I’ll never forget my years at the university, especially the first. My hopeless navigation skills, an overhaul of books, a sudden sense of freedom & overly spaced-out campus were all part of the journey, but it’s questionable whether I actually remember much of what I was taught. When you first arrive, you’re faced with so many new ‘life lessons’ that it’s hard to even consider that you’ll be squeezing in the essay work as you’re burning a salad. My fond memories perhaps are centered more towards Freshers’ week and the many friends that I made, not to mention the student hall bar where I spent many a night.

You see upon enrolling, I was made aware that my first days of studying would not be counted toward my overall mark. A pass, regardless of the grade would be sufficient to qualify me for my next round of hurdles so needless to say I was less inclined to put my studies at the top of my to-do list (not that I like to admit this!) Today, this way of learning is the same for many courses, degrees, and universities all over, with thousands of students knowing full well that the ‘hard work’ will most probably start in their second year.

The question is, is this the correct way to approach it? It’s obvious that it works, I graduated with a good grade and so did many that I studied with, but it doesn’t mean that it’s effective. Whilst we all love the idea of a little lenience, we are still paying the full whack. With this in mind, surely it would be in our best interests to make the most out of what we’re given, regardless of whether it doesn’t always count. Finding your voice and your own style of writing is essential, especially in certain subject areas. It’s understandable that many of us struggle when completing our first few assignments, referencing is suddenly thrust upon us and we’re thrown in at the deep end. Receiving a few low grades to begin with is fine, that’s what the first term is there for. But ask yourself whether you really need to continue on a path that suggests it doesn’t really matter? Or should we aim to improve ready for when the big boys are set?

There are plenty of qualified graduates out there, but if you put the extra effort in earlier on, you’ll most likely put yourself in a much better position to stand out from the crowd. This said, if our first marks counted, it may ease the load in those last months before graduation and help to create a less stressful environment (I never particularly liked the no sleep, full of caffeine, square-boxed computer screen look). The actions and habits you develop in your first year can potentially follow you into your second, third, or even fourth years, so it would be in your best interests to get ahead around the way of the essay world as early on as possible. It’s easy enough to put a failed mock or exam to the back of your mind when you feel that you’ve got a few years to correct it, but the bitter truth is that if you get enough marks of that nature, they will be your final grade.

In my own experiences, I do understand that your first months of the new life should be about finding your feet. If you make a small amount of mistakes along the way then you’re hardly damaging the prospects of your dream career in three years time, so learn from them. Although your degree mark is extremely important, maturing and adjusting to adult life will help you succeed just as much in the long run. University isn’t just about academia; personal development plays an important and integral part, so balance your academic and social life. I’m sure I speak for many when I say if I could go back and change a few things about the way in which I worked in my uni days, I would. In adult life, there aren’t many situations where you’re granted the option of a second chance, and by God, I wish I’d respected this. It goes without saying that all of us should enjoy letting the seminar notes gather a little dust, but keep in mind that a bit of extra hard work when the start gun blows will go a long, long way.

Reflecting on my experiences, there are three key lessons I learned. 

Take time for yourself. The biggest mistake I made during my first two years was devoting myself entirely to school. When I wasn’t in class, I was studying or working. I thought grades were everything and spent so much time trying to get the perfect grades. This led to me feeling totally burnt out by my third year of university.  School is time-consuming, but taking care of yourself is important for your success. Make time to see friends, hit the gym, play a sport you love, or just enjoy some downtime. School is stressful and you deserve some time to unwind!  

Enjoy the experience. It’s so easy to get caught up with focusing on the finish line: the day you graduate with a degree. Try not to focus only on the end; enjoy the rollercoaster ride that university is! Take courses you are interested in, attend networking events and conferences that intrigue you, join a club, or volunteer in the community. When you’re involved on campus or in the community you meet some great people and will help build your network for after school. When you graduate, who you know matters just as much, if not more, than what you know. Find things that you are passionate about and enjoy the experience!  

Embrace the chaos. University is an adjustment. Managing coursework, group meetings, a job, and extracurricular activities can be stressful! Don’t let this intimidate you. Learning to balance everything and prioritize your time is an important skill that will make your life a whole lot more manageable! There were times that school was so chaotic for me – at one time I was working 15 hours a week and working on 4 huge capstone projects… but I made it, and I learned valuable time management skills. I learned to believe in myself and my potential. Know that the chaos and stress school brings is only temporary, but so worth it!  Hard work really does pay off.

Ultimately, it all comes down to balance. University flies by, so enjoy the experience!  

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