If I had a time machine, I’d travel back to October of 2021 and bestow upon my younger self the following pieces of advice. As my first year of undergraduate studies draws to a conclusion, I’d like to take the opportunity to share some lessons I’ve picked up along the way:
Your network is you net worth
This is a mantra I believe some majors follow more closely than others; certain courses, such as law, could use connections more than others, given the industry’s competitiveness, but all can benefit nonetheless. During my initial arrival weeks, I had hoped I’d be able to survive university by doing the bare minimum when it comes to socialising. Between easing back into my studies and settling down in a completely strange city, I simply could not be bothered to spare my social battery. Over time, this proved impossible. As cliché as it might be, no man is an island; the more people you know, the more you will learn, and the further you will go!
I managed to widen my social circle by throwing myself into the deep end of joining societies, and it has led me to form friendships that I’m sure will last a lifetime. Although, as a self-reflection, I would love to cross paths with peers of different nationalities come second year to learn from their cultures.
Do not spread yourself too thinly
This is a perfect second lesson derived from my relentless signing up for clubs and societies. With an abundance of experience awaiting you in university, it can be exceedingly tempting to dip your toes in every pool. Dear reader, you have to syphon all the willpower to resist said temptation.
The gravest mistake I’ve made in my first year was diving head-first into every activity, society, and club that caught my attention. It could be something related to my course that I thought would advance my knowledge in the field or simply an opportunity to develop my hobbies and skills—you name it, I pounced at it. The result was burnout and a packed schedule that allowed no pauses or breaks. My calendar was technicolour with no gaps between and not in a good way.
My advice to you is to carefully curate a list of every opportunity that excites you and list out the pros of joining each of them and how many hours out of your week they would consume. Use this information and diligently pick two to commit to. This way, you’ll have ample time for your studies and a social life!
Begin budgeting and cooking
These are the two most valuable skills a student can pick up, in my opinion. In the comfort of my home, I’ve never had a reason to sharpen these so-called life skills properly; in university, however, my life would be in shambles without them. Budgeting and cooking tend to appear daunting (at least for me): What if I lose track of my spending? What if I burn my food? The worries are endless, but once you begin to implement these practices, you will realise that they are not as complicated as they sound.
I’ve been using a money managing app to record my spending for budgeting. I highly recommend installing one that will allow you to categorise your purchases to see what aspect of your spending takes up the most chunk (realistically, as a student, this should be groceries). As for cooking, aside from calling home for my mom’s teachings, I’ve been researching recipes online for the dishes that I enjoy. I am proud to say that I’ve modestly whipped up Japanese curry, several kinds of pasta, and Chinese dishes over eight months. Cooking has swiftly evolved into one of my favourite past-times when I need a break from studying!
At the very least, skim your reading material
Ah yes, the eternal question for reading-intensive courses: Does anyone actually do the readings? I don’t think it matters an awful lot whether your peers do their readings as someone else’s actions should not influence your own. That said, it’s unrealistic to be on track with your readings all the time while sparing the effort to write questions and notes in the margins, given that research papers are often more than 20 pages long. My rule of thumb is to read in detail if I can; if I can’t, I will at least skim through my paper to wrap my head around the main discussion points and conclusion. Though I am guilty of simply skipping readings a handful of times, I can testify that you will be more lost than Alice down the rabbit hole if you turn up to your tutorial without having done the designated reading. This brings us to my next advice—
Speak up in tutorials
Let’s be honest, a sardine-packed lecture hall of more than 200 people can be intimidating. Your lecturer can ask a question only to be met with the awkwardness of crows flying overhead. I totally understand that. However, when it comes to tutorials, we have no more excuses not to speak up. Over the course of my first year, I’ve made a pact with myself to ask or answer at least one question in every single tutorial. More often than not, I speak up more as a result of that one line and can facilitate a healthy discussion with my tutors.
These discussions are not simply regurgitating lecture notes; instead, they have helped me further develop my understanding of the topic and allowed me to consider perspectives I didn’t previously think were possible.
Know when and how to ask for help
It’s one thing to identify when you’ve run into a dead-end and another to reach for help. In an environment as extensive as university, where it’s no longer high school where you might know most peers, it can be easy to feel lost and not know who to go to for assistance. I will not attempt to persuade you to utilise all the university resources at our disposal; instead, I’d like to share the people who have helped me when I needed it.
First off, your personal tutor. My personal tutor has been of immense help not only when I ran into course enrolment issues but also when the feedbacks on my essays were not clear. The most reassuring part of having a personal tutor is that they are readily available to aid you not only inside of academia but outside as well; my personal tutor sends weekly emails reminding us that we are welcome to discuss our career prospects and personal life with him.
Secondly, your friends. I was once of the opinion that I should never go to my friends for help because they are swamped with their busy schedules and classes. But think about it in a different light: if I’m willing to help them when they need me to, who’s to say they won’t do the same? You’ll never know if someone is willing unless you take the initiative to ask!
Last but not least, your parents. Sure, it might seem like we should be able to solve our issues independently in university, but that’s not exactly the case. Our parents, who have supported us for so many years, are always there in our corner. There is no shame in popping in a quick call for advice or solutions. In fact, ringing up my mom when I feel overwhelmed and hearing her voice is enough to reassure me and get me through tough patches.
If you get the chance, travel
Rounding off the penultimate point with a non-academic one. One of my first-year regrets is that I did not get the chance to travel outside of the UK, but I have been seated on many trains bound for different parts of the UK. There’s no use in me sharing the expected benefits of travelling that you might already know, but the best part about travelling in the UK is how affordable the rail line is. You could easily book day trip tickets for less than five pounds and earn yourself a scenic view, a well-deserved break from hectic schedules. Take the occasional time to slow down and see what the world has to offer—you might just be surprised.
Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Most seniors and alumni will tell you to have fun while it lasts, but I believe it should be ‘balance’ instead. Yes, university is often said to be the best time of your life, and you should have as much fun in first year as you can before the weight of second and third year gets you down.
However, keep in mind that having fun is but one bullet point in the university list of important things. Strive for balance. Work hard and play equally hard. Know your priorities and shower them with equal attention. Grow yourself while not forgetting to reward yourself. Fun can be fleeting, but if you achieve balance, it just might last a little longer.
What are some lessons you’ve learned in the past academic year?