University can be an intimidating and overwhelming experience. To make the work more manageable and your experience more enjoyable, I offer several pieces of advice—most of which are broadly applicable, irrespective of the school you attend.
Think carefully about the courses you choose
Pick courses that truly interest you, not those you think will ‘look good’ on your CV—it’s in these courses you’ll be most easily motivated to put in the effort necessary to do well.
Try to distribute courses evenly over the year and avoid overloading on one half of the year (especially in the first term). Choose courses with a mix of assessment (essays & exams) if you do well at both or if you are not quite sure—or pick more courses with assessments where you tend to do best.
When asked, always provide a short statement expressing interest in a course. But don’t write a vague or generic statement. Use the opportunity to demonstrate your interest in that particular course.
Choose those you’re passionate about, but don’t be devastated if you don’t get into your ‘dream course’
Demand for a course can sometimes outstrip its capacity. When denied a spot, some students have told me ‘But I came to LSE for this one course!’ I understand the disappointment, but my response remains the same: ‘If you came to take just that one course, you came for the wrong reason.’ There are a wide variety of interesting courses available across the School. While different in topic, field, and literatures, all are designed to develop the skills necessary to put the LSE motto—’to know the causes of things’—into action.
If you don’t get into a particular course, some options remain:
Email the professor in advance to see if there is space in the classroom to sit-in and audit lectures.
Use the course reading lists available on Moodle to guide your independent study—this can be especially helpful as you do dissertation research.
Attend office hours of faculty members who teach on the class you didn’t get into. Come prepared, having done some reading, and with informed questions to discuss. But please don’t ask: ‘what should I read?’ That’s what the reading lists are for!
Learn to read quickly, efficiently & effectively
Reading requirements for many courses can feel overwhelming. The easiest but worst ways to cope include: reading only the articles you enjoy; just those you understand; or giving up and not reading at all.
Fortunately, there are strategies to help read in an efficient and effective way—without reading every single word. I recommend students confront the material several times in different ways:
Read the abstract and headings/subheadings, quickly acquainting yourself with the general argument, methods, and article structure.
Do a more careful read, paying particular attention to the introduction and conclusion. At this stage, you’ll be able to read a bit faster because you already know the general argument, and how it will be made. Highlight or underline important points. Don't worry if you seem to be underlining everything in the first few weeks—you’ll learn what is(n’t) important in a relatively short time from lectures and seminar discussions.
Look back through the reading, taking notes on the areas you highlighted. By writing up notes in your own words, you’re further processing it which helps you understand and remember the material. Here is a good opportunity to write down questions or points you want to explore more in seminar.
Finally, read over your notes prior to seminar to remind yourself of the issues you wish to explore. This helps prepare you for discussion (and can give you something to say if randomly called upon!).
You’ll encounter words you don’t understand (especially if English is not your native language), but avoid looking up every unfamiliar word the first time you see it. This can make the reading process very slow. Focus on the writing you understand (probably a lot!), rather than the parts you don’t (in reality, not much). This will help you enjoy the readings not dread them.
The same goes for lectures and seminars. It's tempting to look up every new word you hear in the dictionary. But this often distracts you from understanding the real purpose of the lecture or seminar as a whole. Instead, take note of the word and look it up later.
Recognise that technology can help and hinder learning
While many devices can assist in learning, they can also be a major distraction in the classroom. Research has found that students who ‘multitask’ in class (e.g., social networking, chatting, web browsing) perform significantly worse on exams than those who do not.
It also has 'contagion' effect: those seated next to multitasking classmates are distracted and receive lower marks on exams—even if they aren’t multitasking themselves. So even if you’re convinced that you can multitask in class with no problems, remember that your actions can distract your classmates.
Please don’t text or WhatsApp during class! It’s distracting, disrespectful, and rude to your classmates and professors. Despite students’ best efforts to be subtle and discreet, texting in class never goes unnoticed.
Take lectures notes by hand rather than using a laptop
Many students use laptops to take notes, usually because they can type faster and thus more thorough notes than writing long-hand. But taking more complete notes doesn’t actually lead to better learning. When we take notes by hand, it’s impossible to transcribe every word and so we must actively and quickly asses what’s most important—thereby engaging in a crucial stage of cognitive processing. Research shows that students who take notes by hand—though less extensive than their laptop-using classmates—understand the material better.
