The Ultimate Guide to Studying Arts at University

By ATAR Notes in HSC
12th of April 2018

The author of this article graduated from a Bachelor of Arts with a perfect 4.00 GPA – 24 Arts units, 24 High Distinctions.
If you want to chat more about uni and get some grouse uni resources, you can do so here.
And if you want to ask the author any questions at all, you can do so here.

As you may know, there’s a bit of a stigma around Arts. It’s useless, it will lead to unemployment, it’s a bludge – these are the types of things that get thrown around. And whilst an Arts degree typically has fewer contact hours than, say, Medicine or Laws, it’s certainly not the case that you can float by, put in no effort, and continue to achieve highly. Doing well in an Arts degree and, therefore, getting a lot out of it, requires dedication and persistence – as is the case with any university degree.

I loved my time studying Arts, and am keen to get others passionate about it also. I’ll start with this article with a brief overview of why I think studying Arts is valuable, before moving onto some nitty gritty stuff: strategies I used to, ultimately, get High Distinctions.


Why you should consider studying Arts.

Arts degrees are amongst the most popular for school-leavers, and there’s a reason for that. Arts might not have as clear a career progression as, say, Engineering (studying Engineering –> become an engineer), but it does have immense value. And, of course, there’s no guarantee of employment due simply to what you study; you can’t just work into a Law firm with a Law degree and expect a job.

Instead, what employers are looking for are relevant skills, and that’s where Arts comes in. Arts is fantastically stimulating and broad. It encourages you to think independently, to think critically, and to develop arguments in a logical and sound manner. Granted, I don’t use specific content I learned from Arts on a day-to-day basis; in fact, I use it quite irregularly. But what I do use – and what landed me a full-time job – are the skills I developed along the way. Communication, interpersonal skills, initiative. Content aside, these are the things that have been most valuable for me in studying an Arts degree.


It’s okay to think differently. It’s okay to have an opposing point of view. And being able to express those views in a convincing and eloquent manner is amazing thing. Throughout high school, I was pretty focused on the whole “success” thing – which, to me, meant high numbers on tests and a swell ATAR. My view of success is now much different, and I’m a better person for it.

Thanks, Arts!

P.S. If you’re concerned about what Arts might or can lead to, this is a nice little piece from “Career FAQs” about the utility of Arts.


How to do well in Arts subjects.

So, let’s say you’ve chosen to study Arts (nice choice!). You might be interested in all of that skill-building and perspective-broadening stuff I was speaking about above, but you might also want to, you know, do well in your degree. Perfectly understandable! I managed to scrape my way to a perfect Grade Point Average; here are some things I’d consider:


The difference between doing well, and doing well.

My view is that it doesn’t take too much effort to get through Arts with adequate marks (so, passing all your units and so on). But to elevate your marks from adequate to good, or from good to impressive – that does take a fair chunk of effort. As you may or may not know, marks and grades and stuff at uni aren’t really the same as they are in high school. Getting a 90 in practically any unit across any degree is very rare – Arts included (perhaps even especially?). Getting into that High Distinction range can actually be really tough.

I think the difference largely comes down to a few things: persistence, resilience, and dedication (hey, more life skills!). Adjusting to assessment expectations and the like isn’t the easiest thing in the world, particularly coming straight out of high school. This is consistent for basically all degrees – there are new ways of doing things that you will need to learn. And it’s easy to get back a few dodgy marks, get frustrated, and give up. It’s almost a self-perpetuating cycle: bad mark, frustration, don’t study as much, bad mark, and so on.


What you need to do is to break that cycle – or stop it before it even starts. And I think that’s where the skills I’ve just mentioned really come into play. If you get feedback that criticises what you’ve done, try to take it on board as much as possible. It’s not personal – your tutors will just be trying to help you improve. And I get that that can be difficult, don’t get me wrong. I went into uni thinking I knew how to write well, but I was honestly way off the mark. When I look back now on what I submitted in first year, I cringe.

That’s not a poor reflection on my first-year self; it just shows that you’ll continue to develop throughout your degree, and every piece of feedback you get back is important in that development. You have options, really: you can actually act on your tutors’ suggestions, or you can ignore them. And to me, doing the former puts you in a much better position to do really well throughout your degree.



I think the most difficult assessment tasks for me were the ones where I needed to proffer my own opinions on things. I was used to being given information, learning that information and then regurgitating it in an exam. To me, that formula is pretty straightforward. But when it came to actually offering my own thoughts, I struggled a bit.

If you find yourself in a similar position, my advice to you is simply to take a step back and think for a bit. You don’t have to come up with something profound; you’re just being asked for your own take on things. If you can get those thoughts down on paper in a concise and persuasive manner, you’ll be sweet.

If you can’t seem to formulate your thoughts, just write down whatever comes to mind at the time. Cross things out, start again, make notes. Eventually, a plan will form – and this is something you can build on.


Sometimes, it’s best just to write.

And that’s the same with essays, which you’ll probably come across a fair bit in Arts. Trust me: I get the frustration of sitting at your laptop with an essay to write and just having nothing at all come to mind. You can read a pretty comprehensive guide on how to write good Arts essays here, but a few strategies I used to use:

  1. Have two documents for each essay. The first is the essay itself; the second is a “draft” document, with relevant quotes, thoughts and so on. Once I used something from the draft document, I’d colour it green or just delete it entirely. Doing this gave me a good idea of what was to come without cluttering my actual essay document.
  2. If you have a thought or concept in mind but can’t quite flesh it out, just write. Write the paragraph in dot points. Then write it poorly. Then make it better. There’s no harm in having a cruddy first draft of an essay on the assumption that you then spend a bit of time to improve it. And that’s probably a good point here: starting early on essays is super important. Obviously it gives you more time to robustly edit your work (the difference between a Distinction and a High Distinction in many cases, I think), but it’ll probably lead to less stress, too. Big win!
  3. Refer to the assessment criteria closely, and check it carefully before submitting any assignment. If the unit wants you to use size 12 Times New Roman, do that. If it wants you to double space your work, do that – even if you prefer it single spaced. Make sure you’re referencing in the correct manner. Ignoring stuff like this is honestly just throwing away potentially easy marks.


Readings are pretty cool.

And you should read them!

You might not have the time to read every single reading assigned to you across your degree. I certainly didn’t. But I did make an effort to get through as many as possible – particularly for those units where I knew they’d be called upon in tutes, the exam, or assignments.

It can be a struggle, but give yourself an hour or two, and just smash some out. Have your phone on silent.

I liked to highlight key parts, and then make notes in a separate notebook. I found that doing this helped to avoid the dreaded “passive reading” thing, where you read 30 pages, and then think, “I have no idea what I just read”. That’s obviously a waste of time – and time you probably don’t really have at your disposal!


Some other Arts musings.

Arts is flexible, which is neat. You have soooooo many options in terms of what you can study, and that’s an amazing position to be in. Particularly in hindsight, I think it’s a waste to go through uni studying merely what you’re comfortable with. Test the waters a little. If you’re keen to learn a new language, go for it. Uni’s a great time to develop as a person, and what you study can play a big part in that.

The flexibility of Arts also comes with other benefits, such as being able to go on exchange. This may not always be possible, but I really, really recommend you invest some research into it. Speak to the mobility/exchange office at your university, and see what’s available to you. Exchange was one of the highlights – if not the highlight – of my entire degree, and honestly, it’s not as difficult as you might think to get it all sorted.

But in summary, I think Arts is really amazing. Is it right for you? Only you can say. But please don’t dismiss is merely on the basis of a relative lack of “prestige” (whatever that is).