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Expert tips to help you prepare for starting university

Most universities will have plans to support first-year students back into learning, but there are also plenty of things you can start doing right away to get ready.

Schools have been closed for most students since March and all of this summer’s exams cancelled to help slow the spread of coronavirus. If you’re in Year 13 and you’re meant to be starting university in September, this abrupt end to your final year at school or college might have left you feeling worried about how you’re going to cope with the demands of your course.

But there are plenty of things you can start doing right now to make sure you’re ready when September rolls around.

We’ve spoken to university lecturers, admissions teams, advice services and current students to get their tips for making sure you’re fully prepared for student life despite all the uncertainty caused by Covid-19.

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student reading a newspaper

Practice thinking critically

Jodie Matthews, senior lecturer of English literature and creative writing at the University of Huddersfield, recommends that you “take an interest in the world around you”.

This is because thinking for yourself and looking at topics from different angles are key skills you’ll probably need at university – and ones that you can easily start honing right away as part of your daily routine.

“At university you’ll be thinking for yourself, researching and reflecting on topics and giving a response," Jodie says. 

"What are your thoughts on what’s happening in the world? Have you looked deeper than the headlines? Considered other points of view? Starting university with an openness to ideas and knowledge is starting well." 

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student making notes at laptop

Read around your subject

As well as practising more general critical thinking skills, you could use the next few months to brush up on your subject-specific knowledge, too. 

David Seaton, assistant director of student recruitment and admissions at the University of Bedfordshire recommends that you “undertake some background reading relevant to your subject and keep up-to-date on any new developments in your field.”

And Tracey Ashmore, manager of the student learning advisory service at the University of Kent recommends trying to “get excited about your subject.”

“What can you find out that really interests you before you arrive? How will you document what you find out?” Tracey asks.

More like this: what will university be like in 2020/21? Students share their experiences of university during the coronavirus lockdown

notes covered in post-its

Get your organisation techniques sorted

Spend a bit of time thinking about how you’re going to keep your work organised – after all, it’ll be much easier to write essays if your lecture notes aren’t scrunched up in a ball at the bottom of your bag.

“Think about how and where you will store information such as notes and handouts so you can find them easily. Some students prefer to use ring binder folders with dividers whereas others prefer to keep information on computer filing systems,” says Tracey from the University of Kent.

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student working at laptop

Figure out how you work best

“Now is the perfect opportunity to figure out strategies for making the most of your time in September,” says Jodie from the University of Huddersfield.

You can do this by thinking about how you work best. Jodie recommends asking yourself: “do you work better in the morning? Does having some music on help you concentrate? Are you more alert if you sit at a desk rather than on your bed?”

You can also “experiment with different learning methods and discover which one works best for you,” says David from the University of Bedfordshire.

“Brainstorms, keywording, colour and pictures are some examples of how you mix different study techniques,” David adds.

And Tracey from the University of Kent suggests you could think about “how you usually record information and ideas quickly. Do you like to draw ideas in the style of a map across the page or do you prefer to write in lists? Figure out what works best for you.”

student writing diary

Use calendars and timetables

It’s easy to get out of practice with time management after being out of school for so long – but getting into the habit now of using a calendar to plan your week is only going to make your university life easier.

Jennifer, who’s a second-year modern languages student at the University of Reading, shares that “at university, you have to manage what you are doing at all times, which can be a bit of a shock if you’re not used to doing so. Keeping a Google Calendar will keep you on top of things and is great practice for university.”

Once you’re at university, David from the University of Bedfordshire recommends “considering how you are going to plan your study time and establishing a study calendar.”

More like this: should you take a university place in 2020 or defer until 2021?

student working on laptop

Start setting yourself goals

You can get “into the right mindset” for being a successful university student if you “practice setting goals,” advises Jodie from the University of Huddersfield.

You can do this by considering things like “what do you really want to achieve this month? How does that break down into weekly goals? What motivates you?” Jodie suggests.

