From A Levels to undergraduate study, how hard is the transition…really?

This post is based on my experiences at Newcastle University so the links at the bottom are only applicable to prospective students there. However, in my experience I’ve found that most universities have similar provisions for their first-year students, go on their websites to find out more!

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From A Levels to undergraduate study, how hard is the transition…really?

At Newcastle’s undergraduate visit day this year, I was asked half a dozen times about how hard being a university student is compared to studying for your A levels. Google this question and you’ll find yourself in a sea of internet forums with complacent or panicked students bragging about how much easier it is or students stressing over how difficult the transition is.

The truth?

It’s incredibly subjective. University is going to be as difficult as you want to make it for yourself but you also have a lot to gain from putting in the extra effort. So essentially, the difficulty of the transition is, like most things at university, largely up to you. The hardest bit about coming to university (in my humble opinion) is how to live with your newfound independence but chances are, you’re going to have that challenge around this time in your life regardless of whether you choose to come to university or not.

But back to the studying.

I’m going to unashamedly hold my hands up here and admit that I’m a nerd – I love to learn. So imagine my surprise when I went from working hard and getting awesome grades in college to working hard and getting low-average grades in university. It was a shocker, for sure.

This wasn’t because the transition was too difficult or because I’d lost smart points over my blissfully long and wonderful gap year, this is because of a simple truth that will be repeated to you time and time again by your lecturers: you have to learn to work differently.

A brilliant thing about first stage (your first year) when you come to university is that it doesn’t count at all in your marks, you just have to pass it. One big important reason for this is that your lecturers want you to adapt your college habits to suit university – now, instead of writing to pass an exam, you’re writing to show that you really understand and can analyse the material and, most importantly, you can think for yourself. Weirdly, A levels don’t encourage this practice too much and instead, they opt for wanting you to say specific things (I remember spending far too much time memorising legislation dates on flashcards and looking at mark schemes), rather than your own ideas. You might already be doing this sort of thing, if that’s the case then great! Keep practising! But for those of you who aren’t – don’t worry. You’ll figure out how to express your thoughts and argue your point wonderfully soon enough and once you do, you’ll wonder how you ever did it differently.

 

It’s well worth mentioning that there’s loads of support available to you to help with the academic transition into university (the non-academic side is worth a whole other post of its own!). Here are a couple of pointers to give you an idea of the amount of people you can turn to:

 

  • Your lecturer
    Obvious, I know, but your first port of call if you get stuck about something specific to your module should be the person who’s leading it or who’s heading up your seminars
  • Your peer mentor
    Most first years will have a peer mentor who is a student in their 2nd or 3rd year who has been trained to point you in the right direction for help and to share their own experiences of university
  • Your personal tutor
    You’ll be allocated a personal tutor that you meet up with at least once a semester, you can talk to them about all things university – including how to make the transition from A level to university as smooth as possible
  • Your peers
    There’s a very good chance your degree has its own university society or at very least, a Facebook group for your course and/or year. Talk to other people and see how they’re getting on, quiz the 2nd and 3rd year students over what modules they picked and how they make referencing less boring (everyone has a tactic!)

 

There’s also university-wide support you can use too such as:

 

The transition from A Level to university can be really daunting and challenging but there’s loads of support you can access if you need a hand – plus you have all of your first year to figure it out before you really have to knuckle down when your grades start ‘counting’.

So try new things and have fun!

Review: Troublemakers by Catherine Barter

TroublemakersTroublemakers by Catherine Barter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book with more diversity than action which ultimately makes it a slow and quiet read a far cry from what the blurb seems to promise.

Pros:
– The diversity and liberal thinking in Troublemakers was wonderful to read and it kept my interest up throughout as I was curious about how Barter was going to continue to present these characters in a complex way without going to stereotypes; she did it brilliantly! This makes Troublemakers easily one of my favourite books for how it displayed a variety of lifestyles in a normalised way without shouting about them
– In a climate where there’s a desperate push to engage young people in politics, I enjoyed the maturity of the protagonist’s political dilemmas, although, that same maturity didn’t make her feel like a very realistic teenager. Her depth of thought about politics clashes with her naivete about relationships and I feel that being very perceptive in one area would imply you are in the other. She didn’t feel realistic or all that interesting.

