Get yourself out of a study rut as author and study skills counsellor Eileen Tracy solves your work woes...


Essay not easy

  • Q: I’ve always been slow to write essays. Now I’m at university, essays have to be longer and it’s taking me forever to write them. Is there a way to speed up the process? Weary of Wadham

Eileen says: The secret to efficient essay-writing is to plan everything that you are going to write before you write it. Otherwise, here is what happens: you start writing before you have really thought about the question carefully enough and worked out how best to structure your response. The result? A lopsided answer in which key points are underdeveloped, point-scoring analysis scanty and the question remains largely unanswered. Consequently, you start to redraft – and redraft...
Of course, it does also take time to plan, which is why students often skip this stage – at a cost. Planning gets quicker with practice, so keep at it. Your plan should not contain sentences – just key words that summarise the content of your introduction, your main points, and your conclusion. When you plan, just start by figuring what your main points should be. And don’t try to make your plan very complicated. You can’t possibly say it all, as your topics are vast. You may find it liberating to realise that at higher levels, your essays may never satisfy you, as it is nigh-on impossible to do a big topic justice.

My mind is potentially blank

  • Q: How can I remember the huge volume of information that I have to take in at university? I am afraid I will go blank in my exams. Brainless of Balliol

Eileen says: You need to understand how memory works. First, we remember beginnings and endings best. Therefore, aim to learn your material in short bursts and take frequent, short breaks, and as soon as you get back to your desk, quickly recap what you learnt.
Second, know that it takes about five revisions, at ever-increasing intervals, before anything will ever stick in your mind. Ideal intervals for recapping information are as follows:
1) about 10 minutes after you have first learnt it
2) after a night’s sleep, when your recall should be good
3) a week after that
4) a month after your third recap
5) a term after your fourth recap
If you roughly follow this recapping guideline  you will find that facts and concepts stay pretty fresh in your mind. 
Third: there is a difference between active and passive learning. You will not easily recall what you learn passively. Highlighting notes, or copying them out, are passive, secretarial forms of revision, and don’t work in the long run. In fact, they will make you go blank in exams. However, condensing points, writing summaries using key words, trying to teach the material you just learnt, or answering exam-style questions on it, are active forms of revision and more effective.

Death by reading

  • Q: My reading lists go on and on. Tutors seem to be expecting me to read about ten books a week. How can I? Booked-out of Brookes

Eileen says: Learn to prioritise. At school, you probably started at the beginning and kept going until you got to the bitter end. Now that you’re at university, you need a different approach. You must have an overview of your material, then zone in on what aspects of it best serves your purposes. In other words, start by browsing – allowing yourself only a few minutes per chapter. Look out for summaries, indexes, and headings. Keep an eye out for graphs and diagrams and illustrations, as these may say a lot in few words. Finally, always read with pencil in hand and mark anything you don’t think you understand, keep going, and return later if necessary. This saves time, as it builds efficiency and pace into your reading.

Stall order

  • How do I stop procrastinating? I’m always leaving my work ’til the last minute and I hate myself for it. Tardy of Trinity

Eileen says: If your procrastination is very bad, you may be suffering from a conflict of interests. For instance, perhaps you dislike your subject and  ought to be doing something else. On the other hand, if you love what you do, you won’t resist it so much. So try to find a way to love what you do. And if you can’t, see if you can do something else. If you think you are on the right path overall, and yet you still procrastinate too much, it may be you need to develop new habits around deadlines. Consider deadlines as your friends, not your enemy, and get your planner out and break a big deadline into many little ones: reading and research, planning, a writing deadline and so on.
And bear in mind that most students do procrastinate a bit. Rest assured that you don’t have to totally efficient all the time to succeed in your studies.


All in due time.

By now, you’re probably sick of being told how to organise your time productively. So here’s a slice of refreshing advice from author Eileen Tracy on how to make your timekeeping an unmitigated disaster...* (*NB: do the opposite of these for exam success!)




  • 1. Make your timetable a punishing one. Plan to work hours you’ve never worked in your life. This will make you hate your routine and, if you have any sense, you’ll quickly give it up.
  • 2. Give yourself absolutely no margin before your deadlines, so you are caught out if the unexpected happens and you get ill or have a bust-up with your best friend. This also means that, however lovely the weather, you’ll be stuck at your desk, which will have the same effect on your spirits as item 1 above.
  • 3. Plan to work every day in the week. Afternoons off are a no-no. By working non-stop, you make it extremely hard to gain a sense of overview or to absorb new ideas. This will convince you that you have to work non-stop. Neat, isn’t it?
  • 4. Aim to work no less than five hours a day. In fact, why not plan to work all day? A limit on hours you work each day could make you dangerously efficient.
  • 5. When you schedule in revision for more than one topic, you can organise yourself in various ways. To focus on one thing at a time you can timetable a block of revision per topic. For more variety, revise one topic in the morning and another in the afternoon. Whatever you do, choose the option you most dislike, and be sure to timetable your most difficult topics back-to-back, so that you stand little chance of seeing your revision through to the end.
  • 6. Research suggests that the type of work you do in the morning sets you up for the rest of the day. You can use this to your advantage: by doing filing every morning, you successfully dull your mind for the afternoon.
  • 7. Spend time on big jobs first, so as not to have time for little jobs that might be over quickly.
  • 8. If you’re the type who gets carried away, you’re in a perfect position to timetable revision for your final exam last. Timetabling for your final exam first might help you prepare for it in good time. Such foresight must be avoided at all costs. (Apply this principle for coursework essays too.)
  • 9. Give up on your timetable the minute you fall behind. Under no circumstances attempt to revise it. If it doesn’t work first time, it’s a lousy idea and you’re better off leaving everything to chance.
  • 10. Draw up your timetable on your own. Don’t get anyone to help you – they might suggest ways of making it realistic, and then you’d have to admit timetabling does work

Extract from The Student's Guide to Exam Success by Eileen Tracy, published by Open University Press 2002. £16.99. All rights reserved.
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