Why your first year at university really matters

The first year of university is an excellent training ground to hone essay and reading skills, writes student blogger Joe Newell

September 9 2019
Why your first year at university really matters

How you treat your first year is a point of contention among university students.

For the majority of courses, your first-year grade does not count towards your final degree classification. Naturally, then, students start to wonder whether a year focused on socialising and getting stuck in with societies – fitting in the occasional stint at the library – will be much more beneficial than going all out with studying.

As long as you pass with 40 per cent, you can put the effort in next year when it counts, right?

True, settling into university is a crucial aspect of first year, and socialising will play a big part in that. But if your degree is essay-based, as many are, a complacent approach to your first-year studies really is not in your interests. And here is why.

Let me illustrate the point with my own experience. If you plotted my work ethic throughout the year on a graph, it would look something like the Himalayas.

Once, I found myself in the early hours of the morning with a deadline rapidly approaching. Having left the essay until the last minute, I was relying on some pretty meagre research as I wrestled with my keyboard to meet the word count. As expected, the mark for that essay was not great. The feedback also told me what I already knew: I was let down by limited research and a poorly thought-out structure.


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By contrast, another time I put a lot of effort into one essay that counted for much of that module’s final grade. I read widely and carefully formulated an argument.

The mark I was given was not as high as I would have liked, but I received some invaluable feedback: I had changed the focus of this essay, but my tutor pointed out that this was not entirely clear and advised me on how best to justify changing the question’s parameters. This feedback was specific!

I had tried my best, so in the end I learned about an error in my technique that I would otherwise have been unaware of. I keep advice like this in mind every time I come to write a new essay.

Coasting to a pass will not get you the feedback that really improves essay technique. Like I said, you’ll find that comments point out blatant shortcomings that both you and the marker know are the result of low effort. Trying your best is the only way to hone your essay-writing skills.

All this becomes crucial when you remember that essay-based degrees examine students with essays every single year. That means the skill is cumulative – by third year, you’ll be sporting a portfolio of mistakes made and lessons learned that will (hopefully) land you your best possible grade.

First year is a chance to test the waters; you are free to make those mistakes and play around with your style while unencumbered by the pressure to get the best grades.

Alternatively, you could work just enough to be allowed back into university in second year.

In terms of official marks, you would be on the same footing as every other student, but you might find your essay-writing to be a year behind. In the immortal words of one of my tutors: “It’s as if you pay a massive entry fee to run a marathon, with world-class coaches and everything, and then fail to start training.”

All this being said, there is a lot happening in first year, so try not to feel weighed down by your academic assignments. Just take this as a warning: don’t skip through the year thinking you have a safety net; the work you put in really matters.

Read more: You’ve started your degree, now please make sure you do the reading!

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