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How to Survive First Year

So, it’s the end of the first week of October 2017 and you can officially say that you are a First Year university student.

Firstly, congratulations!

Secondly, what have you gotten yourself into? (I’m kidding – but I’m completely serious at the same time.)

At first, I wasn’t going to write this blog post. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of people already out here giving advice for new university students, but I felt that I could share some pointers from a different perspective.

My decision to write this was also made concrete when I met two friendly girls in the library and they asked me for advice on getting through first year. I’m not gonna lie, I was caught off guard – I was excited because someone was actually asking me for advice and they were listening so attentively but there was just so much I had learned that I wanted to share, I didn’t know where to start. (Also it’s very hard to give solid advice on a moving and crowded lift.)

So, I’ve written this in an effort to better articulate myself and to give some coherent advice on surviving the first year of university!

Learn how you learn

I  assume that you’re attending university to learn the content of your chosen course. Please, if you’re not, you may want to re-evaluate everything because university life can be a real challenge – cognitively, emotionally, even spiritually for some. Of course, there are elements of university life that are so much fun, but please don’t be spending £9000+ just to have fun. (You can have fun bowling for £10.)

Naturally, with this being a blog revolving around learning and self-improvement, the first useful tip is to learn how best you learn.

Identify the methods that work particularly well for you.

blur, brainstorming, businessAre you a visual learner? If so, you might want to use mind-maps and presentation software (Powerpoint, Prezi, etc) to create links between images and the information you’re learning. Colour is also important, so try using different coloured pens, highlighters and sticky-notes for visual representations of how you categorise information.

Top view of phone, earphones, pen and diaryAre you an auditory learner? If you are, you could listen to podcasts related to your course or record yourself reading out passages from your books/articles/materials so you can learn by listening.

advice, advise, advisor

Are you a kinesthetic or hands-on learner? If you like to take a tactile or more active approach to learning new things, try organising a study group where you take part in teaching other people what you’ve learned so you can engage with the information in a more physical sense.

When you know and use the methods that help you to better retain information, you don’t have to waste time passively reading and writing reams, which can make for a harder time studying if you gain nothing from doing this.

Contextualise your learning

It would also be beneficial to contextualise the information you are being taught so that it becomes relevant to you.

For example, one of the modules I took in first year was Property Law and for the longest time I just couldn’t relate because whilst the lecturer was convinced that we should be thanking ‘our’ Victorian ancestors for their rules on restrictive covenants, the only connection I had with the Victorians was their colonization of my country (see ‘White settlement in Zimbabwe before 1923‘. Sips very hot rooibos tea.)

But then I started to create my own problem questions for myself and things just started to click. Essentially, by working backwards and being creative I could immediately see what I knew and then fill in the gaps of my knowledge.

This could depend on the course that you’re on, but find connections between what you’re learning and what’s happening in the real world. Look at the news, current events, pop/celebrity culture or even things that are happening in your personal life and try to make those links so that you can add value to the information you need to learn. This can also help to give you a new perspective which can make for more interesting commentary and analysis in your work.

Figure out your note-taking methods

Of course, you can’t go through university without taking notes of some kind so it would be super useful to find a method (or methods) that you can refine to suit your needs.

This would be a good time to note some advice that one of my friends (thank you, Tatenda!) gave me: note-taking at university potentially occurs in three stages; during lectures, when you’re studying and when you’re revising.

In Lectures:

The first stage of note-taking is when you’re in lectures (classes, tutorials, seminars, etc).

There are various ways of taking notes at this stage. I personally like to use the Cornell method, whereby my page is split into ‘Cues’, ‘Notes’ and ‘Summary’ sections. I incorporate the outline method into the ‘Notes’ section, so my information is laid out in a hierarchical structure (I like to compartmentalise things in my mind, and this creates the closest visual representation of that). For example:


HTSFY Mels printscreenHTSFY Criminal printscreen

I’ve also tweaked the Cornell method to suit me by adding another section titled ‘Reading’ for notes I take from my assigned reading material.

You may want to try using a laptop then pen and paper so you can gauge which note-taking medium best suits you at university level (These lecturers really just like to throw loaaaadds of words at you).

