Surviving AND thriving in your first semester

Once the hype of freshers weeks has died down, it can be difficult to adjust to what your new life is going to be like. Doing your own food shopping, budgeting, organising your time… all whilst experiencing a new city, making new friends, and trying not to get homesick. It can be tough! Here is my honest opinion about what works and what doesn’t for a few key issues I faced during the first year, and how to make the most out of your uni experience!

1. Dealing with study

This is crucial. University study is very different to what you’ll be used to from sixth form or college. There is a lot less spoon-feeding, and a lot more emphasis on independent study. This sort of thing suits some people just fine, but for others, it can pose a real challenge, especially in terms of time management and keeping on top of things.

Here at Edinburgh, the grades you receive in the first and second year don’t contribute towards your overall degree grade, and this can make it very tempting to not take the first year all that seriously. Granted, it does mean you can party a little harder and acclimatise to student life without feeling too guilty; after all, a pass is a pass. Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that this is a bad attitude to take. I did make an effort with my studies in the first year, but by no means the same sort of effort I was putting into my A-levels at school, and so my first set of grades were a bit of a shock to the system. That proved to be the wake-up call that I needed, and I managed to pull my act together and get on top of my work… (eventually.)

Whilst first year can seem like an easy ride, it is important to make it count. The habits you fall into in your first semester will lay the groundwork for how you end up working for the rest of your time at uni. This is definitely the calm before the storm, and preparation is the key to success. Don’t fixate on that 40% pass rate; always aim higher! You got into a world class uni to begin with, so now isn’t the time to start slacking. By all means, have a fun and busy social life, but make sure you remember why you’re here in the first place. You’ll regret getting a disappointing grade more than missing the odd night at Big Cheese – trust me.

Also, an obvious one, but turn up! It can be tempting to skip lectures where attendance isn’t compulsory, and mum and dad aren’t there to make you get out of bed. But remember, they hold lectures for a reason! You’ll get more out of those PowerPoint slides if you turn up and listen to someone explain them, rather than reading them on your own in a frantic rush a few weeks later. Lots of lectures don’t require participation either – so it is okay if you’re a bit hungover, no one is going to notice. Learning as you go is so much more beneficial than trying to cram it all in before exams – especially as the first semester runs straight from teaching into the exam diet. No study leave here!

Make use of office hours – this is something I wish I did more in my first year. Staff are there to help you and, especially in your first semester, making the transition to properly academic writing can be more challenging than you may first anticipate. Use their office hours to talk over ideas, drafts, even just stuff you covered in class – you’ll be so thankful that you did, and this can give you a real sense of clarity that will help boost those grades.

Managing your time is fundamental – make sure you have a healthy balance between study and social. I found making time to read and analyse papers in my first year the biggest challenge; I always underestimated how long it would take. Make sure you’re giving yourself enough time to get everything done and do make use of study spaces on campus, as this is more likely to keep you focused and then means your home space is one for relaxing, not stressing about work! Also, ask questions. Uni can be an intimidating place, but it is always better to ask if you need help. Make use of your personal tutor, class reps, school reps and lecturers. It is better finding out the answers to these questions in your first semester rather than leaving it too late. Also, a top tip from me for managing your time and deadline: invest in some sort of diary. Write down everything. You can thank me later.

Finally, don’t get too frustrated if it all seems to be a bit much, or if your work is getting on top of you. It happens to everyone. Make sure that you’re not overworking yourself, and you are taking time out to relax and do the things that you enjoy.

2. Dealing with money

It can be way too easy to get excited about having a lump sum of student loan money fly into your account, and it can be even easier to spend it. You’ve just moved out, no one is there to tell you off about spending frivolously, and every pub, club and bar is offering 2-4-1 cocktails and pints for a pound. Plus I mean hello student discount and interest-free overdraft!

£10 can go a long way

During your first semester, making friends and having a good time is definitely a priority, but this can come at a cost that your bank account may not be to happy about. We’ve all had that one night out where we bring our card out and think contactless in our best friend. (It isn’t, FYI. Not a friend at all. In fact, more like an evil worst enemy.) A good way to avoid this problem is to only bring cash out with you. You, your hangover and your bank balance will thank you for the next day. You’ll definitely be able to stay within your limits and not be tempted to overspend and over-drink, which is a plus for everyone involved. Similarly, try not to go mad with online shopping.It may only seem like £20 here and £15 there, but once you start adding delivery charges and all these extra expenses, it can put quite a dent in your bank balance. You managed at home with the clothes and stuff you had and it wasn’t the end of the world; so no one is going to care if you’ve worn the same top out to two different events! Know where to draw the line before your bank does it for you. It is also important to prioritise – obviously, you’ll want a bit more cash for freshers weeks and partying in the first semester, but just make sure this doesn’t come at the cost of you not being able to eat in week 11 of the term. That round of shots you brought in the second week doesn’t seem like such a good idea now you can’t afford bread and milk, huh.

