Complete Guide to 1st Year Uni
Since most people reading this forum are 1st years, here is a rough guide on how to succeed specifically in the academic side of uni. There are many other sides to university life but this focuses on helping you manage your work, especially when starting for the first time, and get good results. It may be less applicable to some “practical” subjects like visual arts or multimedia/design.
This is aimed at someone about to start their first semester. It attempts to answer questions like “what are lectures like”, “how hard is uni” and other common questions people often post around February each year. To those people the #1 thing I would say is don’t panic, most things get explained pretty well in your first lecture.
Enrollment and Timetables (NEW!)
This differs between unis too much to provide a useful answer in a general guide. It’s mostly done online, some unis still have a real life “enrollment day”. You may need to work out your own timetable by looking at the schedule for each subject you’re doing, or your online enrollment system may generate one for you.
The First Day
Take a pen, some paper or a book, your timetable and maybe a campus map.
Don’t worry about being unprepared – your first lecture for each subject will usually give you all the info, a subject outline (this is kinda like a syllabus plus a list of assessment tasks), and tell you what books or other stuff you will need to get. In almost all degrees, each subject runs independently so it’s important to work out what’s going on in each one (see above), including what books or other stuff you need to buy, which weeks things will be on or not on, etc.
Tutorials, labs etc., anything except lectures usually don’t run in 1st week, but that varies by faculty and uni. You might receive an email early in week 1 from your lecturer letting you know; this leads to another key point – get in the habit of checking your student email every day.
This is the most important thing. When you start a semester, you need to get your subject/unit outlines; you usually get these in the first lecture, or online (“Blackboard” or equivalent). Make a timetable. It’s a good idea to colour-code your subjects while you’re learning your timetable and keeping track of which subject is which. It becomes unnecessary after a few weeks, but it makes it easier to organise in your head at the start.
Week 1 can really suck because you have so much information going through your head about every subject. A really good way to deal with all this information is to make a table or ‘schedule’ that lists all the assessments for each subject and when they’re due. Colour code the column headings. Put every task worth any % of your final grade in rows indicating the week they’re due. I’ve attached a template at the end of this post so you can fill in your subjects, the assessments and their weighting. Basically, having a visual representation of your semester makes it much easier to keep track of what’s coming up and what you should be working on. Plus you can put it up on your wall and when you finish something cross it off on the table. It works –
Buying Books and Course Readers:
– You don’t always need to rush out and buy all the textbooks listed on a subject outline; if you can, try to suss out how useful it will be; e.g. are the lectures based closely around the textbook? Sometimes a course will rely very heavily on a particular book… other times a book on your list will end up being almost totally irrelevant!
– You can often save heaps of money by buying your books second hand (check notices around campus and in your faculty’s buildings) or by using them at the library for free
– some subjects use subject notes or a subject reader (or sometimes called a course reader), which is like a spiral binded collection of readings from different sources put together by your lecturer instead of a regular textbook. If you are in a subject that uses these, you will probably find out what they are and where to buy them at the first lecture.
– These are where you shut up and listen, usually. If you don’t understand things, make the effort to look it up later.
– Personally I never saw a need for a laptop in lectures, but I was mostly in maths and science. Maybe in something like history or law if there’s many many pages of notes to take? Most people I saw with laptops just got distracted and played solitaire.
– Take a pen and paper at least the first few times; everyone has their own style for taking notes (or not taking them). Some lecturers like to target you for random questions if you don’t.
– People who attend lectures tend to do better. Start with the intention of attending them all.
– However, it’s occasionally beneficial to skip some lectures and study a topic yourself, allowing you to catch up on other work or sleep. Skipping a lecture to read the textbook and make some notes or improve an assignment is a good reason; skipping because your friends do is a bad reason.
