I spent seven years on three campuses collecting four qualifications (I kinda got hooked on the whole process), and a couple of years ago someone asked me what I wished I’d known when I started. This is a version of the list I wrote for them, updated for my little sister, who is starting first year in a couple of weeks.
Oh, and when I say ‘win’ I don’t mean it like 80s kids in denim jackets pumping a gloved hand in the air in an exaggerated manner. I mean like learning the rules of how to play university as if it was a board game, so you have a better shot of passing GO and collecting your diploma.
Note to overseas readers: what we call ‘first year’ is known by various names around the world like ‘freshman’ and ‘fresher’ year. When I say ‘lectures’, I mean a big hall filled with people who have minimal or no interaction with the lecturer. A ‘tutorial’ or ‘tute’ is a much smaller class with interaction between the teacher (who can be anyone from a professor to a PhD candidate or TA) and students. ‘Tutes’ are also referred to as a ‘discussion sections’ or ‘labs’ in other countries. ‘University’ or ‘uni’ is our name for what is known as ‘college’ in the US.
If your uni has a class timetable system allowing your input, plan out when you want to be there, get in early and group your classes together. Nobody wants to hang around uni for three or four hours because of badly timed classes (yes, you could use that time to study, but let’s be real about the chances of this happening).
If timetabling opens on a Monday at 9am, be in front of your computer with a cup of coffee and the correct link open at 8.55. Then you can sit back and laugh at all the emails that fly around about in week two of semester: “I have [terribly timed tute] on this day, and I was wondering if I could swap with someone who has [awesomely timed tute] because I usually walk my dog during [terribly timed tute].”
Go to class. Really. You’re paying thousands of dollars for the privilege – if not now, then later, when your HECS or student loan repayments kick in.
If you don’t, won’t or can’t, work out who takes roll call and who doesn’t. Don’t ditch the role call lectures and tutes. The lecturer is usually going to the type who will mark people with spotty attendance down.
If you’re going to miss a role call class, send the lecturer or tutor an honest, two sentence email explaining why. Seriously, it takes thirty seconds.
Take advantage of downloadable lectures. If it’s a terribly timed class you have to take, but there’s no roll call, just download it. You can listen at double speed to cut through the guff (and get lectured by one of the chipmunks in the bargain) and pause/rewind to take notes when you need to.
Check out which textbooks you need well before semester starts. Email lecturers if the unit guide isn’t out yet. Get used copies before the semester rush, or find ebooks online (great for cutting/pasting/searching for assignment quotes). Usually, the edition of the textbook won’t matter, but sometimes it does, so check with your lecturer.
There’s no need to spend $500+ on textbooks a semester. You will probably have to buy the prescribed books, especially if they’re used heavily in class, but all of the prescribed and recommended books should be available in the reserve collection of your student library, so people can’t borrow the only copy and sit on it for weeks. If they’re not, they need to be, so email your lecturer and politely suggest the textbooks be added to the reserve.
Make a timetable of due dates. Even better, set it one week early, which gives you plenty of wriggle room for spontaneous road trips or whatever. This counts for exams, as well. Start studying a week out from when you normally would and you’ll get at least eight nights of study done.
Do the damn readings. If you’re in struggletown and you have skim them thirty minutes before class, it’s still better than nothing. Don’t be one of the drones who don’t bother.
Point 8 lets you contribute to tutes. You don’t have to be ‘that’ person who won’t shut up during a tute – they’re usually mature-aged students (disclaimer: ex-mature-aged student). Teachers just love people who can contribute a couple of times each class, especially if they can add to discussions in an orderly and thoughtful fashion.
Write on things – textbooks, notes and handouts. Write all over them. All those thoughts will fall out of your head otherwise, and then it’ll be assignment time and you’ll be staring at a blank page wondering what the hell to write about.
Turn your wifi off in class. Social media is digital crack – makes you feel real good and then you’ve got to do it again in ten minutes. You might think your teachers have no place in hating you because you spend classes up the back pretending to take notes while you apply filters to your selfies, but they do.
If you can think of a pertinent, curious question regarding an assignment or even a reading, email the teacher and ask. Don’t email them continuously and don’t send them the email version of War and Peace, but once every week or fortnight shows them you’re engaged with what they’re teaching. Oh, and for god’s sake let them know you need an assignment extension as early as possible.
Even better, if you can twist an assignment topic around so it deals with an area of personal interest, but is still relevant to the course material, do it! (Yes, you have to check it’s okay first.) Most teachers love a bit of initiative.
Either way, decide on the topics of your assignments before you start doing the weekly readings. That way, you can be lifting quotes and ideas as you read them, rather than have to go back and read everything again. Not that doing that is necessarily a bad idea, but there will be multiple points during the year where your time is short and this is a great way to save it. Reference. all. the. things. Don’t be wasting time on the day something’s due trying to remember where you sourced a quote.
If you’re engaged, informed and personable, I’ll almost guarantee that you’ll get higher marks for the same work than someone who casts the impression of not giving a damn. Teachers are human, they subconsciously like and dislike students, and may very well grade accordingly. The trick is to give them something to like about you (i.e. being a decent student) without fishing for their affections in a horribly obvious manner.
It’s probably worth mentioning that lecturers spend most of their time taking care of their own business. Many are on contracts and have zero job security (despite what you hear), and are rehired or fired based on the prestige they bring their university through their own recent research, published essays and books. Many of these will adopt a ‘sink or swim’ attitude with their students because (1) that’s how they live and (2) they’re busy doing that research and writing so their contracts get extended. They are not going to hold your hand like your high school teachers did.
Proceed to ‘30 ways to win first year university or freshman college year, part 2’, or return to Re: writing.
If you’d like to ask a question or share your thoughts, I’d love to hear your take on things.