Thursday, 10 October 2013

J.K.Rowling, 'The Casual Vacancy': Review

(This review contains no spoilers!)

The Casual Vacancy is the first post-Potter offering from the pen of arguably the most famous living author in the World, J.K. Rowling.

The novel centres on a small town called Pagford, where a position becomes available on the local council. The plot revolves around a cast of characters rather than a single protagonist, in a town which initially seems like a classic 'British' town, although it quickly becomes embroiled in scandal, backstabbing and catastrophe.

The novel itself is the complete opposite to Harry Potter. It couldn't be more different. The main themes include: drug abuse, politics, self-harm, domestic violence and OCD. At points it almost feels like Rowling has saved seven Potter books worth of obscenities and piled them in to this one book.

Rowling is famous for her descriptive writing style, pouring more and more details on characters and settings in to her writing, like a fat child who piles more and more strawberry sauce on to their ice cream. This is again the case with this book, with much emphasis being placed on character development and great emphasis on the use of Pagford as a setting.

There is a rather large cast of characters. Young, middle-aged and old, Rowling develops a wide-range of different personalities and makes it increasingly obvious as the plot progresses that each character is in some way intertwined with one another. Part of the novel I enjoyed most was the way that characters from across the town intersperse with each individual plot line. Although, at points, the pace in which the story switches between characters can leave you a little confused as to which character the focus has now fallen upon.

For some reason, the setting of Pagford kept reminding me of the village from the film 'Hot Fuzz', which isn't a bad thing in my opinion, as Hot Fuzz is a brilliant movie.

For those who have read 'The Cuckoo's Calling', which Rowling wrote under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, you can definitely spot the similarities with 'The Casual Vacancy'. The stories are greatly different, but the writing style has Rowling written all over it (literally), whilst the structure of both books is extremely similar (as both are divided in to several parts).

I'm a huge Harry Potter fan. I read the first book whilst at primary school and followed the series religiously until the end of both the written and film franchises. I still love anything Potter-related, so for me this book was met with excitement (as I enjoy Rowling as an author) and sadness (due to it not being a Potter book). I was also quite intrigued, something different to the series that made Rowling her fortune was a dip in to the unknown and unexplored depths of the literary ocean. I would hate to think of the literary pressure on the shoulders of Rowling, drowning in a sea of expectation to match the success of the Potter series.

I enjoyed 'The Casual Vacancy'. It wasn't as good as Harry Potter for me, although maybe that is simply due to my bias for all things Hogwarts. This is a well written book, with Rowling again showing her brilliance as a storyteller and providing the reader with a book which can be greatly enjoyed - a novel that I would give three out of five stars. I wouldn't say it is capable of 'classic' status, but it is certainly a very interesting read and one I would recommend.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Choosing what degree to do is hard...

Choosing your university and what degree you wish to study is something that every A Level student finds daunting and very scary.

The decision you make now will affect the rest of your life. The subject you choose to study will impact on your career and where you choose to study will mean that factors like friendships will be changed forever.

The concern of many is understandable and any current student will sympathise as we were once in that same position. Many students still don't know what they want to do after graduating, even once they have begun slaving away for their degree.

The biggest issue with choosing a course is the 'I don't know what I want to do when I grow up' syndrome, that infiltrates and slowly chews away at the ambition of every young person in further education. The simple answer to it is that nobody knows what you will end up doing, not even yourself. Unless you have some freaky and unusual mind skills where you can predict the future.

When I chose my degree I spent ages (literally weeks) looking through information packs, looking at league tables, employment rates and ask my family and my friends. I still wonder if I made the right choice and still don't know if I did or not - this isn't unusual, as most people I know think the same about their degree choices.

So, step one - make a list of subjects you may be interested in sacrificing four years of your life to studying. Step two, make a list of universities you might be interested in spending four years of your life mingling around in. Once you've established the (possible) unis and courses go to as many open days as possible and interrogate people with every question you could possibly think of. This will give you a chance to see what the places are like and what the courses teach.

Now comes the maths part - grab every possible league table you can and analyse and scrutinise it better than anything you have ever analysed in your life. Work out what uni and course would give you the best chances for your future career and life.

Once you have done this, have some time to think about it and let your brain pick out your five UCAS options like you would pick out your favourite chocolate from a tin of Celebrations or Cadbury Roses.

Ultimately, you shouldn't worry about the degree choice and fear that your life may be over if you have chosen the wrong degree. Many people complete their degrees and go on to do something that has absolutely nothing to do with what they have paid educational blood, sweat and tears for.

