Differences Between Studying English in School and University – OurWarwick

Differences Between Studying English in School and University

Choosing to study English at university because you’ve loved the A-level is a great idea but do be ware that you are going into something completely different. Having loved English in school doesn’t guarantee that you’ll enjoy it at university but it certainly helps. Quite a few of us end up preferring the way that English is taught in university but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a difficult transition. 

As much as you love English, I think everyone has gone through moments of questioning their abilities or whether they even like their degree. I think this is true for most degrees, especially when it gets intense, so just know what you’re getting yourself into. Here are some things to consider before deciding whether English is the degree for you. Of course, this is just my experience so I can’t speak for everybody, but these are just some things that I’ve noticed. 


The most obvious difference is the content covered. At A-level, you do a few books a year whereas in uni it’s multiple books a week, usually a book per module. This can be really overwhelming, especially in first year when you have such a wide range of modules, reading can feel sporadic and irrelevant. It feels as if you’ve moved on to the next book before you’ve had the chance to wrap your head around the previous one. 


The amount of reading you have to do ties into what you do with those books once you’ve read them. Uni doesn’t have much of that line-by-line analysis that we spend hours looking at in school. Most cases, you could honestly get away with not reading much and still following in the seminar, as long as you have a general gist of what happens in the plot. With the amount that we have to read, we pick up on skills of skim reading over detailed line by line analysis. When you then go on to write essays, you’ll probably pick your favorite books and read them again in more detail, but until then there’s no way you can get through all that content by meticulously reading every word on the page. I guess maybe it’s assumed that to get to this stage, you already know the basics of literary analysis. 


Naturally, even essays are a lot more about broader context over textual analysis. It’s a lot more about where this text stands in this world. In A-level we started looking at critical analysis but just used it as an extra thing to expand our points. Now your main focus is the criticism and you use the textual analysis as proof for the critical theory you are exploring. I wouldn’t personally recommend this but I know people who have written first class essays without even reading much of the book, as most of the content is so strongly centered on critical theory and analysis over close reading. Understanding this difference can save you a lot of time and stress, and if you ever get the comment that your essay is too “a-level like” it’s usually what they mean. 

Another thing, is that essays in university don’t really have an indicative mark scheme. This means that you don’t have a checklist of things that you must include and you don’t really get marks for doing so. You can basically talk about whatever you want and a lot of the marks you’d get come from using current academic discussion around your chosen topic to come up with your own original argument. First class essays are about original ideas that haven’t really been discussed before, so no one wants to read another basic essay of you analyzing a basic theme. It might get you full marks at A-level but it probably won’t cut it at uni. 

(As I’ve said, I’m not an expert so you should probably speak to tutors if you want more clarification on how to write good essays but this is just my experience and what has worked for me.)

If this sounds like something exciting then you should definitely consider studying English at university. The reading I’ve done has expanded and deepened my knowledge of the world and I now understand social issues with a lot more complexity than I previously have. To me, it’s the perfect mix between a degree which is creative and artistic, whilst still maintaining social and political grounding to the real world. University has made my subject more political and more relevant to the world I live in. Rather than just analyzing the metaphors of a book, we look at the book’s significance as a whole, and where it stands in the world. 

I hope this was helpful in giving you some guidance. Let me know if you have any other questions! 

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