Tips for first year students

Congratulations on having the privilege of attending a tertiary institution. You are one of the lucky few, there are thousands who would love to be where you are.

What you do in your first year will impact on the rest of your tertiary career. Too many wrong moves and you might find yourself unable to go back next year. Don’t worry though; first year is not as daunting as it seems if you can find the right balance of academic and social activities, and just plain living.

Here are some tips that will help you have a successful and enriching first year experience:

  • Attend orientation week

Not just the fun activities like the parties, or the live shows of your favourite musicians and DJs, but the boring activities that you think aren’t important but in fact really are. Attend activities like the library orientation course. You might think you have better things to do, but libraries aren’t as easy to browse through as they look and sometimes Google doesn’t have the answer or information you are looking for. Those old books that look like they’ve been there for centuries sometimes contain the most priceless knowledge that will give you the clarity you need to conquer your particular course.

Go on those campus tours with the eager Orientation Assistant telling you random facts about your particular institution. The better you know your way around campus the less your chance of getting lost and being late for class. You will feel more at ease and better prepared if you actually know where you are going.

  •  Develop excellent study habits and a willing focused mind.

Get organised. When you receive your timetable, write up a study plan immediately. Know exactly where your time will be spent and you’ll find you have so much more of it. If your time is organised and correctly balanced your life will also be balanced so you’ll be able to participate in social activities and pass at the same time. If you don’t organise your time you will find that you either spend all of it studying, or partying too much. Neither is good for you because you will end up burnt out or totally unprepared before exams. Get a wall calendar and write down when all your assignments, tests and exams will be so that you can prepare ahead of time.

  • Go to class.

I cannot stress this enough. I know it will be tempting to miss those 8am classes because no one will care if you’re there or not, but going to class will enhance your understanding of the material, ensure that you receive lecture notes, and allow you to make more detailed notes as the lecturer speaks. It will also allow you to meet your classmates, make friends and form study groups. Pre-read the chapters in your textbook which your lecturer will cover, the night before the lecture.

  • Go for consultations.

Your lecturer sets aside hours in his or her week so that you can ask questions about what you don’t know. Use that time and get to know your professors. This will help you greatly both academically and personally. Get into a good study routine and don’t procrastinate. This isn’t high school where perhaps you could pass by studying the night before an exam.

Before you can do all of this, however, you will need to set your goals and really think about what your priorities and motivations are. If you don’t know what you want, you won’t be able to go about getting it.

  • Take advantage of campus resources.

You might feel like you’re a small fish in a big pond, isolated and alone. Join a society or a club on your campus to make friends. There are so many different organisations that it is certain you will find one you like. Sign up for the academic support services and utilise the tutors that are offered to you in each course. If you find that you are still struggling, or are depressed, get help.

  • Go to counseling services offered at your institution.

 This will help your case if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being excluded. If you have failed your first midterms, don’t wait to pick up your marks at exam time. Find what your problems are and fix them. Get a permanent tutor if necessary. Consult your lecturer until you understand the work. Take advantage of the career guidance services if you find that what you are studying is not for you. Sign up for seminars on personal development skills such as time management and goal setting if you don’t know how to implement these skills.

  • Eat right. Get enough exercise. Sleep.

If you don’t have time or find it unnecessary to take care of your health then illness will surely find you and you won’t be able to study and pass. Stay away from the junk food meals. I know that they are cheaper, easier and faster to make but they will drain you of energy quickly and will weaken your immune system so that you aren’t at your best when hitting the books. Schedule exercise into your life. It raises your energy levels and keeps you healthy so you can get the most of your studying. Exercise is anything that raises your heart rate - dancing is as much exercise as running is. Don’t think of it as something boring. Make exercise fun and you will find yourself wanting to do it.

  • Sleep.

You may be surrounded by students who like to sleep at 2am but getting enough hours of sleep every night is very important. You will be more alert in your classes and when you are studying.

  • Build and surround yourself with a strong support structure.

Call home regularly. Let your family know what’s going on in your life, whether you’re doing well or you feel like you’re drowning in the ever-increasing workload. Don’t be afraid to let them know if you are failing. Two heads are better than one when trying to find solutions and you will feel more motivated to tackle your challenges if you know your parents are behind you. Surround yourself with friends whose priorities are aligned with yours. If you surround yourself with people who are all about having a good time rather than studying you will find yourself neglecting your studies and will end up failing your first year. Find a mentor. He or she will guide and support you when you need it.

Remember that if your first year does not go well it is not the end of the world. You might find that you don’t like what you are studying and will want to change courses. You might find that the way you were studying was incorrect. The only way you can learn from your mistakes is if you correct them. Tertiary education is not a race. Don’t become despondent when you see others finishing or it when seems like they know what they want and you don’t. We can only grow from struggle. The transition from high school to university is drastic, but it is not an impossible one to make. Success finds those who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks life throws at them.

Good Luck!

Nomusa Mthethwa is a freelance writer and was until recently an industrial engineering student at Wits University for four years. She wrote this article for Oxford University Press Southern Africa’s website to support first-year students with practical advice. She has contributed to the Mail & Guardian and is a hip-hop columnist for online street culture magazine CHEKA Digital. She is co-founder of an initiative called Suited For Success which provides support for disadvantaged youth going for job interviews.

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