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My Advice on Tackling Reading Lists

By Poppy Atkinson Gibson @colourofpop

The important thing to bear in mind with any reading list is that you simply can’t read everything on it. This is important because it can help stave of feelings of inadequacy and imposter syndrome. I remember when I got my first reading list for summer before I’d even started at Oxford, I felt completely overwhelmed with the sheer content. I’d never been asked to read so much in what felt like so little time. My parents were really encouraging and supportive and helped me find online versions of texts and bought me second hand ones. Despite their help, I still didn’t really have the resources to tackle a reading list. I’d never been taught how. At school I’d never really used one because all content was taught in the classroom.

So, even with all these books my parents had bought I simply didn’t know where to start. I’d inadvertently set myself up for disappointment and, before I’d even set foot in Oxford, I felt like I ought not to be there and it was all a massive mistake.

My advice to my younger self would simply be that you don’t need to read everything on the reading list. It’s almost impossible and the tutor don’t expect you to. It’s just not feasible.

Instead, take a moment to read the questions or questions. Break down what its asking you; the themes and ideas, places or people. Then go through the reading list and from the title and description decide whether it’s immediately relevant to your question. If it’s not you can skip that, if you think it might be then check out the contents, the introduction, and the index. If it still looks useful go ahead, if you think it might not be, skip it.

In terms of actual reading as well, skim and scan! It’s really hard coming from school and not knowing how to get through the texts themselves. I definitely felt like I had to read and absorb every word. The problem with that was that it just took too long. Instead, read relevant chapters and always use the index to narrow down on something. Reading introductions and conclusions is also really helpful for an overview of the argument and information. Something I like to do, and this works especially well for journal articles, is to read through the whole thing quickly, making notes of possible subheadings. I then go back through the article and put relevant information or arguments under those subheadings. This means I read with a purpose and don’t try to jot everything down. In that way my notes are also much better organised and easier for revision later on.

Learning how to tackle reading lists and reading is a very personal thing and might take some time. I’m halfway through my degree and I’m still learning insider tips and tricks. The most important thing is to try your best and remember that you can’t get through a whole reading list but that doesn’t make you any less of a student. No one gets through the whole reading list!

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