If you're starting a media degree at university or college – or even if you've been doing one for a while – you might like to read our list of NINE TOP TIPS. Your own tutors may totally disagree with this list. You might hate it yourself. (If so, that's probably a good thing – critical thinking!).

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Here are Theory.org.uk's nine suggestions for getting on as a media student:

Don't think your lecturers are meant to tell you everything

It might seem convenient if your lecturers could just tell you everything you need to know, in lectures, and then you could write it down in essays or exams later. But that's not how it works.

And it's really not a good way of learning about anything.

And you don't want to be a robot who just regurgitates things that a person told them, do you?

You might think that you need to get the proper facts from your lecturer so you can get a good degree and get a good job. If that's what you think, you're getting it all wrong.

Employers don't want people who can repeat stuff that somebody just told them. (What would they want that for?)

Employers want people who are curious, critical, and able to work things out for themselves.

(So, you might ask, what are lectures for? Lectures should introduce you to interesting things, and stimulate you to find out more. But they can only be a 'taster' for the big meal of ideas and knowledge that is out there – and to get you thinking for yourself).

Which brings us to the next point...


Find things out – from diverse and interesting sources

So, you need to find things out for yourself. An obvious way to find out anything these days is to type it into Google. That should give you a bunch of stuff to write about.

So – that's very easy! But, being so easy, do you think it's going to impress anyone?

In order to do good work, you need to find rich and interesting sources, and ones which are based on proper research.

I'm not saying don't use the internet. If you know where to look, there are excellent resources of peer-reviewed journals, official statistics, all types of political arguments, all online. But they may not be in the top Google results.

In addition to your online data, you need to look at books and journals. In the arts and humanities, many of the most important ideas have been advanced in books, and do not appear online at all (except perhaps as summaries and in reviews).

It is likely that your tutors will think that almost all online material was super-easy to find, whereas if you have clearly been to the library or bookshop, you will automatically get some points for effort.

Note that a range of references is especially important, too. You may think you have found the one brilliant book that tells you everything you need to say in an essay, but include references to several more things because it's not good to rely too much on one source.


Experience lots of different media

Your friends may joke that a media student just has to watch a lot of television. As well as being cruel, it's not even true.

In particular, if you stick to watching the same set of mainstream shows and soaps all the time, the quantity won't help at all – you already know what those programmes are like! Instead you should watch a diverse range of things, if only to see what it's all about.

Furthermore, unless you're stuck on a horribly old-fashioned 'Television Studies' degree, you don't want to get too hung up on television. There's magazines, newspapers, movies, art and design. And obviously there's thousands of worlds of fascinating things online – videos on every topic, home-made animations, social networks, beautiful interactive artworks, and lots of everything else.

If your lecturers are still going on about TV shows and movies from the last century, ask them if they haven't noticed that everything's changed. They might burble about the essential principles of media production being timeless, and say that we should not be distracted by interactive fads.

If so, it may be time to change course.


Do things which you don't get marks for

It is common to think that there is simply no point doing things you're not going to get marks for. Honestly, this is really silly.

Once again this might stem from thinking "I just want to get a good degree and get a good job". And once again, even on those terms, you'd be totally off track.

For one thing, where's the fun in being the kind of miserabilist who only does things for direct rewards?

And, if you're obsessed with that future job, don't you think that employers are going to look for the people who did interesting things ... and will pick out the references (written by your university tutors) which highlight the students who participated fully in the course and did those memorable extra things?

I'm talking about being involved in student radio ... doing a blog or making Wikipedia contributions ... taking part in discussions, online or in seminars ... doing an extra-interesting presentation with a few props and lively surprises ... or any extra thing that is good to do even though it doesn't actually contribute to your degree marks.

You may also be interested to note that the kind of people who only do the things that bear marks are normally the people who end up doing more boring work, and get lower marks, anyway. Doing stuff for its own sake is stimulating, and good for your brain!


Do things in an interesting and unusual way

You might think this is obvious, but perhaps rather difficult. Actually it's not that hard – just think about what would be obvious and rather boring, then do something else. Just give it a try.