Yes the choice of degree is important - especially something that you believe you will do well in and enjoy - but do not think that the choice you make now will confine you to that one career path for the rest of your life. Whatever happens, it is more important to choose to have the degree than the subject it is in. You can always change career path.

Besides, university is much more than just a degree and the educational part of it is equal to the life experiences you will get from it.

The most obvious point I would make for those about to click the 'Select your degree discipline' box on their applications would be to choose something that you think you will enjoy. Most people don't know if they made the right decision or not, so don't worry. As you sit in front of your computer, sweat running down your face and your hand trembling to such an extent that you can just about keep hold of the mouse, follow your gut instinct. Click on the subject you think is right.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Can those who commit crimes also be described as victims?

Recently, the suggestion was put to me that someone who commits a crime may also be a victim. The example gently floated in my direction was that of a drug addict who knowingly takes an illegal drug (therefore has committed an illegal act and is a criminal) although as they take the drug due to their addiction issues, they are are in fact "victims".

Can someone who is a criminal also be labelled a victim? Is it possible for those who commit offences to be considered victims of a crime they themselves have committed?

I'm sure many people within society would run to the hills in horror at the suggestion that someone who breaches the laws of the land should in some way be considered a victim of their own poor behaviour. Although, if someone commits a crime unwillingly due to necessity, should they somehow be able to vindicate their behaviour?

A person is generally considered liable for an offence regardless of their knowledge of it. To an extent I agree with this, I see no reason why the "I didn't know it would be illegal" statement should hold any strength. Maybe having studied and worked in law I have a slight bias here, but I do genuinely believe that if you commit an offence you should be held liable for it.

If you were desperately hungry, had no food, needed to feed yourself and then stole a loaf of bread you would be committing an offence. Although anyone in that unfortunate position would probably consider the need for food to outweigh the need to be a law-abiding citizen, there is a deep moral debate here about the moral standing of the legal system.

Going back to the drug example, the theory described to me was that someone who had drug related issues should be treated as a victim of their crimes rather than a criminal, due to their drug addition. I can see some argument in this, the fact that someone commits a crime due to their own issues and desperation rather than any particular will to play cat and mouse with the long (metaphorical) arm of the law.

Although, this suggestion does not sit comfortably with me in amongst my many large, heavy and expensive statute books that adorn the shelves of my bookcase. I can see the argument that a crime committed by someone who could be deemed to be a "victim" is somehow vindicated, although in my opinion, they are still criminally liable for it.

Perhaps this highlights a gap within our legal system, where the pendulum between "criminal" and "victim" for some defendants has stopped swinging and is instead hanging still and silent in the middle between the two.

I have always held the opinion that if you commit a criminal offence then you are a criminal and not a victim. The victim is the person who "lost" as it where, as a result of the defendants actions. 

I accept that some will commit offences due to their own personal needs (the theft of the bread described above being an example) although I believe that any offence should be recognised rather than forgotten, in favour of a genuine judicial outcome. Although, what I would say is the nature of our legal system allows judges to exercise great flexibility when it comes to rulings.

It may seem harsh, but it would undermine the legal system and the just application of the rules bestowed upon us by Parliament should we start claiming that criminals are actually victims of their own crimes. How could lawyers expect clients to have confidence within the framework of the legal system if those who commit crimes are given cuddles rather than custodial sentences?

Yes the odd case will be seen as unfair, but allowing one defendant to get away with a crime would open the floodgates to other defendants - claiming that their "victim" status somehow vindicates their trampling upon the rules of society. 

Although judges will exercise discretion on a case-by-case basis, as is the correct way to go about things, preference should always be given to punishment.

I accept a flaw in this argument is that some people will be harshly treated, and I agree that some may criticise such a harsh stance, although the needs of society as a whole outweigh the needs of an individual. The rules and regulations created by ourselves and the ghosts of our legal and political ancestors far outweigh any need for an individual to be comforted for a crime than rather criticised for instigating the offence.

It is obviously deeply unfortunate and inconvenient should you be spotted committing an offence and then be dragged kicking and screaming through the various levels of the legal system, however, ultimately you must accept responsibility for your own actions. You committed the crime, so should accept the consequences. Anyone would consider a criminal record more of a burden than a benefit, although if you break the law you cannot complain about your record being tarnished by the ink of a judge's pen.

Can those who commit a crime also be described as victims? No. They committed the crime, the label of "victim" is not appropriate nor relevant to them. They committed an offence, regardless of what that offence may be, and therefore must face the consequences.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Beware the University Hidden Course Costs

It was Rudyard Kipling who wrote one of my favourite lines in one of my favourite poems - 'Beware the Jabawock my son'. In this case, I'll adapt that line to 'Beware the hidden university course costs Freshers'. For, what many fail to realise, there are many, many expensive additions to your educational future.

