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English Literature students: study smart, not hard

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Although we may have less contact hours than our peers, English Literature can be just as demanding as any other academic branch.

We have less contact hours because we are expected to study independently and manage our own time, often tackling vast primary texts multiple times as well as undertaking broad secondary research. When managing your own workload there can be a danger of overworking yourself, feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the material or falling behind. If you feel like you’re falling below the coveted 2:1 then there are a few things you can do.


If you know you’re not going to get all of your reading done, then choose the books that you are most likely to write about in coursework and exams.


Some novels (such as from the Victorian period) were never supposed to be read as a whole, long section of work. Try serialising your reading in order to make the load more manageable. For some it’s better to read a lot of books over a long time than to quickly try and read each one before class.


If you do read in advance it’s best to take short notes about what happens in each chapter, that way you’re less likely to forget and have a handy study aid for later.

Know your coursework question/exam paper

Each question marked is being used to see whether you’ve fulfilled certain marking criteria. Dissect your questions, read past exam papers, study the module requirements and question your tutor. Make their jobs easier and your marks higher by giving them what they’re looking for.

Research around that area

What really separates university from school is being able to read closely and relate your own findings to secondary research. Use the library, peer assessed online resources and engage with secondary theory trends to leap up a grade boundary.

Plot is important, but reading the whole book isn’t everything

Don’t worry if you can’t read a whole book but want to write about it. If you don’t have time use SparkNotes and secondary criticism to get an idea of the plot before close reading particular sections. All you need to know is when things happen and how those things effect the overall plot. You can find this out without reading the whole thing.

Knowledge vs. employment

These tips may be useful because to appear appealing to potential employers, we are expected to take part in professional, social and voluntary activities, as well as completing our degrees to a high standard, which means that sometimes you might have to cut a few corners in your academic work. So, although to get the most out of your university experience I’d recommend doing the reading properly and fully engaging with the texts, unfortunately university isn’t necessarily all about the experience of learning, but about passing coursework and examinations which we are all at the mercy of, unless an alternative system is ever put forward.

Do you have any more tips for English Literature students on how to study smart, not hard? Let us know in the comments below.

Photo: shutterhacks / Flickr

Gabe HurstEnglish Literature students: study smart, not hard

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