Six tips to get through your first year of study

UIT parade in 2019. Photo: DUB archive

"In high school, I could always just remember everything and I didn't do much, but things are different at the university", says Dirkje, who's just finished her first year studying Dutch Language and Culture. She's not alone: for many freshmen, university life takes some getting used to, as study materials increase both in quantity and complexity, teachers tend to guide students less closely, and the environment offers a lot more freedoms. No wonder an average of seven percent of college students in the Netherlands drop out before finishing their first year, according to a recent report by newspaper AD. The following tips can help you get through this phase. 

Tip #1: do your homework before classes and tutorials 

High school students usually get assigned their homework after each class, which means they get an explanation first. At the university, it's mostly the other way around: students are expected to prepare themselves for the class by acquiring some basic knowledge beforehand. 

Andrea (History): “I noticed that classes, exams and papers were a lot easier when I studied the materials beforehand, in comparison to the times when I didn't do it".

Kyra (Veterinary Medicine): “A big tip is to do what you're being asked to do before actually getting to work. Otherwise, you'll spend the whole class or tutorial trying to get a grasp of things that everyone else already understands, all the while trying to catch up with the material, so you basically waste a whole hour on a topic you don't understand because you didn't study yourself. I'd also recommend having your notes typed in a Word document, instead of just writing them down in a notebook. That way, you can easily search for things later on with a simple CTRL+F."

Tip #2: participate actively in your (online) classes and work groups

In high school, students are used to having classes the whole day, five days a week. At the university, however, they're only expected to be there a few hours a week. It may seem tempting, therefore, to skip that one class at nine o'clock, especially considering your social life is blossoming. But attending classes is actually the secret to success, as that's when the teacher will provide you with the most important information (meaning: what you need to know for the exam!)

Andrea (History): “I attended all classes. My programme doesn't offer a lot of office hours, so ten hours on campus isn't much. It's worth the effort, as that's when the most important content is covered, not to mention it's a good opportunity to get to know your classmates."

Anna (Law): “Focus on the classes: attend the lectures and prepare yourself well for the group assignments. That way, you don't have to do your absolute best when reading the literature, you can afford to miss a reading every now and then." 

Dirkje (Dutch Language and Culture): “If the class is online, turn on your camera and say something from time to time! It only makes things more interesting for everyone. When you participate actively in your classes, you memorize the content a lot better and you don't need to study so hard for the exam."

Tip #3: ask older students if they have the books you need the most

Most courses provide you with a syllabus, i.e. a list of materials required, usually books and articles. Even though pretty much every class has a book you "must have", it's a good idea to wait and see if you really need to purchase your own copy after all. That way, you can save a couple hundred euros.

Kyra (Veterinary Medicine): “I actually haven't spent a lot of money on books. You can find so much online."

Andrea (History): “Books are an essential part of the History programme, especially during the first year. The readings were also useful for the tests and papers we had to write. So, yeah, in my case the books came in handy."

Dirkje (Dutch Language and Culture): “I could borrow a lot of books from other students. I've also purchased books through my student association, which reduced the costs."

Tip #4: Take group assignments seriously

Another aspect in which the university differs from high school is the scale of group assignments. Nobody likes to work with a slacker, so take your responsibilities seriously and seize the opportunity to learn from other students.

Andrea (History): “There's a big difference between group assignments in high school and at the university. Most students take these assignments a lot more seriously. But group work can also be really fun: I once worked with a group that used to go to a bar after class."

Kyra (Veterinary Medicine): “Usually, the entire group gets the same grade, so you really don't want to be a leech. We really had to learn to communicate with each other about certain things, like when someone doesn't finish their part of the job."

Tip #5: don't be afraid to ask for help

Everything is new in the beginning, so it's completely normal to have a lot of questions. Those with more experience -- such as senior students you meet during the introduction week -- are an ideal first point of contact, according to Dirkje (Dutch Language and Culture) and Anna (Law).

In addition, there are a number of professionals at Utrecht University who can give you a helping hand, such as study advisors who help those delaying the completion of their studies, student deans who guide you if you're having a hard time studying, and student psychologists to whom you can talk if you're not feeling comfortable in your own skin. The Skills Lab also offers free workshops to give your writing and studying skills a boost. 

Andrea (History): “I noticed pretty soon that I wanted to pursue a Master's that didn't quite match my Bachelor's, so I had to make sure I'd be sufficiently qualified for it. I scheduled many appointments with the study advisor to see which courses I would have to follow and how they could fit in my track, how to register for them, how to distinguish myself, and what other ways there were to get to that Master's."

Tip #6: don't be too hard on yourself

Your first year as a university student can be quite overwhelming: a new study, a new city, new friends. There will be moments when you'll see no way out, or you won't manage to study, perhaps you may even feel a bit lonely. That's alright! Embrace the process and be kind to yourself, as good things take time. Besides, most programmes don't require you to earn all credits to move on to the second year.

Dirkje (Dutch Language and Culture): “Try to always do something after your classes, be them online or not. Go outside, so you have more energy for the rest of the things you have to do for school."

Kyra (Veterinary Medicine): “In the beginning, I was really studying 24/7 and everything was new and scary. But I've learned to take better care of myself ever since. I take more breaks, have a healthier diet, and give parties a pass if I don't feel like going. Studying is already hard enough."