Hidden course costs are extra costs added to the total of your university experience, excluding the tuition fees. These are often over-looked, not considered or forgotten about by many Freshers.

When I started university, I was aware that there would be extra costs, but I was shocked about the extent and amount. I didn't realise initially that university was so expensive!

Tuition fees are the most obvious form of cost. People know they will have to pay them back after graduating and also know that they will total more than £3,000 a year (for my cohort) or now £9,000 a year for future Freshers. £9,000 with no solid guarantee of a job? Daylight educational robbery! I'm just happy/very lucky I made it in before the fee rise!

My accommodation costs more than £4,000 a year. Ironically, this means that my accommodation costs more than my actual degree course. This is again covered by Student Finance (which is handy) but also means that - just like tuition fees - you have to pay it back (which isn't so handy). Including accommodation, my total fees pass £7,000 a year.

Then comes the cost of studying. You need paper, pens, books (I've had to spend over £150 this year on several very dull textbooks that our tutors hardly ever reference or use, all of which they conveniently happen to have written themselves) and all sorts of little extras - I'm thinking of highlighters, staplers, folders etc. All these seem like little things but they do add up over the course of a four year degree.

To add insult to injury, you've been charged an extortionate amount for rent, and then have to pay for all the extra costs on top. Council tax (depending on the borough you live in - we don't have to pay it), TV licence, food, gas, electricity - all this is an addition to your accommodation costs. If you don't want to run the risk of buying the 'Value' stuff (for fear of suspiciously horse-looking spaghetti bolognese) then the 'nicer' food will cost you more.

Some university's offer a placement year, where you go away from campus and work for a year to get experience of the big, scary 'real world'. Many of these placements are unpaid. Additionally, you have to pay a set fee to the university, cover your own lunch and travel expenses and (if you live away from home) cover the cost of accommodation. Doing a placement year should be carefully considered, it will add costs to your course if you choose to commit to it.

How about the social side of things? Clubs and societies are free to join, but being part of them will cost you (albeit mostly small amounts). Nightclubs, cinemas and other activities are also not free - however much all of us students love free stuff, sadly there just isn't enough free stuff going around. Sad times.

When I was at college we had a session where we went through hidden costs and were each given a table we could use to estimate how much extra we would spend. This was not just an awesome idea; it helped me to plan my spending and also partly scared me to economic-related death.

Growing up you are always taught that debt is bad. 'You shouldn't have debt', 'Pay back what you owe' etc - the average student graduating in 2011 owed £27,000, after the fee rise that could potentially be as much as £56,000. I was never told at any open day I attended at any university about extra costs - I guess as they don't want to put future applicants off (very sneaky of them, but remember to your uni you will be a walking bag of money) - make sure you ask about costs you are likely to face.

So, what's my advice to you future Fresher? Did deep in to your pockets, dust off your wallet, go down to your bank with a wheelbarrow, tell your parents that if they loved you they'd give you an unlimited access to the 'Bank of Parents', and spend your student loan wisely. Don't waste it, and remember that it's better (for your bank account and your stomach) to buy nicer horse-free food than booze.

MOST importantly, beware the university hidden course costs!

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

London 2012: Life as a Games Maker

All my life I'd watched and wanted to go to an Olympic games. As soon as London won the bid in 2005, I knew I wanted to be part of it. After all the training and preparation, it was time for me to begin my job. This is a little snippet of what I got up to whilst at the Games...

Before I'd began at the Games, I'd told people that I would be involved as a Games Maker. Many were sceptical and asked why I'd bothered and if there was a point to it if I wasn't being paid. One thing I noticed was that as the Games got closer people became increasingly enthusiastic and began to tell me about how it sounded great to be involved and they were annoyed with themselves for not applying.

I began my journey by going to see the Olympic torch as part of the torch relay; little did I know I'd be holding a torch outside the Olympic Stadium soon after I'd watched someone carrying it down my road! Although I wasn't working or in my uniform, it was great to see so much support and enthusiasm from the public who cheered like crazy whilst the flame manoeuvred its way down my road and away in to the sunset of Olympic history.

The Olympic Park was amazing. Truly an incredible, incredible place to get to work. I was so happy when I was placed there as I knew I wanted to be right in the heart of the Games. The atmosphere was like nothing I've ever experienced - walking through the gates and seeing the 'Welcome to London 2012' sign each morning gave you the most amazing buzz and everyone in the Park seemed so happy. The excitement was contagious and athletes always ventured out of the village to walk around and take everything in - often stopping for autographs and pictures with excited fans and Games Makers. Every athlete I met was friendly and many gave me pins from their countries and high-fives. The various arenas and stadiums were breath-taking, if you walked through the park you'd hear roars delight pouring in to your ears from all angles as various events went on simultaneously around the Park. The Stadium and the Aquatics Centre were the two venues I found especially impressive.

