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The transition from school to uni can be daunting and overwhelming. Here are 11 things I wish I knew before starting my degree:
Many students seem to be in a rush to race through uni and get their degree done as quickly as possible. However, uni is an incredible opportunity to explore new topics, ideas and interests that you’d never considered before. Most undergraduate degrees allow you to take elective units or breadth subjects outside of your chosen faculty, giving you the opportunity to gain skills in areas beyond your main focus. You might actually find that you’re passionate about something you’d never seen yourself doing in a million years! Try a language, a philosophy subject, a cooking class – the options are endless!
So many uni students make the fatal mistake of trying to guess what will come up on the exam. Worse still, tons of students will make copious notes on topics that will never be examined. They walk around campus flaunting their 50-page set of notes, when in actual fact only ¼ of those notes might actually be examinable!
Luckily for us, all subjects at uni will be taught according to a course outline or reading list. This document is quite literally the most important document you’ll receive each term. It basically outlines everything that will be taught throughout the term. Remember, if it’s not in that document, you can’t be examined on it. So, at the start of each term, get your hands on the course outline and when it comes to exam revision, make sure you have notes on all the dot points. That way, instead of making copious notes on topics that aren’t going to come up, you’re primed and ready for each subject’s exam.
Unfortunately, lectures are very different to class at school – there are often hundreds of people in the auditorium, there’s way less interaction/questions, and the lecturer often stands at the front and delivers a presentation with a powerpoint. Thankfully, a crack team of experts has been assembled to help us through our subjects and understand them in detail – these are our tutors. Tutorials (run by tutors) are an awesome way to explore topics in greater detail in small groups, meaning it’s less overwhelming to ask questions and clarify anything you didn’t understand from the lecture. Make the most of your tutors – hunt feedback on assignments and tests, as they are the best placed to give you the feedback you need to succeed.
Many subjects will have a few different modes of assessment – exam, essay, test, assignment etc. Often these will be interspersed throughout the term. This might not seem like much, but when combined with all your subjects it can really add up. That’s why if you’re someone who leaves everything to the last minute, you’ll very quickly realise this strategy doesn’t really work at uni!
At the start of each term, put in your calendar every assessment for each subject. At the beginning of each week, don’t just look for what’s on that week, but make sure you’re looking ahead 3-4 weeks in advance. Otherwise, tests and assignments creep up and you’ve hardly put in any preparation!
There will be times when you genuinely don’t know the answer to something, or you might receive a grade much lower than you might have at school. Don’t worry, that’s totally normal – you’re competing against a lot more people and the standard is higher!
Stanford University’s Carol Dweck suggests that top students have something called a ‘growth mindset’. This basically means they believe their intelligence or talent is not fixed from birth. Therefore, we can improve at any subject or topic that we initially struggle at simply by the actions we take - completing a certain number of practice papers, taking notes and doing extra readings. Keep this in mind and be persistent!
The beauty of uni is that there really is something for everyone. No matter which uni you’re enrolled at, there will be a range of different clubs and societies for you to join. Make sure you check out Freshers' Week in the first week of term (or the week before term starts) to get a feel for all the different clubs and see which one’s for you – who knows, you might surprise yourself! Remember, most people are in the same boat in that you’re new and don’t know many people at uni. Clubs and societies are a great way to meet new people, get involved in campus life and have loads of fun.
Most universities have arrangements with other universities around the world that allow you to study abroad for a term or a year at a time. Studying abroad is an incredible way to experience another culture, meet new people, live away from home – all whilst completing your degree! Often the uni will require that you’ve already completed a year or two before applying, so make sure you check all the requirements before you apply.
When your lecturer is talking, the temptation will be to jot down everything they say. While this will leave you with a comprehensive transcript of what the lecturer has said, it will make it really difficult for you to follow along with what their main point is! Try to jot down some notes as they speak, taking down key information and explanations. Focus on understanding their point and condensing it into your own key words, rather than worrying about catching every word that is said.
Often we can get very overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that is set each week. Actually understanding the content is another thing altogether. Studying in groups is one of the most common ways uni students get work done. It is easily one of the most enjoyable, efficient and effective ways to get through all the work!
Instead of saying, “Oh I have to go home and do this Maths work that I hate and be locked up in my room, it’s going to be the worst thing ever,” rather I say, “I have to do this Maths homework but at least I get to hang out in the library for half an hour with Will, Bill, Jill and Phil – I get to see my friends and we’ll work through it together”. That negative association now becomes a positive, because it’s not doing that work that you dislike at home by yourself, it’s doing work you don’t like but with friends. Not only does that mean you’re more likely to do it, and in fact do more work (like when you go to the gym with a friend), but it also means you can help each other. You can discuss answers, brainstorm, teach each other, and almost become informal tutors.
If we want to get better at a sport or an instrument, the obvious answer is to do more practice. However, as students, we don’t seem to apply the same logic to exams. Just like at school, the questions on exams at uni inevitably tend to repeat themselves in different ways. So the more practice exams you’ve done, the more likely it is that those same questions which you’ve done before and know how to do will re-appear on the final exam. Track down as many past papers as you can in the lead up to exams, either from your online portal or from your tutors, test yourself constantly and reap the benefits!
Unlike at school, the exam hall will be packed with literally thousands of other students, often sitting different subjects to you. This can be really intimidating. In the lead up to the exam, you can minimise your stress by adopting the same routine each time. Get a good night sleep the night before, go for a walk around the block in the morning, but most importantly, don’t hang around stress-heads outside the exam room. They will only increase your stress levels and make you freak out! Do some simple breathing techniques and trust your preparation!