The Most Important Skill International Students Should Master to Succeed at University in the UK

Studying in a a second language can be daunting.  I know this from my own experience. I still remember how nervous I was when I was about to start my studies in the UK. I kept asking myself questions: ‘Am I good enough to succeed?’, ‘What can I do to increase my chances at university?’, ‘Are my language skills on the required level?’.

If you are an international student who wants to study at British/Australian university, you might be asking  similar questions. And you might be anxious too.

​At the end of the day, studying abroad means financial sacrifices for you families, time commitment, emotional costs. The last thing you want on the top of it, is falling behind your studies. Studying abroad will be for you a transition time on so many levels.

Today, I am going to share with you a secret which will help you to prepare better for study abroad. Well, it is not really a secret. Rather something only few students and tutors know about.

I assume that you are reading this blogpost because you are starting university soon, alternatively you have already started university and you are looking for help. Either way you don’t have much time on your hand and that’s why you have to be very strategic in your university preparation. You want to develop skills which will have the biggest impact and the smallest investment time.

I bet that if I asked you about the single factor which might have the biggest influence on international students’ academic performance, most of you would say: ‘English language skills’. You are right. The better English, the better chance of your success at university. However, is is not the skill which will provide you with the best ‘Return on Investment’. Why not?

If you are about to start university in the UK or Australia, your English must be between IELTS Band 5.5-8.5. Otherwise you would not have been admitted to the university in the first place. It means that you are either a competent or advanced user of English. And here is the problem.

You might have already noticed that language progress at this stage is slow and incremental. It is possible that you reached or about to reach a dreaded plateau in language learning. No matter how much time you spend on learning new vocabulary grammar and listening, it does not seem to be reflected in your progress. Frustrating? Yes! Normal in language learning? Absolutely!. Obviously, there are many ways to overcome the plateau, however none of them is easy and fast.

Focusing on developing English at this stage might not be the best idea. You need a better strategy to improve your chances at university.

OK. Let’s get to the point. What is this ‘most important skill’ you need to succeed at British university?

Ability to manage information is the most important skill for international students at British and Australian university. Why is that?

Well, education system in the UK and Australia greatly value independent learning. In other words, your understanding of the topic will be usually gained through independent study rather than lectures.

In practice, it means searching for books and journals, reading them, taking notes, distilling information from sources, applying information, planning, writing, drafting, referencing, redrafting. From one assignment to another. From the final assignment to a dissertation. From a dissertation to a thesis.

When i was doing my Masters,  I used to have six hours of lectures a week. I spent more than 20 hours reading. writing my assignments and preparing for seminars. I did not have the knowledge I have today, so I wasted hundreds of hours trying to tame the informational chaos. I managed but it cost me lots of stress and time. Don’t let the same thing happen to you.

When I started my PhD, I was aware, it would be a hard journey. I was working on a quantitative project (Randomised Controlled Trail) with no knowledge of statistics. It was an unfamiliar  research area (Bilingual Education), I was older than most of other students and I was writing in my second language.

You know how it is in life. Most of our fears never materialise. None of the above-mentioned factors negatively affected my study. However, problems with managing information did. Actually, three months into my PhD, I realised that I urgently needed an effective and simple academic workflow in place which will simplify my research, reading, note-taking and writing. Instead of working on my PhD, I spent a month researching and experimenting with methods of simplifying my research process.
I heavily relied on employing cutting-edge technology to support my work. It was the best decision I took during my PhD. I finished my PhD in three years. I wish I had known it when I was doing my BA and MSc.

The advice for you. You should learn how to develop an academic workflow which will dramatically increase your productivity when reading and writing. If you do this, you will have much more time on improving your academic English. You can do it by mastering academic software such as Citavi, Scrivener, Zotero or even popular web applications such as Evernote. It will take you a few hours to learn and will save you hundreds. It applies both to undergraduate and postgraduate students.

A word of warning. I am obviously biased. As you might have noticed I teach online international students (and locally native British students) how to use academic tools for writing academic projects. So don’t take my word for it.

Look here, here, here, here and here how other students use these tools to accelerate their work. Please note, most of them are native speakers of English. They are academically brilliant. Despite that (or because of that) they developed productive workflows to accelerate their academic work. You should follow them.
​If you want to learn those tools on your own, i suggest watching tutorials on YouTube.

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