You got into university, hurray! All those tests and early mornings, all those heavy textbooks and stubborn report cards, all the hard work has finally paid off and it’s time to think about the next step in your academic career. It goes without saying that studying and learning at university is very different to how you were taught at school. That is perhaps the main difference – at school, you are taught to add, subtract, read, write, whatever, at least to a certain extent. Depending on your school and programme, you teachers will essentially have imparted their knowledge to you in a way that is (relatively) accessible, and well, safe. At university, however, the vast majority of learning is down to you. You are not taught the answers to questions, or given templates to help you pass exams. Instead, you are expected to learn as a result of your own hunger and to spoon-feed yourself. You are not carried but merely guided down a path of critical, self-reliant thinking in an environment that is perfect for doing exactly that.
Now, some students find this a breeze and may even feel this is what they’ve been waiting for all their lives. Others can struggle a little bit, especially because there is a whole range of factors that can be involved as you transition from secondary to tertiary education. A bit of a heads up might be helpful so you fall into the former category, and can truly be the wide-eyed and eager academic you always dreamt of being.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between school and university is the: teaching/learning format. Of course, this depends on your university, your course, your teaching staff… But, you are most likely not going to be in a classroom with a set number of students and a teacher relaying to you a national curriculum, testing you at various points in the year on clearly laid out subject matter.
You will have less student-teacher contact time than ever before. Whether you are attending lectures full of hundreds of (attentive?) students on the speaker’s personal research, going to seminars where open discussion and debate flows like beer at a crowded bar in Freshers’ Week, attending tutorials (often one-on-one!) in which you go over work prepared in advance, or labs where you get down to business at your own pace – learning at university is an entirely new experience. It is designed for you to use your adult curiosity and passion for your subject to question and even contribute to the field, surrounded by people interested in doing the same.
At university, no one is going to be peering over your shoulder to make sure you get to the library and get some work done. No curfews, no one checking attendance… you suddenly have literally 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to yourself. It’s not like your parents will be able to keep tabs on you with report cards and parent-teacher meetings anymore either. It’s now completely up to you to adjust to your new environment and lifestyle, balancing this newfound independence properly. Take the time out for your academics (arguably the main purpose of attending university…) as well as your personal (and equally important) endeavours. Not that cramming was a particularly good bet at school, but by the time your university term ends, you won’t have a step-by-step curriculum with all the points you need to know laid out in front of you. University exams are usually a test of your opinions on the faculty’s own research, and the application of your knowledge of it; you obviously won’t get that knowledge unless you get out of bed and go to your lectures, attend your tutorials and do the extra reading.
Use whatever method works best for you to stay on top of things. Having a planner or using an app like Google Tasks or Calendar to keep track of what you need to be doing for when (no friendly deadline reminders anymore, unfortunately) is a good start. Make friends on your course so you can motivate and help each other. Let loose and have fun, but don’t forget to buckle up and knuckle down!
The content of your university course is probably going to be more noticeably difficult and detailed than anything you’ve been exposed to up to now. You’re cutting down from multiple subjects to focus on one or two. You are an academic adult and will be treated as such. For some, it might even be an entirely new subject! Take everything in your stride, and try not to be too worried by the nitty gritty details, especially in your first few months as you lay the groundwork for later. Focus on the bigger picture, the aspects of your subject(s) that you enjoy, and your interests will develop naturally from that.
Even though you might not be being ‘looked after’ in the same way you were at school, it’s perfectly okay to ask for help if you need it. Your institution will have lots of support services available, often free of charge, that can be confidential, continuous, anonymous, anything! Although they might feel more distant than the schoolteachers you saw every day, don’t forget that your lecturers, personal tutors and course organisers want you to succeed, they want to pass their baton on to you. Get in touch, ask for clarification if you’re not sure. Also remember that everyone else around you is in the same boat! You’re not competing against each other for anything. Share the load, ask for help.
As cliched as it may sound, the next few years of your life will be overwhelming and amazing in terms of your social and academic freedom. Question, create, and embrace everything. Take every opportunity to learn something new, and you won’t miss out on the very intense satisfaction you’ll feel the day you get that shiny degree; you’ll carry it with you for the rest of your life.
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