How to survive university – top tips for new students


The prospect of going to university is exciting but can also be a daunting time. There are many questions to address and a number of unknowns, then there’s the challenge of imposter syndrome – wondering whether you’ll fit in with other students along with fears about how to make your own way in the world. And that’s before you’ve even thought about how to be a successful student.

There are a number of nuggets of wisdom we would love to be able to give our younger selves to smooth the path through university. Some are to do with balancing study and paid work, others to do with balancing study and social life. But on reflection, one of the most important would be changing the way we looked at, and interacted with, the assessments we had to complete as part of our degrees.

In our roles at Staffordshire University, we have both become increasingly interested in how students learn within higher education. Our research looks at how talking with peers, tutors, family and friends can prepare students for assessments and make the most of feedback.

To be clear, at university you are not a student being taught history, economics or biology. You are “becoming” a historian, economist or biologist. So start this from day one – behave as the historian, economist or biologist –- don’t wait to be told you are one.

Get to know your tutors

Time flies at university. You start late September, blink, and it’s Christmas. Early on you receive coursework titles and submission details. so make a note in your planner of times, dates and method of submission.

Tutors give lists of what they look for in assignments and the marking criteria. These show standards required to achieve a percentage grade. Speak with your tutor if anything is unclear – sometimes tutors can use words or expressions that are new to you, or have a different meaning to what you imagine. This is why it’s important to ask for clarification – ultimately this is also how you learn the language of your subject.

Have a support network

If you are struggling, talk to people – your tutor, peers and family are all there to help you. Don’t close in on yourself or start thinking “I can’t do this” – you can. Seek guidance and think about what needs to be different to make the situation OK.

If you’re finding your assignments difficult, talk to other students in your lectures or seminars. Hearing not just different viewpoints but seeing where others are coming from gives breadth to your work. Listen to your peers and practise expressing your own views – this can help to give you clarity around tricky subjects and will help you to grow and expand in your scholarly work. But don’t try to be someone else – even those who appear more successful than you.

Learn from your mistakes

When it comes to essays and assessments, your first attempt shouldn’t be your last. You need to read over your drafts and make changes to what you have written. This is editing, it makes for a more successful assignment – as rarely can you write something just right first time round.

Tutors are encouraged to give formative feedback which should help to shape your draft assignments – so ask them for their thoughts. This is how you develop more effective practices, through talking and working with tutors and peers. Know that university assignments are doable, it’s just about how you meet the challenge.

Recognise your achievements

As well as learning from your mistakes, it’s also important to always recognise what you have achieved – it can be a great motivation. Look back on your assignments and recognise how you are improving. This is what’s known as ipsative feedback and it allows you to work towards a personal best by recognising how you are improving in your own work rather than simply competing against others. As you are going through your first year recognise you are changing and perhaps becoming more effective in the use of language of your discipline – notice the becoming.

There’s no doubt about it, starting university can be a scary time, but knowing how to tackle your assignments, having a support network and being open to new learning experiences can all make the process much smoother – and will hopefully help you enjoy your studies over the coming years.

Author Bio: Paul Orsmond is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Life Sciences and Education and Richard Halfpenny is a Lecturer in the School of Life Sciences and Education both at Staffordshire University