Get virtually acquainted with the campus

You might feel like it’s a long time since you went on an open day to your university, so it’s only natural that you probably won’t remember much about where everything is.

Tracey, from the University of Kent, suggests “downloading or viewing a map of your campus” before September.

“It will be so useful for helping you to find your way around and help you become familiar with your new surroundings,” Tracey says.

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student working in library

Learn how to reference properly

You could take a bit of time to familiarise yourself with an academic style of writing – in particular, referencing, which can be a bit tricky to get the hang of.

Liv Hughes is in her second year studying politics and philosophy and ethics at the University of Chichester, and she says that “the writing style at university is different to A-level,” so you might want to “use the internet to get tips on how to research effectively and how to write a great academic essay.”

“I found referencing to be difficult in first year. The sooner you grasp how to reference properly, essay writing is quicker and easier. Do note that referencing styles differ depending on your university and course,” Liv comments.

Of course, this is also the kind of thing that universities will teach you how to do.

Kevin Betts, head of UK recruitment at the University of Sussex, explains that “each year, universities welcome students from across the world with a huge range of different levels of experience and qualifications.

“Because of this, the induction that is provided ensures students are supported in all aspects of starting university; from how the library works to referencing texts, and from how to submit work electronically to effective note-taking.”

At the University of Sussex, he adds, “these will all be happening again this year, but with additional support available to all students starting in 2020.”

student working at laptop

Polish up on your IT skills

It’s a good idea to “familiarise yourself with ICT skills so that you are ready to hit the ground running,” David from the University of Bedfordshire says.

You should be able to find out if there are any programmes you’ll need to use on your degree ahead of time, so you can put a bit of brain power into making sure that you know what you’re doing.  

University of Reading student Jennifer says that in her experience at university so far, she’s found it really useful to know her way around the Microsoft suite.

“We use Office 365 for most university work, such as Outlook for university emails. Most students will be familiar with Word, but if your PowerPoint or Excel skills are a bit rusty, now is the perfect time to brush up on them,” Jennifer says.

aerial view of uni students working on laptops

Don’t let social distancing stop you making friends

You can start making friends before you even set foot on campus. University of Chichester student Liv shares that “official Facebook groups run by your university are a great way to make friends. I managed to find course mates and flatmates on the Facebook group before I arrived.”

And once you’re actually there, Liv recommends “joining societies. They’re a great way to meet new people outside your course and halls who have similar interests.”

You could also try “wearing band t-shirts/merchandise of artists, TV shows or films you like. In freshers’ week, I wore a T-shirt with a musician I love on it and someone came up to me and told me they loved that musician too. We’re great friends now!”

Above all, Liv advises that you “remember that everyone is in the same boat. One of the biggest concerns for everybody before starting university is making friends. Don’t worry, you will find your people!”

student working in library

Universities know that things might be a little different this year

It’s worth remembering that universities know that this year’s intake will have had a longer gap after finishing school or college than usual, and most will have plans to help support you through this – both academically and in getting you used to university life.

"The academic ‘step-up’ is often a cause of anxiety for new students, and so it’s important to recognise that those students who have missed a significant amount of their education may be particularly concerned,” says Kevin from the University of Sussex.

“Universities will have plans in place to make sure academic progress is supported, and where required, students are given the support they need to get up to speed. It’s in the university’s best interests, after all, to have students who thrive during their studies, graduating with good grades,” Kevin continues.

Jodie from the University of Huddersfield adds that you should “be assured that universities with excellent teaching and resources are equipped to help you develop your learning skills no matter how long a break you have had, and that tutors are really looking forward to working with you in September”.

And you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it

If you do start to feel like you’re having trouble keeping up, David from the University of Bedfordshire points out that “if you are struggling in any way or have concerns, then we can help.

“Universities have several support departments who can offer further advice as well as a personal tutoring system where you can get tailored advice on every aspect of your learning.”

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