Lessons from First Year


Your first year of university is the tutorial phase of higher education and, quite often, adulthood. It’s a clumsy, volatile period, but this uncertainty holds as much opportunity as it does liability. Here are my reflections as one of last year’s fresh faces, bearing advice for the Freshers of 2019/20.
First year doesn’t countso use this time wisely
As everyone will be eager to tell you, ‘first year doesn’t count.’  Your flatmates will remind you through a roguish grin as bottles appear on the table and they settle on tonight’s motive. You’ll hear it from upper-years in the wistful tones of a retired athlete during their advice on how to spend your first year. And they’re right, it doesn’t count towards your eventual degree classification. But if you’re at university for the right reasons, you’ll bear in mind that it definitely counts as the foundation of your academic success.
First year is your opportunity to settle on your workflow: how you work best, where you work best, and when you work best. The library or your room? Lunchtime or after hours? Taking notes before, during or after lecturesif at all? There are many more questions. Figuring out early on how to be productive will serve you in the years ahead when your workload grows in both quantity and significance.
Depending on what you’re studying, your first year is between a fifth to a third of your progress at university. Have fun, but don’t miss out on reaching your potential.
There’s time for your needs
This goes out especially (but not exclusively) to medics, engineers, and the rest of us maxing out on contact hours between lectures, labs and tutorials. There is time for breakfast. There is time to meet up. There is time to stay within budget and cook dinner at home. There is time to go to the gym or attend that practice session. There is always time for life outside of education.
Tempting as it may be under a surge of deadlines and contact hours, never treat your wellbeing as optional. Health and satisfaction are the root of productivity – without them, you’ll find yourself constantly restless. Maintain a life and tasks outside of your coursework and you’ll be more receptive whenever you sit down to work. That’s how you save time: being functional.
Whatever happens, you can make up the difference
Something will happen. Maybe you’ll drink too much one night and skip a crucial lecture your second week in (or an entire day’s worth, like I managed). Maybe you’ll get food poisoning and for a week you’ll struggle to walk 6 minutes to the nearest Co-op for meds and food, let alone face your coursework. Maybe it’s the winter weather that’ll do you in, be it through flu or seasonal depression. Something will happen and all of a sudden, you won’t be at your best.
When it happens, don’t spiral. While you’re in the thick of it, your first and only priority should be your recovery. After that, your go-to is the holy trinity: Blackboard, your Personal Tutor, and your department’s Student Office. Blackboard (or any internal equivalent) is where course notes, materials and recordings are archived; your Personal Tutor is who makes note of disruptions to your studies and coaches you accordingly; the Student Office is where you can apply for special considerations, including extensions and resits.
Be sure to register with your nearest GP as soon as you’ve settled in Southampton – you want easy access to a doctor’s note.
You have more resources than you realise or will remember
There’s a near-literal tonne of resources and helplines within the University for both the short and long term, which is as reassuring as it is overwhelming. Spanning mental health, academic skills, financial support, legal advice and more, you won’t find out about them all in one place and you certainly won’t memorise the list.
Good news: you shouldn’t need to. Between SUSU representatives, halls receptionists, faculty staff (especially Personal and Senior Tutors) and the Internet, finding a lifeline should just be a matter of strategic questioning. Look out for leaflets and posters in the background as well; every now and then, pause and take a proper look so that you can keep them in the back of your mind.
Need a day off? Don’t ask yourself twice
Fact #1: Full-time education is taxing.
Fact #2: Independence is freedom as to how much time and energy you spend meeting your commitments.
Now is when you’ll discover how to use (versus abuse) this autonomy. You won’t be at your peak 24/7. You’ll have those days where the weekend seems too far away. Sometimes, you’ll just need to skip something; as long as you’re not jeopardising anyone and you can make up for it later, there’s nothing inherently fatal about working around your own mood from time to time. Guilt is a useless emotion when you’re the only party involved.
Show up, ask questions later
How do you run into all the life-changing activities and discoveries you’re promised during your time at uni? Show up. To events, to tasters, on applicationsliterally just show up.
The biggest takeaway from first year is that you have more experience and initiative than you realise, and most opportunities will meet you halfway as a beginner. New experiences, new hobbies and new connections always await you in the background; the key to constant fulfilment is to keep surprising yourself.
Good luck, newbie.

Third-year Electronic Engineering student, em dash conservationist. Sometimes, I write. If you write for Wessex, there's a 1-in-3 chance I'll edit it.

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