty detailed explanation of the process and lots of help. Once you’re done with your exams and your grades are good enough, that’s it. Read your uni-mails, they will tell you everything. You’re literally being taken by the hand and led there.
The Access team is your friend, they want you to succeed.
This is an example of what uni could look like in the humanities:
Firstly: if you managed Access, you will manage uni. Trust me, you are well prepared – much more than you probably think! Remember that all those rosy-cheeked, starry-eyed young people fresh from school have never been to uni before. You’re way ahead of them.
Uni takes 4 years, that’s undergraduate. The first two years of it are just well… uni. Or pre-honours. The latter two years are called honours. These are then divided into junior honours (year 3) and senior honours (year 4). You’ll finish with a dissertation and a degree – and you get to wear a gown and a hat! Smashing!
Now let’s break it down a bit more.
First-year timetable and structure
Subjects. You pick three subjects. Which ones? That depends on your degree choice. For instance: social & economic history, Scottish history, Scottish literature.
Courses. Per semester you have one course in each subject – that makes three courses per semester. Those courses have catchy titles like „Europe Rising“ or „Poetry & Poetics“. You can’t choose the course, they are fixed and come automatically with the subject (which, as I said, you can choose). They are intended to give everybody in that subject a good ground to stand on.
Lectures. Each course has three lectures and one seminar per week. That means 3×3 lectures (= 9 lectures) and 3 seminars per week. It’s really not as much as it sounds. Oh, and each lecture / seminar lasts about 50 minutes from 5 past until 55, so you’ll have some time to run across campus to get to your next class.
Seminars. You have to prepare each seminar with reading or exercises, which should take about 1-2 hours per seminar. Literature, for obvious reasons, is a lot of reading. But as soon as the official reading list is out, you see the books and can start. How do I find the reading list, you ask? Well, it’s on the Moodle page, of course. But each course also has a website (like this one) that you can google before you’ve even enrolled and there’s a link to the reading list. But beware! Make sure it’s an updated and not an older version. Or else you might end up reading Robinson Crusoe for no reason. And that, my friend, is a ginormous waste of time.
Oh, and don’t leave seminar preparation until the night before the actual seminar – be smart and spread the reading over more than one day. Smaller bits are easier to manage.
Second semester. In the second semester of your first year, you continue the same subjects as in the first – only the courses change. Again: nothing to choose, just go with the flow. The workload remains the same. So history 1A ‚Scotland’s first millennium‘ becomes history 1B ‚Europe Rising‘, both still history.
1 = first year, A = first semester, B = second semester.
Assessments. They vary from subject to subject. It’s usually one essay, one short presentation, and one exam per semester. The course convenor and tutor will have everything prepared and planned ahead of time, they’ll let you know. You can find info on assessments on each course website as well. Also, Access has prepared you well. Nothing to worry. Sometimes the assessments can be weighed a little differently. An exam can be worth 40/ 50/ 60 % of your grade; an essay 10/ 20 / 30 %; a presentation 5 or 10 %…
By the way: every course is measured or weighed in credits. Each course has 20 credits. Per semester, as a full-time student, you thus accumulate 60 credits. That makes 120 per year and 240 in 2 years. You need 240 in order to be eligible to reach honours. And another 240 in your last 2 years to get a degree. In my case, as a part-time student, I stretch my credits over the last 2 years over a longer period. Means: 40 per semester, 80 per year. Consequently, I will have collected the necessary 240 to graduate in 3 instead of 2 years.
Second-year timetable and structure
Now you’re in the realm of 2A and 2B courses. It’s generally the same structure. With a little twist: you keep two of your three subjects – but you drop one and pick another in its place. For instance, English Lit instead of Scottish Lit.
Warning: you can only graduate in a subject that you had from the beginning to the end of your uni-years. So whatever you’re dropping in year 2 – it’s goodbye forever. And whatever you’re picking up at that point in time, it’s only temporary.
Glasgow Uni wants you to be able to have a choice of degree when you enter honours, which is why you keep two out of three subjects continuously for the first two years. So that later you can still change your mind between the two. Believe me, that happens.
