Top Ten Things I’ve Learned in My First Semester of University

After moving from Sydney to Adelaide near the end of last year, I was having a hard time finding work. With my already low self-image plummeting, and growing frustrated with my lack of progress, I decided to take the huge step of enrolling in University. With neither the qualifications nor the confidence to enrol directly into an Undergraduate Degree, I applied, and was accepted into the University of Adelaide’s (UoA) University Preparatory Program (UPP). I have no regrets.

The UPP has been hard, no doubt. However, any negatives have been far outweighed by the positives. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people, both lecturers and other students. My lecturers have all been incredibly patient, even when I’ve needed the same thing explained several times, or had to miss classes because of health issues or because something came up with my kids.

More importantly, I have learned a lot, not all of it within official lesson plans. I am incredibly grateful that UoA runs the UPP program, because I have found it invaluable. I firmly believe that had I embarked upon an Undergraduate Degree without it, I’d have drowned before my first semester was through.

Therefore, in honour of the UPP staff, who are putting so much effort into making sure I, and others, are prepared to undertake an Undergraduate Degree, this week’s Top Ten list is devoted to the top ten things I’ve learned in my first semester of University:

Number 10

Learning is fun

That’s right folks. I said it. I may not have been the ideal student back in my High School days, but I have discovered that I love learning. I may not always understand the lessons my lecturers are attempting to convey. In fact, at times I’m downright confused. However, I’ve never failed to be interested in the lecture and tutorial topics. Even when I don’t fully understand, I still enjoy the learning process.

As can be expected, some of my courses have been more difficult than others (here’s looking at you Statistics and Science A). However, even when I struggled I found the content fascinating, and my lecturers and peers were patient enough to help me understand.

Number 9

Goals are important (but be flexible)

Goals are important in your personal life and career. The same is true for University. Tertiary study is fun, but it’s also difficult. There are times when you will be feeling overwhelmed. Maybe you are struggling to wake at 5 am in the middle of winter after a late night caring for your kids. Maybe you have five major assignments due within a week or two of each other. Maybe you have health issues or you just failed an assessment you thought you’d done really well on. Having clear goals to focus on is what will get you through all those times when you’ve convinced yourself you’ve made a huge mistake and you might as well just quit now and find a nice cushy job at McDonald’s.

While it is important to have goals, it’s also important to be flexible. Priorities change, new interests are discovered and old interests left by the wayside. If you reach the end of your first semester and decide that your degree isn’t quite what you expected and you’d rather aim for a different career instead, that’s okay. Simply adjust your goals and work hard to reach your new destination. You’ll get there in the end.

Number 8

It’s all about choices

University is full of choices. There are small choices — which study room to use, which bus to catch, what to eat for lunch. There are big choices — which University to attend, which degree to study, what to major in. You have to choose which references to include, whether to quote or paraphrase, who to include in your group project. If you’ve allowed things to get on top of you (stop snickering, you), you might even have to choose whether to submit that quiz worth one point or the essay worth twenty percent of your grade (here’s a hint — it’s not the quiz). If you have a hard time making simple choices like where to eat out, you might want to get some practice in before classes commence, because it’s a skill you’re going to need.

Number 7

Resources are there for a reason

Universities like to throw you into the deep end, but they don’t just stand around watching you sink. There are a few life buoys out there in the form of helpful resources.

At the University of Adelaide, for example, we have the Writing Centre and the Maths Centre for students who are struggling or just need a bit of friendly advice. There are peer assisted study sessions if you need a bit of extra tutoring. Ask Adelaide is available if you need help finding your way around campus or operating the technology; they’ll also point you in the right direction if you aren’t certain who can help you with your problem. The library has their own help desk in the form of Ask Library. There’s assistance available if you need help finding accommodation or an emergency student loan.

Then, of course, the Student Union offers a bunch of services, including free legal advice, employment assistance and advocacy. And this is by no means a comprehensive list. Your University may not have those exact resources available, but they will have something similar. These resources are there to help you make it through Uni in one piece. Use them.

Number 6

It’s okay to ask for help

This is one area I still struggle with. However, I am slowly coming to realise that it’s okay to need help, it’s okay to ask for it, and it’s okay to receive it. If there is something you don’t know about University, or something you aren’t understanding in your course content, don’t try to struggle through alone. Ask a friendly classmate to clarify a point, utilise some of the resources I mentioned in the previous point. If you’re still having trouble ask your tutor, or make an appointment with your lecturer, though that last should be a final resort, not your first port of call. Believe it or not, your University wants to see you graduate, so don’t be afraid to ask if you need help. Conversely, if someone is struggling with a topic you are good at, don’t be afraid to offer assistance. Chances are good they know they need help but are afraid to ask.

Number 5

Big words aren’t scary

Before I began University, I’d have run a mile if I saw words like ethnocentrism, Constructivism or self-efficacy, and you could forget all about me attempting to write a Learning Mode Ethnography. Now, however, I’ve learned to take big words, and even bigger concepts, in stride. I still don’t understand half of what I read, but instead of dishing out a big fat serving of ‘nope’, I’ve learned to examine the context in which a term is used, and to search out other references where it is explained in more depth, allowing me to tackle assessments with a little more confidence.

