Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ten tips for surviving the first year of university

It's O-week or Week 1 for the first semester at a lot of universities around Australia. My Middle Brother Mountain* is having a do-over on his first year of uni after deferring his spot last year. Apparently, he's feeling all blase about it given he's been surrounded by academics and been on campus all his life...ummm almost literally. He's toddled through the corridors, eaten at student services, been shushed in the libraries, and gone to more graduations than I have. His childcare centre was on campus. So he knows a thing or two about uni life but I'm not sure every first year student does.

Not every student survives their first year. Universities dedicate lots of funds and staff to 'retention' because it's a big issue, and a complex one. There are lots of reasons why students don't survive or can't finish their first year - money, work, family, cultural differences, physical or mental issues, etc. A lot of this is far beyond the university's purview but they do try to put support systems in place to help students cope with those things while also continuing their studies. A lot of it is beyond the student's control too but there are still things they can do to make that first year just that little bit easier (all else being equal). I've been at university for the last 14 years, nine of them as a student and ten as an academic so I'm calling myself a little bit qualified to offer some advice. Here's my top 10 tips for surviving the first year:

1. Turn up. Der. To be a little more specific: week one matters. So do weeks two and three. And all the rest. A colleague of mine received an email from a student last week asking if they'd miss anything important as they're in Europe for the first three weeks of semester. The answer is yes. Those first few weeks are all about the fundamentals of the subject: how it runs, how it's assessed, the responsibilities and expectations of the students and the lecturer, the basic theories, etc. It's also the time when you establish group dynamics. If you miss those first weeks, it's really hard to catch up later. If you do miss those first weeks, through illness or misadventure or circumstances beyond your control, seek out what you've missed: listen to any recorded lectures; look through all the new uploaded material in your online learning system; email your lecturer or tutor. Don't tell them you're in Europe. It won't go down well.

2. Make an effort to know your lecturer/tutor's name. It might take a while for a lecturer or tutor to remember your name. Chances are they're trying to put over a 100 names to over a hundred faces. And it sucks when they keep getting it wrong. But it sucks even more if you need help and can't remember your tutor's name (and hence their email address).

3. Read through all the material you're given at the start of semester. This applies primarily to the subject guide or outline. It'll have all your deadlines for the semester laid out so you can start planning your assignments (more advice on that over here). You'll get sick of reading the same thing over each semester for the next three to four years, but trust me, the information changes. Faculty and university wide policies on submissions, late penalties, extensions, special consideration, plagiarism, attendance, etc, can change year by year. My students had a real shock when their 'automatic' two day extension (granted automatically if you just ask for one - whose idea was that?) that they'd enjoyed for two years was rescinded. It also applies to the brochures and student services stuff you're handed at just about every 'welcome' or orientation event at the start of each year. There might be something in there that can save your bacon if you run into trouble.

4. Take advantage of any learning skills workshops or tutorials. Each university should have some kind of learning skills department that will offer short courses at the start of semester (or over the semester) on essay writing, report writing, referencing and avoiding plagiarism, how to use the library, how to take notes in lectures, etc. These are all incredibly helpful for making the transition from high school to university-style learning, or for mature age students returning to study after some years. Ours are offered through the library, but your university might have hidden them elsewhere.

5. Get support. If you're coming to university with existing issues (physical, mental, behavioural, etc) that you know may affect your studies, get a support system in place early. Most universities have a Disability Liaison office/officer that can help make sure there are appropriate options in place for all your subjects and assessments. It helps you avoid having to go into (sometimes uncomfortable) detail with each and every lecturer and tutor. If you don't have a diagnosed (or diagnosable) issue, most universities will still have plenty of support or resources available if things crop up during the semester: (sometimes free) general, mental and sexual health services, LGBT centres, women's rooms, prayer rooms and spiritual centres, etc. Each of the universities I've been associated with has also had financial aid officers who can help you navigate Centrelink. Those people need a medal. If you can't find the services you need, ask your lecturer or tutor if they can point you in the right direction. Unless we're in the psych or social work faculties, we're generally not trained counsellors or health professionals but we may know where to find them.

6. Get off Facebook. Not all lecturers are okay with you using a phone, laptop or tablet in class. This is mostly because we've all caught students updating their status, bidding on eBay and all manner of not-appropriate-for-a-public-location browsing. Ask whether it's okay to use your laptop or a tablet and bring a notebook and pen just in case it's not.

7. Join in. If you're heading to uni without your high school buddies or a good support group nearby, it can be a lonely, confusing place. Join a club or society, talk to people in class, set up a study group, find your people. I'm not a natural joiner but it got easier with practice. I started small by introducing myself to the folks sitting next to me in lectures and tutorials and ended up with a small group of folks who'd traipse down to the student union after class.

8. Don't turn up to class drunk. Not even on Melbourne Cup day when you've been cruelly assigned an exam that day. Also, don't email drunk. 

9. Budget. If you're getting drunk all the time, you're going to run out of money pretty quickly. Unless you're one of the fortunate ones - independently wealthy, rich parents, etc. In Australia, we're incredibly lucky to receive so much financial support for higher education. Not only are you sometimes offered Commonwealth Supported Places (which can reduce your fees) and FEE HELP (deferred loans) but quite a few students are also eligible for Youth Allowance or Austudy. It is great, but it is also not generous. It is not even close to meeting what we consider in Australia to be the "poverty line" (what that is depends on who you talk to, but by halving the median of all pay packets in Australia it ends up as roughly $350 a week; youth allowance will hand a single, childless person over 18 who is "required to live away from home" a maximum of $414 a fortnight). If you live at home, fabulous. If not, you need to budget. Or you need to get a job. I have a whole other post coming up for living cheap as a student. But, I will say this...

10. Eat and sleep well. It's really hard to think critically and perform well when all you eat is crap and you're staying up until all hours. Sleeping and eating good food makes your brain work. Good food isn't always easy to find on campus, and when you do find it, it's not always affordable. I thoroughly recommend seeking out the vegetarian options - whether that's your local Hare Krishnas or the veggie club on campus. Veggie food is generally cheaper and better than the other choices. Sleeping well generally means being organised enough to not have to pull all-nighters or not going out every night of the week. I really want to have 'stop drinking so much, stupid' as it's own point, but I'm not a complete teetotaller, I swear. Just take it easy on your body if you want it to complete higher order functions.

Are you a first-year-of-uni survivor? Any other tips you'd add to the list?

* Not his real name.


  1. This is a great post! I can think of a few people I know who would have benefited from this one many years ago... Visiting via the Rewind.

    1. I could have benefited from one at the time as well. Perhaps there was one and we all chose to ignore it - follies of youth and all.

  2. I am so saving this in a file I am putting together for my oldest boy for another 7 years times. e plans on studying medicine so I figure he is going to need all the help he can get xx

    1. Great goal to aim for. I'm sure medicine also has its own special trials and tribulations he'd need to prepare for.


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