The Ultimate Mini-Guide to Surviving Your First Year at University
This mini-guide is here to help you get it right with some tried advice.
by Blandine Obale
30 Sep, 2019


Surviving your first year and building relationships

Whether you’ve chosen to live in a dorm or commute from home, it’s in your best interest to participate in the beginning-of-the-year activities your school has to offer. Your university will host social events, orientation weeks, and information sessions around campus.

These events are a fantastic way to meet your peers. You’ve been waiting a long time to be independent, and now is the time to get uncomfortable, get out there, and meet your classmates.

Starting on the right foot is tricky. You don’t necessarily know what you should be doing to get the most out of your first year; you might spend a lot of time in a state of paralysis by analysis. This guide is here to take the guesswork out of the equation.


Go to as many orientation events as you can

You can go with your friends to these events, but if you can go alone, they’re even better. Mingle with people on your course, see what your university has to offer, and build your network. Going to these events solo and stepping out of your comfort zone is the best way to prepare yourself for the interactions you will have later in the year.

Get phone numbers of people you like, and go out with them on campus to check out all of the facilities. Knowing your campus before the start of the term will eliminate mornings of frantic running looking for your class.

Orientation leaders are students who have taken the initiative to help newbies like yourself with the transition from secondary school to university. They are well connected with many groups and societies. Befriending your orientation leaders will get your foot in the door with good connections around campus. Now is the time to ask them questions such as:

  1. How did you become an orientation leader?
  2. What other groups are you a part of?
  3. How do you organise events?
  4. Who generally manages these events?


Explore your campus thoroughly

Print out your schedule and map out your routes. You might not have much time in between classes to be poking around buildings searching for the entrance to the right lecture hall. I took a picture of my schedule and set it as my lock screen background on my phone. Add your classes to your digital calendar.

Make a note of where your personal tutor’s office is, go there and take a look around. If you ever need help with decisions based on changing your program or schedule, this is where you’ll need to go. It’s good to have a visual before the madness of school ensues.

Whether you live in halls or not, explore all of the other residences. This is a great way to meet people and to know where certain groups of students are located. It’s best to do this at the beginning of the year. Some residences are off-limits to students who aren’t housed there.

Getting to know students from those areas at the beginning of the year is much easier. It’s much harder to gain access halfway through a busy term.


Participate in intramural sports and hit the gym

One of the best ways to build bonds with others is through competition. Every university has an intramural program for most sports. You don’t have to be a pro; intramural sports will have skill levels assigned to different leagues.

Building bonds in sport is equally as important as building relationships on campus. Many strong-willed and disciplined students play sports. I was invited to study sessions, parties, and events because of my participation in sports and consistent visits to the gym.

If you play sports, try out for your school’s sports team. Even if you don’t make it, continue playing at the intramural level. Chances are, you will play with varsity players and make good connections. If coaches see that you are keen to keep playing and improving, your chances of making the team the following year will improve.

Make yourself known. Show up at practices and watch. You don’t have to be there for every practice. Once a week will keep your face fresh and allow you to chat with members of the team.

The reason why I stress university sports is because the people who are involved have a vast network of people and staff in higher places. This can come in handy when you want to create your own club, or you need someone to advocate on your behalf if you are organising an event in the future.


Join every club and society you can

Meeting new people outside of sports and coursework is vital. It’s how you will improve your intellect and improve collaboration skills. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t into student politics or environment care groups. Look at your uni’s website and see what they have to offer.

Attend a few meet-ups and learn some new things. Some universities have clubs where students can meet for a free lecture and learn about incredible things, such as advancements in medicine.

Visit your university website and find out when they have a club week. Most schools will have a club orientation week to inform students of what is available to them. The lists are endless. Join a few of the ones you like, but also join a club that is outside of your comfort zone. You can always quit if you don’t like it.

The purpose of going “club-crazy” is to discover a new interest that you could cultivate into a passion. Let’s stop lying to ourselves. It’s hard to know what it is you want to do with your life in your first year of school. Having a sampling period is necessary to find things that you gravitate towards.