Cons:
– I wanted this book to be written by Danny. Danny was the most interesting character and I was bored by a fairly easy-going coming-of-age story when we could have been given something with so much more depth from Danny’s viewpoint. If that was made into a prequel I’d buy it in a heartbeat!
– There were a few scenes in this that completely took me out of the book and ruined it for me; they were entirely unrealistic and took away from the story
– The entire book felt as though it was building to something that doesn’t happen, the climax is ultimately anti-climatic and it all gets solved very neatly and they live happily ever after. The blurb had me expecting a novel with a bit more of a punch, I would’ve been far happier with the book had it been marketed differently to suit its style

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Review: The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

Girl in the Blue CoatGirl in the Blue Coat* by Monica Hesse

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Girl in the Blue Coat is a story of bravery, the power of unromantic love, and ultimately, how we choose to cope with the consequences of our decisions and what those choices say about our true intentions.

Pros:
– The Girl in the Blue Coat achieves the thing I always chase in fiction and the very reason I believe it is so crucial: – it takes characters and situations we think we already know and adds complexities to them that challenges our worldview. This comes across in waves in Hesse’s characters making this an ideal book to encourage young adult readers to think about people more complexly.
– The setting made me see Amsterdam in a different light and the Dutch culture shone through the writing. It came as a surprise that Hesse isn’t Dutch herself which shows how authentic the book feels. Of course, this is from the perspective of an English reader, I would be interested to see how Dutch readers felt about this.
– It’s impossible to express why I love the characters so much without unveiling major spoilers but my goodness, you have to meet them in the pages for yourselves.

Cons:
– I’m not entirely sure who this book is for. The writing style is simplistic but occasionally quite mature vocabulary and old-fashioned terms throw the prose in a different direction. I think that’s a nod to the historical aspect of the book but it makes the characters’ voices feel far older than they are meant to be which cracks the authenticity somewhat. In the author’s note, Hesse mentions that the characters were originally adults and that shows through in their voices albeit, not necessarily in their actions and thoughts. It still works but a little tweaking would go a long way in improving the realism here.
– The ending felt rushed, especially when you compare it to the relatively slow build-up in the beginning. This was the only major letdown for me as the twist was the backbone of the whole story but the page-time given to it just didn’t do it the justice it so badly needed.

All in all, I loved this book but I can see why it might not necessarily capture the hearts of many younger readers. It’s a slow, delicate story for the most part and it doesn’t shout loudly about its life/death intensity the way many other YA books on the Holocaust do. In that respect, it can be well compared the Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief – it’s a novel to fall in love with but not one to recommend to a reader who wants a fast-paced, action-filled read.
It’s odd in that it is easily readable despite the tone with its simple sentences and its straightforward prose but then, there are odd sections that just knock you for six with how poignant they are. For instance, Hanneke’s expression of grief in the following quote:

“Here is the thing about my grief: it’s like a very messy room in a house where the electricity has gone out. My grief over Bas is the darkness. It’s the thing that’s most immediately wrong in the house. It’s the thing that’s most immediately wrong in the house. It’s the thing that you notice straight off. It covers everything else up. But if you could turn the lights back on, you would see that there are lots of other things still wrong in the room. The dishes are dirty. There is mould in the sink. The rug is askew. Elsbeth is my askew rug. Elsbeth is my messy room. Elsbeth is the grief I would allow myself to feel, if my emotions weren’t so covered in darkness.”

Though this book looks like misleadingly easy read from the prose style, it is perhaps best saved for those who get enjoyment from tackling philosophical issues through a more subtle and intricate lens rather than very young YA readers.

The Girl in the Blue Coat is a truly memorable read that succeeds in adding relatability and complexity to otherwise distant real historical actors who lived in Nazi-occupied territories.

*Note: In England the title is ‘The Girl in the Blue Coat’ whereas in many other editions, it is titled ‘Girl in the Blue Coat’; I read the English edition.