One of the most rewarding parts of the job was the appreciation and attention from complete strangers. People would talk to me on the train, a few came up to me in the street and thanked me. One evening, a lady tapped me on the shoulder on the train and said 'Thank you, all you guys are doing an amazing job'. Tourists were eager to have pictures with you and commuters were hanging on your every word as you described what you'd done that day. People actually talked to each other on the train!

I was lucky enough to experience many venues both inside and outside of the Park, including: Wembley Stadium, the Olympic Stadium, the Aquatics Centre and Earl's Court. Each venue was completely covered in London 2012 logos and was always packed with fans. The noise was amazing, especially for Team GB - the noise became deafening when any British athlete was competing. That's the part of the venues I'll remember most - the noise. Especially walking out in to the Stadium - a wall of sound hit you and made every bone in your body vibrate with excitement and the sheer level of noise.

Across both the Olympics and Paralympics I was lucky enough to get to watch several sports, including: football, volleyball, swimming, cycling and athletics. It was inspiring to get to see some of the greatest athletes in the World compete before my eyes. My favourite sporting moment that I'd witnessed was watching Oscar Pistorius win gold in the last event on the last night of the athletics during the Paralympics. Everything about the race was special, something I'll remember for a long time.

I also got to experience the opening ceremony of the Olympics and the closing ceremony of the Paralympics. Knowing an audience of one billion people were watching at home felt surreal, but seeing the staging and feeling the absolute electric atmosphere was something I'll never forget. The opening of the Olympics was nothing short of outstanding - Danny Boyle spoke before the show and encouraged the crowds to enjoy it, give it everything and keep it secret to not spoil the surprise for people watching it live after the rehearsal. My favourite moment was seeing the Olympic rings form and the sparks falling down on the the set - something I'll never forget. The closing ceremony of the Paralympics was also spectacular and I was lucky enough to be with the athletes - speaking to many of them who all seemed to appreciate the show and be impressed by what they were witnessing. Two special moments stick in my mind from the closing ceremony - Coldplay singing 'Yellow' and the whole stadium turning yellow and standing outside the stadium with the athletes (as we began to get them back to the village) and watching the spectacular fireworks at the end of the ceremony. I felt a great sense of pride an achievement as I watched those fireworks shoot off the roof of the Stadium! I was there at the beginning for the Olympics opening and there at the end for the Paralympics closing - a nice touch I felt, as I'd gone full circle.

My uniform was very nice. I'd had some reservations, but the trainers were comfy, the trousers weren't too stuffy on hot days and the shirt was also very comfy. Although in the early morning or evenings it would get quite cold and the jacket provided little protection or warmth against the chill. The bags were small, yet you could fit a surprisingly large amount in them. I didn't like the bag straps though - they were a bit uncomfortable after much bag carrying. The watch was snazzy, although the 'tick' was incredibly annoying! We'd also been given an Oyster card to get to work and back for free - this was a great idea and really appreciated by many volunteers. Our accreditation was slightly annoying due to the size of it - if it was windy it would blow around like it was in some way possessed - but you learnt to put up with it!

My fellow volunteers were brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. There was a real sense of pride, excitement and eagerness that spread through everyone. I made friends, got on with everyone and had a laugh whilst working with them. Everyone was really nice and chatty. There was a real sense of togetherness and community that could warm the heart of everyone involved. I learnt some valuable team work lessons whilst working with them - I'd meet people all the time who I didn't know, yet we respected each other and worked together instantly as if we'd been a team for a long time.

Speaking of life skills, I've learnt many. Not just to do with the team work, but coping with being in several different environments (i.e. stadiums) as we were moved around the Park to a different area for each day. I learnt to cope with crowds (crowd management etc), dealing with the (rare) slightly angry spectator, how to treat VIPs (athletes, dignitaries etc), some few tips on broadcasting from various camera crews and journalists I met and - most importantly - how important the Olympics and Paralympics is to society. The Games changed society.

I was pleased with the things that we were given. Yes, we got endless amounts of Nature Valley bars, bottles of Coke and other sponsor-owned things, but we did get some really nice stuff too! As well as being able to keep our uniforms, I was happy to collect my certificates and my silver relay baton (which was a really lovely touch) and it was a very pleasant surprise to see a letter from the Prime Minister drop though my letter box! I really hope that LOCOG continues to recognise the volunteers and that, just maybe, we could be offered volunteer opportunities (such as a World Cup) in future - it would be sad to just let the 70,000 of us slip away in to the midst of volunteering-time.

