Unlike school, nobody at university will force you to attend lectures, take register or call your parents if your grades are poor. What may seem like long-lost freedom could result in overwhelmed first-year students — having to take on so much responsibility for the first time in their lives.
The director of the Centre for Student Counselling and Development at Stellenbosch University, Professor Charl Cilliers, says the key to surviving your first year at university is to prepare in advance.
“Preparing for major life transitions is a good practice for us all and this also applies to university access. Career counselling and subsequent affirmation of choice is one good way to prepare. Attend open days at the institution of your choice to get a feel of the climate and talk to as many people as possible beforehand to assist you in making the right choices,” he advises.
Khanyi Nyembezi, the acting deputy dean of students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal said, “Researching the world of work by acquiring work experience such as voluntary work during one’s matric year provides much needed insight for students before they make their final decision.” She also encourages students to undergo career assessment testing.
At university level, due dates for assignments as well as exam dates are usually noted at the beginning of each semester. Nyembezi advises students to print out and keep due dates where they are visible. “Develop a detailed strategy for managing these dates. A sense of accomplishment and motivation is enhanced if students tick each completed test and assignment as they progress”.
Nyembezi said: “While students at this stage technically may be adults, the transition from high school to university often requires them to make this transition in baby steps. Self-management and organisation skills have been indicated by most students to be one of their major challenges.”
Cilliers noted that time management is also very important. “Apart from career readiness, time management is another skill closely linked with academic, career and overall life success.” He suggested students find out about workshops offered by their university’s student counselling division, to assist them.
Many universities use an electronic medium for submitting assignments and downloading lecture notes. “Unfortunately not all students have computer facilities, yet computer literacy is an essential skill for all students,” said Nyembezi.
Cilliers encourages students to enrol for computer literacy programmes as well as make use of computer assistants at the computer labs, who are paid to assist students in optimising their online work.
Taking notes is another important aspect of university life. Nyembezi advises students that when taking notes they should label and date all notes. “Develop a system of shorthand and use colour, pictures or diagrams to make notes more visual. In addition to this students should review their notes on a daily basis,” she said.
Cilliers said: “A good practice is to create study groups and to compare notes afterwards.”
Attending lectures and tutorials are of paramount importance as research confirms the correlation between attendance and performance. Cilliers urges students not to sit and just passively “receive”.
“Active, critical participation is part of the process of learning and lectures are part of the learning process. You have the right to ask questions and expect the lecturer to explain concepts and ideas until you ‘get it’. If you don’t understand something, chances are very good that a number of other students also didn’t, but were too afraid to ask. They will thank you afterwards. If the lecture ends early, stay behind and asks the lecturer questions,” says Cilliers.
University level essays are also very different from school essays, usually requiring research, a variety of sources as well as referencing, which can leave students feeling rather overwhelmed. “Many universities do have language centres that support students. Cooperative learning groups and peer tutors can also help in this regard. Most universities also offer workshops on doing academic research and writing essays,” says Cilliers.
Nyembezi says that if you find that you are not doing well in assignments and semester tests you should, “seek help feedback from the lecturer who marked the particular test or essay. In addition to this, students who form study groups are able to benefit from the skills of their group members.”
Cilliers says that students should “determine the root causes and seek help immediately. Unfortunately many students leave this until the last minute. Doing badly in one test or exam paper is enough reason to seek help. Mentorship programmes are also in place at the most universities.”
“It is estimated that individuals change careers at least five times in their lives”, said Nyembezi. She says the reason for this is that “decision making is an acquired skill for people in general. What compounds this difficulty for first-year students is that it occurs at a time when the students are negotiating their transition from childhood into young adulthood. Often incorrect career choices are the result of insufficient insight into one’s own interests, strengths and weaknesses and how these have a bearing on one’s learning style.”
When a student wants to change their course, they should make an appointment with a career counsellor at the university as soon as possible. Often, universities would allow a student to start a different course in the following semester, says Cilliers.
Another way to prepare for university life is to attend orientation week. It is designed to assist students to settle in and to “lay the foundation for success. Attend all programmes and workshops, even if you think you know everything around campus,” says Cilliers. The above is what all smart students do.!