As you may already know, university is significantly different to sixth form or college, which also applies to term dates. Although the academic year is somewhat shorter – often beginning in late September/early October and ending in May/June – universities do not have a half-term holiday, an aspect of sixth form that I really missed when I first began my studies last year.
However, some universities, including my own, have ‘reading weeks’ which, in other words, are like a half-term break. Usually situated in the middle of a semester, reading weeks serve the purpose of enabling students to get a head start for the work and reading in the remaining weeks until the longer holidays (and exam period!) begin.
Given that the workload at university can feel so daunting at times, a reading week is often strongly appreciated because it allows you to breathe for a little while without worrying about time constraints as you might experience during the semester. I personally preferred the reading week in my first semester because, like fellow students, I needed time to wrap my head around university life, which was still new and somewhat unfamiliar to me several weeks after starting my studies.
Indeed, a reading week is perfect if you choose to make the most of your time by deciding which tasks to complete, whether it is writing an essay whose deadline is imminent or reading texts for upcoming seminars (although trying to read the 500-page long The Grapes of Wrath in one week was a challenge too far for me!). Yet the success of your reading week is partially determined by your university, too. For example, I had been hoping that essay questions for one of my modules would have been released during my most recent reading week because I could have started to conduct research which was more specifically focused on a particular question. Unfortunately, this did not occur – and it would have been a waste of my time to research various academic articles and books on a particular theme if no essay questions would be linked to it.
In this sense, I believe that universities have a duty to ensure that their reading weeks are as productive and helpful for students so that they are not merely a ‘holiday’. Of course, it is essential that you devote some time to relaxation – particularly as the second half of a semester becomes infested with essays, presentations and general seminar preparation (for me, this comprises of a set text and notes!) – but the academic year is not ridiculously long, so there will be time for putting your feet up, even though it does not necessarily feel that way when you are devoting a sunny February day to writing a close textual analysis…
If I had to give my honest opinion, I would suggest that reading weeks are absolutely essential in the first semester because, whether you are a first or second/third year, it is a semester which can feel overwhelming after having enjoyed a long and (hopefully!) well-rested summer. However, the Christmas break is often long and, once you have surpassed that point, you sense the approaching end of the academic year in a way; well, I suppose that I do because my final lectures and seminars will take place in the second week of April! But, like anything, reading weeks are simply what you make of it – if you put the effort in (and resist binging on Netflix!), you can gain a lot within a week away from lectures and seminars.
And one enormous advantage of reading weeks is that they do not generally coincide with schools’ half-terms, so travelling to and visiting places is not jam-packed with young children and families, as well as possibly being cheaper!
Still, I’d rather be sinking my teeth into a new (and not ridiculously long!) book during a week off…