5 Back to Uni Tips to Avoid Burning Out

When you dedicate your life to hard work, self-care can start to feel like laziness. If your primary drive for working hard is anxiety, like me, it can be difficult to stop thinking about the tasks you need to complete during your so-called “free time.”

With college and university starting up again, it might be time to refresh the way you learn and study during this semester.

This short list aims to introduce you to activities which are less time-consuming than conventional reading and note-taking, for the hours in between intense study periods when your brain feels almost too full.

Remember this list is only a guide and it is no use trying these things if they don’t work for you!

Tip 1: Organization!

The start of every period of intense revision should be preceded by this: organizing.

The most important things to consider when beginning to organize your time are:

  • Which subject am I worst at?
  • Which subject am I best at?
  • How many past exam papers can I do?
  • Which books or resources do I need?
  • Are there any revision sessions I can attend?
  • How many lectures must I recap?

From this short list of questions you can begin to assess important details like which units or modules to spend the most time on, which to spend the least time on, where to get extra help, and how many lectures or how much reading material you must read per day.

Another very important factor, especially for people who burn-out easily, is the time of day and week that you will be working at. Studying with Dyslexia (Pocket Study Skills), a short guidebook aimed at people who suffer from dyslexia, recommends considering which hours of the day you work best at and prioritising work in these hours. For people with dyslexia, which can include a broad spectrum of processing difficulties including difficulty in recalling recently learned things, mixing up similar looking numbers, and taking extra time to make sense of paragraphs and sentences, this can be essential in not becoming overwhelmed.

“Gathering resources, assessing your weaknesses and strengths and planning your days can help you settle into the habit of revising.”

But even for people without dyslexia, finding out your most productive hours can be paramount to making the best use of your time. From this information you can formulate a timetable of high-intensity learning at hours where you are most awake, and lower intensity learning and practice (such as the things listed below) in hours that you cannot process information as well.

To me, mere act of organising your time can be therapeutic and help you settle in to the habit of revising.

Tip 2: The Little Things

In hours where heavy reading or exercises are too strenuous, like after a few hours of intense learning or a busy day, it is important to slow down to avoid burning out.

One way I maximise my time while my brain is in economy-mode is by doing very light but still stimulating activity. This, if you are an essay-writer, can be as simple as collecting books and journal entries for your essay and giving them a read-through. Do not worry about memorising the information yet, but simply highlight or take note of sentences or paragraphs which stand-out as useful to you. This technique helped me get a first on an essay which I had to do after a protest and a 12 hour bus journey – all the quotes I needed for my essay were preselected, and all I had to do was write up and interpret them in historical context (for 2000 words or so) once I arrived back in my room at the university.

“Going over journal articles and books and highlighting information can be crucial when you’re trying to read through the same material again.”

Never fear scientists and mathematicians – this technique can be used for you, too. I’ve often had to write scientific essays – and the above principle can be applied to scientific journal articles and books, too. But for those who have more numerical-based work, you can do as above and go over the core principles of theory behind your formulae, or you can watch some documentaries or YouTube videos. A lot of videos on YouTube are dedicated to working through exam questions or explaining theory – and sometimes when you’re low on energy, watching someone else explain can really help your understanding.

Both artists and scientists (and those who are both), can benefit from watching documentaries about their chosen study. This is best left for hours in which you really can’t work, as documentaries are often long, but can be very relaxing and can enhance your studies if you’re able to take in the information they contain. Be mindful that some documentaries significantly “dumb-down” information, and that things may  be explained in odd or simple ways – but starting from scratch in your understanding can often help you visualise principles more easily in your head (especially scientific ones).

Tip 3: Learn With Friends

When study-stress has hit an all-time-high sometimes seeing friends is what you need.

This might not be the best technique for more solitary learners, but if you have friends who are on your course, or even just friends interested in your course, meeting with them for a casual study session can be a really big help.

It is especially useful when your desk is becoming a bit of a bore and your brain needs a bit of a wake-up call from the same old thing every day. For solitary learners, this can be an excuse to get outside and have a little bit of a break from relentless note-taking while you and your friends discuss the principles of your courses.

