Here are some useful tips for those of us starting or going back to university and college!
A New Semester of Opportunities: Tips on How to Return to Studying
The return to university or college can be just as exciting (or terrifying) as our first day at school. The thrill of making friends, embarking on a new project, or that first taste of freedom from our hometown, all of the potential to instill a whole host of emotions within each of us.
This academic year, however, holds greater significance. As many countries push for a “return to normal”, most of us will be hoping to return to the physical classroom after a long year and a half of studying in our pyjamas.
So here are six practical tips to help along the way with the return to your studies, essentially what I wish someone had told me five years ago:
1. The Power of Being Organised
It may sound self-explanatory; don’t we all try to give it a shot at the beginning of each year? But getting this one aspect of our lives in check can prove to be a game-changer in both our productivity levels as well as our mental well-being.
One of the easiest and most effective tricks is to plan your week out on a piece of paper or whiteboard, then pinning it somewhere you will see it each day. This can be done digitally and synchronised across your devices – those little notifications throughout the day can serve you well when even that third cup of coffee isn’t waking you up.
The trick to maintaining this age-old life hack, I find, is to pen in leisure along with work-life tasks. Waking up to a never-ending to-do list each day is unlikely to motivate you or calm your mind. However, a well-balanced schedule where your most labour-intensive jobs are followed by your favourite ways to unwind can help to make those long days manageable.
Two hours in the library can easily become four 30-minute slots of work when you place a small reward throughout tiresome tasks. That could mean allowing yourself 5-minutes of phone time or a scheduled short walk in the park. Whatever your leisure activity of choice is, pen it in amongst those heavy library sessions and you’ll be in and out in no time.
2. Keeping in Contact with the Mosque
Sayyiduna Abu Hurayrah (radiyallahu ‘anhu) narrates that the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:
“The Masjids have pegs [i.e. people who habitually frequent them, like how pegs cling on to what they are attached to]. The angels are their companions. If they are absent the angels search for them, and if they become sick the angels visit them, and if they are in need the angels assist them.”
This idea might also seem familiar but there are countless reasons as to why I chose to include it here. Mainly, that during my undergrad years, I realised the distinct difference in my studying habits during the times when I was engaging with the mosque and those when I made excuses not to. Regularly attending the mosque, for Salat al-jama’ah (Congregational Prayer) or our own time to reflect, can bring a deep sense of peace which can seldom be sought elsewhere.
We might also note that our time in the masjid will, InshaAllah, be more enduring than our time at university. Therefore, maintaining relations and forming new ones at the heart of our community will surely return more rewards, for an extended period, than most of our other institutions.
As the hadith above mentions, it is recorded when we become regular visitors to the masjid and the angels note our absence in times of hardship, thereafter, coming to our aid. Our connection to brothers and sisters there can also reinforce our sense of community and identity, something which we may find to be lacking beyond a superficial level in other aspects of our time in academia.
3. Establishing a Healthy Sleep Pattern
Sleep remains a bit of a mystery to even those who study it, but we don’t need to be scientists to know how awful a sleepless night can be and how wonderful a good nap is. Once established, good sleep hygiene can be easy, and sometimes life-changing, investment in our studies.
The habits of those around us can be hard to ignore, if our friends are up until the crack of dawn, we too want to be there for those Netflix binges and late-night philosophical musings. But the less sleep we get the more prone to anxiety and even depression, those late nights sure can add up to a lot of stress when deadlines loom.
However, sticking to regular wake-up times (even after a late night) is one way of keeping your body clock in check. Another top tip is giving yourself the necessary winddown time required before going to bed. This might mean the turning of our phone (or, at least, turning down the brightness on screens) a couple of hours before our intended bedtime. Finding some gentle night-time reading can also help as well as breathing exercises to slow down our overworking minds.
If sleep does not come easily to you, there are a few things that can help. One is getting into the habit of writing a worry or gratitude list before bed, this can take the form of a journal or just on the back of a scrap piece of paper. Putting your worries on paper can make them seem more manageable and writing down a list of what you are grateful for can be a quick way to reflect on the blessings that surround you each day.
4. Establish a Healthy Social-Solitude Balance
Finding your socialising equilibrium cannot be understated. When we get back to school, we are often surrounded by different opportunities to socialise, catch up with old acquaintances and get involved with new groups.
For some of us, this is immensely exciting while for others extremely daunting – or perhaps you’re somewhere in between? The words introvert and extrovert have become common when describing our socialising behaviours, but this black and white approach can oversimplify the complexities of our instincts to socialise or seek solitude.
If socialising begins to burden you, you have many ways of re-establishing your equilibrium. While our eventual response to feeling social burnout might be to start rejecting calls and simply not go out anymore, if we catch the early signs of social fatigue, we can find a healthy balance to guide us through the semester.
Firstly, it is important to be kind to yourself. Try to look at yourself like someone you care for, the way you would look at a close friend or family member. In situations where you feel tense, what advice would you offer them?
Secondly, don’t be afraid about being open. It is likely that your friends also appreciate time alone and politely texting them to say you’re a bit tired will likely be taken with sympathy – not judgement.
5. Eat Well, Always
The third and final piece of advice I have found to make a huge difference to university life is making eating well a priority. It is important to note here that food culture has become a delicate issue in recent years and there are varying opinions on what “healthy” even means. But it is possible to discuss such things in a broad sense which hopefully everyone can relate to.
Essays, exams, part-time jobs, sports, societies, the odd trip back home for the weekend… when do we have time to fit in a decent meal? Rarely is the likely answer for many students. It has become a stereotype over the years, the image of a depleted student pantry and an empty fridge containing a lonely tub of hummus.
While such a lack of nutrition can often be involuntary, student poverty remaining a real issue, other times it can be due to poor time/priority management. Allocating time at the weekend for weekly food preparation can help, if you have a fridge of three or four prepared meals then you will always have something tasty to come home to.
Another idea is to cook with your flatmates, taking it in turns to prepare dinner to lighten the load of having to cook every day. Furthermore, I have found that keeping some healthy snacks (such as dates, nuts, and protein bars) in my room helps to increase productivity, keeping those temptations to order a midnight pizza at bay.
Little rewards throughout a heavy study period can go a long way too, so you can use that chocolate brownie as means of getting the work done quicker – one bite every 100 words?
If you are struggling to make ends meet, don’t hesitate to contact your university to find out what opportunities there are for extra funding, furthermore many local communities are also home to a variety of services that aim to tackle food poverty – also open to students.
I hope that these tips can help you along the way during your studies and inshaAllah we can all become more productive students while looking after our health, and each other.