Now you’re living out from under the roof of mum and dad, you’re one step closer to being independent. Unfortunately, alongside being independent comes some boring responsibilities, and one of those is budgeting. Make sure you put aside enough each month to cover the essentials: rent, bills, food, books etc. Then you can work out how much you’ll have left each month for nonessentials, and it is up to you how to spend that! I used to laugh at my dad with his Excel budgeting spreadsheets, but they are actually super useful and a great way to keep track of where your money is going – I would have been completely lost and totally broke without the system I’ve got going, and I still use it now. 10/10 would recommend.

For a really good, comprehensive guide to budgeting as a new student, I would recommend the Complete University Guide, they have some great hints and tips to help you manage your money and keep your finances stress free.

3. Dealing with homesickness

#TBT last day at school

Whilst some people seem immune to this, for many homesickness can strike hard during the first semester. It isn’t weird or soppy – you go through so many changes in your first semester, and with the buzz and excitement of freshers week it can take a while for it all to settle in and for you to accept how you’ll need to adjust to these changes. Naturally, you may experience feelings of doubt, or have a bit of a down period, or just feel completely overwhelmed by it all. THIS IS OKAY!

Being away from your childhood friends, your family, and the places that you know best can be hard, especially when you’re having a difficult time and just want a familiar face or place to turn to. The best remedy for this is to talk to people – chances are, your flatmates are feeling the same way! Take some time to reflect on why you chose to come to uni and the great experiences and opportunities that are coming your way. Also, don’t be embarrassed to phone home every once in a while, your rents will appreciate it too!

4. Dealing with your new social life

I cannot stress enough how important it is to get involved. Don’t just use freshers as an excuse to go out, make sure you make an effort to go to all of the activities and sports fairs and find things that you might enjoy. Most clubs run taster sessions in the first few weeks of term to let you see if what they offer is for you – and you should take full advantage of these. We are lucky at Edinburgh that we have such a broad and diverse range of clubs and societies, so whether you’re continuing to be involved in sport or society you are already familiar with, or if you’re wanting to try something new, make sure you at least give something a go. You’ll meet a whole new group of people and have a great support system outside of your studies and your flat.

Getting involved within your school is a great opportunity as well. I’ve volunteered to help at open days and in freshers week, as well as being a class representative this year. You get to meet some great people from within your subject and school from all years, and also get to know some of the staff a bit better which is always a bonus! I’ve found that having contacts in the years above me has enabled me to have a good support system to go to should I need advice from a student’s perspective, be this academic or social. It is also a lot of fun and a great way to find out more about what is going on within your school and subject.

Speaking of your flat, it is important to be kind and make an effort with your new flatmates! Give everyone a chance – they’re just as nervous as you are, and probably share the same fears and concerns that you have. Be respectful and mindful of the different cultures and practices that you might be faced with – we are an incredibly diverse and international student community, and you can learn a lot from the people you live with. Make sure you’re all on the same page with how you want the flat and shared spaces to be organised; if you’re just going to clean up after yourselves or have a cleaning rota, whether you’re buying your own loo roll or putting money in a kitty jar. Small things like this will make it easy to live in harmony with your new flatmates – whether or not you end up being best friends. I was so fortunate with my flat in the first year, and have made some friends for life – not only the girls that I live with but with others in my accommodation. Make an effort to get to know people in the flats near you, as the first year is the best time for having a rich social life. With lots of your friends living in the same space, it is definitely easier to organise social events and get everyone together.

can’t say no to fancy dress

Obviously, you’re going to want to go out and have a bit of a fiesta now and again – and you should! Just make sure that this doesn’t end up being your biggest priority. It is important to have fun with your friends, but just remember your studies are important too. A good balance of study, societies/clubs and partying will make sure you get the best out of your first semester.

Before you know it, your first term at uni will have flown by and you’ll be packing your bags and heading home for Christmas. Make sure that you’ve made the most out of it, got involved in as much as possible and had a good time – you’ll want to have some good stories to tell to your mates at the pub at home.


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