Pro Tip: Meet your professors and exchange emails. This is something I learned too late in school. I had friends that opened my eyes to the importance of this habit in my third year. Meeting your educators is one of the best ways to improve your marks and build a network that pays dividends.

When professors know your name, and they can see that you are making an effort to meet with them, they will invest in your education. You’ll get better grades and leave the door open for job opportunities in the future.


Organise meet-ups 

When you build relationships in the first few months, you’ll undoubtedly make some lifelong friends. Fun is just as important as studying. Partying can be great fun, but it’s essential to keep it from becoming the only activity you do with the connections you’ve made.


Make regular trips to the library

There is a time for studying alone, and there is a time for studying with peers. Study with your friends often. The library is the best place to go, but feel free to get creative and find other secret spots on campus that provide an excellent studying atmosphere.

Not only is studying with friends fun, but it can also boost your learning. Being able to goof around after having your nose in a textbook is a great way to keep stress levels low and build a sense of comradery. Teaching the material that you learn will help you understand it more thoroughly — this a significant advantage of group work.


Create a study group and meet once a week

After a few trips to the library, you’ll become a familiar face to those taking their education seriously. You’ll be able to create a group chat or utilise a scheduling service like Umeand to make it easier on yourself and your peers to organise study times during the more hectic parts of the year. Some of the best memories I have are of the days my friends and I lounged around the library. We wore our sweats and drank from bathtub-sized mugs of coffee.

Apps that allow friends to RSVPs for meetups are a life hack. Rather than going back and forth dozens of times in a chat, send them your schedule. It will save you time and stress. You won’t have to worry about responding right away, and your friends won’t have to worry about explaining why they can’t meet for a specific time. Use these apps to your advantage.

Of course, your study group will not work out every week. That’s why you need to stay consistent. Even if nobody can make it, they’ll know where to find you if their plans change. Book yourself off on a specific day after class and put in some work.

If you’re already on campus, you might as well squeeze in some more productivity. Shoot a message to your friends and let them know. On a few occasions, I sent out an email to classmates that read, “Happy Friday! At the lib, if you want to join. 3rd floor in the reading room.”


Promote your meet-ups

At the library or other places on campus, it is vital to be inclusive. Invite friends of friends, and let classmates know that you have study sessions or meet-ups at specific locations.

The more people that you can study with, the more friends you will make, and the more opportunities you will have for learning and future work connections. Who knows, maybe that cute guy or girl will want to join.

Inviting others will keep your study sessions and meetings engaging. Make sure you let people know that they are welcome to bring their friends, as long as they are there to study with the group. Bring lots of snacks.

Make an event out of it. As mentioned above, bring a game that you can play in a group. A competitive game is best, like Settlers of Catan. You can keep a scoreboard and track the top players. It’s a little extra work, but it’s worth it. It’ll look after itself. People like to go where they can be productive and have fun.

Pro Tip: If you can put together a Facebook group, it will get your name out on campus and grow your network to an incredible size. People think networking is all about running around campus and pestering others for contact information. Fortunately, this is not the case. Use social media to your advantage. Build it, and they will come.


Focusing on your studies and removing distractions

When working in a group or alone, there are many techniques you can use to improve the quality of your work and to improve retention of the materials you are studying. Winging it is one way to learn, but using the following advice will give you an advantage in the library and the classroom.


Work in blocks, without distractions

In Deep Work by Cal Newport, the primary subject of the book is maintaining unbroken focus and eliminating distractions. The author refers to numerous examples and studies that highlight the quality of work one can complete if one can work undistracted.

To start, work with a 40-minute block of time in your group or alone. Put your smartphone in your pocket and close Facebook. It takes your brain roughly twenty minutes to become focused on your task.

Any distraction that comes during a period of focus will disrupt your attention. It takes your brain 20 minutes to get back into a “flow” state. Don’t allow that to happen. In your 40 minutes of undisrupted focus, you’ll accomplish work of a higher quality and higher volume than you would if you had twitter open in the background and your smartphone vibrating on your desk.

Listening to music without lyrics is helpful. There are fewer distractions. Brian Eno produces hour-long ambient tracks that won’t distract you. Ambient music that can uplift your mood will increase retention and focus.

