Top tips: How to get ahead at university

Comedian Gráinne Maguire has some valuable advice for soon-to-be third-level students

“If, during a play, there are more than three white men on stage, get up and walk out, saying loudly: ‘Yeah, sorry I think I get the gist of it. It’ll be something to do with their mams not loving them enough’.” Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images

“If, during a play, there are more than three white men on stage, get up and walk out, saying loudly: ‘Yeah, sorry I think I get the gist of it. It’ll be something to do with their mams not loving them enough’.” Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images



There is always a temptation when starting university, to be a bit “post-truth” when it comes to the works of literature you have actually read.

One simple trick is to always buy your books second-hand so if anyone picks up a copy of Ulysses from your bookshelf it will look well-thumbed – even if your digits didn’t do the thumbing.

Another option is instead of reading the classics with your eyeballs, which is of course very 2000, listen to the audiobooks instead.

That way, you can pretend that not only is Tom Hiddleston your boyfriend but at night he likes to read Crime And Punishment to help lull you to sleep which, although adorable, is probably why things didn’t work out between him and Taylor.

Of course, if you really want to impress people, instead of claiming to have read the canon, it is much cooler to brag about having rejected it entirely. Why would I want to read Dickens, you can sigh on your first day, when I can connect with the real authentic Victorian experience by reading the secret diary of a lesbian immigrant boxer told entirely in Jamaican patois, but sure, let me know how things work out for Tiny Tim.

Just don’t let it slip that you still cry at the end of The Muppet Christmas Carol.

If in doubt, call everything hetronormitive, binary or problematic – it’s the leftie version of “that would be an ecumenical matter”.

Avoid anyone who claims On The Road is their favourite book. Unless, that is, you’re impressed by the type of person who thinks the best female love interests are 15-year-old Mexican farm workers who can’t read.

If in doubt, read Animal Farm, then you can authoritatively call everything Orwellian, even if you’re just referring to an episode of Peppa Pig.


Cooking is boring and tedious unless you are trying to impress someone. Making things from scratch is for Frontiers people on the great prairies of America in the 19th century and people in their 40s going through identity crises.

You are a student, you have sexual identities to experiment with, and you don’t have time for spiralisers.

Besides, you are young enough to have enough vegetables in your bloodstream to keep things ticking over till you’re at least 28. You will not get rickets and if you do, just throw a Berocca into your West Coast Cooler.

If you must buy vegetables, only pick the ones you know will look best quietly decomposing in your fridge.

Be ethical when buying meat.

You don’t want to know the chicken you’re picking from your teeth had a nice life, wandered around idyllic farmyards and had a weekly reiki circle. How is that going to make you feel better about eating it?

You want to know that the animal you’re about to dunk in barbecue sauce was a total arsehole that deserved to die young. Ask your butcher to go through his cuts by which animals were probably the most difficult to be around socially and then you won’t feel so bad about eating them.

If in doubt, only eat jerk chicken.

Instead of trying to trick new people into liking you for your cooking, baking is much more successfully passive-aggressive. Bring one homemade cake to your first study group and you will be called the people’s Nigella Lawson till graduation at least.

If you want to save money, buy the cut-price food in supermarkets just before it’s about to go off. The thrill you feel as you eat something that may or may not kill you will give you all the adrenalin of extreme sports but it’s a lot cheaper. If you really want to impress people, insist on eating all meals with chopsticks or claim to have cut out certain food groups for political reasons. Or give dumpster-diving a go. Scavenging for food in next door’s bins is a great way of saving money on food and finding out your neighbour’s credit rating.


Save money by going to the cinema in the afternoon and then when your film is over, just wander into whatever screening is starting next looking distracted. Be careful, you will not know what film it is till the rating card. This is how I ended up seeing Sex and The City 2 11 times.

When you go to see a film, always claim you’ve seen the original in French and have read the book it’s based on, even if it’s Transformers: Rise of The Machines. If you do go to see the big summer action blockbusters, remember to say out loud at least five times that it’s obviously an allegory for American anxiety in a post 9/11 global landscape. Always say your favourite film is Taxi Driver; I’ve been claiming that since I was 11.


