‘I don’t really know what’s relevant – I just get lost and the set texts don’t help because they’re too complicated’.
There are two issues here: you find the set texts difficult to read and you’re not sure how to tell what’s relevant. There’s a third underlying issue – panic – because set texts are by definition not optional so you have to engage with them.
Set texts are either primary (to be read cover to cover and studied in themselves eg 18thc novels on an 18thc literature course) or secondary (books chosen because they will elucidate (shed light on) the primary texts.
Secondary texts are the ones people usually really struggle with, largely because they are perceived to be complex in their arguments, written in an academic language which seems at best foreign, at worst unintelligible.
So what do you do?
One of the most important study skills at any stage is to break large tasks down as far as possible.
To establish what’s relevant you need to have a good idea of the issues the course wants you to cover. Does your tutor give you a list of study issues they want you to consider? Are there recurring ideas / themes to lectures / tutorials?
Do you have a list of essay titles? That would give you an idea of key themes. The other thing you could do is ask to see last year’s exam paper or a list of last year’s essay titles. That will give you a good idea of how they’re approaching things. The library should have copies of old exam papers, your tutor will have copies of old essay titles.
Reading is a discipline as well as a skill. It requires time, focus and effort, just like any skill. When you first started to read as a child it was a huge challenge to read a whole sentence. If you’re reading this you’ve already come a long way. 🙂