Things you should know before 1st Year — and what I would do differently

So you’ve started your first year and congratulations on making it so far! You have a great time ahead of you which will inevitably have its ups and downs but whatever is to come, the next few years will be some of the best of your life.

Now the first year and university life in general is quite different to what you will have been used to at school and when you first come here it is okay to feel a little bit afraid, a bit apprehensive and having loads of small, unanswered questions. A lot of people often won’t ask questions because they are afraid the answer is obvious or it is a silly question to ask, but don’t worry it’s not just you who will be feeling this way.

See, the best part of university is how different it is to everything you will have experienced and “different” can mean a lot of things for people. Whether it’s the new environment, the new culture, a new place to stay, new ways to learn, new friends or a completely new country — it’s a new experience for all of the students.

With all that said there were a few things I wish I had known before starting my first-year, particularly in Computer Science. Not even that in fact, a lot of the things people say might even seem obvious but some of these are often overlooked. So here are a few things that I wish I had known before the start of my first-year here at UCL or from what others have told me. Of course take this in whatever way you want, they won’t all apply to you!

Don’t slack on the first year — okay so a very common thing I hear is, oh the first year is not that tough and so it’s okay to be lackadaisical in your approach. Now especially in Computer Science, people are of varying abilities and the course is made for everyone to get up to speed by the end of the first year. That means different people will naturally take their own time to get to grips with everything, it’s quite common for people to feel they aren’t good enough when they see someone at a level that they themselves they aren’t at yet. That’s okay, don’t compare them with yourself and take things at your own pace, because all in all, with good time management and by putting in the work that is expected of you, you will do just fine. However if you believe you can coast the first year, then prepare to be disappointed — don’t rest on your laurels. It might be obvious, but I say this because of the number of people I see who have done well up till university and feel as a result they will automatically do well, which is not the case and you don’t want to put yourself into a pickle come exams because you didn’t put in the work when you should have. That doesn’t mean you have to hole up in the library either, not slacking just means staying on top of things and keeping it all manageable, it will pay its dividends come the end of the first year.

Teamwork- some courses have more team based projects than others, talking about CS, they certainly have quite a few. You will often find yourself working in a team at most stages of your educational or work career anyways and as you progress so it’s a good skill to pick up and at university you have a good environment to do it. You will have probably done quite a lot of teamwork in the past and will know of all the horror stories as well. The person who doesn’t work, the one who disappears and magically comes back at the end, the ones who say they will work but end up doing nothing at all, the ones it is hard to get along with. Well, sadly there’s no reason for that to change now you are at university, that is not to say all teams are like this of course but sometimes you might get the short end of the stick. That’s still okay, though it’s how you work through it and what you gain as a result, instead of feeling sorry for yourself, take it as a challenge to complete the task as best you can. In the real world, you won’t always be working with those you see eye-to-eye with and so this is a good experience do deal with various pitfalls you may face. This is more a personal point, but I wish I had known that it would not always turn out well when it comes to teams and so just know that it’s not always how we want it to be because when it gets a little hairy, it can impact on the other work you do as well, be careful to balance out how much effort you put in.

Talk to professors more- at every university you will have a mix of professors and in your first year you might feel a little intimidated to speak to them or ask questions at the risk of feeling stupid for not knowing something or you might feel you are asking something a little too trivial. However as the year goes on, it is actually extremely useful for you to speak to and get to know your lecturers and professors — often the attention which is hard to get in a lecture can be given in a one to one or small group setting. Once you ask you will be glad you did, while it’s good to find things out on your own if you are stuck, sometimes it’s important to ask for help as well. Professors are usually very welcoming and would be happy to discuss any questions you may have. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a question you come to them with, you can just chat and get to know what they do better. You might be interested in their field and want to get to know some more or you may wish to work on some of their projects- either way they are there to help you. I started talking to professors and lecturers later on in the year, but when I did I always left with a sense I had learnt something new or that they had pointed me to somewhere interesting, but regardless of what it was, it was always a pleasant chat.

