Starting at Uni

It is hard to imagine that as a Professor in sociology, my first attempt at university was almost a complete disaster!

I always thought that this was mostly due to the fact that I was the first member of my family to attend university. No one really knew what advice to give me except for my mum – and her advice was that I should take my passport as ‘proof of id’ and packed me some lamb so I could ‘make new friends’! 

But it was not just those of us who are ‘first in family’: in conversations with many friends and colleagues whose parents had also gone to uni, it seems that most of us could have done with some inside information.

So what advice would I give students about to start uni?

Here are seven things to think about that will hopefully make the transition into university easier and a lot more fun!

The first is that it is ok to feel totally overwhelmed! For most people, university is a totally different environment: from the way lectures are run to the way that you are expected to respond in tutorials, your online learning activities and even the name of those buildings!

As you get into the first few weeks, you tend to wonder ‘what am I doing here?’ Such feelings are fine and they will eventually pass.

The second thing is that despite such feelings, you are NOT an imposter! I remember thinking that someone from the university was going to call me and say ‘sorry, you do not belong here…’ You have worked hard to be at university – and you certainly belong. This ‘imposter syndrome’ is something that we never lose: so feel better that many of your lecturers probably feel the same way!

Thirdly, make sure that you attend everything – even those things that are not compulsory – and complete everything that is due. Although you may get marks for just turning up in some subjects, most of the time attendance is optional. For many of us, a 9 am lecture seems like a struggle and you could probably find a hundred reasons not to get out of bed to get to the lecture! But what I have found is that those students always tend to perform better, enjoy the classes more, and simply get into being at uni!

Likewise, make sure that you complete all your assignments. Sometimes students think that if something is only worth 5 per cent it’s not worth the effort, but all marks count! But more than that, all assignments are a way of tracking your progress – and even a small assignment can show you if you are tracking well or need help!

Four is ‘read your assignment feedback’ … and if it is not sufficient, make sure that you make a time to meet with your lecturer or tutor to get some more! It is amazing how often students make the same mistakes and when I ask them if they read the previous feedback, they feel somewhat embarrassed! Feedback is how we best learn: from a karate kick to essays, make sure you take advantage of it!

The fifth thing is learn how to use the library! Most subjects will have a compulsory or at least a recommended text – but this is not enough! You cannot rely on Wikipedia – which is ok for some background – or trust everything that Google throws at you. Learning how to access good quality material that has been peer reviewed is a fundamental skill that will help you through university and beyond!

But remember: If you walk into a library an hour before your assignment is due and seek help, it will be hard to get! Try and plan ahead – most libraries offer one-on-one tutorials that can help you learn how to best access information!

Number six is to plan ahead: if you sit down and list out when all your assignments are due across your subjects, you will find there are always ‘peak’ periods (usually week 7, week 10 and week 14 – most academics lack imagination in this way). It’s hard to write 3 essays in one week … so it’s best to start early and knock off at least one beforehand!

This also means investing in a diary and being committed to keeping it up to date! Trust me. I remember the feeling of lying in bed thinking that it’s ok to miss that lecture then realising that I was expected to submit my essay at that very lecture!

The final point is to have fun! Join societies (as many as you can), go to the end of year ball, compete in the uni games, sit in cafes and chat, read stuff and challenge your friends, debate, argue (in a nice way) and generally enjoy the experience of being at uni! It is an amazing feeling to know that your only goal is to gain knowledge!

I wish I had done more of that – but I was too busy avoiding these things because I did not feel like I belonged! But you do belong – and that is the best thing about university: you will find other people from all over the world who you get to connect with! Do that, and you will make friends for life, as well as be a better student!

Good luck for the year ahead and beyond … you will love it!


James Arvanitakis is a Professor at the Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney and the author of Sociologic. You can read more about James and his book on the Sociologic blog.

One thought on “Starting at Uni

  1. Thanks James, these are well-ordered tips and will benefit anyone who chooses to follow them. With your permission I will add a link to this page to my upcoming presentation to first year students at my university.
    Dr Karin Stokes, Sociologist & Science Discipline Co-ordinator
    Academic Learning Centre
    CQ University Australia

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