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Review: The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time #1) by Robert Jordan

The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time, #1)The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A highly immersive fantasy read that gives a hopeful strong start to the daunting (in terms of how much of my life will be spent reading it!) yet exciting series ahead.

This series was recommended to me by my boyfriend and on agreeing to give it a go, I was nervous for four reasons:
1) We enjoy very different books and rarely think too much about each other’s reading choices so our recommendations to each other are fairly few and far between but he loves the series so much I was convinced I had to give it a go.
2) Jack’s now on his second reading of the series within the space of a year so I already feel as though my head has been battered with the peripheral information I’ve picked up about the WoT universe and a lot of that information sounds bizarre out of context.
3) This series is huge! Weighing in at a mammoth 11,000 odd pages, it’s a daunting undertaking to say the least.
4) I’m not a great lover of fantasy fiction. Most of the time I find it too dry and overly full of complex lore and history that I just don’t want to understand. Hear me out here before you judge me! I’m a history student. Reading fantasy fiction feels too much like work and I get irritated that its work that I can’t actually do much with except grapple to understand it while thinking I should be spending that time learning actual history instead. So I’m not charmed by any fantasy other than LOTR and even that feels like a lyrical textbook I want to study rather than get absorbed in.

So I braced myself to hate the world of WoT and to have to read my golden rule of at least 56% of this first book (which would come to around 450 pages) before casting it as a DNF. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I fell in love with the world and pored over the new discoveries about its history, cultures and wonderfully thoughtful details. I was enchanted by the characters and the brilliant pacing of their developments and relationships with each other and their discovery of the world around them. The female characters are also like a breath of fresh air, I didn’t expect much given that the book was written in the early 90s and of my vaguely misogynistic impressions of the fantasy genre so it came as a huge relief when they weren’t just portrayed as damsel-in-distress love/sex objects but actually carried a huge punch of personality and independence.

The considerable downside was the plot; for me, it was meh. I didn’t care much for how it progressed and there were so many times where I wanted the pacing to be different. Sometimes the actions of the characters felt out of sync with their personalities just so it could move the plot and that bothered me. On top of that, it just felt like the plot was a vehicle to build the world rather than actually serving any other purpose. I didn’t care what happened, I cared about the characters and the world. Perhaps, for so early on in this huge series, that is enough for now.

Above all, I loved the readability of the writing and that is what makes me excited for the books ahead. Unlike a lot of fantasy fiction, all of the immense detail didn’t make the fantasy feel like work; it made it come alive. This could be because of how many ideas Jordan borrows from what I know of medieval and early modern Britain; the world feels familiar enough to make me believe in the fantastical. If this book is any indication of what the series as a whole will be like then I’m looking forward to seeing how the Wheel turns!

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Review: The Historiography of Genocide by Dan Stone

The Historiography of GenocideThe Historiography of Genocide by Dan Stone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This has been a difficult read for a couple of reasons:

1) Genocide will never (and ought never to be) a subject that is emotionally ‘easy’ to learn about
2) There are a lot of complex ideas and research squashed into a relatively short survey (given how much historiography the book attempts to cover) making it a dense read
3) The book is not only a survey of genocide historiography but it also covers a crash course chapter on an element of the most historiographically prominent genocides (13 are covered in all)

This book is a comprehensive overview of the whole field of genocide studies and its historiography. It’s helpful to learn how genocide research has been conducted in other disciplines (though history-centric, the book does talk about multi-disciplinary approaches, particularly in the ‘Concepts’ section) and the Case Studies section does well to illustrate a lot of the theory that the book goes over in the opening section. Each essay gives a brief overview of the existing historiography with a focus on post-2000 research and concludes with thought-provoking questions for possible further research.

I’d recommend this book to anyone studying an undergraduate degree or above in humanities/social sciences as, unless you’re already familiar with historiography, a lot of the concepts and terminology would be difficult to get your head around and it might be off-putting.

