How to survive life as a student

Nervous freshers are starting university. A new book shows them how to cope, says Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Online

Recovering from a giant hangover at the end of Freshers' Week, Tom Crookston realised that he had spent half his student loan already.

"Everybody I know did that," says Crookston, who is studying for a degree in French at Edinburgh University and is about to enter his third year. Such is the giddy round of parties and the availability of cheap booze that it is difficult for new students not to get carried away by this rude introduction to 24-hour socialising.

"I really can't remember anything that happened," continues Crookston. Like many students, however, he emerged unscathed from the alcoholic initiation rites and says now that the social side of Freshers' Week was useful. He met a lot of people and even managed a tour of the university library, which he recommends to all Freshers. "There's no way of knowing how to use the library unless someone takes you round and shows you," he says.

A new generation of students will, from this week, be undergoing a similar rite of passage as they enrol at universities all over the UK. This year they will also be helped by a new book written by a pair of academics from Dundee University, The Smarter Student: Skills & Strategies for Success at University which explains how to make the most of the experience. Full of tips, diagrams and lists, it provides help on everything from how to manage those first few days through to how to make notes in a lecture, how to write an essay and how to get a job at the end of it all.

Kathleen McMillan and Jonathan Weyers have some practical tips for freshers. They should buy a cheap filing system for all the bits of paper they are given before they arrive and in those first few weeks. And they should not spend money on impulse.

"During Freshers' Week there will be pressure on you to spend money: to participate in events, join clubs and societies, buy textbooks, and more," they say. "Unless you are confident in your interests and needs, save your cash until you are more certain about things."

For most students, making friends is the priority initially. The authors advise students in hall to work hard at getting to know their fellows by going out and introducing themselves to others, leaving their door open so that they can greet people and to avoid going home at weekends in the early weeks in case they miss out on social events.

"The socialising is the biggest worry at first," says Andy Sharman, an Edinburgh student about to enter his fourth year. "You really are thrown in at the deep end. You grab on to anyone you can. You then realise that you are not just trying to make friends but trying to get rid of them as well."

For many students going to university - particularly if they are going straight from school or have come from a different culture - it will be the first time they have had to manage life on their own. They are treated as adults, given an amazing amount of choice and left to their own devices. This can be a shock to those who have been accustomed to the structure of school.

University can also be very anonymous. Lectures are sometimes big - 250 to 300 people is quite normal - and lecturers can be variable. The book contains a useful chapter on how to handle different kinds of lecturer: the entertainer, the drone, the rambler, the mumbler, the fidget, the techno-wizard and the egotist. Instead of moaning about their lecturers' idiosynscrasies, the authors advise students to listen carefully and to follow what they are trying to say.

There are different ways to take notes but you need to develop a style that will provide you with notes that will be meaningful in six days', weeks' or months' time. Cultivate your own code, they advise.

The book contains a useful chapter on plagiarism, an issue that has become increasingly important in the age of the Internet when material can be "cut and pasted" at the click of a mouse. That means it is easier to commit an offence unknowingly. Students are advised to avoid copying material electronically. "You may only do this if you are prepared to quote the source," say the authors. "If you use the material, and fail to add an appropriate citation, this would be regarded as cheating."

When making notes, students should always write down their sources and use quote marks when quoting verbatim to indicate that it is a direct copy. Punishments for copying are serious, they are warned, including getting zero marks, and further disciplinary measures.

One of the most useful chapters is about how to write essays in an academic style, something that is rarely explained yet is the bete-noire of many students. This style is objective, according to the book. It maintains an impersonal tone and a vocabulary that avoids personal, colloquial or idiomatic expressions.

Thus students should avoid using the letter "I". They should use the passive rather than the active voice and they should consciously adopt a formal rather than an informal style. Rhetorical questions should be used only sparingly and contractions avoided. The same applies to value judgements and text-messaging language.

It may be surprising that students need help with writing essays and with mathematics (there is a chapter on maths for students who gave up the subject several years before), but they do. The authors advise students to make an outline structure of their essay in an exam, but to treat this as a flexible guideline that could change as you start to think more deeply about the subject.

To boost your marks, have potential answer formats in mind as you go into an exam, keep your writing simple, concentrate on the main body of the essay and the conclusions (rather than the introduction) because that is where most marks will be given, focus on providing evidence of deeper thinking and make sure you don't lose marks for poor presentation.

But for new Freshers, work is probably the last thing on their minds.

"You are far too panicked about trying to be liked, make friends and not get lost," says Emma Prest, another Edinburgh student. "The only piece of advice I have is to realise that everyone is just as scared, or probably even more so, than you are. "

Smarter Student Guide by Kathleen McMillan and Jonathan Weyers, Prentice Hall, £12.99