In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor writes about the influences of positivity in the brain. He refers to research that shows a positive mindset improves cognitive function. Music is an excellent controller of emotion. Find something uplifting and go to work. I found that it worked wonders for my productivity.


Reward yourself and your meet-up group

It’s no secret that we live in a hustle culture. Entrepreneurs and successful business people preach about working non-stop, 24/7. I’m here to tell you that it’s not necessary. That sort of work ethic in school will burn you out.

Rewarding yourself or your group is a pillar of productivity. Let loose, blow off some steam at the end of your productivity block. Indulge in YouTube videos or scroll through your Facebook feed. A simple game, such as throwing paper into a recycling bin is even better.

It will motivate you to finish work and have some fun on your own or with your friends. University is hard work, but it’s also meant to be a lot of fun. If you can’t have fun studying or you can’t have fun in the classroom, you won’t have much fun in the workplace.

An excellent system to employ for breaking up fun and productivity is called the Pomodoro technique. It is similar to Cal Newport’s focus blocks and might be easier to implement at first. The Pomodoro technique requires that you work for 25-minute chunks and reward yourself with 5-minute breaks.


Setting priorities is the secret to less stress and more satisfaction

Setting priorities is something that I got the hang of too late. If you asked me to go out for dinner when I should have been doing homework, I would. If you asked me to hang out late on a Saturday night with a big assignment due on Monday, I would.

I didn’t have balance, and many of my peers didn’t either. When I learned to set priorities and find stability, I had more fun than ever before. Without a system, your productivity will suffer.


Use a planner and stick to it

In the age of the smartphone, anyone can reach you at any time. If you don’t guard your time, it’s easy for anyone to convince you to give it to them. Thankfully, the smartphone also allows us to download tools and planners in the blink of an eye. Use this to your advantage.

Always set aside time for working on projects, assignments, and homework. Scheduling time for productivity makes it an official commitment to yourself. You’ll be less likely to bail on schoolwork when you know precisely what you are doing with your time, and why you booked it in the first place.

Carry around a small notepad, or develop a healthy habit of writing down notes in your phone. This little habit will have a considerable impact on your ability to remember appointments and to be punctual. There are plenty of excellent planners at a relatively low cost on Amazon.

Brendan Bouchard is one of the best high-performance coaches in the world. He has an excellent planner available on amazon. Using a planner in tandem with a scheduling app will put you way ahead of the game.


Share your calendar

The best thing you can do to solidify your schedule is to share it with others. The people who will most often try and eat up your time are your roommates and closest friends. You have their emails, so don’t be shy. Share your calendar.

This way, they will know when you have time off, and they will see when you are busy. It gives them the incentive to leave you in peace, knowing that they can ask for your time when they see you haven’t booked anything. You won’t have to explain why you can’t participate in yet another trip to the bar on a Wednesday night.


Log your progress

You don’t have to write a peer-reviewed journal article on what you’ve accomplished. Write a few words in your calendar. Write about what you did and what you achieved in a few short sentences.

We are quick to discard the work that we finish. Keep track of your progress and practice compassion on yourself. Acknowledge your hard work, pat yourself on the back. Keeping all of your notes for years to come will leave you with a clutter problem. It’s far more practical to record your accomplishment for reflection later.

After finishing a task, take 30 seconds to sit with the feeling of accomplishment. Don’t let it go unrewarded. Recognising your achievements is something you have to practice actively. Over time, you’ll build a better relationship with yourself.


Don’t forget to have fun

Projects, deadlines, and assignments can be stressful. That’s why I have created this guide for you. If you follow the advice in this guidebook, you’ll have plenty of fun in your first year of university, and you’ll be extremely productive.

Learn from my mistakes and my experience. One year will go by faster than you can imagine. Set yourself up for success and get organised. Use your calendars. Build your networks. Study with your friends.

The last thing you want to do is sit in your room studying alone or not studying at all. You don’t want that, and I don’t want that for you. Work hard, play hard, and your first year of university will be a huge success.

Blandine Obale is the Founder of Umeand. Umeand’s mission is to make scheduling easier so we can connect and do more face to face.