The luxury of time. Given that it (currently) feels like I’ve been at university for longer than I can remember, I’m been attempting to reflect back on my fresh faced and clueless younger self. Fresher Soph was probably typical of most students. My enthusiasm seemed to be focused on extravagant fancy dress on a tight budget and a stereotypical search for ‘independence’ as someone weary with village life. At first, academic success seemed to be of secondary importance.
Here’s an open letter to my first year self. Perhaps you will read this and smirk at my foolish ways, or perhaps you’ll read this and recognise a few similarities with your own academic journey. I’m a final year student now but by no means an expert. Of course, university encompasses more than academia and so much of this period is growing up. Here’s just a few things I wish I had known when starting my studies…
Dear Fresher Soph,
Pause your Netflix and listen for a moment;
There’s more to life than being hungover.
One day, lining up your empty alcohol bottles in the window won’t seem as cool. Stomping onto campus still covered in glitter from the night before at Cirque won’t always be hilarious. Being able to name the price of every bottle of vino in Aldi won’t actually be useful in your daily adult life.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a night out as much now as I did as a fresher. I certainly have not turned into an overly sensible drinker, if my gin-soaked behaviour this summer is any indication… (repeatedly texting my younger sister and asking her to hide spare keys in the flower pot for my 4am returns never felt very mature). I simply look back on my first year and wonder how I managed to spend so much of my time hungover. Whole weeks passed in a haze of Glen’s Vodka and obsessive Netflix viewing. It’s no wonder everyone gets sick – you can’t quite count peach schnapps as one of your five a day.
Actually turn up to class, you might learn something.
Perhaps this seems to be the most obvious point but it passed ‘Fresher Soph’ by. I’ll admit it: I spent a few too many classes wrapped up in bed, as a little duvet croissant hiding from the world. My first year self was terrified of not understanding or even worse, making a fool out of myself in front of everyone else. Having not quite achieved the French A Level grade I hoped for and having never studied Art History before, I felt like everyone was leagues ahead of me before we even began.
Beyond the academic side, it really affected my confidence. Recently, I had the uncomfortable misfortune of discovering my new personal tutor had in fact taught me before. In trying to work out why he looked vaguely familiar / why he knew me name, we soon realised that he taught a module of which I only attended around 3 lectures, out of 11. Luckily, we laughed about it (and I had actually aced the exam). In truth, I felt intimidated in his class because other students had previous knowledge. I preferred to watch the lectures by myself, frantically researching every reference, imagining everyone else already knew this. Note to self – you’re not as incapable as you think. My confidence grew eventually but I can’t help wondering if I could have helped it by putting myself out there more.
Fresher Sophie – Come on, girl. Attend class and do your work and make some overall effort. I seemed to pay a fortune that first year to simply watch recorded lectures on Panopto.
Join a society or three.
I wanted to be a cheerleader but on the day of tryouts, I was feeling far too fragile from the Fresher’s Ball the night before. I wanted to try pole-dancing but on the day of the free trial session, I panicked about not being flexible enough (I can’t even touch my toes). I could have joined the French society, or Modern Languages society, but I felt yet again intimidated by all these seemingly-fluent students.
This final year has seen me join my first society and hold a committee position. I love it – I simply wish I’d done this in my first or second year. I now have all the enthusiasm but without the necessary time to fully commit. A society is also a genuinely fun place to meet new friends without the pressure of having to immediately like each other (think, flat mates or course peers). Plus, it looks great on your CV.
Accept the penalty.
Last minute, night before is my default academic style. Now fully aware of the limitations of this, I’ve adapted my behaviour to reflect this. I still tend to put pen to paper at a relatively late stage of a deadline but I’ve definitely refined this technique, including in depth research notes and a fully formed plan before any panic sets in. I know I can work well under pressure to meet a deadline but it wasn’t always the case.
I had the impression in first year that being late for a deadline was totally, absolutely, the worst outcome for any assessment. In reality? There’s times I should have taken the penalty, for being a day late, and actually read my work through properly. Full sentences and all that essential grammar stuff. Of course, it only takes one humiliating essay feedback to learn that lesson.
The Library is a wonderful, magical place with free books.
No judgement please… but I genuinely didn’t take a book out of the library until my second year. I didn’t even know how the system worked because I obviously slept through the induction tour in Fresher’s Week. Checking my first book out was like a tiny revelation. Ok, so now you can laugh at that statement.
For the financially motivated student, most of the books you need for a module are actually available, hiding on a dusty shelf. I’ve got a heap of essential reading texts sat under my bed because freshers have realised rather than buying from me, they can borrow for free. Soph, stop wasting money on ordering your own copies of something you’ll never use after these 11 weeks of class and trek into the library itself.
Take every opportunity.
I’m caught in a Catch-22 of limited time. I find myself desperate to gain as much experience as I can whilst similarly feeling like I should probably finish this degree first. Do I take that voluntary internship over Easter, in the hope I’ll make connections and gain greater sector understanding for future employment, or do I write these bloody essays?
There’s not much I did, in first and second year, to gain unique experience. Amazing opportunities passed me by because I felt paralysed with fear and inexperience. When I had the luxury of time, I lacked the drive of a panicked final year on a desperate job hunt.
Everyone is scared and no one has any idea what they’re doing
It took far too long to shake the idea that I was the odd one out. Living in Paris was a steep learning curve and I’m pretty sure my heavy dependance on patisserie hasn’t helped my cholesterol. It gave me one thing I couldn’t buy, though – the realisation that everyone is a lot more scared than you realise. Living in Paris felt like stepping out of my comfort zone every time I left the apartment. The trick? Do it often enough and soon it just feels like routine. Now I’m back in Brum with a sizeable fire behind me and a sudden burning desire to make the most of the time I have left. I’ve found myself going for and achieving opportunities that I previously may have only daydreamed about.
Maybe you’re reading this and assuming I did nothing for the first 2 years of university. Don’t get me wrong – I met deadlines, achieved good grades and grew up a lot along the way. I made some friends I wouldn’t trade for the world and, to use a cliché, learnt a lot about myself in a way I didn’t expect to.
Now? I finally feel like I’m being active in my own education, rather than passively letting the university experience happen to me. I wouldn’t change my route to get here… I just wish Fresher Soph had slightly more confidence to put herself out there and try anything while being a student was her primary concern. Soon I’ll be in the big bad world, searching for a job and attempting to adult full time… wish me luck xo