Seven Key Skills You Should Develop Before You Go to University

Studying abroad is an amazing experience. Yet, for many international student, it can be also a very stressful time.

The main source of stress is usually a heavy academic workload.

If you intend to study in the UK, Australia or USA, you are probably focusing your preparations on your English language skills. You might be working on your speaking skills, preparing for IELTS, developing your grammar and vocabulary.

And you are absolutely right. On the whole, the better English skills you have, the more smoothly your study will progress.

Yet, you need to understand one important thing.

Good English is a necessary but not a sufficient skill to succeed at university in the UK.

Many native English students struggle with their reading, assignments, deadlines, seminars and exams.
They know English proficiently and yet they have poor academic results. Why is that?

Well, apart from English language skills and certain level of intellectual capacity, studying in the UK also requires well-developed specific academic skills.

Although you might hope that you will learn all necessary academic skills when studying at university, the chances are, you might not be able to find enough time for that. With looming deadlines you are more likely to focus on specific tasks you have to complete (e.g. assignments) rather developing skills facilitating academic work.

Abraham Lincoln, famously said:

‘If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I would spent two first hours sharpening the axe’.

Preparation is also absolutely crucial for university success.

In this short blogspot,  I’ll guide you through the most important study skills you should master before you go to university. I will also provide you with initial advice on ways to improve these skills.

Without further ado,  lets’s start my list:

1. Academic Writing Skills
A considerable percentage of your course will be assessed on the basis of your writing. Therefore, mastering academic writing before you enter university is crucial.

You might say you got Band 6.5 or 7 on IELTS Writing and you are confident that your writing skills are on the right level. That might be as well true.

Yet, you have to remember that academic writing at university is different from typical IELTS writing tasks such as writing a simple essay or describing a graph.

At university, you will have learn how to write various academic genres e.g. assignments, reports, projects. Your writing won’t be based on your knowledge and experiences, as it is the case with IELTS,  but rather on selected and carefully evaluated scholarly sources (e.g. academic books, journal articles). You will have to write in a clear, logical and concise way. You will also have to write both persuasively and critically.

If you think you will develop these skills at your university when studying, better think twice. Academic writing can be challenging even for academics. Its improvement requires hard work and time. That is why you should focus on academic writing before you enter your university.

Here are several ways you can improve your academic writing:

  • Learn basics of academic writing. I find this book very good.
  • Read dissertations and theses related to your discipline.
  • Employ technology when you write. Many students use Scrivener for their academic writing.
  • Read a lot (I will talk about this more in the next point).
  • Find someone who can provide you with a feedback on your writing. When I say feedback I don’t mean feedback on grammar errors. I am rather talking about feedback on structure, logical, analytical and critical writing skills.

2. Reading skills
You won’t compose a great piece of music, if you don’t listen to music in the first place.
If you want to be a better writer, you have to read!  Since you want to improve your academic writing, you need to read academic sources (e.g. journals, textbooks). When you read you acquire new knowledge, increase your confidence, find sources of inspiration and you are exposed to genre-appropriate vocabulary and grammar.

Several suggestions:

  • Read articles related to the subject you want to study.
  • Start with something easy e.g. undergraduate projects.
  • Learn how summarise what you have read.
  • Find someone to discuss texts you have read.
  • Don’t read everything. Be selective.
  • Learn how to skim and scan texts.
  • Integrate note-taking, highlighting, tagging, and referencing in your reading.
  • Employ technology to accelerate reading e.g. pop-up dictionaries.
  • Learn how to read, interpret, evaluate claims and arguments at the same time.

3. Knowledge organisation
I cannot emphasise enough how important it is. I discussed this in details in this blogpost, so I won’t repeat myself.

4. Research skills
Although research skills might be viewed as skills related to knowledge of research methods, critical thinking and evaluation, I am really talking about learning basic research skills like working with referencing software (e.g. Zotero, RefWorks), conducting literature review, searching for sources with Google Scholar. You can read more about it here.

5. Oral Academic Skills
Not many students like academic presentations. Particularly daunting is participating in seminars, where you are expected to discuss and argue your ideas without preparation. The best way to develop oral academic skills is to learn signposting techniques, templates for oral presentations and skills needed in group discussions (e.g. giving opinion, agreeing, disagreeing). Also finding a good tutor with whom you could discuss articles you have read can be highly beneficial.

6. Independent learning skills
If you study in the UK, you spend more time on independent study than on lectures or seminars. During my Masters I had 4 hours of lectures weekly. At the same time  I spent 20 hours a week on independent work . During my PhD I met my supervisor seven times in my 1st year , four times in a second year  and three times in the last year. Each meeting was between 20-30 minutes.  My supervisor like mantra repeated ‘it is your PhD’.
Both my Masters and PhD results  were dependent on my self-regulated, independent learning.

You cannot get away from this. If you study in the UK,  you will have to take responsibility for you learning and your results. You will have to learn how manage your learning, reading, writing and time. Frankly, it is probably the hardest skill to improve.  Few students (10-15%) are natural  independent learners. Others need to work very hard to improve these skills. To be independent learners you will have to think about your learning, progress and challenges. You will have to understand when you need to look for help. You will have to learn knowledge management skills, build your confidence, employ technology to work smarter not harder. Remember your tutors will hate to spoon-feed  you. They will be pleased to see your initiative even if you are wrong.

7. Listening skills
Effective listening is an important skill in an academic context for different reasons.
Yet, it is probably the most frequently ignored skill.

Some students tend to think, that initial problems with listening comprehension will magically disappear after a few weeks of immersion into English. Sorry to disappoint you but it is usually not the case.

Developing good listening skills takes time and might be hard.  You might not understand tutors and the content of their lectures  due to their accent, pronunciation, vocabulary.

The good news is that there are excellent free resources to improve academic listening skills  (youtube, TED talks, university lectures, podcasts). Don’t only listen passively. Try to engage with audio materials by writing a short summary, studying transcript or subtitles.


Although, it is not an extensive list, I can assure you that  improving these basic skills will have a considerable positive effect on your academic outcomes.

You might have noticed that all those skills are closely interconnected. Good academic writing is derivative of reading. Reading is strongly linked with knowledge management skills. Speaking and listening are also like two sides of  medal. The conclusion is simple. Learning academic skills needs to be approached in a comprehensive way and integrated into you English language learning.

I am going to spend more time on methods of developing specific academic skills in separate blogposts.

Meanwhile, don’t forget that studying abroad isn’t only about learning.  It is also about making friends and enjoying life. The better you are prepared for university, the more you will enjoy the whole experience.

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