Third-year timetable and structure
Junior honours. Now it gets interesting! You’re entering junior honours. That means at the end of year two, you definitely have to decide what your degree is going to be. Literature? History?
You have to apply for honours, but this is relatively informal and nothing like the UCAS thing. When and how it’s done in detail or which grades you need – that depends on the department. They’ll let you know in advance. There’s plenty of guidance and presentations and meetings. Again, read your uni-mails. And make sure you write down all the deadlines, as they are plentiful and merciless.
Single or joint? You could do single honours, which means you have only one subject. Or you could do joint honours, which means you have two subjects. For example English Lit plus History OR Economic Social History plus Scottish History.
Important: the workload and time are the same for both paths, you just split the number of courses and the credits between the two subjects.
Let’s say you do single honours. Now you have just one subject. What does that mean in terms of structure? Well, each subject has three courses, so the structure remains roughly the same. But only one subject, not three. Instead of the subject and the course being the same thing (as in your first two years), now the subject is the umbrella and the courses all relate to that, so to speak.
Choices. The best thing: you can now choose the courses you’re really interested in! (Provided they’re available. You know, academics do other things besides teaching, like writing papers and books and trying to get funding. So sometimes, they’re on research duty.)
Courses. Each course lasts one semester. You have three courses per semester, the same as before. Here is an example for the subject History: Mary Queen of Scots, Saints & Sinners, Medieval Chivalry. All the same subject (history), yet different courses. Each course has one or two lectures and one seminar or workshop per week. It’s a bit more freestyle.
Assessments are generally similar but may vary slightly. Although I have to say: essays with 2000 words are a lot better than 1500. You can actually write something (more or less) meaningful.
Fourth-year timetable and structure
Senior honours. In year four you move into senior honours and write your dissertation. But as I’ve just started with year 4 and I’m a part-time student, I don’t know exactly how that’s going to go. Right now, in the first semester of my fourth year, I have one special subject and an additional course: Scottish Radicalism and the First War of Scottish Independence.
Special subject. The special subject allows you to – surprise, surprise – specialise more. It lasts one entire year instead of one semester and it’s worth 30 instead of 20 credits per semester. That’s 60 for the year. For me this means: one 1-hour lecture per week and one 2-hour seminar/ workshop plus a mountain to read for the special subject alone. But it’s really, really great! We deal with all sorts of primary sources and lead amazing discussions. (Also, there are biscuits in this particular course. Just saying.)
As a part-time student, I will hand in my dissertation proposal at the beginning of next year, then start researching and writing over the summer and hopefully have something to show in Spring 2024…
I’ll put more up here as soon as I think I understand what’s going on in the course of year number four.
3. Essay writing
This deserves special attention, as it will take up quite a chunk of your time and brainpower.
You probably know this by now. But still, it’s worth mentioning: make sure you read, understand, and answer the essay question. Here’s my hack on what to do when you’re unsure what’s actually asked of you: I look at the intended learning outcomes (available on the course Moodle but also, as the reading list, on the course’s website). That usually gives an indication of what you’re supposed to learn in the course. You can link the essay question to one of the overarching general topics. After all, those essay questions are not chosen randomly!
No matter how much of a free-spirited, untameably creative poet you consider yourself to be and possibly are: you will need to structure your essays. It’s usually an introduction, roughly 3 paragraphs, and a conclusion.
There are different kinds and genres of writing – crime novels, non-fiction self-help books, sonnets, op-ed pieces for newspapers, love letters, eulogies – and essays are there to teach you how to write academically, which means analytically. It is what it is, just accept it and move on. You can still write novels later.
There’s a lot of material and also courses about academic writing available from the LEADS department.
Now, this I really wish I would have known earlier! Whatever you claim in your essays, you need to back it up with evidence. Since I’ve been a journalist for 20 years, I categorised experts‘ (aka historians‘) statements as evidence. Well, that’s not it, that’s historiography – basically, what other historians think about a certain topic.
Don’t get me wrong: knowing the historical debate and knowing where you stand on this is an important part of your work.