With essays, it is very boring to say 'Here are the arguments on one side ... and here are the arguments against that ...'. Any essay structure is better than that – just because it's less predictable.

Why not make an interesting argument, for one particular point of view, running through the essay? Link it to some classic philosophical position, plus something future-oriented, and already you're looking much more cool. (See # 6 below, on making connections).

With presentations, don't you just fall asleep when someone reads out a 1,500 word essay? Anything is better than that. Bring along some interesting objects. Bake a cake that illustrates your point. Do a little dance. Anything.

The bottom line is that absolutely nobody, least of all your tutor, wants to hear you read out an essay. Is it a good idea to read out a list of related facts you've got from Google? No. Facts are common. Interesting presentations are much more rare.

If you can't think of anything else, pretend you're on Dragon's Den and do your best 'pitch' for an idea or theory. Even better, follow the three-minute pitch with impressions of the 'dragons' making comments, with the Scottish accent and the blonde wig and everything. You can say this webpage told you to do it, if you like.


Link the thing you're meant to be talking about to something else from a different sphere

Whether you're making a film, writing an essay, making a website, doing a presentation, or whatever, here's a great way to make it much more interesting: link it to something else. Something you might not find in a media studies book.

If you are meant to be talking about the visual presentation of a futuristic interactive thing, link it to something else from the history of art, hundreds of years ago.

If you are meant to be discussing film censorship, don't just write about film censorship but bring in classic discussions of freedom of expression, such as On Liberty by J. S. Mill (1859).

If you're talking about how journalists should behave, don't just look at BBC guidelines but get a philosophy book about ethics.

If you're writing about the spin doctors used by the Labour government 1997-2008, bring in some insights from how politicians present themselves in other countries, and something from the history of propaganda.

In all such cases, of course, you still have to make it relevant to the topic in hand. But shifting away from references that are most obviously 'about' your topic, to ones which are not 'about' your topic but illuminate it in an interesting way, is a very good move.


Do take care with writing and presentation

You may think this is boring, but very few students get it completely right.

As media students, it's especially important. All the good quality things you see online, on TV, in print, or at the movies are presented perfectly – very carefully designed and laid out, well spoken or written, with no glaring errors. Reasonably enough, your tutors expect your work to be like that. Normally, it is not. But you can transform your marks by taking some time and getting this right.

A very common mistake is to take three weeks 'preparing' an essay, but just one night to write it in a mad rush. This makes no sense at all. When your tutors mark it, the only thing they have to go on is the thing you hand in.

If you hand in a badly-written text, laid out in an unreadable dense block, and with the references done wrong, all that preparation is pretty much wasted as it will look like you couldn't even be bothered to get the basics right.

In terms of writing style, look at an intelligent magazine, newspaper, or book, and ask yourself: am I writing like that? Just try to be clear and straightforward. Contrary to popular opinion, academics don't really like 'fancy' just for the sake of it – it just makes you sound like a pretentious idiot. A well-turned or witty phrase is nice, of course, but don't overdo the self-conscious 'stylish' writing.

This brings us to tip # 8:


Be concise

This is a valuable skill, often overlooked.

George Orwell wisely instructed: 'Never use a long word where a short one will do,' and, even more important, 'If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.'

Students often try to sound clever by filling out a sentence with redundant extra bits. Don't.

Also, avoid using the thesaurus to make yourself sound more 'intelligent'. It never works. I need only remind you of when Joey, in Friends, tried to write an intelligent-sounding letter of recommendation for Chandler and Monica. He originally wrote 'They are warm, nice people with big hearts'. Post-thesaurus, this became, 'They are humid, prepossessing homosapiens with full-sized aortic pumps'.

Being concise becomes especially important in any form of audio-visual media. Everything from news reports and political commentary, to dramatic scripts and jokes, has to be super-concise when spoken, otherwise it comes over as boring waffle, or padding.

So keep everything short and clear, and then you'll have more room for making interesting points.



The final tip should probably be 'Avoid cliché'.

But instead, let's go for a big cliché: enjoy yourself!

It will show through in your work, and make it better.

So enjoyment is functional as well as pleasurable.

By David Gauntlett
September 2008