What Universities Don't Tell You About Seminars

Seminars, for an English literature student like myself, only happen 3 times a week. Nevertheless, I personally find that the preparation for the seminars, both the reading, and feeling ready enough to discuss my ideas, take up the most part of my week.

The thing that universities fail to mention on open days is the pressure students face in seminars. Before I started university, the dynamic of seminars was completely not what I expected. With 6 or 7 of you huddled up into an English office, with a chunky book on your lap, was more daunting than I could have anticipated.


During my first year of university, I found seminars increasingly difficult, in dealing with the fact that I struggle to speak in front of others, which is not helped by the often long, painful silences that everyone experiences in seminars at some stage.

Finding seminars difficult is definitely something that people on my course, including myself, and those I live with on different courses have experienced. Reflecting upon this, I realised that I’ve seen little about this subject, and tips that I’ve learnt during my first year of university could help new or current students prepare for seminars and cope if you struggle with low self-esteem and social anxiety.

So, my aim really is to try and put new and current students more at ease when they think about seminars, and to reassure anyone reading this that it is often a shared anxiety amongst most students. These tips might not help everyone, but I hope at least one helps someone!


Before the seminar

Walking to your seminar and listening to your favourite podcast is a helpful way to redirect your thinking from the feelings of nervousness that you may experience before a seminar.

Even though it is important to try to complete all your seminar readings and preparation, the most important thing to do, so you feel more confident about putting your ideas forward, is to note 3 bullet points before the seminar that you feel you can definitely discuss.  Whether that’s a quotation from your reading that you found important, or a question you can put across to the group. Knowing that you have something to say, and that it is sitting right in front of you, saves scrolling through a word document of notes, in the panic of finding something to say.


During the seminar

If you suffer with social anxiety, the additional aspects of the seminar that you have to deal with may require some extra preparation.

Even though it may sound quite cliché, just breathe! It is a helpful technique to redirect your thinking from your anxious thoughts, to what your seminar is discussing. Deep breathing: 6 seconds in, 6 seconds out will help refocus your train of thought and help focus your mind on the feeling of your lungs being full, and then empty. This gives you a way of distracting yourself from thinking about your perception of what others are thinking of you and also any self-doubt.

Deep breathing until your feelings of anxiety cease, brings your thinking back to the seminar, and this will be important in being able to concentrate so that you’ll feel abler to participate. I would recommend practice deep breathing before the seminar in preparation.

I find that by pushing myself to speak within the first 10 minutes, even if it’s just to ask a question, makes it easier to participate in the rest of the seminar. The pressure to say something is undoubtedly there, but you do not have to succumb to it if you’re not comfortable doing so. Although, I find when I do find the confidence to speak, it does boost my confidence to speak in the next seminar.


After the seminar

Everyone has seminars that knock their confidence, so whether you didn’t contribute, or you did and struggled to get your points across, this does not make it a bad seminar! Seminars are about absorbing just as much as they are about contributing.

If you feel knocked by your seminar, try and put something in place that you can do afterwards, instead of just going back to your flat/house. Whether it’s going to the gym, meeting up with someone for a coffee, or ringing a friend - going back to your room feeling a bit rubbish about a seminar will only make you dread the next one more!

If you’re struggling, emailing your seminar tutor about it will make seminars a more understanding, comfortable environment. It is normal to experience feelings of self-doubt and anxiety, and your tutor will reassure you that they just want you to turn up and try your best. You should have a student support officer for each school of the university, so if this is becoming an increasing concern, you can seek further support.

Everyone will find seminars difficult at some point, whether they are having a bad week, or they struggle with them every single week. Remember you’re not being examined and it’s just a discussion. Everyone is in the same boat as you.