I know the phrase 'once in a lifetime' is often attached to an event like the one we have seen this summer, but this for me personally really was a once in a lifetime experience. Everything I experienced was truly amazing and I'll carry it with me for the rest of my life. I'm so pleased I went for it, and so thankful that I was lucky enough to get to do it.

London 2012. Simply amazing.

(Although I loved my time as a Games Maker, I just want to add that I have no connections with London 2012 or with any of the partners of the Games. All views expressed here are my own).

London 2012: The Games Maker Journey

As soon as London was announced as the host city for the 2012 Games I instantly knew I wanted to be involved. This is a little snippet of the beginning of my Games Maker journey and what we had to do before the Games began...

In 2010 I saw the advert for volunteers and answered it without even thinking about it - I just knew I wanted to do it.

The application form was slightly tedious - lots of questions - but it certainly wasn't the worst form I've had to fill out. I knew it was for something as big as the Olympics which made it a little more exciting. But the thought did cross my mind 'I bet loads of people apply for this - I'll never get an offer'. I put my application in anyway.

Days, weeks and months past and I heard nothing - so I assumed I'd been unlucky and hadn't got anything. By the time it got to October 2011 and it had been a full year since I put my application in, I had completely forgotten about it.

Then, I got an e-mail with an offer of an interview - which was exciting (Plus it reminded me that I'd applied in the first place!)

I dragged myself out of bed early one Saturday morning (I had the dreaded early morning slot) and - a train journey later - with a day old newspaper I'd found on the train in hand and a slightly tired expression, I emerged and wandered in to the building.

What immediately struck me was how 'modern' it looked. A purpose built 'set' had been constructed with London 2012 logos covering just about every inch of wall space. Bright colours were all around you and pictures of those involved in the bid (Beckham, Coe etc) stared back at you from each wall.

I registered and went through to a waiting area where LOCOG had created a mini 'museum' for us with a room full of displays. Each corner of the room covered a different topic, ranging from the history of the Olympics to when London won the bid and finally a bit about how they thought the whole Games-time operation would run.

I had a bit of a brainwave and noticed that certain emotive words (i.e. 'Inspiring') were scrawled across the walls of the room. I thought that it would be good to remember these words and then casually drop in to the interview like I had planned to say them. This proved effective as I used all the 'key words' I'd learnt from the walls - I later suggested to others I knew who had interviews to do the same.

After this we had a brief chat with a lady who claimed she was from our 'team'. She briefed us on the very basics of our roles and what we would have to do.

We were taken in to a tiny cinema with about twenty seats, but no popcorn or premier seating! Eddie Izzard appeared on a screen and began to talk about the very basics of the 'Olympic Dream'. He continuously congratulated us for being offered an interview and seemed to chat to us like we were best mates who'd known each other for years.

Then came the interview itself, or the interrogation. Although, it wasn't really much of an interrogation - any fears of dark rooms with a single lamp were quickly dispelled by a friendly smile and an offer of water. We sat in small 'pods' with a tiny table and two chairs - on the wall was a time line showing the process of the run-up to the Games.

We were asked quite a few questions in an interview that lasted about twenty minutes. All the ones you would expect were there - 'Why do you want to be a Games Maker?', 'What skills do you have?' The one that slightly threw me (due to it being so random) was 'When was the last time you helped someone?'

It was a friendly chat, with the occasional laugh (it was a nice laugh, not an awkward one after a rubbish joke). After we said our farewells and I was greeted by a large wall covered in virtually ineligible scribbles. We were encouraged to draw on the wall and sign it, so I scanned over it with my eyes hunting like some wild creature, searching for a small patch of white to fill with my own name and a somewhat cheesy sentence.

That was it. The interview process was over. I surpassed an urge to waste money in a strategically placed gift shop full of tat before wandering out the door and going home.

A couple of weeks after the interview I got an email with an offer. This was quite exciting and my phone was going mental for several hours after whilst I decided to spread my happy news.

I looked at the portal website and went carefully through my job once again; I also looked at all the details about training. After hardly any consideration, I decided to go for it.

I did it. I pressed the 'Accept' button. I was pleased with myself.

I got (yet another) e-mail from LOCOG explaining what would happen next and telling me that I had to wait for further information about training.

A couple of weeks later I got an e-mail offering some training dates. It suggested we'd have a range of dates to choose, yet helpfully only gave me one.

I'd not mentioned to many people that I'd applied, in case I wasn't offered a role.

So, I'd made it through the application process and accepted my offer, now it was time to prepare for training.

