Having recently finished my university course in illustration and Visual Communication at the University of Westminster (and getting a first-class honours if I may toot my own horn for just one sec) I feel ready to offer some advice to prospective students who are considering taking the same path I did. There are some things I wish I'd known before starting university and also some things I'm glad I did.
1. Is university the right place for you?
I know this sounds like a strange start to a blog post about tips for new illustration students but hear me out. A lot of high school students feel like they need to rush into university straight away, but this often leads to making poor decisions. In our class, over half the students dropped out in the first year! For illustration in particular, I wouldn't necessarily agree that having a degree is important. As with most artistic jobs, you'll be judged primarily by your portfolio, and only some specific positions will require that you have a university degree. It would be wise to think about which area of illustration you would like to work in so that you can figure out whether or not you even need a degree in the first place. There are so many amazing resources available to learn these things for much much cheaper. I might even make a separate blog post with some of my favourites.
2. Choosing a university
There are a number of things to take into consideration when choosing which university to go to, but in my opinion the most important one is the course itself. After all, that's what you're there for. I made my decision based on location because I wanted to be in London, and although I loved living there, I do wish that I'd spent more time asking questions about the course, for example what does each module cover, how much one-to-one time will we get with the tutors, how many hours of teaching time will we get per week and what are the facilities provided. Smaller considerations include location, accommodation etc.
3. Network network network!
As an introvert it was just too tempting to stay in the comfort of my own home instead of going to the studio to work on projects, but as a consequence I didn't really get to know many of my classmates very well. Industry connections can be really helpful especially when you're first starting out with freelancing because they're often your first clients and the ones who help spread the word about what you're doing. Getting to know the students further along on the same course is also a good idea because they'll likely give you some helpful advice about what to expect next. And finally, make a good impression with your tutors, because if they see that you're taking yourself seriously as a professional then they'll be more inclined to choose you for external awards and opportunities.
4. Experiment with your style
Especially in first year, there's no need to rush to find an illustration style. In fact, if you do, then you'll be limiting yourself from all the facilities that you've payed to have access to, and you may find that it catches up with you later on. We had workshops in animation, lino printing, mono printing, silk screens, ceramics, sculpture, etc. And we also had plenty of opportunities to try out watercolours, gouache, charcoal, plasticine, woodwork, metalwork and so on. Take advantage of this time because if you ever decide after university that you want to try them out, it will be expensive. My course also offered Adobe training, which I didn't take because I felt like I already had enough commitments, but in hindsight may have been a good idea. Especially if you're thinking about applying for industry jobs, having professional training would be a great point for your CV.
5. Be pro-active
If you stick to the bare minimum that university has to offer (i.e. the course assignments) then you won't get much out of it. There'll always be extra events and workshops going on throughout the year which can be really great. I went to a tonne of business workshops which, in a way, I found more helpful than the actual course itself. We also had guest speakers who gave lectures on specific topics like pricing your work, finding clients, responding to a brief etc. And if your university doesn't offer these extras, then try researching your local area to see if there are any exhibitions or events there. Most likely you're in a new city so why not explore?
6. Start working freelance before you graduate
This one is for those of you who want to be a freelance illustrator. There are so many advantages to getting ahead of the game. You'll have the luxury of tutor feedback on everything you do, like your website and branding as well as advice on more specific questions regarding your practice. For example, I had a few awkward client emails to send that my tutors helped me to compose in a professional way, and without them I would have struggled to know what to say. Starting early also gave me time to prepare for graduation, so I felt more prepared when university was over and I was on my own again.
7. Part-time jobs
If you don't want to freelance, or even if you do and have the time, I would highly recommend getting yourself a part-time job. I only had one in my final year, but I wish I'd tried harder to get a job in first or second year when I had much more free time. Its a great way to meet new people and of course make some money which can lower the pressure of student loans by reducing the amount you need to borrow in the first place.
8. Try to enjoy your time at university and live in the present.
This final tip is specifically for past me. I was definitely not mentally present during most of my time at university, but instead was dreaming/stressing about what was coming next. That didn't, however, make time pass any quicker but only led to me feeling dissatisfied and impatient. I think in life in general its important not to dwell too much on the past or the future but try to focus on where you are right now and appreciate it. University is definitely a luxury that most people around the world can't afford, so try to be grateful that you're one of the few who can.