• Michaela Selway

Preparing for University Study After a Long Holiday | How to Stay Focused

Getting back into the mindset of studying after a long break is a concept many students struggle with every time March rolls around. Though many of us work over the summer break, the fifteen to twenty-week “study” break (if you don’t do summer school) is quite a long time to forget the study tips and routines that took you all year to develop.

Last week, I had the privilege of interviewing two students here at the University of Auckland to ask them about how they transition back into the university mindset after a long break and how they motivate themselves to stay focused. We discussed a range of questions and touched on aspects of undergraduate study and postgraduate study to present to you the many habits we have learnt through trial and error that help us.

Rebecca Tang, the vice-president of the History Society joined us for this interview. Rebecca is in her fourth year of a Law/Arts Conjoint. Considering herself a “mature” undergraduate, Rebecca had a lot of wisdom on how to set yourself a routine, especially if you are a student like her who had an overseas holiday over the break and then went straight into summer school.

Louise Ryan was the other interviewee who joined us. Louise is a current Masters student at the University of Auckland and is only two weeks away from handing in her thesis! While Louise is a Media student, she managed to include her historical mindset in her thesis that she learnt in her undergraduate history papers to combine the two aspects of her undergraduate degree that she enjoyed the most. Her thesis interrogates ideas of stardom and gender through the two case studies of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.

1) Do you mentally have to prepare yourself for university?

The first question that we explored was whether or not we have to mentally prepare for university. The answer was: absolutely! Rebecca commented that there was no way she would have gone straight from her holiday in Europe to attending two-hour intense lectures and being expected to concentrate for that long if she hadn’t spent time preparing herself mentally for university.

Louise agreed entirely with Rebecca. She noted, however, that postgraduate study required her to discipline herself more than her undergraduate study because she no longer has mid-term or summer breaks. Due to her twelve-month Master's course, Louise has had to work all throughout everyone else's breaks, and so has had to discipline herself to study and write her thesis while photos of her friends in Europe or at the beach circulate her social media.

Their top tips for preparing for university include:

Read through the Course Guide

This will give you an idea of what to expect in the next few months so you aren’t entering into university unprepared. By reading through the course guide you can enter assignment or exam dates into your calendar and read through the weekly topics.

Get/use a Diary

Getting a hardcopy diary or using a calendar on your laptop will allow you to plan out your semester/month/week/day. This way you will visually see what you have coming up and it will keep you accountable to stay focused as you can see your due dates. Having a visual diary will also allow you to see where you have gaps in your day, allowing you to not overburden yourself with work. You can schedule in lunch-breaks with your friends or finish all your work when you are at university so you can go home and relax.

Louise suggests trying different diary methods to figure out what works best for you. This could be a normal 2019 calendar diary that you just have to fill in, or if you want to schedule in creative time this could mean you invest in a Bullet Journal or Sticker Planner.

Write a daily or weekly to-do list

Writing a to-do list means writing a game plan. This will allow you to see your day and tasks as achievable goals that feel so good when you can tick them off! It was suggested to write your tasks as small as possible so that they appear more manageable. For example, rather than writing read all the readings for the week you could write do the first reading for History103; or instead of writing write the History327 essay you could write create an essay plan for the History 327 essay.

Here is an image of Michaela’s calendar. She has to schedule in every hour to keep herself accountable. Others prefer to write a simple to-do list that they check off.

2) How do you take notes when in class or doing a reading?

Taking notes is crucial when studying History as there are so many dates and names to remember. By taking notes, you are also able to go back over the many weeks of lectures you have attended and make connections and recognise themes that link different events or time periods.

Top tips for taking notes:

Figure out if you are a digital or hand-written notetaker

Some people prefer to take notes on their computer while others prefer to print out the lecture slides and annotate them. There are benefits for both but it is crucial to learn this early on as it will affect your ability to study later on.

Digital note-taking

There are many programmes free and available for students to use that help with note-taking. Many students use Microsoft Onenote. As per the photo below, Onenote allows you to sort your classes into different folders and within those folders, different lectures. You can colour code, highlight, put effects into your notes, and create a textbox anywhere on the document as well to help you organise your notes more efficiently.

Google drive is another program that is free to use and is included in your university email. You can sort your classes by folders and upload/create documents, powerpoints and excel sheets along with viewing pdfs. Taking notes on this program means that your notes are available anywhere you have an internet connection. You can also set one google account to offline mode so you can access your notes offline as well.

Some students also annotate the lecture slides through powerpoint.

The benefit of digital note-taking is that you can access your notes anywhere, they can be easily filed and easily searched due to Control-F. This is helpful when you are looking up keywords amongst all your notes.

Handwritten notes

Science has proven that notes that are taken by hand are better remembered. It is for this reason that many students still take notes by hand and many lecturers encourage this. This can be achieved in two main ways.

Many lecturers will release a powerpoint of their lecture slides. By printing this out the day before, you can either paste these into a workbook and annotate them or you can set the function on Powerpoint to print out the slides three to a page so that you can annotate on the paper and file them in a folder.

You can also go the traditional route of just writing notes in your workbook. This will allow you to draw lines and arrows between two connected points or colour code information with coloured pens or highlighters.

