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Thriving in first year university

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Getting the most out of your first year at uni can be tricky, so we’re here to help.

University is a wonderful time for those lucky enough to experience it. While for the most part, you’ll be meeting new people, learning new things and growing as an individual, there are some aspects of university life that can be a little daunting. New freedoms, new teaching methods, higher academic expectations and competing demands on your time can be a lot to take on in a small amount of time. Many students thrive under these conditions, but others take longer to adjust. In this article, we’ll help you break out of the school mindset and provide some useful advice on how to ace your first year of uni. 

Plan, plan, plan

All good students are good planners. Right from the get-go when you enrol in your units, you want to get in early so you can secure the best lecture and tutorial times. There’s little worse than forgetting to enrol until the week before uni starts and having four-hour gaps between your classes. If you get in early, you might be able to concentrate all your classes into the first three or four days of the week, giving you more time to study, work or relax. Once you’ve perfected your timetable, print it off or save it somewhere until it’s memorised. 

When you get access to your university’s learning management system (LMS), you’ll then have access to all your course materials, lecture notes and deadlines. It pays to log in and dump absolutely every deadline into an online calendar (or even just a sheet of paper you stick on the wall next to your desk). This allows you to set up alerts so you always know what needs to be prioritised.

When it comes to exam season, doing the same thing with your exam dates is a great idea. You’ll be given between one to three weeks without classes solely to prepare (known as Study Without Teaching Vacation, or SWOTVAC). Take the time to create a study timetable featuring which week’s topic of revision for what subject you’ll be studying each hour. This takes a huge amount of stress out of the process, as by the end of it you’ll know you’ve revised all of the material. The earlier you can get this ball rolling, even if it’s before SWOTVAC, the better. 

Attend everything

Just because you can skip classes doesn’t mean you should! Many students make the mistake of telling themselves, ‘I’ll watch it online later’ and heading to the pub for the first six weeks of uni. It doesn’t usually end well! Making the effort to attend your lectures in person helps you focus on the material. It puts you in a dedicated learning environment surrounded by peers who are similarly concentrating. Recorded lectures are fantastic if you want to watch the class again, or if you fall sick or are studying remotely, but shouldn’t be relied upon – sometimes the lecturer will forget to press ‘record’.

Tutorials or workshops are your chance to apply what you’ve learned and ask your tutors about any problems you’re having. Even students spending half their time at the pub know they should rock up to these! Before attending, make sure to consult the notes in your LMS as to what work needs to be done. If you don’t prepare for your tutorials or workshops, you won’t get as much out of them. 

Don’t be afraid of getting help

There’s no reason to get stressed about difficult problems at university – there are many avenues to turn to for help. Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) and similar engagements allow you to catch up on anything you’re struggling with in a judgement-free environment. No matter how small your question, you’ll be able to have it answered by a student who completed the course you’re struggling with as recently as last semester.

Make sure to see your lecturer or tutor after class or in their open office hours. They won’t judge you for not understanding something; on the contrary, they’ll be impressed with your engagement and interested in your feedback on the unit. They also set the exams and assignments, so they’re usually a pretty good source to learn from!

If neither of those options appeal to you, feel free to join a study group composed of other members of your cohort and try working through problems together. Whatever you do, a successful first-year student is someone who knows they can’t be good at everything. Knowing how to ask questions and seek help is a life skill.

Get involved in campus culture

‘Thriving’ doesn’t just mean getting good marks. Part of the university experience is making time for things like student societies and events. No matter what you’re interested in, there’s bound to be something going on that suits you. All universities are likely to have clubs for all STEM disciplines. These will feature networking events with industry, competitions and socials. It doesn’t hurt to branch out either; it can make for a good change of scenery. University or industry-run challenges are also a great way of seeing how well you do under pressure. So long as you get involved in something other than the usual routine of study and work, you’ll have a far richer experience at university and won’t get burnt out as easily. First year is the best time to start. 

University is a fantastic time where you’ll learn a lot and have a whole lot of fun. Just remember to take it seriously when you need to and you’ll be golden. Enjoy!