“Exchanging knowledge with a friend, whether you share a course or not, can help both of you evaluate your understanding.”

Having friends trying to learn the same material as you can offer some really useful insights into the subjects you are learning. When I came to university having done no Chemistry qualification since I was 16, sitting with my friend over coffee and talking through the exam papers really secured my grades. She was able to understand what I wasn’t, having done Chemistry in her home town, and she was happy to explain the things I did not understand. And even when I did understand, just saying the words out loud and explaining the way I visualised the concepts helped me solidify the things I had learned.

It is common to hear that until you can explain a concept to somebody with no base knowledge, you don’t really understand it yourself. This is where friends outside of your course can come in handy. Even if you’re doing vastly different subjects, sometimes it is beneficial to take a teaching role. They can help you understand your subject, by asking questions from an outsider’s perspective and challenging your understanding, and you can do the same with them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!

This sort of social-studying can be as casual as with coffee, just sat in your living room, or as quiet and controlled as your local or campus library.

Tip 4: Summarizing

If you have completed step one: gathered resources and come up with a timetable of high and low intensity activity to prepare you for exams, the final thing on your list should be the exam papers.

In my method of learning, I like to recap the core principles before attempting exam papers – but everyone does this differently and all methods are equally good.

Once I have finished one section, or one topic from my course, I think it’s important to see how it translates into an exam context. Sometimes, especially with the sciences, exam questions seem almost plucked out of thin air compared to the content of the course. This is why it is so important to do all of the available exam questions before sitting the exam.

“Try to take bullet-points on how to answer each question to evaluate your base knowledge, then write a full answer once you are confident.”

I think a really key aspect of doing exam papers is to first take notes on the methodology. For each question, try to write a few bullet-points on about how to answer it. If you can’t think of anything to write, it shows that you have a little more learning to do and you should re-cap the topic of the question. When you have made bullet-points on every question, you can go through them later and answer them properly. Try to take your time and write more than you would in a normal exam question when you properly answer.

Using bullet-points as a start to doing your exam questions reinforces the things you need to write down to get a good answer. If a question you have practised comes up you should be able to quickly recall what to write about, especially if you put a number of bullet-points down and created full and clear answers in your revision. Writing too much while revising can be good for you – it means that even if you forget one bullet-point, you will get marks for all of the other parts of your answer.

Obviously practising in timed conditions is very important too, so once you’ve got clear ideas for each question, go through the papers again and see how much you can write in the exam’s duration or less.

Tip 5: Eat and Sleep Properly

It seems obvious and I bet you all saw this piece of parent-like advice coming, but eating, sleeping and chilling properly is important.

The brain doesn’t function well when it has not had enough food, water, sleep or stimulation – so try and make sure you have time to do all of these things. If you struggle with making meals, try to make a varied meal-plan before exam season starts. Thirty-minute meals and the like can be very useful when time is short, and occasionally a takeaway or microwave meal is welcome too.

Cooking can be therapeutic for some – it allows you to concentrate on something and take your mind off the stresses of exams. But equally, it can be stressful for some, so try and do some experimenting on what you do and don’t like to cook before things get hectic.

“A good sleeping, eating and activity schedule is paramount to stress relief.”

It goes without saying that a good sleeping schedule is essential – you don’t want to be having too many late nights, and you definitely don’t want to be staying up all night studying if you can avoid it. Try going to bed relatively early and rising relatively early to make the most of the day.

Make sure to get some activity in there too – it can be almost mind-numbing being in the same room all day, so make sure you take a little breaks for making yourself tea, getting food, or exercising. Exercise can also get you outside and help contribute to a good sleeping schedule for exam season.

As people will always say – life is about balance. It takes practice to get things right, so experiment with the tips above as you see fit. Not everything will work for everyone, so feel free to interpret and change things in any way that helps you. Remember to take regular breaks and message your friends, lecturers or course-mates if you’re struggling. But above all try to ensure that you are happy and confident in what you are doing.

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Young, mixed-race student living in Scotland. Ready to talk about racism, sex education and feminism!

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