9 pieces of advice for new undergrads

It’s September and the start of a new academic year. A new year means new students! Fresh, optimistic, nervous, new students from all corners of the globe all decending on university for the first time. Or at least that’s what I’m told, I spend September hiding under my desk until the noises stop.

If you are one of these noise producing students then your first time at university can be a bit daunting. And as a seasoned, experienced, bitter academic I feel like it’s my duty to help new undergraduates with some advice for their first exposure to academia. So here are my 9 things that are worth remembering during your first few weeks of university especially at times when it all seems a bit too much.

1. You know more than you think

Regardless of what exam results you got, you know some stuff. In fact you probably know a lot of stuff! You’ve literally spent ~15 years learning stuff as a full time job, there is no way you haven’t made it to university without picking up some of that.

University can be overwhelming at first with new terms and concepts you’ve never heard of beyond that one episode of QI where they mispronounced it. But you actually know more than you think and you’ll be amazed how quickly all those things you’ve learnt start blending with new things.

2. You know nothing

Now you know lots but you also know nothing about the thing your there to learn. At university the old adage “you don’t know what you don’t know” is never more worth knowing.

Not knowing stuff is the point, if you knew it then there is very little reason to be at university! Yes you already come with knowledge but you are far short of understanding the things you are there to learn. At times you might be sitting there thinking “oh I know this” well you don’t, you might know some of it but you are there to learn more so don’t lose focus and listen closely otherwise the new bits you don’t know, you still won’t know by the end and brilliantly you won’t know that you don’t know them because you weren’t paying attention.

3. Lecturers are nervous too

See that person at the front explaining things to you? They are human, they are not perfect geniuses. They don’t know everything and oddly enough standing in front of 100+ undergrads is a bit daunting.

As a new student it can be very tempting to look at your lecturer thinking they are the god king of your chosen subject. They aren’t, they are just your lecturer trying to teach the best they can. They are infallible, occasionally confused and sometimes just as hungover as you.

4. Learning the basics underpins everything

Your first few months at university may well feel like revision. You’re almost certainly going to spend time redoing the things you already know and then when you do move on to new stuff it’s going to be basic and depending on your subject without a great deal of application. There is sometimes no avoiding spending 2-3 weeks learning the fine detail of strange protein pathways or reaction chemistry and learning it well now will hugely help later when you do more exciting things.

Yes we all know Google exists and you could look up these little facts later. But being able to quickly recall the basics of your subject at will without saying “hang on I’m just waiting for Eduroam to log me in”.

5. Bad lecturers don’t mean you hate the subject

Lecturers are just people doing their jobs and like any world of work some of them are crap at their jobs. There are numerous ways universities try to ensure high teaching standards but I think we can all agree that a ‘few’ slip through the cracks and one of them might be your lecturer.

When a subject is taught badly it can be really hard to focus on it and learn what you need. It can also be easy to think that bad grades = no good at it. There is no simple solution to this other than try not to feel to bad if a subject you’ve loved for years suddenly starts sucking really bad.

6. Ask for help!

As a supervisor nothing is more frustrating than a student that is struggling trying to hide that they are struggling. There are no bonus points in the final exams for “how chill and relaxed you looked” so trying to put up an air of ‘I got to this’.

The people running your course want you to pass, they want you to enjoy your time and not leave their university having survived two breakdowns and lots of nights sobbing into blank paper. If you are finding things hard go talk to them! We’ve all found it tough from time to time and they can give you help and advice to get you going again.

7. Do the hours!!

It can be amazing having lots of freedom and lots of free time all of a sudden. Also for the first time for many of you it might be the first time you’ve had whole weeks where you are in charge of your time. It can be really temping to play pool in your free periods or even skip the odd class.

When you start most degrees they give you an estimated number of hours that they expect you to work on it. DO THE HOURS. Sometimes no amount of being brilliant can beat simply spending the time on some work or spending the time reading text books and papers.

The flip side is also that a full time job is 37.5 hours per week, doing a crazy amount more than this on a regular basis and you will burn out. Don’t do it, leave some time for having a life or simply just working through your Steam library of games.

8. Talk to people

Your classmates are people worth knowing. Not just because they are almost certainly great people but also because together you can support each other through the trials and tribulations of your course.

Trying to do an entire course on your own is isolating and really good way to miss out on things other students might spot or be able to help with. Talking through coursework questions, papers or even extra lab sessions you’ve not heard about can massively help. Even if you just meet up and laugh about the lecturer calling chemical bonds ‘hooooks’ it’s worth it.

9. Don’t think about your career yet

The end of school can be a bit focused on careers – they have fairs about it, and say that your choice of course is often all about what you want to do. It’s a big focus, one that you now need to drop.

Three years is a long time. In three years a lot can change both around you and in how you feel about your subjects. VERY few university courses end in one job and it is very likely you’ll change your mind which of the possible options you prefer somewhere along the line.

Relax, enjoy your course, focus on that. You’ll have your 3rd year to start panicking about what you are going to do with the rest of your life.

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