The training was split in to three parts: Orientation, Role Specific and Venue.

First up was Orientation, at the iconic Wembley Arena. I remember going to shows there when I was little, so for me it was quite weird to be there 'working'. It was nice to say 'Training for the Olympics at Wembley Arena' when people asked what I was doing that weekend though!

Orientation was essentially an introduction to the whole project, presenting was BBC Sport presenter John Inverdale. We were shown the key things to do, how to speak to people and what our uniforms would be like. An interval featuring karaoke was followed with more training. Some of the top people from LOCOG were there to speak to us about subjects ranging from a day in the life of a Games Maker to security.

The second training day was role specific training. This was similar to orientation but consisted of us being told the specific details of our role. We were shown more videos about dealing with people and told more about exactly what we needed to do and what the place we would be working in looked like. After much free biscuit eating and free tea drinking we went through what our security passes looked like and how they worked. We had a little quiz and then left. The biggest thing I noticed from the day was how amazingly friendly everybody was and how excited each volunteer seemed to be about the impending London 2012 adventure.

Our final training session was Venue specific. This would involve us training inside the venue(s) we would be based at for the Games. Essentially, it was a run-through of the exact details we needed to know about for where we had been placed. It was also my first taste of the Olympic Park, which was very exciting. We had a tour of the Park to get a feel for what it was like there, everyone was extremely friendly and excited!

The final stage involved us collecting our uniforms. I battled my way through the tourists and made it to the distribution centre, trying on various different sizes of uniform like you would in the changing room at any clothes shop. I also collected my security pass and various other 2012-themed bits, like a watch, bag, umbrella, water bottle and pocket guide with a map. What was annoying was that I had to go all the way to the distribution centre to collect it on a day different to my training; it would have made it much easier to train and then collect our uniforms on the same day.

After completing all my training we were given our timetables, which had to be changed several times as the start and end times for shifts were when no trains were operating. One week before the Games I was transferred to a different role, meaning I started without any new training - although I didn't mind as other than the Venue training it was the same training for each role. We were also left in the dark over whether we'd be accepted for a role - I'd not known until just a few weeks before whether I'd actually have a confirmed place or not, my section of the Games Maker portal just forever showed 'Under Review'. 

So, almost two years after my initial application I was ready to go - everything was in place and the real Games Maker journey began...

Click here to read the second London 2012 blog about what I got up to during the Games!

(Although I loved my time as a Games Maker, I just want to add that I have no connections with London 2012 or with any of the partners of the Games. All views expressed here are my own).

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Forever a Fresher: An Alternative Guide to Starting University

Years of being told it's the right thing to do, years of graduates reciting stories of their student years lost in the realms of time, years of waiting... It's time to start university and you are a 'Fresher'. How will you survive?

Fresher is the term for someone who is in their first full year at university.

I've finished my first year at university - this is the advice I'd give to people setting out on this great educational pilgrimage this year. I've tried to write this blog as if I was looking for advice myself as a Fresher, this is what I'd be looking for if I was just starting uni - the things the university doesn't tell you, but what I wondered before I walked through the gates of my uni for the first time.

The answer to the great survival debate is... Don't worry, you will survive. In fact, you'll be fine. So let's begin:

You've probably spent months stressing over A Levels so you'd get a place - only to wonder if you'll struggle at degree level. No fear! The first year doesn't even count anyway. At school, a 40% pass mark is enough to make you want to cry out of shame, but at degree level as long as you get 40%, nobody cares! It's great!

After what can only be described as a horrific application process full of uncertainty over which options to pick and writing the same dull and highly exaggerated personal statement, you should be proud that you've made the cut. After all, thousands of your peers are left each year looking for unplanned and unwanted gap years or work experience as they didn't make the same grade as yourself. I feel your pain of the application system, UCAS weren't exactly straight-forwarded for me, I'd not ever want to have to do that whole process again! I feel your pain A2 students!

You've probably heard horror stories (or amazing stories depending on your preferences) of wild drunken partying and stupidly loud music every night. Yes, some do like to waste their livers and student loans on that (Alongside their kidneys) - but many don't. In fact, many students do very little partying at all. Days for many consist mostly of sleep and watching your favourite films.

Then the student loans system kicks in - forever creaking under the weight of students spending it on clothes shopping instead of books. Yes, when the money drops in to your account at the start of each month it is very nice - but it's gone almost as soon as it arrives. My loan is only just enough to cover my accommodation - I have nothing to contribute to things like books or food. I've been very vocal this year in suggesting that loans don't go far enough and students are often left with little or nothing but our savings or contributions from the 'Bank of Parents'. The best advice is to exploit the money (and very low interest rate) by spending your government cash wisely. Food is more important than alcohol. However, I again stress that Student Finance do not give you enough money (as they're not very nice like that) and you will need to rely on savings. I've blogged before on the dangers of 'Hidden Course Costs'.

