Student award 2007: What advice would you give to students starting your course?

Author: Robert McGinty


The winner of the Subject Centre's undergraduate student essay competition 2007 was Robert McGinty, a final year student studying Russian and English Studies at the University of Nottingham.

This article was added to our website on 11/05/07 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

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I knew I wanted to take a Gap year. I'd had enough of studying. My bossy careers teacher kept telling me to fill out my UCAS form and tick the 'defer entry' box. He pointed out that I'd already been on a few Open Days and that I had a good idea of what I wanted to do - English and Russian - so why not just fill out the form now? 'Don't wait til tomorrow, boy - you're only cheating yourself!' He always bellowed at me down the corridor. Reluctantly, I agreed. It was the best decision I ever made.

You see, unlike many people - I didn't go travelling. I worked in the local supermarket that was right next to my old school. I thought I could just pop in or use the Internet to fill out the form during my Gap year. But even though I was so close to the resources, I would never have had the time to go back and fill out the form or look at the information. Sadly, I was also the kind of person who never found the time to practice the language I'd learnt at school. My Russian grammar books gathered dust in the corner.

Don't hang around with English people when you are abroad - you'll only speak English - and open a bank account that doesn't charge you for withdrawing money abroad. They are small things that make a big difference.


My books may have been cleaner by the time lessons began in the second week of university, but it didn't fool anyone. The Russian language assistant was very nice about it - smiling sympathetically as I struggled with the easy stuff - but I think that made the whole thing worse. As she moved on to speak to the person next to me, I blushed, thinking how I really should have found time for study in my Gap year.

I had expected to get told off after class. But the teacher just said that if I needed any help to come and see her. I was shocked. No-one was going to force me to do anything. My bossy careers teacher's voice echoed in my head: 'You're only cheating yourself.' I suddenly realised his cliché was true - and resolved to start studying again finally.

Luckily for me, there was a lot of interesting ways to do it. The Language Lab looked really professional. Lots of students wearing headphones sat in front of TVs showing different foreign language programmes. I thought they were all translating the programmes, but really most of them were just watching TV or listening to radio. I also found a Russian TV programme I like in the mornings that's a bit like Dad's Army.

I was largely teaching myself, but when the teacher set homework, it was rarely from a grammar book. Mostly it was listening to a recorded news report in the Language Lab, or an exercise on a special university student web page. If I was lucky, I might have already seen the news report earlier that week around episodes of Russian Dad's Army. Some students struggled with these new ways of teaching - they would have liked more time doing school-style lessons with the teacher - but I was beginning to see a big difference between simply being taught a language and actually learning it.

My English classes were very much like the sort of thing you see on TV: huge room and one teacher at the front giving a lecture. Then we'd have smaller discussion groups later in the week. This was pretty much what I expected at university. But my Russian classes were always quite small - the speaking classes only had 5 people each. It had a cosy, family atmosphere. The teachers often asked if we wanted tea and biscuits. This was really weird at first. Calling teachers by first names is still something I find strange, but it's a nice environment. The thing is, every learner of a foreign language needs to know that they are going to make mistakes, especially when speaking. So you have to not be afraid to speak because you might - shock horror - make a mistake.

Of course, I learnt most by being out in Russia. We went twice. Once at the end of first year for three weeks and again for the entire 3rd year. The university can help you as much as you want. If you want them to organise the whole thing for you - accommodation, course of study etc. then they'll do that. If you want to organise it all yourself, you can do that too, but they need to see the proof that you're not just going to work in your hometown supermarket or something! I went to Moscow for 11 months. Yes, it was cold! My advice is get out to your country as soon as possible and stay out there for as long as possible. Don't hang around with English people when you are abroad - you'll only speak English - and open a bank account that doesn't charge you for withdrawing money abroad. They are small things that make a big difference.

Im competing for jobs against people from all over the world... If I were choosing my course again, I would do more than one language.


I'm now in my final year. Employers seem to look for students who know at least two foreign languages. That doesn't mean I can't get a job - but employers I have always been interested in like the UN and the Red Cross are international. So I'm competing for jobs against people from all over the world. I never really thought of that before. Many Europeans on the continent need to know several foreign languages just because of where they live. If I were choosing my course again, I would do more than one language.


When I think back to the start of university I realise that I was nervous. Leaving home, meeting new people, the stories of students drinking all the time - I'm a confident person, but these things played on my mind. To start with, I didn't click with many people. Maybe because I was nervous, or maybe because we all were. My advice to anyone in that situation is: be yourself and wait a while for other people to feel settled and comfortable enough to be themselves. I joined a few clubs that I liked. That helped. Gradually I made friends and felt happier. My course and student life didn't all come together magically. I had to work at it. I'm glad I did and gave it a chance. That's my final piece of advice. University is great, but it's not everyone's cup of tea - I thought for a while that it wasn't mine - but take your time and give it a chance. I'm so glad I did.