– Further to the point above, you might occasionally find some lecturers are really boring, hard to understand, or that you just fall asleep. Some people can’t learn from powerpoint+talk style. Even so, don’t skip every single lecture for a subject; you might miss crucial info, for example about how to do assignments. Some lecturers will be really specific about things like how they want assignments done, and you can only find out by being there.
– Obviously everything you don’t attend becomes your own responsibility to figure out. This can be easy or hard depending, for example, on how closely a subject follows a textbook. Some lecturers use all their own material, in which case it could be almost impossible to learn yourself. Others follow textbooks to the word, which makes it easier to teach yourself.
– It’s always a good idea to download lecture notes (i.e. powerpoint slides) if they are made available online. You can take them to the lecture and annotate them, or look at them electronically later for reference. Please consider the environment when printing slides (printing 1 powerpoint slide per A4 page is BAD KARMA).
– Start good study habits from day 1, week 1. In 1st year subjects, most of the content is really foundational, so basic studying techniques like writing notes should work well.
– Make your own short notes, e.g. from the textbook or subject reader. Remember that at exam time you won’t have time to read whole chapters again – trying to skim read the textbook before an exam does not work. More importantly, the process of reading something closely and making your own notes will make a huge difference in how much you learn.
– You could use a 4 subject notebook, or one ring binder, or an exercise book for each subject, whatever suits you. For each subject, you should have something like a heading for each week and then everything you need to know from that week under that heading. Do it every week.
– In reading-heavy subjects (e.g. humanities, education), don’t just read. Write notes too; at the very least, make a note of what was useful or important in each reading/reference/case that you look at. That makes it much easier when it’s time to write an essay. The subject readings you are given are almost always the starting point for the references you will use in assignments.
– In maths, physical sciences and engineering it’s more about doing practice questions than notes, but don’t neglect notes too. For example it’s good to write down definitions, like ‘v’ could be used for 5 different variables depending on what topic you’re in so write everything out clearly. Just highlighting the slide that summarizes all the formulas does not work (but watch everyone do it). Ideally you should understand where the formulas come from.
– Most undergrad subjects are broken up discretely every week or couple of weeks; e.g. first year biology: week 1 we study proteins, week 2 we study cells, week 3 we study DNA, etc. (not realistic just an example). If you know the topic for each ‘week’, you already have a good sense of the scope of the whole subject come exam time and that makes it much easier to mentally ‘check’ if you know everything and identify which ‘weeks’ you need to re-study.
Overall, if you just go to the lecture and then put the material away til the exam, you won’t learn it and you won’t do very well. That’s why everyone does worse at uni compared to year 12. You have to go back over everything after the lecture, in your own time, in whatever way you prefer. (For me it was writing notes from textbooks/readings in my own words).
The first round of important ones usually comes by week 4.
The best way to handle any assignment is to start as soon as you have enough info to know exactly what the lecturer/tutor wants. This also allows you to roll your eyes at everyone when they’re stressing on the week (or day) it’s due. The number one thing that uni students do badly is leaving assignments until the week or day they’re due. That’s the main difference between an F and a P, or between a C and an HD
Learn how to manually write references as soon as possible. Your faculty probably has a preferred style (APA or Harvard). Learn it. It’s boring, but do it now so you’re not one of the kids who still can’t do it in 4th year. Learn where the full-stops and the commas go, where there’s brackets or not brackets, how to do journal articles and books and book chapters. Just do it. Start using and referencing peer reviewed journal articles right away in any subjects with essays or reports, the less you rely on textbooks or subject readers the more your lecturers will be impressed. Learn how to use your library website and access relevant journals as soon as possible.
Read the marking criteria, then read it again. Just like in the HSC, most of the time they’re looking for specific things to award marks for. Work out what those things are and get them right. A lot of first assignments in 1st year subjects will be aimed at getting you to demonstrate a particular competency or principle, like doing basic academic writing properly or following the conventions of a lab report. Most people lose heaps of marks because of all the little technical things that your tutors (usually cynical graduate students) will look for. Come 3rd year there’s always someone in the class that still gets those things wrong – don’t be that guy.
