After my first, and certainly entertaining, year studying English Literature and Spanish at The University of Birmingham (and inspired by a wonderful piece by Juliette Rowsell) I thought it might be best to impart some wisdom for apprehensive new students to take with them when they embark on their first year of undergraduate adventures this September.
As both an arts and joint honours student, I feel I can cover a lot of ground. I’m also fully aware that everyone has a different and unique situation so while my advice might help some, it may not help others – take it with a pinch of salt. Okay, here we go…
Make sure you have (too much) stationery
Despite the fact some lecturers may be a total babe and upload their presentations to your online portal, not everyone at every university is as lucky. The people standing at the front of a crowded lecture hall will have very different teaching methods, and so you will most definitely need a notepad and several pens/pencils. Especially the latter. I lost so many pens, pencils, highlighters etc. this year, I’m almost certain my bag could be reclassified as the Bermuda Triangle. Also, turning up to a lecture without something, whether it be a notebook or even a laptop (guilty as charged) can be a fatal mistake – nine times out of ten, the best things to take note of are not in the original presentation being given and can be really helpful in your revision, essay-writing and eventual sitting of exams.
Make lists… LOTS OF LISTS
If you’re anything like me, you’ll start your day with all the things you need to do whirling around in your brain… but it is inevitable you’ll forget something. All it takes is bumping into a friend you’ve not seen for a while or being distracted by the ‘happy hour’ offer in the campus Starbucks and BAM! You didn’t pick up that book you reserved at the library to help with your essay/you didn’t buy the milk for the flat even though it’s your turn and there’s none left/you didn’t pay your flatmate back for the drinks she bought you last night etc. My best friend gave me a care package for my birthday last year and in it was a pad full of ‘to do list’ lists, which at times were super handy. Without those (very extensive and exhaustive) lists, I wouldn’t have remembered to buy gig tickets, arrange to meet my mom for lunch and even sort out my laundry (trust me, uni makes you forget even the most essential of things… or maybe that’s just me…).
Never leave without essentials
The amount of times I left my flat for the day to go to campus without my headphones were some of the most boring (and dare I say, almost heartbreaking) days of university. When you’re sat in the library trying to dissect the inner workings of Latin American democratisation or breaking down the basics of Renaissance Literature and you haven’t got music to help you pass the time… let’s just say, it doesn’t go well. Make sure you always have your essentials on your person at all times. Top things to keep in your bag/pocket are: university ID card, mobile phone, keys, money and headphones. That way, you won’t go the day without any way of keeping in touch with people/go hungry if you forget to make lunch/be unable to get into the library/be unable to get back into your accommodation if your flatmates are out. It all sounds pretty basic but trust me, there are always those days where you’re just not functioning (we’ll get to that).
Invest in your own coffee/tea/snack rations
Take it from experience when I say: beware of campus coffee shops. They are probably the main source of my debt (alongside concert tickets) this year, and so I’d suggest investing in your own coffee/tea/whatever else you may drink and snack on in times of stress. It costs less than one cup of Starbucks or Costa Coffee and will keep you going whenever you want (especially when it’s 4am, you have an essay due in a few hours and have written 200 words of the required 1500…).
Websites such as Sparknotes and Quizlet are your best friends
This is particularly for English and Language students, but a lesson can be learned here for everyone really. If you’re struggling with a particular language point or simply don’t have the time/can’t be bothered to read something from your course, websites like Quizlet and Sparknotes are your closest allies. They may not necessarily get you through your exams alone (you may need to put a little bit of effort in if you want to pass) but they’re very useful, and can normally give you a cheat-sheet or leg up if you’re struggling.
Budget, and budget properly
This is one of the things I struggled within first year. The moment you check your bank account to see your student loan has come in and, hurrah, you actually have money!!! is a wonderful one. However, to really cope with everything at university such as books, trips, nights out and living by yourself, you need to budget so that lovely feeling doesn’t quickly become one of panic and worry. Yes, an overdraft is brilliant and makes you feel a lot less guilty about spending but can also be really dangerous and before you know it, all your money could be gone. Make a sensible plan, work out how much you can afford to spend per week, even just make a list of purchases and check your account regularly to keep on top of things; anything helps really (especially Microsoft Excel if maths isn’t exactly your strong suit…).
Don’t be afraid
This applies to many things. University introduces students to many new things and concepts, such as seminars, personal tutors (if you didn’t already have one at college/sixth form), going out a lot, etc.. Seminars can be scary at first, but if you swallow your fear and contribute, you’ll soon shake off those initial nerves. Also, it might make the tutor less likely to pick on you in moments you weren’t paying attention, as they can probably count on you listening from previous experience. With personal tutors and individual, specialised professors and lecturers, speaking up is key. If you have a problem, be that mentally, physically, emotionally, talk to someone. If you’re struggling with a module or something particular within it, email the tutor. If you’re unhappy and feel you need to say something, complain about it. Email is a powerful thing at university so don’t be afraid to use it and make your voice heard if need be. If you’re a student who doesn’t typically drink (or in fact, doesn’t drink at all), don’t let this stop you from having fun. You can still go out without drinking alcohol, and besides, no one will judge you if that’s not your style – everyone at university is different and much more understanding. Universal tip here: never be afraid to say no if you don’t want to do something or you’re uncomfortable, and never be afraid to ask for help.
Work out your styles and coping mechanisms
This is pretty simple; if you haven’t already worked out things such as your revision style and coping with a monster hangover, try to see what works best… and fast. The worst thing you can do is get to exam period and have no idea how you study and absorb information in a way that suits you. Furthermore, the worst thing is going out to Stupid Tuesdays, drinking far too many £1.50 vodka cokes and then going to your 2 hour Spanish language seminar at 9am with absolutely no idea of how to make yourself feel better (thank you to whoever scheduled my timetable this year…). For those of you who are moving away for university, working out the best way to cope with being homesick and missing family and friends is also vital. Things such as sticking up a ton of photos on your wall, setting up Whatsapp groups to keep up to date with things, regular Facetime/Skype calls and even writing emails can be a big help and can put a smile on your face, even if just for a brief period.
There are so many societies and groups to join that you’ll be sure to find exactly where you fit, and it is the perfect chance for you to meet people with similar interests outside of your course. For example, in my first year I joined the student newspaper, the modern foreign language society, the English Literature society and even helped to set up a record label! It helps you let off steam, enjoy yourself and the opportunities really are endless (and I’ll stop this one here before I start sounding like an annoying radio advert).
Just have fun
University can be scary and daunting, but ultimately its the best place to grow up, make friends for life with similar interests and (dare I say it) ‘find yourself’ (ugh). For most students, first year doesn’t really count at all – at least, depending on your university anyway. Unless you’re a student who needs to obtain particular grades for a year abroad or a scholarship for example, you only need to pass 40% of your first year overall. Not that this is an excuse to simply not try and do any work, but rather as a way to relax and try not to put as much pressure on yourself in a year full of new things that would send anyone mad (I speak from personal experience).
I hope this has been useful, and that any of you reading this can take something away from this when you move to university in the next couple of months. If you want to contact me and ask me any questions about any university worries you may be having, just tweet me/email me and I’ll be more than happy to help!
Words by Kirstie Sutherland