Simon Smith’s Golden Rules For University Study

When we asked for your tips on surviving university life, commerce/law student Simon Smith responded with an extensive selection of real-world tips for studying successful. Here’s his take on how to make the most of your time at university.

The golden rules

Basically there are only two things you must do to be successful at uni, these are:

1. Actually spend the hours it takes to learn the content that is in your lecture slides and tutorials well enough that you can tackle those problems independently in each assignment. Don’t even think about progressing to the next week’s lecture without mastering this week’s assigned work.

2. You must learn how to write pretty good (read: brilliant) answers on timed exams. This skill is not learnt overnight, and must be practiced frequently on every topic that will be tested. Get a stopwatch and a small desk so that you can practice in exact exam conditions – you don’t go for your driver’s licence test without testing the car out first, so why risk it with exams? After all, these will determine the trajectory of your career.

Time management is key

Use time efficiently. Time is the enemy. Work consistently over each semester. Draw a big clear timeline that helps you visualise every ‘assessed due date’ –add nothing else.

You’ll work harder with people around; so spend more time in the library and less at home.

Do more than usual to be more physically active; but try and avoid being a lonesome gym junky. Working out in the gym four times a week does wonders for your energy and focus though. It’s also a good break for an hour or two from studying.

Never neglect the value of getting involved in groups and social events, but be wary of their respective time commitments.

Find a way to separate study time and time off, so you’re actually taking time off rather than lapsing into mindless procrastination behind the computer.

Try and connect with second, third or even fifth year students in your course. These people have been down the road you’re going down, and will generally be happy to help provided you’re polite.

And don’t be shy… go and get that hot nursing student’s number. This IS university after all!

Sleep is important

Maintain your ‘beauty’ sleep throughout the semester. The small benefit is that you won’t come across as a zombie to your peers or, more importantly, lecturers (who might write you letters of recommendation or job opportunities later on). You will also benefit by being able to fit more in your day. Wake at 7am instead of 12pm, and reap the benefit of the lower teacher to student ratios of those 9am classes. Then have an extra 2-3 hours to get some study in before the library gets too packed and noisy – even if that does make you a bit of a dork.

Avoid burning the midnight oil if it’s going to stop you from getting at least eight hours of sleep. It’s a big temptation to keep working to get it done, but late night homework still obeys by the law of diminishing returns. You are often better to sleep on it and attack it in the morning with a clear head, big breakfast and lots of fresh energy.

Get eight hours of sleep during the exam period. It’s too easy to crash and burn out.

Eat healthily. Mi-Goreng, rice and pasta will not allow you to perform at your peak, let alone anywhere near that. Think about how well some of the mature age students are eating, with their roasts dinner’s and homemade tandoori sandwiches for lunch – they are taking in a lot more information during a lecture than you are, purely because their body is fully charged and ready to go. Don’t let this be the weak link in your chain.

Plan for your study time

Getting all of your reading done while still on campus is a super-productive habit to get into. This is so once you have left the building you are psychologically “free” from work until the next day. It also can greatly help you to split your work from your play.

Study for about 4.5-5.5 hours daily from day one. Time shouldn’t be the sole yardstick to determine how much you are learning, as there are peaks and troughs and ‘busy’ work where no learning is actually occurring, but I have found that anything less than 4.5 hours isn’t enough to get you into a flow of productivity where good quality learning occurs.

Often if you try a two-hour session you are kidding yourself about how much each topic will really take to master and finish in its entirety without rushing. Don’t rush your learning; if you get this temptation; it’s better to stop and take a break than half-learn something because you are too worried about finishing it fast.

Make an A4 printed poster or computer wallpaper that say’s something to the effect of “will this help me on the final exam?” as a filter for outlining and note-taking. There’s just so much stuff you will read that isn’t important. It’s handy to have something that will prompt you to stop reading irrelevant chapters, or journals and realign your efforts to the meaningful stuff – which is often doing the grunt work of writing your own answers to the difficult questions in areas you are not yet comfortable with.

Spread your timetable out over the week. There’s a temptation to cram it all in on one day, but this is a huge mistake. You will not be able to adequately prepare for your classes, it will cause a bottleneck on all your assessed pieces, and worst of all it allows you to stay at home or take up extra shifts at work rather than forcing you to be on campus where you are more likely to be studying and learning things that will help you get that six-figure salary later on, rather than pandering to your $20/hour job right now.

Start on any writing assignments as soon as it’s in your hands. This will save you time later on in the semester when all the mid-semester commitments begin to stack up on each other, as each lecturer is usually restricted to a date when mid semester assessments must be graded by

Thanks Simon! As always, we welcome other perspectives on this topic in the comments.


  • Within the time management section you spoke about developing a timeline. I have been interested in doing exactly that for the past few weeks but am having some troubles.

