A Dozen Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Started Uni

I’ve turned (gasp!) thirty this year and it seems to be a common discussion among my friends that we all wish we could go back and be undergraduates again. Reality is quick to remind us of mortgages that wouldn’t be serviced by part-time retail jobs and 30-year-old metabolisms that wouldn’t be serviced by the mi goreng diet, but we still dream about how we’d act differently if we were doing our bachelor degrees today.

It’s not that we chose the wrong degrees, or did poorly, but as 18 year olds we simply weren’t fully equipped to seize the opportunity at hand: to learn everything possible from the best brains in the business and try new things in a supportive environment. We might not be able to turn back the clock, but if you’re gearing up to start uni this semester – whether you’re pre-20s, mid-30s or post-40s – then take it from us: your degree will be what you make of it.

Here are some of our tips to make sure your uni years really are the best years your life.

1. No, you’re not the dumbest person on campus

Your fellow classmates might be nodding knowingly in the lecture theatre but that doesn’t mean they have any more of a clue than you do. While some people are amazingly good at giving the impression of having a higher brain function, the fact is that the majority of students won’t have heard of the academics they will be reading every week, let alone their concepts.

Sure, universities are, by definition, a place for people who are good at studying, but that doesn’t suddenly mean that as soon as you step foot inside those sandstone walls you have to give up gossip magazines for the dictionary. And the beauty of university is that you know just by getting in that you have every right to be there! So leave your ATAR at the door and focus on the subjects you love.


Look at all the big words I don't understand

2. It’s ok if you don’t understand every reading

Almost no one gets through every reading before class, let alone finds the time to ingest the full groaning list of ‘recommended reading’. If you start a reading and find it’s all making about as much sense as a foreign language, and you’ve already Googled the author, then put it down and read it after the lecture when you’ve got a little more context.


Keep calm and study on

3. You’re not the only one panicking, and everyone gets lost

If you get through your first semester and haven’t felt that special kind of dread that hits your stomach before you open the door to a closed lecture theatre, then you’re definitely in the minority. And don’t worry, your first assignment will be sure to make you want to retreat to your doona until it’s all over. It’s ok to feel like a fish out of water, but if you’re still getting sweaty palms in week six then you might need to work on some coping strategies – try getting in touch with the student support services at your institution and read on.


Has to participate in groupwork - suddenly feels ill

4. Don’t be afraid to make friends, it’s worth it

In my first year at university it took me weeks before I pushed myself to talk to people, turn up for the free lunch on Tuesdays and take part in trivia. Insulating myself from the awkwardness of meeting people actually made those first few months really stressful. And I’m not the only one to make that mistake: according to the Centre for the Study of Higher Education’s (CSHE) ongoing research first-year students are becoming more isolated, taking part in less activities and making fewer friends.

One of the greatest experiences you get at uni is the opportunity to work with some really interesting and smart peers. Filming a group project in the Bondi Junction car park definitely pushed me out of that shell! Out of all the things I did at uni I remember my group projects most fondly – in fact, a group of us still run ideas past each other eight years later.


Being different is awesome

5. Once you’ve made friends, be wary of following them

It’s bound to happen. You’ve got your timetable sorted and have just realised everyone decided to take Colour Theory this semester and Visual Communication in semester two. Don’t freak out and change your life around just because it’s more comfortable to follow the pack.

Uni is exactly the right time to meet people who share the same interests as you, so you need to you run your own race. Make sure you take responsibility for understanding your own academic requirements – being in a crowd doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the best path and there’s nothing worse than realising you have one subject to go when everyone else is ready for graduation! Check in with your student services office to confirm you’re on track.


School attendance is a key factor in student success

6. No one’s calling your mother if you ditch, but you still need to turn up

Whether you’re studying on campus or online, you do need to make sure you keep up with the class. Don’t think that just because no one will be on your back if you skip an online seminar that you’ve somehow won the day. Some subjects will even count attendance as part of your overall marks. 

Finally forced to speak in class - doesn't even sound like you

7. Find your voice

You’re the one paying thousands of dollars to take part, so believe me when I say: a lot of the concepts become clear when you can hear everyone else’s ‘stupid’ questions answered and add some half-baked thoughts of your own. Take advantage of the discussions, whether they are online or in tutorials, and use your degree as a great opportunity to test out ideas – you won’t be able to speak as freely in professional life when you’re worried about doing a good job.



The experience quandry

8. P might = degree, but HD = professional pedigree

I heard the ‘P=degree’ saying a lot when I was at uni, but I have to be honest: even then I didn’t buy it. With more than a quarter of school leavers getting a degree, you really do need to think about keeping your grades high in order to stand out from the crowd.

And don’t get trapped in the thought that your professional experience is just as important as your uni work. It will be later on, but when you’re an undergraduate you should be careful of spreading yourself too thinly, whether it’s with internships or casual work. The CSHE‘s stats back me up, confirming that longer hours of work are associated with a lower grade average and increased likelihood of deferral.


Do all the things!

9. There’s no way around it. You need to be organised.

Just because you hear the word uni and you think ‘freedom’ doesn’t mean you should throw all your caution to the wind. To make the most of all the great extra-curricular opportunities, the new friends, guest lectures and beer pong, you’ll need to get a diary and manage it well.

Uni was probably the first time in my life that I needed to be in multiple places in the one day, so I suggest you get real about it: you need sleep. You need to put your lecture notes somewhere you can find them. You can only rely on yourself.


Enjoy your research

10. Get help with your research

There’s an important difference between relying on yourself and knowing when you should put your hand up for help. One of the best things to do in your first weeks at uni is to attend the information sessions and seminars on studying, researching, referencing sources and how to use the library. Uni assignments take a lot more time to research, brainstorm and write, so getting confident with your research skills will save you a lot of all-nighters down the track.


Ask questions to get feedback

11. Get feedback

I was a pretty consistent student but I once got a pass on one assignment and a high distinction on the one directly after. Unfortunately I thought that all I could really do was compare the number of ticks on the page. According to the CHSE, one-third of students don’t believe they receive helpful feedback so chances are you’re going to experience the same frustration.

If you’re finding it hard to work out why you’re a genius one minute and a dunce the next, make an appointment to see your lecturer or tutor – that way they will have a chance to prepare and your feedback will be better for it.


Don't feel bad: you can change your mind

12. If it’s not working for you, change!

I had a few friends who didn’t get into their first preferences so struggled through first year in something else and never really hit their stride. Whatever you do, don’t give up! If you maintain good marks you can always apply for a transfer into a course you really want to do, or even change universities if the grass is looking greener elsewhere.

And if you are finding the demands of getting to class just aren’t working for your lifestyle, then you can always change to an online course, allowing you to get the same qualification in your own time, from any location. If you want a new way of studying, or you’re looking to change your career path, you can always apply for recognition for any relevant subjects you’ve already done.

Whatever you do, expect the difficulty, awkwardness, fear and doubt but don’t let it stop you from taking advantage of your time as a student – it’s all going to be worth it in the end.


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