An emotionally and intellectually challenging read, this book is informative and thorough. the sheer amount of scholarship this book covers is both inspiring and humbling – it has raised a wide range of interesting questions for the future of genocide studies and added a great deal more texts to my reading list(!).

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Review: One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

One of Us Is LyingOne of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting twist on coming-of-age character arcs and on The Breakfast Club story that most (older) readers will be familiar with; One of Us Is Lying adds depths to characters that transforms stereotypes without development feeling shoehorned into a plot.

To address and avoid the spoilers that some people have taken issue with; I’d like to throw in my opinion that McManus handled the sensitive issues brilliantly in the context they were in. Had she written about them in another way (as some people have recommended), they would stick out like a sore thumb in a book that beautifully depicts the trials and tribulations of adolescence. As for the secrets of the characters, they were all developed throughout the story and in keeping with the way the mystery unfolded to keep up the suspense and to show that teenagers, just like anyone, have their secrets. Certain issues were not thrown in there for effect or for plot drama, they were well handled and very relevant to how these issues present themselves in the lives of young adults.

Now that’s over with…
This book was a thoroughly enjoyable read. The author’s skill lies in how she adds depths to all the characters and smashes through the stereotypes that feel exhaustively shitty to begin with. Persevere through the first couple of chapters and be aware that they frame the book, they’re not by any means what the author sticks to. Instead, with great subtlety and care, the author takes us along the individuals’ own paths of self-discovery and it feels as painful, dramatic and emotional as teenagers’ lives often are in reality.

The plot is fairly meh and has its clumsy aspects hence 4 stars instead of 5 but it is interesting enough to keep the reader plotting along – you can tell pretty early on that the advertised plot isn’t the book’s main focus but the glue to piece together the more interesting elements.

I’d definitely read this again to get pointers for character development in my own writing and I’d highly recommend it for teenagers facing issues with identity or who are having difficulty in imagining the complexity in the lives of others. The range of characters means there is a good chance one (or many) will resonate with you and the people you encountered growing up; their different viewpoints bring the story to life.

This book can be summed up neatly in just three words: Individuals Contain Multitudes.

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Review: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

World War Z is as difficult to forget as it is to read, but by no means does that make it a book to avoid. Its unique structure brings life (haha) to an overdone genre by giving it the credibility it drastically needs without withholding the horror that appeals to so many zombie enthusiasts.

Pros:
– It’s easily the most convincing horror book I’ve read, which, for a zombie apocalypse-esque book, is really saying something.
– The interview structure of World War Z means it isn’t your typical gore-fest but is instead all the more chilling because it feels far too realistic.

Cons:
– It’s a dry book. Since there aren’t any continuing characters, plots, overarching storyline etc. the fictional accounts in the book have to work really hard to keep up the reader’s interest and for me, quite a few of them failed.
– Most of the accounts are far too short. Though this leaves you with nicely creepy question marks hanging over each account, it’s also pretty frustrating as, just when you begin to warm to an interviewee, their story is over. Some of these accounts didn’t even amount to a full page on my e-reader and this itty-bitty nature of the book becomes tiresome.

I went into World War Z knowing as little about the book as I could other than the often-repeated phrase, ‘it’s completely different to the film’. The oral history structure took me by surprise as I’ve never seen it orchestrated as convincingly and as comprehensively as Brooks has managed to in this book. This credibility is the main appeal of the book for me as I get bored of all the gore in the zombie genre which usually comes at the cost of believability so it was something special to find a book this disturbing in its realism.

That being said, the realism had the double-edged sword of also making for quite dull reading in some parts. A few times I had to force myself to keep on going because I was bored stiff of a particular account but didn’t want to miss any of the story we’re tasked to piece together from fictional interviews. This is often the case with non-fiction oral history – it’s incredibly difficult to weave different accounts together to build-up a bigger picture without being too selective and distorting the picture altogether. So again, its occasional dullness was bearable and gave greater weight to the book. Just bear in mind that it’s not something you’ll likely want to read for long periods of time without a break, nor is it something you’ll want to read before you sleep (it led to some pretty convincing and disturbing nightmares for me!).

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