Always use proper email etiquette
When writing emails, err on the side of being more formal. Many of your professors are happy to be addressed by their first names, but when you first contact faculty use their title and surname. Don’t forget 'please' and 'thank you'. End your note with a proper sign-off. Not doing so can suggest a lack of care or respect, even if unintended.
Just because you can send emails whenever you wish does not mean you should. Be respectful of your professors’ time. Avoid messaging on weekends and late at night and during holidays—don’t expect a quick response if you do.
Many questions asked via email can be easily answered by consulting programme handbooks or a simple web search. For example, if a link on an electronic reading list isn’t working, do a quick search on the library website or Google Scholar and you should be able to access the reading immediately. And when your question requires a lengthy, complicated response, I will likely suggest that we discuss it in person.
Introduce yourself to professors; meet with your mentor early & often
During term time, all LSE academic staff members hold weekly office hours (what our Department calls 'advice and feedback hours'). Students are welcome to visit any faculty member, irrespective of the department they are in.
Conversations with students often focus on coursework and research projects. These chats are a great opportunity to get informal feedback on your progress at times other than scheduled formal assessments. I’m happy to discuss anything else on your mind, including future career plans, adapting to life in London, maintaining a good work/life balance, and managing your mental health.
If you’ve booked an appointment through the Student Hub, don't forget to attend and please come on time, as I don’t like waiting. If you need to cancel, contact me as early as possible. A 'no-show' takes away slots from your classmates and is disrespectful of my time.
If you can’t meet during my regularly scheduled hours, simply send me an email to arrange a mutually agreeable time for us to chat.
Treat school as you would a job; be professional in your interactions with staff & classmates
It’s good practice to treat your time at university as a job itself. Come to seminars having done all required readings and prepared to discuss them; it would not be acceptable to come unprepared and be silent at a meeting in the workplace, nor is it in school.
While lecture attendance is not technically mandatory, you shouldn’t miss this important part of your learning experience. Recent meta-analyses spanning data over 100 years and 28,000 students in the US revealed that attending lectures was the single best predictor of high marks. From the perspective of your teachers, it can be difficult (as well as disappointing) to lecture to a class that is missing half its students.
Take notes—on everything
Successful people take notes. Taking notes is not a sign of weakness. It’s an indicator of strength. Even if you have a photographic memory (which is incredibly rare in adults), not taking notes can give others the impression that you are not really interested in, or value their advice.
When meeting with your professors, always bring a paper and pen and to take notes. I usually wait until students have their pen and paper out and ready before even beginning our conversation. My brilliant friend Dr. Moqi Groen-Xu offers students fantastic advice for having more effective meetings with supervisors—she especially implores students to take notes on everything.
Be mindful of your mental health; try to maintain a good work/life balance
Please don’t neglect your mental health during the intense, difficult, and stressful times of being a student. If you’re feeling down, finding it difficult to cope with studies or life in general, please tell others about it. Don’t feel ashamed about having these feelings or talking about them. I believe that we must normalise discussions of mental health, and so I occasionally check-in with students who come to meet with me. Don't be surprised, or offended, when I ask 'And how is your mental health?'
I encourage students to set aside a little time each week to enjoy life outside of school: see a show, go for a walk through the parks or along the Thames, join a sports team, or just carve out an hour or two to regularly get together with friends. While I can offer some coping strategies that have worked for me and students in the past, I’m not a trained professional in mental health. I can, however, direct you towards those who are best equipped to help —like Mental Health Advisers & Student Counselling Services.
Build positive relationships; be respectful & kind
You will leave LSE with a wide and diverse network of friends, classmates, and professors. The impressions you make—both good and bad—can last forever. So, consider how your actions both in and out of the classroom can affect your reputation.
Remember that social networking can amplify small mistakes; bad behaviour on social media can needlessly destroy relationships and careers. Even in ‘closed’ WhatsApp groups, messages written on a whim can be misinterpreted, jokes can get out of control, and feelings can be hurt. It’s easy to partake in gossip and rumour online, but know that these messages are neither as private nor as temporary as we might think.
As a general rule: don't post/send anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in public. Be remembered as a hardworking, respectful student and classmate, someone we’d want as a lifelong friend and colleague.
As one of my personal heroes Fred Rogers liked to say (borrowing from novelist Henry James): ‘There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.’