One common misconception is the 'I won't fit in' or 'I won't have friends'. suggestion. The first week you meet loads of people and becoming friends with each one like you've known them your entire life. Later, you look back and think 'Yuck. I used to be friends with them on the first week'. Friendships take time to carve and trust takes time to build - you'll make friends eventually. You don't have to be annoying and/or slightly perverted and stalk people - just chat to them and don't sit on your own in your room watching stuff on iPlayer. Go out and say 'Hi' - especially to your new flatmates as they are the most important people of all. Go and chat to people. Be friendly.

On the topic of flatmates, these are the most crucial people to your university experience. The reason why your flatmates are so important is you spend every second of every day around them. Living with people is much different to just being friends or working with them - you'll see all the different aspects of their personalities and they will see all of yours. At times each person will be happy, grumpy, angry, sad and whatever other emotions you can think of. It's up to you to make sure you get along - it'll be hard being together constantly if you don't - but there will obviously be people you prefer or spend more time with than others. Some will be irritating and sometimes you'll wish you never had to see their faces every day, other times you'll appreciate their presence and having people there for you to communicate with. Every flat has a 'Flat Weirdo' - the general rule is: if you don't know who your flat weirdo is, it's you. I've heard some horror stories of flats who hate each other, make sure you get along and be friendly with everyone and you'll be fine - even if some people hate each other, be friends with everyone individually. Your room is your space, your area to do whatever you like with - decorate it and make it personal to you - everyone has pictures, posters, signs, pillows and various other things around their room to personalise it.

What about the study? Well, that depends on your course. You'll have a lot less teaching hours than at school or college - this is meant to be for work, but for many student it is always either dribbled away spending time with flatmates or is constructively spent sleeping. You'll probably start the year very enthusiastic about lectures, by Christmas you'll wake up and say to yourself 'I can't be bothered to go, I'll just go back to sleep' and then promptly do so. To motive yourself to get up, just think 'I'm paying for this lecture' - it helped me on those cold and dark December mornings, when my warm bed was so much more appealing than a cold lecture room! Some of the work is hard and involves very late nights and plenty of coffee, other parts of the course will be easy and you'll feel extra smart when you whizz through the questions. The best way to manage your workload is to work out what you can do well and do it quickly, then focus on what you struggle with. When it comes to teaching, if you know that a specific teacher is poor, then focus on that aspect of the course with more independent learning - basically, get ready to teach yourself! Some of my teachers have been good, others have been some of the worst I've ever had - those who are poor teachers are harder to learn with so focus on those topics more. When it comes to coursework, a lesson I've learnt that has cost me this year is to start EARLY. The night you get the question, start it! Don't take exams without revision as you've still been slaving over coursework - start your coursework immediately.

Missing home is one of the hardest things about university. Everyone misses home, everyone wants to go back and everyone has times when they would rather be anywhere but their university bedroom. There's no point in hiding it or being ashamed of it as that's the way everyone else feels too. Your family and friends from home are so important, keep in contact with them using Skype, your phone, Facebook or whatever form of contact you prefer. I spoke to my friends from home every single day during my first year. You can always chat to your friends if you're unhappy or missing home, if you're lucky enough to have good friends they'll always be there for you and will talk to you any time of day about any topic. Don't lose contact with the people you care about - speak to them as often as possible. Make sure you're always there for your best friends from home and that you can trust them to always be there for you.

You'll probably be smothered in offers and deals with 'Student Special' of 'Offer for Students Only' - think about these carefully as many are not needed and will just add extra expense to your bill. I've signed up for things this year that I won't bother to next year so will save the money instead. You're university will exploit you - it is a business after all and they will push some very 'unusual' payments on you to make more money. Always look in to deals carefully. I had a £120 bus passed flogged to me when I joined, yet I hardly used it so won't get another next year. Also, unless you shop often, an NUS card isn't much use as the money off is so small - many places (like my local shops and cinema at home) take your normal uni student card anyway. When it comes to free stuff, you get a lot of it, and take everything you can! It's free after all so it doesn't matter if you don't want it later! Woop, free stuff! One thing I've learnt from this year as a student is never say no to free stuff!

