Friday, 28 June 2013

Five Thoughts From First Year

Hi, everyone. It's been a shamefully long time since my last update. Since then, I've navigated through exams, cramming, parties, more exams, procrastination, even more cramming, and even more more exams, and have somehow emerged none the worse for wear. I can say with complete confidence that I have just had the most challenging, and best, year of my life. I feel far more mature and happy than I did 9 months ago, waiting nervously to trundle down to uni and face up to the unknown. I've learnt so much, most of it away from work and essays and study. Therefore, here are the five things that I think have been the most useful for me to recognise during my time as a fresher.

1. The best thing about university is the people that you meet
I have met too many wonderful, amazing people over the last 9 months to count. I know I'm incredibly lucky to have done so - it's true that many people find it tough to settle in for a very long time. I definitely had moments of insecurity and loneliness in my first term, but after a while that fades away and most people develop a network of close friends who are as much a support group as everything else. Going to university, where people have specialised beyond A Levels, means it's an amazing opportunity to meet people with such deep diverse interests and learn from them. I've spent tutorials discussing aspects of my subject with my course mates and learnt as much from them as from the tutors. University life is so different from school life and as such you can do so many ridiculous things that are just amazing bonding experiences. I'm so excited to see everyone again in the Autumn - 3 months can't go by fast enough!

2. Unfortunately, don't expect too much in terms of academic support
I know what I thought about my particular university prior to starting; how organised it would be, how clear things like exams would be for students. I recognise that there is a lot of pastoral support there if necessary. However, university is not like school. Tutors do not spend their time helping us - they spend their time on their own academic work and we, unfortunate though it may be to admit it, are (rightfully) left to fend for ourselves. This sometimes means that things that would be ridiculous at school (a large number of unmarked essays that, at this point, I don't expect to ever get back) just have to be accepted. Also, things we take for granted at A Level - the availability of mark schemes for past papers - just aren't even produced. I guess the fact that exams are now set by the university rather than nationally means that things like mark schemes and syllabuses are organised by a far smaller group of people, so they have less time, but in my view it means we are more at risk of never fully understanding a concept than we ever would have been regarding an A Level topic. At school, you get taught something, you do a piece of work, you get it corrected to plug any gaps in your understanding. At university, it's common to not be taught something at all, then to have to do a piece of work, find yourself completely lost, do terribly, and due to the small amount of feedback, never really understand it at all. For most degrees there is some degree of flexibility about what you choose to learn - for example, you can avoid a difficult topic for a paper if you've prepared for 6 topics and need to answer questions on 4 - but that isn't always the case, and it's a bit frustrating.

3. You will take a while to find your feet
Some people go from coasting at school to being way out of their depth at university because the expected standards are so different. I was never one of them, because I never coasted at school, but I did take a while to adjust to the 'university standard' of work expected. In my first term, I routinely struggled through problem sets that should have been completed over a few days in the few hours before dawn/the tutorial. Having a particularly bad first period of mock exams really changed my attitude and I spent probably about 5 times long on my work for the second term; I got much better results and I was so much happier. It really is worth the effort. Everyone takes time to adjust but I do wish I'd been sterner with myself sooner. Now I've finished my first year exams I'm excited to move on to preparing for Finals (which are the only exams that count towards our final degree classification) being more sure of myself and how I work best. Also, if your brain tries to convince you to work in your room instead of the library, don't listen to it. Your room has a bed in it. One thing leads to another, and you'll be working in bed, then napping, then oops the whole day is gone, and you are an idiot.

4. It's ok to need support
It's not abnormal to struggle. Everyone does at some point, whether socially or academically. I found that, particularly in the first term, it's really common to think that you are the only one who is feeling alone, or scared, or frustrated. Having your own room means you have your own space, but it's still different from living at home with your family where you can roam around as you like, and if it's early in the year and you don't know the people around you very well it's easy to feel boxed in. There were a few days over the year where I probably only saw one or two people. Shutting yourself in like this might be necessary because of upcoming deadlines occasionally, but it's so important to take a break. I spent the days before my first exams locked in my room eating ready meals and cramming desperately, but I eventually realised that hanging out with everyone else, and being mutually encouraging and motivating, is so much better and is a much healthier attitude to have around exams. Also, when you're in trouble, it's likely that everyone around you is feeling exactly the same way. At university, a problem shared is definitely a problem halved.

5. Enjoy it while you can
I can't believe it, but I am no longer a fresher. I am a third of the way to being a graduate. Next year, I start preparing for my final exams. Next autumn, I will be applying for the things I want to do after university. In a year and a half, I will finish learning for my degree. It has gone so, so unbearably fast! Yes, that's a good thing when considering all the tedious bits like essay writing and all nighters. However, it's such a bad thing when considering all the things that have become so important to me so quickly - like all the amazing silly things I've done with my friends this year, and all the challenges I've set myself and mostly managed to overcome. I moved back home a week ago and, in some ways, university feels more like home than my actual home (kidding, parents, if you're reading this). I've grown so much there as a person and I miss it loads already - and I bet graduation will be like this, times a thousand. That's definitely an intimidating prospect.

That's it from me! As always, if you have any questions or comments leave them below and I'll get back to you as soon as possible. Have a great summer everyone!

Emma