Ask for support from those in the year above- on the topic of talking to people for help, another source of help are those in the year above you. Learning from the experiences of those in the years above is in my opinion the best way to get support in your subject, they will have been through exactly what you are going through yourself and can give very honest and frank advice. Luckily some universities have mentorship schemes, UCL has plenty of its own and I can say that having a mentor helped me through many aspects of my first year. Whether it was academic work, how to manage my time, what aspects of university life I was missing out on or asking the most downright random questions, having someone to talk to in the year above is great, so don’t be afraid to approach them. Before you know it you won’t be looking at someone as being the person “from the year above” but as friends it’s totally worth it.

Start revising earlier/ keep on top of things- I have already sort of eluded to this before earlier, but I’ll point it out a bit more here. It is quite important to not let things start slipping away because it’s harder to claw back work at university as you will usually have some work to keep you occupied, if you keep leaving everything to the last minute, it is difficult to finish all your work for the right deadlines. We all procrastinate and I’m guilty of it too a lot, but that’s okay, it’s when you have an amount of work that you cannot handle when it becomes a problem. What worked really well for me was to revise in quite early for my exams but doing a very small amount at a time so when it came to revision period, I already knew what sorts of things I needed to work on and as a result it made my life a whole lot easier — try it, you won’t regret it.

Get involved with societies- this is one of the most important parts for me, I had joined TechSoc which is exactly what the name suggests, quite early on. As the year went on, because of this I was able to feel like I had really got a lot out of the tech community here at UCL. I was able to make many new friends, enjoy new, interesting and very different sorts of events, get to talk to people interested in the same stuff as me and just have a lot of fun in general. We went to hackathons, techtalks, conferences, outreach events and the lot — looking back at it, it was probably the most enjoyable aspect for me. Now a lot of people are usually worried about joining societies because they feel some a very cliquey or they would have a hard time integrating. This is a fair reason, in fact some societies can be like this at times so this fear is not unfounded. However, it is always to wet your toes a little and see what it is like before deciding if you want to be a part of that. There have been many people who had joined TechSoc events late on and many of them had expressed regret of not having joined much earlier as they felt they had missed out on quite a lot of stuff at the beginning of the year, when generally there is more free time and you are less bogged-down by work. So I would recommend trying out a couple of things you might be interested in and join the societies, you never know when one might just click and you will find yourself with a lot of things to do.

Don’t work hard, work smart- you might have heard this one before but in the more demanding subjects, this is something I was guilty of for a while. It’s okay to be working hard and reading a lot and doing all of your work on time and trying to do the best you can. Although at some point and in many subjects, you will experience burnout. You cannot be going the extra mile for every small task or trying to be too much of a perfectionist for the wrong pieces of work. You should avoid just blindly doing loads of work that is not of much benefit and this fooling yourself in the process you are working well. Working all the time doesn’t translate to good work necessarily, you need to work smart. What do I mean? Well for example in UCL in CS, there are loads of small tasks and projects and essays you will have during the year, this along with other larger assignments and the rest of your life can be very difficult to manage as it is. Don’t spend too long chasing a single mark by putting in hours and hours worth of work where you could perhaps gain more by doing something other piece of work for the same time. Always try and better understand what you currently don’t rather than only concentrate on what you do — a common mistake many people new to CS make. The rest of this idea really comes down to study techniques, so I will leave you to find those on your own but the take home message is to not work aimlessly.

Go to the right labs- labs sessions are extremely useful and should be made use of a lot more. Many people tend to skip these or only attend them periodically, however these are the only places you will get more specific attention so I would not recommend missing them if you can help it. If you are lagging behind or need help this is another source of help. Now one comment on this I’ll make is not all lab sessions are great as sometimes TAs don’t turn up and sometimes they aren’t helpful and sometimes they can be quite rude, so it sort of depends on your luck which ones you get. The ones I got varied a lot but if you can just attend others lab sessions if the TAs there are better- even if you’re not meant to, just go along!

Enjoy life outside of your subject- this one is generic, but I’ll say it anyways to make a point. Some people spend way too much time not working and relaxing or going out and others invest themselves totally in their work. It’s okay whatever you choose, that’s down to you — although try and find a balance. I’m sure people say this a lot but there is a lot more to your degree and time and university than just the work you do, make the most of it!

I realise a lot of this might seem generic or obvious to you but honestly just keep it all in mind when you start, it’s usually these obvious things that people tend to miss out on. If you feel like you want to know more, always feel free to drop me a line!


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