Music is boring. It’s just musical comedy with all the jokes taken out or the soundtrack with no film. Only listen to inspirational music to make you feel better about not studying for your exams.

Avoid anyone who claims to love jazz music. You know who else loved jazz music? Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, and look what happened to them. Classical musical is for hold music and creating tension in period dramas. People only sat down and listened to it in olden times because they were so relieved not to be dying of TB.


Try to avoid going to see a play at the Abbey unless you can’t afford the trip to Switzerland to quietly end your life.

This is their cycle of plays: Seán O’Casey play, maybe daringly produced in modern-day costumes, a Brian Friel play and then an Oscar Wilde play near Christmas time.

Every now and then they will take a risk on a new playwright, usually some up-and-coming middle-aged man. This play will always be set in a kitchen during a wake for a deceased father figure who may or may not represent the Civil War. Dark secrets will unfurl as one by one the children out themselves as secret alcoholics, homosexuals or Protestants.

Or there is an adaption of a Russian play, where you can see Irish actors put on English accents and pretend to be from St Petersburg. Only ever see something if it’s written by a woman or a BAME playwright, otherwise I guarantee the whole night will be like being stuck across from that uncle at Christmas who posts too much on Facebook.

If, during a play, there are more than three white men on stage, get up and walk out, saying loudly: “ Yeah, sorry I think I get the gist of it. It’ll be something to do with their mams not loving them enough.”

You will be better off seeing a musical with somebody that got to the final four in X-Factor or was in Emmerdale. Never ever go see any production of a Romeo and Juliet set during the Troubles. Ever.

If you have to, loudly heckle: “Which one of you is supposed to be Mo Mowlan?” If you think the play you’re at might be tackling the effect the Celtic tiger had on the Irish soul, start a small fire as quickly as possible and evacuate the auditorium. It’s what Lady Gregory would have wanted.


History is just gossiping about dead people but it impresses people a lot more. So just say Henry VIII but in your head be thinking of Cheryl Cole.

Museums are brilliant. You can leave your bag in them so you don’t have to lug it around town and the coffee shops are great. Recreations of olde worlde streets are the best. You can happily wander around Viking Dublin and imagine how different life would have been if you had only bought a house then. Sure you’d be dead by the time you were 30 but at least you’d be on the property ladder. On your visit, make a point of asking any museum guide over the age of 40 what a mortgage means, or pension or job security. Then shake your head and say loudly: “Wow, the olden days were mental”.


If you go to the ballet, you are just encouraging young female dancers to develop eating disorders. The only time they can relax is if they get a chance to play the snowman at Christmas time. You can support the arts in a much altruistic way by just nodding kindly when your friend gets up to do karaoke.

Having an opinion on wine

Young people with more complicated thoughts on wine than alcoholic percentage are as fun at a party as a priest attempting to spread the message of the gospel through rap. Instead of bragging about the vintage of the wine you brought, why not just out yourself as being a young member of Fianna Fáil? People will like you better for it. The only question you need to bother yourself with is will this get me drunk? Is there a cartoon on the front? If it’s bad wine, make sure it’s bad enough for people to think you’re doing it ironically.


Politics in Ireland is fascinating. While other countries’ political systems waste their time on tedious debates about whether the power of the big state supersedes the importance of a free market, things are simpler here. We just have to figure out whose great granddad tried to kill our granddad in the Civil War and vote accordingly.

It’s good to have an opinion. Avoid people who slowly declare, as if they are Gandalf The Grey, that in most situations both sides of an argument are as bad as each other.

These people are truly the intellectual equivalent of a broken-down night bus. In later years, they will ring up talk radio stations and take pride in the host remembering their name. They are the sort of people who think it’s really interesting to point out that Frankenstein was actually the name of the doctor.

You are a student: you should either be winding everyone up by declaring your soft spot for Henry Kissinger or issuing bomb threats in the name of Greenpeace. Whatever you do, think for yourself and have an opinion, just try not to compare every single news story to Harry Potter. This is tempting but for the love of Dumbledore, there are other books. Besides, it’s such a Ravenclaw thing to do.

Follow Gráinne Maguire @grainnemaguire