That’s basically all there is to it. Doing well at uni is about managing time and minimizing marks lost on assignments. There’s also exams, but if you’ve done the HSC then you already know how to prepare for uni exams.
Other stuff people ask about:
– How hard is uni compared to year 12? – How hard you found school depends on a huge range of factors like how good the school is, the teachers, your parents, your peers, your behaviour… who knows. At uni it’s pretty much all up to you how you want to play the game. I think the hardest thing about uni is consistency, it’s easy to study everything closely one week, but doing it for 13 weeks straight is hard. If passing (getting 50) in every subject is enough for you, then that’s okay; everyone has different goals. At the same time you can learn heaps of stuff and challenge yourself (even in ‘easy’ subjects) if you want to. You might surprise yourself.
– Is group work as bad as they say? – It’s usually not too bad, in fact it’s a good way to meet people early in your course. But sometimes you just get stuck with a shit group. My strategy in this case was to take a leading role rather than waiting for someone else to do so, and take an active role in organising the rest of the group. Tell them what to do. 99% of people are probably lazier than you, but if you give them a specific bit of the task and tell them how to do it, they’ll manage to produce something passable. Check up on their progress (i.e. harass them with emails every few days, lol).
– What are tutorials like? – Differs by subject area. If you have a tutorial where you have to attend and participate in discussion/activities, do a little bit of preparation. Ten minutes spent getting a sense of the concepts to be covered in a particular tutorial will be ten minutes more than 99% of people will ever spend. You can look like you know a lot just by knowing one or two key things.
–What are labs like? – Sometimes 1st year practical work feels like it’s designed to scare you and in a way it is. Do some preparation. If you’re like me and not very technically minded (i.e. scared of the equipment), team up with someone who’s good at that stuff. This means you can spend more time thinking about the concepts/results and write a better report. Teamwork makes it easier.
– How do grades work? – Grades are categorized as: 0-49 fail, 50-64 pass, 65-74 credit, 75-84 distinction and 85-100 high distinction at most unis. ‘WAM’ or weighted average mark is the average of all your marks for each subject. GPA or grade point average takes your grade (pass, credit etc.) for each subject and assigns a score – 0 for fail, 3 for pass conceded, 4 for pass, 5 for credit, 6 for distinction, 7 for high distinction, then averages those. You don’t really need to worry about any of this; these scores are used for things like transfers or entry into honours, etc.
– What if the first few weeks is stuff I learned in Year 12? – Sometimes the first few weeks of lower level maths, economics or other subjects might seem like stuff you covered at school. You should still attend lectures, study it and do it properly, if only just to get good habits going and get used to the uni style of teaching and learning. Realize that it’s being taught again for a reason, probably because it’s a foundation for whatever comes next, and more importantly, by June you won’t remember anything from high school anyway. In 1st year maths I saw a lot of people slack off because the first 2 weeks was stuff like trig they knew from HS. In the end, they all did pretty bad.
– I didn’t do maths/chemistry/physics/economics/swahili in year 12, can I still do this degree? – Probably. It’s impossible to say whether you can do a particular degree or not. You need to look closely at the subject description/outline of each individual subject you’re going to do in first year. It’s pretty rare for uni subjects to have prerequisites (high school subjects you MUST do), but many still have assumed knowledge. Higher mathematics courses in particular might assume 3 unit or 4 unit. In some degrees there will be easier options for those who only did 2 unit (e.g. you can choose math101, or math102 if you did more maths at HS). For science, my personal opinion is that the HSC science courses are worthless as long as you’re ready to work hard in 1st year. Languages are an area where you need to read very carefully what knowledge they will assume in the subjects you will be taking. In areas like economics, history, it’s very rare to have assumed knowledge per say (other than some ability to write an essay). People who did high school subjects in your area probably won’t have an advantage for more than about 2 weeks.