Many wonder how they will cope with looking after themselves. For food, if you really can't cook, just microwave everything. Most people use the microwave 90% of the time and the oven about 10% of the time. There are plenty of meal deals out there - like '3-for-£5'. Also, make your own lunch, it takes just moments and saves money as you're not ripped off in the student shop. Speaking of the student shop, don't just automatically by stuff there - the shop down the road from us is cheaper than our student shop so we go there instead. For laundry, most people just wear whatever they find on their floor that morning, or if they aren't leaving the flat, just stay in their pyjamas all day. Nobody cares what you're wearing. If you do decide to do a wash, check your clothes for washing details - nobody wants their favourite white top now pink as colours from something else you shouldn't have put in with it have run!

If you dislike something about your university, speak up. You're paying them to be there - have a good moan if there's something you don't feel is good enough. It's your education, your money and your future - speak up for yourself.

There are some general tips for dealing with lectures and tutorials. In lectures, it's often packed and very warm. Everyone falls asleep a couple of times a year, if you're particularly tired, sit near the back as you're less likely to be seen. Drink plenty - water if you're alright or Red Bull/tea/coffee/Pepsi if you're tired. Eat stuff as well - we take with us, and eat, biscuits and sweets to keep ourselves awake. Some people like to take their laptops to lectures, I've found this doesn't help and makes no difference to a pen and paper - plus everyone just goes on Facebook, watches stuff on iPlayer or does online shopping. We all take our phones with us so download a decent game to play to starve off any boredom. I do like tweeting or a bit of Doodlejump to pass the time - many of my peers opt for Fruit Ninja. However, always try to concentrate in lectures - you're paying for it, and it will help you get your degree! In tutorials, you will have set reading and questions. In truth, nobody bothers to do the reading, most of them have summaries so just read the summary and leave everything else. With the questions, attempt them, but they tell you the answers anyway during the tutorial so you can just write them down then. Just make sure you don't get lazy and skip tutorials! If you have the time to do the tutorial work, then do it - it might seem dull but it will help you greatly with your revision when the exams start.

For coursework, start early - the day you get it. For the bibliography, just go to the library, get a load of books and write down the info (title, author, publisher etc). Don't read the books. Everyone I know just copies the revision guide, then puts books in the bibliography to make it look like we've actually read a load of extra stuff. Our lecturers tell us to read the introduction and conclusion to essays and journal articles so you get to understand the article, can have a good few quotes from it, but save time reading the whole thing.

Don't stress yourself over grades. The first year doesn't count towards your final degree mark - as long as you get the 40% pass mark, nobody cares. This is useful as the first year of uni is about discovery rather than education - use it to focus on adjusting yourself to uni life and getting used to systems like coursework submission. The fact it doesn't count does not mean you don't need to do anything. Do try to do your work - if you make mistakes and fail modules it's OK as this year doesn't count, but unless you try you'll never learn for future years when it does count.

Most decent universities will have chances to experience new things. When you join, go to the society thing where all the clubs and societies have stalls. Here you can get loads more good free stuff (enough pens to last the whole year!) and have a look at what's on offer. Join at least one society - it's a chance to add to your CV and looks bad if you don't. Societies are also a chance to experience new things, meet people who have a common interest with you and give you a distraction and break from your course.

The Student Union will be there to care for you. They offer all kinds of advice so go to them first if you need help with finances, student loans or anything else. They are run by students too - so they know exactly what you're waffling on about. Most Unions also organise events - mostly to do with clubbing. If you, like me, have a dislike or dark, smelly, sweaty nightclubs swimming with body odour and sick, they do run other events to go to. Look at the events calendar to see if anything interests you remotely in any way. I've generally found that events like clubbing on a uni night with lectures the next day is a waste of time - save your money, get some films and stuff and watch them and chat with your flatmates. I prefer talking to partying (plus it's hangover-free!)

Social media is the central way of organising anything. You can ask questions, see events and meet people. Join the Facebook groups for your department, 'Like' your university and union, 'Follow' your uni on Twitter - all good ways to keep in contact and see what is happening. Also, read your student newspaper as that has everything you need to know in it! I regret not joining the 'UCAS Connect' thing that puts you in contact with people at your uni, doing your course, who live locally to you at home - I know people who have had great success with it, I really wish I'd remembered it.

For me personally, I had this image of wild partying, drunkenness and constant loudness and noise. I didn't really like this idea and didn't want my uni life to be like that. I've found it's not been like that at all - our uni is very quiet and peaceful, which I prefer. The more peaceful the better in my opinion. Look for people like yourself - you'll become better friends that way. Don't change yourself to adapt to the people around you, don't give in to peer-pressure and stay true to yourself and your personality. Even if you're the complete opposite of everyone else, it's OK, as long as you're happy as you are.

That's it. Now you (probably) know everything you'll need to know to succeed with minimum work effort. I hope you've found it somewhat beneficial to you. Your journey begins now... Good luck and welcome to student life!