Number 4

It’s okay to earn a C

The marking system in University is quite different to that in High School. When I was in school, we had A, B, C, D & E, with E being a fail grade, and D being almost as bad. In that system, a C was not a good grade, and coming home with one on my report card was grounds for an hours long lecture from my father. At University, though, the marks range from various fail marks to (P)ass, (C)redit, (D)istinction and High Distinction (HD). In this system, a C is actually a respectable mark and definitely nothing to be ashamed of. It’s just taking some time to get past that psychological hurdle and not freak out every time I earn myself a C.

Number 3

Feedback is awesome!

The purpose of the UPP is to prepare us for the demands of an Undergraduate Degree. As such, our assignments are generally returned with lots of feedback on where we did well and areas for improvement. I, for one, am incredibly grateful for the help. However, from what I’ve been told, many lecturers don’t do this, simply returning a grade and nothing else. So, if you are lucky enough to receive feedback from your lecturer, don’t be offended and don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth. Read what they have to say, take it on board, and use it to improve future assignments. This is a golden opportunity to learn from an expert. Don’t waste it.

Number 2

Reference, reference, reference!

And then reference some more. If you use a direct quote, reference it. If you paraphrase, reference it. If you use an idea that isn’t your own, reference it. If you come up with an idea independently, find a source from someone else who thought of it too, use it, and reference it. Trust me, it’s out there somewhere — as an Undergrad student, your ideas are unlikely to be completely original.

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of this point. You do not want to accidentally plagiarise someone else’s work, so find out your University’s preferred referencing style and familiarise yourself with it, practice it diligently, then, before submitting your assessment, check your referencing, check it again, check it yet again, then check it once more for good measure.

Poor referencing is one of the easiest and fastest ways to lose marks in an assignment, so take the time to ensure it’s done right.

Number 1

Time management is key

At the beginning of the year, I had no clue how to manage my time effectively. Between my weekly readings, course assessments, lectures, tutorials, and caring for my family, I was very quickly overwhelmed to the point where I was submitting assessments late and skipping some altogether. I had very little time to spare for recreational reading, and I certainly couldn’t maintain a blog.

I have since learned that I work best on campus, rather than at home where I have a myriad of distractions. I’ve now adjusted my schedule so that I head into Uni before classes begin, and stay back afterwards in order to complete my work. I don’t work at home unless I’m really behind. I still don’t manage my time perfectly, but I’m getting there. I’m slowly catching up, and I hope not to fall behind in the first place next semester.

Time management is one of the most important skills you will need for University. If you don’t excel in this area, try to get some practice in before you start. Figure out where and when you study best, if you do your best work alone, or in a study group, and which topics you are likely to struggle with most. It’s also important to obtain, and use, a school diary. If you don’t you’ll soon lose track of due dates, appointments and social engagements. You definitely don’t want to learn this the hard way, like I had to.

Have you studied at University in the past? Are you just commencing or in the process of earning your degree? Do you have any points to add? As usual I welcome comments and questions in the space below.

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2 replies

  1. Hello there, due to 2020 and Covid-19 impacting my studies greatly, I have found myself in a position where I may not be able to enter the University of Adelaide via Undergraduate and SATAC. I am in the process of applying for the UPP as a year 12 graduate. I was wondering if you would have any tips on applying (how to write something good in the application) for the UPP and any tips for during the UPP itself.

    Thank you very much.


    • Apologies for the late reply. I haven’t even looked at my blog since July 2019, for various reasons which I will post about shortly. My reply may be too late for your application, but in the off chance you still need to know, here goes.

      As far as the application goes, I recommend that you be honest with what you include, but also don’t be shy or humble. If you have any achievements, include them. Conversely, if you struggle with a particular subject or skill, include that as well. Over all, though, Amy (the current co-ordinator) values honesty, so that’s the most important thing to keep in mind. Don’t pretend to be good at something if you aren’t, and don’t put yourself down in areas where you excel. Oh, and remember to include any life events which may have impacted your studies, as well as your goals – what it is you hope to achieve by completing the UPP.

      Some tips for surviving the UPP itself:

      * Don’t leave everything for the last minute. You should have a list of assessments with due dates on your MyUni page. Start working on them right away. If you await the due dates, you will quickly become overwhelmed.

      * Make sure you do the assigned readings. Many of them are dry and difficult to read. If you are anything like me, you only understand a small percentage. However, they have been assigned for a reason, and most tutorials will involve discussing the readings.

      * If you are having problems, approach your tutor as soon as possible. Honestly, they are all incredibly friendly and helpful. Remember, they want you to pass, so if you are having problems they will assist you or provide advice.

      * Don’t be afraid to ask your peers for assistance. I think my entire cohort would agree that making it through was a group effort.

      * The university has loads of help available – The Writing Centre, The Maths Centre, Counselling, Ask Adelaide, the Union and a bunch of others. Use them – it’s what they are there for.

      * Try to complete your assignment at least four days before the due date so you have time to submit it to Studiosity – it really is a valuable resource.

      * If you are running behind, prioritise the assignments which are worth the most. Better to lose 5 points by not submitting a quiz, than to lose 30 on an assignment, yes?

      * Finally, have fun! Get to know the uni, participate in activities and enjoy the whole uni experience!

      Good luck with your application and remember, if you miss out this year, you can always try again!


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