    I would like it to be digital and am yet to find a decent tool for developing one.

    Also under time management a big tip would be to utilise the pomodoro.

  • “After all, these [exams] will determine the trajectory of your career”

    I completely disagree – I’ve known quite a few people who just cannot perform under exam conditions, but when out in the real world under “crunch” conditions can perform exceptionally well.

    Theoretical exams are just a plain bad way to test people – we have things like the internet, our peers, books and even personal notes that we can use in time of need.

    The downfall of my argument, of course, is that those exams may account for 50%+ of your class’s final mark, which is then reflected on your transcript and ultimately whether or not you get the degree. However, I don’t believe this is a problem with my argument, more a problem with how badly setup the arena is where I am voicing said argument 😉

      • Copied the right sentence, it’s just that it’s impossible not to agree that the result of your exam effects the result of your degree.

        For example, if you have to sit an exam worth 80% of your final mark, you need to do pretty good in it to be able to get a good final mark.

        Unfortunately, some people struggle in the exam setting, as well as being able to regurgitate word-for-word answers (which alot of these exams are after) for 3-4hrs. Meanwhile, the same people can solve a real-world problem faster, better, and under more pressure than someone who might ace that exam (that’s certainly not the majority of cases, but I’ve seen it happen).

        The context of where my argument has been made is flawed. The argument itself is great (at least, I think so 😉 ).

    • I agree with Jess. Passing the exams and the course may determine the *starting point* of your career as you have a good academic transcript, but it won’t determine the *trajectory* – once you have that first job, nobody cares about your grades anymore, it’s all about how you perform in the workforce.

      From a purely “passing uni” standpoint, everything Simon says makes sense and is good advice. But as someone who is sceptical of the way the education system works (and I’m on my second Bachelor’s degree!), I would never want to encourage people to ONLY learn the things which will help them pass their exam, and get them to disregard everything that isn’t directly relevant to getting good grades.

      I would much rather see people enhance and maximise their learning rather than minimise it just for good grades – that’s what a lot of the nerdy kids and asians did in high school (not being racist – at least in my area, the vast majority of Chinese students were hard working but entirely focused on meeting only the requirements of getting a high TER), and a lot of them fall apart when put outside their comfort zone at uni where they need to utilise some lateral thinking or creativity. And just like uni tests you in a different way to high school, the workforce tests you in a different way to uni. The trajectory of your career will be determined not by your academic transcript, but by a number of other qualities that are not tested in exams (although obviously uni does test some things you need – time management, meeting deadlines, having knowledge in an area, etc).

    • University results don’t determine your career trajectory, they’ll just have an influence on where you start your career. Being a hard worker and being good at networking and communicating will determine your career trajectory.

      Also, this article takes university way too seriously. 4.5 hours of study every day? I do less than that a week and am holding a distinction average entering my final year of an engineering degree.

      • I did less than that a week as well in my Science degree and I’m holding the same average.
        It’s a good guideline for anyone wanting to actually learn the content thoroughly. Some people take more repetition to learn something so the extra study will benefit them.

        • Both Brendon and Ross are enrolled in courses with high levels of contact hours. People in courses like this tend to need to do proportionally less extra work than those enrolled in low-contact-hour courses where lecturers assume that you will do significant reading outside classes to cover the course material in depth.

          • Judy, that may be true, but I doubt it’s the only factor.

            Myself, for example, I already knew alot of what I was being taught at Uni from my own research/discovery during high school, which meant greatly reduced study hours compared to others in the same class.

            Also, some people learn differently as Brendon says – it may take alot of repetitions for one person to understand – for someone else, it might just take one, but will take a long time to sink in – for another again, only using the knowledge in a practical setting helps, and so on…

            Unfortunately, the education system has been built to start with theory, then slowly included other aspects while the methods have matured. Kind of like the comparison between the evolution of ADSL > ADSL2 > ADSL2+ as opposed to just getting rid of copper wire and starting fresh with Fibre Optics… Well, sort of…

  • I totally agree with the sleep thing. I am sleep deprived at the moment from two unavoidable late nights and 8am starts (which involved getting up at 5 for travel purposes), and it makes it so much harder to concentrate in lectures.

  • Take day classes rather than night classes. People studying during the day are at the top of their form. People attending night lectures have usually worked all day and are not bringing their best attention. You want alert, clever people around you to push you forward.

    • Personally, I found my night classes in my Business degree the most productive. The day classes were dominated by 19 year olds.

      The night classes were filled with motivated workers.

      The group assignments I did with them got better results in half the time.

  • The tips rely too heavily about worrying with time!

    Yes time managment is very important but if you think in a time based manner you are already on the back foot.

    From experience if you say “I will study until the task is completed” will yield better results than “I will study to x many hours”. Look at things as tasks not timeframes – it helps motivation and feeling of accomplishment!!

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