How to Prioritise Your Wider Reading at University

3rd January 2016 Joe Graham Study

Struggling with your course’s set reading is a tradition going back millennia. Many have felt the stress and worry and, quite frankly, the dread and horror at the prospect of performing terribly due to failing to get through the wider reading list.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are certain ways you can become more productive and the trick is elegantly summarised in a single word: Prioritise.

How to prioritise at university

You need to know which books are absolutely essential to your course. My university course helpfully divided the wider reading list into ‘essential’ and ‘extra’, though I imagine few people actually got round to reading the extra workload. If you are in doubt, ask your course tutor what is essential.

If your tutor is vague about which books to prioritise and tells you to ‘read everything’, then your Plan B should be to read abstracts and chapter introductions to determine their value. Once you’ve decided what is relevant, you’ll be able to prioritise.

When you get down to the reading, keep track by taking notes and comments. Record key points that you can then use for your essays. Remember to reference properly when it comes to essay writing; you’ll need to find out which reference system is favoured by your university, the Harvard System is the most popular but it is worth checking.

How to improve your reading

Your first step will be to make sure you know the terminology of your course. For instance if you are studying politics, what’s the difference between ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘the English school’? If you are studying English, what’s the difference between ‘Alexandrine’ and ‘Synecdoche’. Once you’ve built a quick glossary, you’re good to go.

Scan the book, identify chapter titles, how do these relate to the essay you’re writing? Or the course you’re studying?

Skim read before plunging in. Your scanning will help here – get an overview and basic understanding of what the text is by using headings, subheadings, first sentences, maybe the first paragraph of a chapter.


Analyse, don’t just read. Many will understand the frustration of reading a whole page (or more!) to then realise ‘oh no! I wasn’t paying attention!’. It happens to the best of us, and the solution is to analyse what you are reading. Constantly ask yourself how the reading will help you write the essay. I got through my own wider reading by asking ‘How will this help?’, remember to take notes as you go along.

Read what you enjoy. Hopefully you will have chosen a course you enjoy, and with it will come reading that will maintain that enjoyment. If you find a text that is relevant but not on the wider reading list, read it anyway! Your tutor will appreciate the passion and reward you.

What’s the point of wider reading anyway?

Your tutor wants you to succeed. The wider reading list gives you a great resource to understand the fundamentals of what you are studying. By prioritising essential reading, learning to skim and analyse, take notes and find your own even wider reading, you’ll be on course to success.

Do you have any tips on utilising wider reading at university? We would love to hear them in the comments below…

Joe Graham

Joe Graham

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