A Day in the Life of an English Student at the University of Bristol

12 Jun, 2023 | English, University Preparation

After three strange, testing, but most importantly rewarding years as an English student at the University of Bristol, I’ve just finished my degree. 

They’ve been testing years because, for every joyous celebration of a submitted piece of coursework there was a minute, an hour, sometimes even a whole day spent staring at an empty Word document, willing incoherent thoughts to assemble on the page as sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes, the idea of finishing an essay seemed nigh on impossible.

Yet ultimately, my degree has been incredibly rewarding. Because despite every moment of doubt, those unruly thoughts did eventually gain coherence, and I was able to turn them into sentences, paragraphs, and eventually whole essays. The click of my mouse as I submitted a piece of work signalled a small victory over whichever book, poem, or topic I had covered. That click signified that topics and texts which I had once been unfamiliar with, which I had often struggled to grasp the meanings of, had finally been understood. My own thoughts, feelings, and opinions were defiantly added to the abundance of thoughts, feelings, and opinions expressed by hundreds of thousands of others before me. 

Thanks to the past three years, I can now proudly say that I have read works of literature spanning hundreds of years, often by writers I would never have heard of if it wasn’t for my degree. Just as importantly, I’ve also gained critical thinking skills that I can apply to a variety of situations.

In my personal life, these skills may help me gain a richer and more nuanced understanding of something as simple as a film I’ve gone to the cinema to see with my friends. But in my professional life, these skills help me to work productively with other people and demand more from myself and my work.

OxBright’s Creative Writing online summer programmes give you a taste of the university experience so that you can glimpse just how rewarding further education can be.

Let me talk you through some of the features that make up what a typical day has looked like for me during the past three years, so you can see for yourself what further education might have in store. 

Going Solo

I quickly realised when I began my degree that I had to do a lot of reading. Perhaps that seems a little obvious given English is the study of literary texts, but it still took me aback at first. In a given week, I might have been expected to read a two-or-three-hundred page novel, a handful of poems, and a couple of journal articles. If, like me, you’re quite adept at getting through a novel in only a couple of days, journal articles will take a little while longer to get used to, as they’re far more dense and challenging reads. Despite, or maybe because of how challenging they are, they have also been some of the most rewarding texts I’ve read. 

Inevitably, all of this reading meant putting aside at least an hour a day to make my way through it, sometimes more. At this point it’s probably worth mentioning – and as someone who has dedicated the last three years of their life to reading, this can be a little hard to admit – but I’m quite a slow reader. And that’s fine! I expected my reading pace to quicken as I spent more time reading difficult and disparate texts at university, but every time I try to speedily skim-read, nothing seems to go in at all. If you’ve found that you also tend to read slowly, don’t for a second let that put you off doing an English degree.

You might think that darting your eyes across hundreds of different books is the key to thriving in an English degree, but I’ve found that the most valuable skill you need to write an essay is the ability to really slow down over a particular poem, paragraph, or passage, soaking in every word. That is something which slow readers like myself are more than capable of doing. 

Lots of reading also meant that a majority of the time I spent doing university work was by myself, in the library or in my room, with my head in a book. That means that self-motivation is essential. Self-motivation is very much a skill that can be honed, a habit that can be formed. If you’re used to being guided on when to work and what to work on by parents or teachers, planning your own working and reading schedules might feel a little difficult at first. Don’t worry though, it will come naturally in no time. Plus, it’s a skill that will benefit you for life, with remote working becoming more and more common

Talking it Through

An English degree isn’t as lonely as this might sound though. Most days I had a lecture in the morning, and a seminar in the afternoon, or vice versa. Lectures are a great opportunity to hear experts in topics ranging from mediaeval literature to the alcohol consumption habits of Victorians (really, that was the speciality of a lecturer in my department, and it was surprisingly fascinating). 

Seminars were easily my favourite part of the day. Sometimes, when you’ve spent a whole day reading through a novel, your thoughts can become a little muddled by the end. What did I actually think of the book I’ve just spent my entire day reading? Did I have any thoughts about it? Seminars are useful at generating discussion amongst you and your classmates, and these discussions always helped me develop my own thoughts on a text, even when I didn’t think I had any. Nothing will help you understand your own reaction to a text than somebody assertively stating what they took the author to mean, and you quickly realising that you completely disagree with everything they’re saying! 

Of course, contributing in a room full of people can feel a little intimidating at first, but this is another skill that comes with practise. I found it helpful to come to class with a list of thoughts, no matter how vague, no matter how simple, and to add new thoughts as they came to me during the seminar. For those of us who are writers first and orators second, writing out your thoughts first can help you verbalise them more confidently. 

Two Oxford Scholastica students walking on a cobbled street.

When the Work is Done

Once you’ve mastered self-motivation and the ability to work to your own set schedules, you’ll become an expert at leaving yourself plenty of time to switch off from all the reading, lectures, and seminars which, no matter how enriching, can bring on a bit of a headache after a while. My favourite pastime outside of university was seeing live music. Thankfully, Bristol has plenty of choices on offer when it comes to seeking out a good gig. And, what’s more, plenty of them were free which suited a student budget perfectly. 

Being from a small – and somewhat uneventful – town in the South West of England, one of the most exciting things about going to university was the chance to live in a far bigger place, with so much more on my doorstep. Not only live music venues but art galleries, cafes, cinemas, and restaurants are hiding round each and every cobbled street corner. I was never for a second stuck for something to do in Bristol.

Without a doubt, the last three years have been the most rewarding of my life, socially, culturally, and academically. Further education is an experience I would recommend to anyone wanting to enrich themselves, challenge themselves, and prove themselves. That is what the click of my mouse as I submitted my final piece of work represented.

If you’d like to learn more about the academic realities of a Law degree, you might like to check out our Online Literature Research Internships – these offer high school students the opportunity to co-author an undergraduate-level research paper on a cutting edge topic alongside an academic in their field.


By Sam Cox

Sam is a recent English graduate from the University of Bristol whose interests include twentieth-century fiction, film, and cultural criticism.

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