5 tips to succeed in university

Note: I specify university, but the content applies to any student actually (e.g. poly, JC, IB, even sec school).

Welcome to university! What awaits you ahead is a life-defining period of exploration. Play your cards right, and uni can be fulfilling and a powerful launchpad to where you want to go.

So let’s dive into the tips from university seniors to set you off right. They’re based on the lived experiences of my friends and me, who have survived (and hopefully thrived) in uni. This post covers broad principles that will move you forward as long as you consistently work at them.

1. PLAN AHEAD, AGGRESSIVELY

I blitzed through my first two years of uni with only a rough idea of what was happening. I thought it would be fun to “take things as they come”. The spontaneity was thrilling… the mental meltdowns every semester were not.

But once I got into the habit of planning ahead, it was as if I’d never lived before. Finally, I no longer felt like a clown on a unicycle with seven plates of responsibilities balanced on a stick.

But I digress. Using a planner served two functions:

  • It focused my energies on specific goals to guide me where I wanted to go
  • It helped me to schedule critical tasks and make them a habit

Why does planning ahead make you more effective? Because you’re eliminating the troublesome need to make decisions throughout the day. You don’t have to think about what to do or where to go; you just have to follow the plan you made earlier.

With the conserved mental energy, you’re free to devote yourself to higher-order, effortful tasks, like studying or working on your passion projects. And this logic can be generalised to a longer timeframe – weeks, months, and even years. 

or you could just spend that extra time sleeping like me.

In fact, I recommend drawing up a grand plan for the entire duration of your study. And I have a guide just for this purpose:

  1. Start by deciding what you wish to achieve and when you want to do those things. For example, in planning your academics, begin by reviewing your course’s recommended study plan to figure out what’s expected.
  2. Then draw up a timeline that includes these elements of what and when so you have a big picture view of your plans. This is not as daunting as it sounds – simply start with a few rough boxes and fit details in there, and you’ll find that the rest naturally comes along. You can use any medium that works for you, such as Word/Excel, or the classic pen-and-paper.
  3. What aspects should I consider? I wrote a detailed list of what to consider when designing your grand plan; this information is available exclusively for members of the Success Community on Patreon. So join us today and get unlimited access to all bonus content!

Of course, as events roll around, contingencies will force you to readjust. But you should have an “ideal plan” to follow in good weather conditions. The plan specifies what is fundamentally important to you, so you don’t get distracted by the nonessentials.

The planner that I use and swear by is called the Self Journal. Each is designed to be used for exactly 13 weeks. At the start, you specify 3 goals for yourself, and the journal helps you create milestones and daily actions to achieve those goals. Daily and weekly planning pages are included, so you can plan down to 30-minute blocks. Finally, every section allows you to reflect on what you’ve achieved and what to do to improve.

(If you’re wondering why 3 months in particular: it’s because it’s long enough for you to achieve something sizeable but short enough to motivate you to work towards your goals.)

I was so committed to this series I ordered a year’s worth directly from the publisher and had the journals delivered internationally via a third-party courier when Amazon didn’t carry it. But the good news is that it’s back on Amazon (Singapore) now. Order it via my link if you’d like to try – I strongly recommend it. (Note: as an Amazon Associate, I may get commissions on eligible purchases from Amazon at no cost to you. This does not change my endorsement of the journal.)

2. DEVELOP A GROWTH MINDSET

Now that you’ve set the stage with a solid plan, it’s time to reframe your mindset in a way that best helps you to grow. And that begins by changing the way you think about effort and achievement.

Before I elaborate, let’s find out how you think presently. Take a few seconds to answer the following questions with this scale (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = agree, 4 = strongly agree). (Source)

  • Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.
  • Truly smart people do not need to try hard.
  • Only a few people will be truly good at sports, you have to be born with the ability.
  • The harder you work at something, the better you will be.

The last statement is reverse-coded, so subtract your answer from 4, e.g. if you answered “agree” (3) to it, your score is 4-3=1. Then, add that number to your scores from the first three questions.

me counting my score

Developmental psychologist Dr Carol Dweck identified two broad perspectives that people have towards achievement in her groundbreaking research:

  • The fixed mindset (total score 1-6): the belief that intelligence and ability are generally fixed and not modifiable through effort and practice. Your performance reflects your innate abilities.
  • The growth mindset (total score 7-12): the belief that intelligence and ability can be changed through effort and practice. Your performance is dependent on how much effort you invested.

