Hello Freshers! University starts in a matter of weeks but after all the excitement of getting in, have you thought about how best to approach your undergraduate studies? Natalie Lancer from NatalieLancer.com and MyUniApplication offers some advice.

In order to maximise your grades, it pays to be strategic with your studying. In most cases, you ‘just’ have to pass your first year. Although the course tutors may not push you in the second year, it is worth emphasising that the second year may well contribute towards your final degree class (grade).  Cassie, who just graduated from the University of Birmingham with a 2:1, says, “I didn’t realise the significance of the second year grades – if I had got just 2% more in the second year, I would have got a first overall”. After the first year, you are likely to be able to choose modules. Some modules are assessed by examination, some by coursework and some by a mixture of the two. It is worth planning carefully so that overall, your chosen modules’ examinations and coursework deadlines are evenly spaced. By the end of your first year, it will become clear whether your strength lies in coursework or examinations (or both) and you should choose modules which have assessments reflecting your preference. It is also important that you find your modules interesting –talk to the course reps and people in older years to find out more about modules you may potentially take.

Although you have to knuckle down to your work in the final two years, your first year is all about getting acclimatised to university life, having fun, making new friendships and extending your interests. Join societies, get involved in volunteering and go to events – experience as many new things as possible while you have such freedom and everything at your fingertips. Participating in societies is a great way to develop new skills which will be invaluable to showcase on your CV. Go to the Freshers’ Fair to find out about the different societies on offer (and pick up loads of freebies while you are there). Sign up to Jewish Society (J-Soc), of course! Belong to a sports team or try out a new sport – it’s a great way of meeting new people.

Making new friends is easy in the first few weeks of university as everyone is in the same boat. Chat late into the night with people in your halls, go to club nights and events – the people you meet in the queue may well end up as your best buddies! Be prepared to add people to your Facebook –as this is the main way of keeping in contact with new friends and societies. Make sure you manage your money well – work out your food and going out budget and stick to it to make sure you don’t leave yourself short later on in the year. Be responsible when drinking alcohol – make sure you can get back to your halls safely with a friend if you are having a big night out.

The first year is often a “leveller” where the lectures focus on making sure everyone has the same level of background knowledge. Harriet is studying Neuroscience at the University of Nottingham and says, “I had a good foundation of the subject material from my A-levels so I haven’t had to work that hard [in my first year] compared to others, as the modules contain elements from Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Psychology, all of which I took at A-level”. It is vital to make friends on your course so you can motivate each other and help each other to understand the course. The first year prepares you for the subsequent years, so make sure you get to grips with academic referencing and use tutor feedback wisely. You will gain an understanding of what it is they are looking for and how to structure your ideas, putting you in the best place to hit the ground running in your second year. Use your first year to gauge how much work you have to do to get the marks you want and to ascertain that your revision strategies work. By engaging with the first year you will also be able to confirm whether you have chosen the right course. However, give yourself time to settle in to the course before you make any rash decisions. If you are convinced that you have made a mistake, it may be worth changing course rather than spending another two years on the “wrong” course.

Apart from the newness of living away from home (if you are), probably the biggest change is the mode of teaching and assessments. You are most likely to have lectures where you cannot put your hand up to ask a question every few minutes, unlike a classroom. Gordon, who studies Politics at the University of Leeds, advises “If you don’t understand something in a lecture, write your question down so you don’t forget it. Go up to the lecturer at the end of the lecture and ask. But, if you require a deeper explanation, send them an email to book a time slot when they can discuss it with you – there is often another lecture class coming in and there isn’t much time for an in depth response.” The lectures cover your syllabus (on which you will be examined), so try to go to most of them and make time to catch up any notes missed. Lecture notes, and sometimes even videos of lectures, are often posted on the university intranet. Watch the lectures again to help with revision and to augment your notes. Read any recommended articles or books, chase up references that the lecturer suggests and look for more articles on the subject using Google Scholar. Add further notes from these articles to your lecture notes to personalise them – this is key to attaining high marks in your essays and examinations.

You will probably be assessed by a mixture of coursework/essays, presentations and end of year exams. Depending on your subject, you may get three assessments a term for each module you take (maybe six a year) – that’s potentially 18 essays a year. Talia, a Psychology student from the University of Bristol, suggests that you should start your essays straight away and do a little every day: “You often get given the essay questions at the beginning of the module, and you may have a choice of questions so start to read up on the subject that most interests you as soon as you can, so you don’t have to write your essays all at once”.  She recommends sending your tutor a list of bullet points or an essay plan to check that you are on the right track with your essay. Some tutors accept drafts of all or part of your essay and give feedback before you give your essay in – this is an excellent way to improve your writing style and ultimately your grade. You will only be able to make use of your tutors in this way if you have given yourself (and them) enough time. University assessments are quite different to A-levels. Sometimes you are given the exam question in advance, other times you can make up your own essay titles – in fact, your most in depth pieces of work – your dissertation, will most probably be on a topic of your choice. Other exams require you to have studied topics independently – just using the lecture notes will not be enough. For each essay you write (approximately 2000-4000 words) you need to read about 15 peer-reviewed articles and understand the background of your topic, perhaps by reading some selected books. Reading articles will make you familiar with key terms, the academic writing style and how to conduct analysis – all of which will elevate your writing.

There are many support systems in place for you at university. You will be assigned a Personal Tutor who you may meet with termly. They will address any concerns and help you improve academically. Tom says “I kept on getting grading down for not referencing my essays properly. The Personal Tutor suggested I visit the Academic Skills Centre who ran sessions on this, which improved my grades dramatically”. It is also worth vising the Careers Service, certainly by the middle of the second year, as they will help you apply for internships, polish your CV and conduct mock interviews. Applications for jobs and internships have to be done up to a year in advance so it is important to establish key dates as soon as you can.

Natalie is the founder of NatalieLancer.com and MyUniApplication. She can help you create a winning CV and cover letter and give you expert guidance on your A-level choice, university applications, Personal Statement, interviews and dissertations. She also offers personal development sessions. For more information, contact Natalie Lancer on 07747 612 513 or at natalie@natalielancer.com. www.natalielancer.com

Natalie’s top tips on getting the most out of university:

  • Make use of your tutors’ expertise as much as you can – don’t be afraid to email them essay plans or drafts.
  • Choose your modules strategically
  • Visit Academic Support and the Careers Service early on
  • Go out and enjoy yourself in your first year – make new friends and join societies
  • Speak to a university specialist for tailored advice about studying, careers and your personal development