Reading the weekly readings online

Due to the department moving away from hardcopy course-books, readings are increasingly made accessible online. Many programs such as Adobe Reader (free) or Preview (on apple) will allow you to highlight as you read and annotate the pdf. The highlighter will also allow you to highlight on a ‘locked’ pdf. Some students also copy paste quotes or summarise the reading on a separate document or in a workbook.

Printing the weekly readings

By printing the weekly readings you can do them anywhere without getting distracted by social media or the internet. Louise recommends highlighting the reading with different colours that are linked to the tutorial questions. That way, when the question is asked in your tutorial you can go through your reading and pick out the quotes of that colour instantly. By printing out the reading you can also annotate in the margins to help you better understand the quote.

3) Is there anything that definitely doesn’t work?

Rebecca and Louise both commented that they struggle to do the reading before they attend the relevant lecture. The reading often contains keywords or concepts that they struggle to understand until the lecturer has explained it or decoded it in class.

Louise also said that over-preparing makes her stress out about everything she has to do. She prefers to break down the workload and take it slowly so that she can get through all of the work at her own pace and therefore remember everything better.

Louise and I also commented that it is crucial to learn what kind of note-taker you are. We have both experienced lecturers who have distracting powerpoints or speak too fast. This either makes you forget to take notes or feel like you have to write down everything they say because it must be relevant or else they wouldn’t be saying it. However, we both suggested that you should only write down what sticks with you. The purpose of note-taking is to process what is being said and re-write it in your own words so that you understand it.

4) Do you do any work before the semester starts?


We all took different approaches to this question. Rebecca prefers to only read through the course guide and look at the weekly topics so she is prepared for what is coming. Louise will sometimes note down weeks that look interesting, read a book if the full book is required or watch a movie that they will later analyse in the course. However, neither like to do any readings before the semester starts because they don’t know what they are supposed to be looking for. They prefer to do the reading after they have attended the lecture or know the essay question.

I, on the other hand, prefer to do the readings earlier rather than later. In my undergrad, I often completed the first time of readings before the semester began so that there was less pressure during the term. I found it easier to read the notes I had taken than to read the full reading in my busy week of study and work. One of the lecturers at the university also suggested reading the text before knowing the question as it will allow you to form your own opinion before knowing what the lecturer wants you to think about. By reading the text before the term started I was able to have the time to form my own opinion and then go back over it with the question in mind during the week of the tutorial.


If you are completing an Honours and Masters qualification, it is required to hand in a thesis proposal in either early-December or mid-February. Therefore, working before the university year starts is required. I suggested getting into the mindset of handing in the proposal at the December due-date even if you don’t submit it until February. That way, you will start the process of discovering your topic, and having the time to read up on your question - ensuring that you don’t leave it to the last minute!

5) How do you stay focused and structure your study time?

Do Work at University

By coming in early before any of your classes, or working during your breaks, you will have more time to start your assignments and get your readings done. Louise and Rebecca agreed that it is too easy to get distracted at home and so coming to university to study gives you the accountability - you don’t want others looking at your computer screen and seeing you on Facebook! I also suggested only bringing to university what you require. I found that if I bring a leisure book that I am reading, I will get distracted and spend all day reading that instead of studying. By only bringing what I need to do, I have no other option but to do it.

Study Spaces

Louise said that in order to stay focused she would move in all of her breaks to a new location. This often meant studying in the labs for a few hours, and then moving to a coffee shop for a few hours, and then moving outside. That way, she was able to clear her head by going for a walk and trick her mind into thinking she was starting again as she was in a fresh new place with a different view.

Study Apps

Rebecca and I use a study app called Forest. This allows you to “plant” a tree for a certain time period between ten minutes and two hours. By planting a tree, you shut down all other apps on your phone, reducing the distractions and ensuring that you study for that allotted period of time.

6) Any last comments or pieces of advice?

We all suggested building a rapport or relationship with your lecturers and tutors. They are a wealth of knowledge and can help you with many areas. Though many of us feel intimidated by our lecturers or tutors, they are lovely people who are there to answer your questions.

Office Hours

Office hours are designed for you! Whether you don’t understand something from class or in a reading, the office hour is a time for you to go and ask for clarification. This is especially helpful in classes that have lectorials as it can be daunting to ask a question in front of the whole class.

I also found that attending office hours increased my grades as I reduced the risk of misinterpreting the question. For the first few years of my degree, I received many comments on essays saying that I had a good essay but I hadn’t answered the question. As soon as I went to the office hour and verbalised what I was thinking, I was able to figure out if I was going in the right direction or heading entirely off-course.

Your lecturers can also help you understand a new assignment that you may not have encountered before such as the American History Roleplay Games or a Book Review. They can give you tips on how to approach these assignments to ease your mind or direct you towards articles that explain the process of how to complete these assignments.

If you have any questions…

Please feel free to contact us! There is so much more we could have covered and so if you have a specific question, please send us an email to tahuhukorero@gmail.com or message us through one of the forms on our website.

To hear the full interview, click here to listen on our website or you can access it on most podcasting platforms.

--- Michaela Selway is the co-founder of Tāhuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying Medieval Historiography in Europe. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.

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