Research has repeatedly shown that effort, rather than innate ability, makes the difference in performance. In addition, people with growth mindsets work harder in the face of challenges and persist longer than their fixed-thinking counterparts. Tl;dr: adopting the growth mindset will get you further. Instead of focusing on outcomes, focus on the process and how far you’ve come.

If you find yourself trying but not improving in an area, the reason has more to do with an inefficient strategy than an innate lack of ability. Before concluding that you’re just “not made for this”, try a different approach. For example, if cramming doesn’t work for you, revise your work over regular time intervals instead.

With effort and a good strategy, success will inevitably reach you!

3. DO IT NOW

Related to how you think is how you do. Get over the idea that you need to be good at something before you begin doing it. Doing anything, even imperfectly, is better than doing nothing. 

The best way to improve is not through preparation but through practice. Like me, you can read all the self-help books in the world and plan for all it’s worth, but if you don’t do, you won’t improve. (That being said, check out my Atomic Habits Action Guide, where I summarise key points and added my own exercises to prompt action.)

To be honest, I still struggle with the above. I sat on this blog post for a year because I kept putting it off, waiting for the perfect ideas to strike. But there are no perfect ideas; it was more important that I got to writing. After all, the only person who will critique your ideas against your potential ideas is yourself. Who else would know?

So don’t wait – if you have an idea or a wish that you’ve had for a long time, start it now. Every day that passes is a missed opportunity to gain experience or the compounding effect that comes with time. 

me psyching myself up with this before every major blog post ngl

And keep at it because it takes time before you see the results; you have to be patient. For example, I recently started my mini-business selling candy. In trying to grow my page, I realised that engagement is crucial, but I need to put in the work by posting more. It can be discouraging when I get low views, but I trust that it will pay off if I keep at it. (If this post helped you, please consider getting some candy for yourself or your friends! I guarantee you’ll love them.)

Everyone has ideas. What differentiates successful people is that when they have ideas, they take action to make those ideas a reality. You can be one of them as long as you start.

Start a project? Learn a new skill? Join a club? Do it today!

4. NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK 🎶

Everyone knows this but far fewer get to exploit it to their advantage. I’ll be honest, I don’t think it’s something you can ever master. But like everything else, it is a skill that can be developed with practice. The biggest challenge is when you start out – conquering your mental blocks in initiating relationships or following up with contacts to create new opportunities.

When I feel self-conscious about making the first move, I repeat the mantra: everyone is too preoccupied with themselves to judge you. Besides, what do others’ opinions matter if you are growing and not hurting anyone?

Yes, you could come off as instrumental if you only approach others when you want something from them. Ideally, you should bring something to the table that benefits the other party. Not every exchange has to be transactional. Developing active listening skills and being genuinely interested in others’ lives will do wonders. When others feel heard and appreciated, a world of possibilities opens.

my friend community (i am the second from the left)

Finding your community – others with similar goals and dreams to you – is what changes the game. When you reflect on your university experience later, you’ll realise the people made the difference. All your memories will be defined and coloured by who you created them with.

So how do you find your community? An easy way to do this is to join clubs and groups that spark your interest. The more events you attend, the more you’ll get acquainted with others, and eventually, you’ll make a few friends that you can count on. Or you could simply initiate a conversation with your tablemate in class.

And you don’t have to look far to find your community – I have one for you right here! The Success Community is about learning and self-improvement for students. Exclusive information and resources (e.g. FAQ compilations) are available there. But most importantly, it provides a sense of belonging for members who will meet like-minded peers. The fact that you’re here reading already makes you a perfect fit. So if this sounds up your alley, join us now!

5. ??? – EXCLUSIVE TO MEMBERS OF THE SUCCESS COMMUNITY

I didn’t discover this until much later when I began looking for what makes a student stand out from the rest. It’s a philosophy that has defined my direction as a student since. You’ll be unstoppable if you leverage the following tip together with the other tips we’ve covered.

This tip is exclusive on Patreon for members of the Success Community! You’ll gain access to all exclusive content like this tip and the uni planning list, a community, plus tailored advice on-demand. See you there! 

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Thanks for reading! I’ll be posting more content soon, e.g. how to study effectively, read/write research papers, and more. So if you enjoyed reading this, be sure to subscribe at the bottom of this post!

Please also comment below if you have anything to share or ideas for new blog posts.

For other essential posts on this blog, click here. Top posts include:

  • How to Win the NTU Star Wars
  • Gwyn’s Guide to NTU Psych Mods
  • My URECA experience and review

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