Note that whilst using a laptop means you can take down more information, there’s always the danger of writing down what the lecturer says verbatim. The problem with this is that you’re not really listening and processing the information then and there, you’re just hearing the words and essentially creating more work for yourself later when you have to go back to the notes and actually decipher their meaning. So if you’re set on using your laptop (which is my preferred method), do make sure you’re taking the time to focus on the meaning of the words and getting things down in a way that makes sense to you, to save yourself time and energy.

Also, I’ve found it useful to go back over my lecture and seminar notes as soon as I can after I’ve made them so that I can check that I actually understood what was going on for the past hour, and immediately identify possible areas of confusion. If I’m not able to do this right after the lecture (life gets busy sometimes) I try to do it by the end of the day.

Thomas Frank (creator of College Info Geek and Crash Course Study Skills) has written a brilliant, free to download ebook called ’10 Steps To Earning Awesome Grades’ in which he talks about note-taking in great detail if you’d like to find out more! (Pages 12-18)


The next stage is when you’re studying, i.e. when it’s time to be a serious candidate.

This is when I like to use mind maps and other visual methods to understand and condense information from the 18202429204272 books, articles and cases I’ve been assigned for the week. The highlighters, coloured gel pens and post-it notes I like to collect are used to their full potential (and probably beyond, oops) at this stage.

One major tip I have regarding studying that I’ve learned the hard way is to always give yourself more time than you think you’ll need. We tend to underestimate how much time we think it’ll take us to do tasks (this is called the Planning Fallacy), so when I catch myself thinking I can read a 25-page long chapter in one hour, I have to check myself before I wreck myself and make time for at least two hours’ non-stop fun of Constitutional and Administrative Law reading.


The third stage of note-taking is when you’re revising.

At this point, it can be useful to consolidate your lecture notes and study notes, condensing the information even further into memorable summaries, topic overviews and short sentences for flashcards.

Note that the revision period should ideally not be the first time you come across the reading material. I’ll share some more advice from another one of my friends (Heyyy, Karen), which is to start your reading early and to pace yourself.  It’s stressful to look for academic opinion on Paternalism two days before the Legal Theory exam because you’ve been so focused on Sovereignty and Obligation, so avoid the struggle – do a bit of reading every day so you don’t play yourself and end up having to read entire books a few days before exams.

Get yourself into a routine

The last bit of advice I have is to establish a routine so that you can build good, productive habits.

When you’ve probably just enjoyed a nice, long summer of not being under constant time pressure to get work done, it can initially be difficult to get back into the swing of doing work again. This doesn’t then mean you have to micro-manage yourself and do what Elon Musk does by planning your day according to every 5 minutes, and you don’t have to have a strict regime like this guy on LinkedIn – it’s not about punishing yourself.

Maybe start with just consistently attending lectures and seminars, then memorise their times and locations so that you can begin to organise when you can study, eat, sleep, meet friends, go out, etc and get yourself into a routine in that way.

Of course, not every day is going to be a good day. I remember one day where I was so tired from not understanding a seminar and sitting through two lectures that I ended up going straight to sleep at 5pm when I had told myself I’d only have a 25-minute power nap. Just as long as the general trend indicates that you’re progressing or getting better and actually being productive then it’s okay to have a few slow days.

Rewards can be a great incentive to get work done and can reinforce good habits. Schedule in some time for doing something fun so you can relax and *treat yourself two-thousand-and-seventeen* (If you don’t get this reference, watch this). The only catch is to promise yourself this reward with the condition that you complete a work-related task before you can enjoy it, such as finishing your essay or contributing at least once in all of your seminars for the week. In doing so, you can start to associate the feelings of achievement and enjoyment evoked by your reward with the action of completing tasks, and this can motivate you to keep going.

Honestly, it’s amazing what the promise of a mango iced tea and cheesecake from Happy Lemon can do for the quality of my essay writing.

Annnnnd that’s it! This is my advice for surviving your first year of university. I know, it’s a lot – now you can understand the struggle I had in the library with those girls!

Hopefully, you’ve gained something new and of value, or at least you have been reassured that getting through first year is absolutely possible, it just requires actively thinking about what and how you’re learning and making things work for you.

Ultimately, I hope that you’ll thrive this year, and do more than just survive.

Onwards and upwards,

Anoshamisa 🙂

For more practical tips on how to get the most out of your studies throughout your whole degree, check out 25 Scientifically Proven Tips For More Effective Studying by Joy Miller from!

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