However, evidence is something more tangible – such as acts and bills (e.g. Corn Law 1815, Reform Act 1832), events (e.g. King’s birthday riot in 1792), trials (e.g. Thomas Muir 1793), quotes from primary sources (e.g. letters by Mary, Queen of Scots to Elizabeth I), or even case studies and quantifiable research some other historian has taken painstaking archival work to document.
Reading and note-taking.
Whatever you read and consider to be interesting: mark it, write it down, or save it instantly – and always add the author name and page number behind every quote or piece of information you save. Because once you’ve lost it, it’s unlikely that you’ll find it again. And if it’s exactly the perfect thing you need for your argument – that loss can hurt almost as much as your first break-up. Maybe.
Plan for enough buffer – and consider the meticulous business of footnotes and bibliography. I recommend being ready with everything a day early. Don’t leave uploading your work on Moodle until the last minute. Moodle can be notoriously … moody. I did it once with two essays due at the same time. The sheer horror of it! Uploading both documents mere 3 minutes before the deadline was more nerve-wracking than anything I’ve ever done in my life – and that includes jumping off a mountain strapped to a stranger while hang-gliding in Rio de Janeiro.
That you must never, ever take other people’s thoughts, research, or knowledge and use them without giving proper credit and reference is the most important and sacred rule of academic writing. But did you know that you can’t recycle your own thoughts, either? Well, now you do.
‚I had a great thought in another essay once, I just use it again!‘ – nope, don’t. Seriously.
That being said: two essay questions are never the same, the context and emphasis will always vary. So why not sit down and rethink your once great thought to come up with another good one?
All the other specifics of essay writing (style, structure, command words… you name it) will be provided by your tutors or course convenors and the LEADS department.
Which leads me to…
Some (hopefully) useful links that helped me in the past.
Learning & studying
- UofG Learning enhancement & academic development service
- College of Arts student learning development
- Cite This For Me (Help with referencing)
- Exam tips
Career & employability
Support & help
- General guide on administrative things
- Student Representative Council (SRC)
- Financial support (SRC)
- UofG Financial Aid
- UofG mental health resources
- UofG counselling overview
- College of Arts general info & advice
- College of Arts student advisers
- Disability Service
- Cost of living support
- Ambaile – Highland History
- BBC In Our Time History Podcast
- BBC Archive on YouTube
- Beatrice Webb’s Diary
- Bodleian Libraries
- British Library: National Life Stories
- British Newspaper Archive (subscription)
- Digital Transgender Archive
- Early English Books Online (EEBO)
- Glasgow Uni Great War Project
- Glasgow Women’s Libary
- Historical Texts Online
- History of Scotland (magazine website)
- Legacies of British Slavery Database
- Internet Archive
- Medieval and Early Modern Sources TannerRitchie (UofG Login)
- Memories and Portraits of 100 Glasgow Men
- Mitchell Library – old Glasgow photographs
- Mitchell Libary – Archives
- National Records of Scotland – census records
- Old Bailey Records
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Olive Schreiner’s letters online
- People of Medieval Scotland
- Red Clydeside
- Scotland’s places
- Scottish Place Name Society
- Scottish Archives for School
- Scottish Archive Network
- Scottish Library & Information Council
- Smithsonian Open Access Images
- Statistical Accounts of Scotland
- Survey of Scottish Witchcraft
- The Carlyle letters online
- The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist Periodicals
- The National Archives
- The National Library of Scotland
- The Programming Historian
- The William Sharp ‚Fiona Macleod‘ Archive
Phew! This is by no means an exhaustive list. It’s just what I learned and what helped me from my personal perspective. Your experiences and needs might be very different.
Chances are that I will add things over time. So come back and check occasionally.
But most importantly: enjoy your time at uni!
Yes, it can be stressful. But it’s also inspiring and amazing, eye-opening, and – especially history – sometimes downright infuriating. Uni will change and shape you. Enlighten you. Let you grow and evolve. Getting this education is an incredible privilege and joy.
The Access course was just the first step. You got this!