Top tips to surviving your first year at university
University can leave you feeling overwhelmed and helpless – these tips will help take off some of the stress.

I can still remember the bubbling excitement I had when I started university. It would be my first time away from home. The perfect opportunity to either reinvent myself or find people I could connect with. The course I was going to major in awarded me the privilege of never having to pick up a scientific calculator ever again and I could finally express my individuality by wearing my own clothes. 

By the time orientation week was over, I had friends, developed a major crush on a classmate and had spent 60% of my February allowance; life was perfect!

Now, 7 years later, I wish there had been some things I’d known. University was hard; by the time I graduated I was mentally, physically and emotionally drained. I look back at all the good times with fondness but given the chance to do it again, I’d make sure to keep the following tips with me.

Also read: Dear tween me, it’s okay to not be the cool kid, sweetie

1. Go to mock lectures

I never went to my mock lectures at the start of the year, I was too busy sleeping in and enjoying the fact that no one would tell me what to do. I know I did graduate and did pretty all right on most of my assignments, but mock lectures are great because they’re a practice run for how the rest of your course will go.

Maybe if I had attended my mock lectures I would have known to deregister for my Intro to Philosophy class and take up a foreign language instead. These lectures are also a great opportunity to familiarise yourself with your lecturers, classmates and the course material you’ll need. You’ll be more than prepared for the real lectures and you’ll know where the best seat in the lecture hall is. 

Also read: 5 ways to prepare for varsity

2. Go to as many lectures as possible

Just like the first tip, this is very important. Yes, university can be one big fat party, but the main purpose of you being there is to study and get that degree! Go to all your lectures. It’s very possible to do all your coursework and write your exams without having gone to a single lecture, but chances are you’ll be lost and frustrated with all the work you have to do. Going to lectures means that you can listen to your coursework being explained by an expert. I got the best grades in the courses I attended lectures to (did someone say The Sound the Fury). 

Tshidi Mathibe, Head of Programme at Independent Institute of Education Faculty of Commerce says, “If you miss a lecture, or do not submit an assignment, no one will care. Teachers at school would nag you about your homework, but at university you need to know when assignments are due, and when and where tests are being written. So right from the start commit to taking responsibility for yourself, your learning and success”. 

Some classes may even be compulsory and an attendance register or quick tests may be taken. Not attending these may affect your year mark and even disqualify you from exam entrance.

Make sure to attend all your lectures, tutorials and hand in your assignments on time, even if you think you can afford to lose 5% off your essay. Just be the best student you can possibly be! You’ll thank yourself when you’re standing in front the dean of your faculty and your parents are snapping pictures of you receiving your degree. 

3. Find out who your mentors and faculty advisors are

I lived in res, and had a corridor mentor. This was the person who would explain the rules of the residence to all the girls living in my corridor. She was there to take on the role of ‘big sister’, she’d gone through the first year ups and downs and was there for us if we needed to chat about school, life and other anxieties we had.

I also took the time to find out who my faculty advisor was. I was confused about which courses to take and which ones would benefit my grades and future career in the long run. I made sure to see her at the start of every semester and I’m glad I did. If I had not, I would not have known that I could have changed a course in the first two weeks of enrolling in it. Every university has advisors and mentors to assist the students; use them, they’re friendly and very knowledgeable about every aspect of university. 

4. Join a club or society

I studied film, media and English literature so the obvious thing to do was join the film society and the university newspaper. While I slacked in both clubs, I’m still glad I joined them. I met amazing people and got to learn more about the craft I wanted to specialise in after university.

I also managed to join a yoga club and the ballroom club. I’m not the most athletic person, but those two clubs helped me stay active when I lived on a diet of two-minutes noodles, slap chips and hot wings. I can proudly say that I still remember the steps to a waltz and samba.

Many people who were active members in their societies and clubs in university have used those skills to get ahead in their careers or made amazing friends that they're still in contact with 10 years after leaving university. 

5. Make friends

In high school, I was the weird girl in the book club who had an intense obsession with 80s pop music and the Jonas Brothers. I made a pact with myself that I would reinvent myself when I got to university. While I did make friends very quickly, those friendships didn’t last because I was still trying to figure myself out. I was heartbroken when those friendships didn’t work out. The idea of being alone in a foreign city and having to make friends all over again when people had begun establishing themselves and their clique made me want to transfer to another university.

I finally did make friends again, this time, I found a group of friends that could sing along to The Cure’s entire discography and loved John Hughes films like I did. It was nerve-wrecking putting myself out there again, but I gained the courage to strike up a conversation with two girls I always saw in the bus on the way to campus. Seven years later, and we’re all still friends.

I love my friends from high school, but my friends from university got to see a part of me that was carefree, that broke down and that was independent. Treasure the friends you make at university because they’re the ones you’ll most likely have for life.

“They say the friends you meet at varsity will stick with you through life, and while it may be easy to stick with that one person you know from home who’s at varsity with you, take the chance to broaden your friendship circle and meet new friends from all walks of life!!” says a spokesperson for Respublica student accommodation.

Also read: A decade of friendship

6. Explore the city

I went to a university that was a two-hour flight away from home. I wish I had done all the tourist activities in the area when I had the chance. Go see all the sights and take in the city, even if it’s the city you’ve grown up in. There are always so many cool events, restaurants or sights to go to, please go before they close. 

Also read: A not-so-empty nest

7. Acquaint yourself with your campus

University campuses are huge and can be overwhelming. You can go on your university’s website to download the campus map. Make sure to study it so you know your way around. The worst feeling is being 15 minutes late for your tutorial because you confused the microbiology building with the biology building.

If you know your campus, you’ll know all the shortcuts to get to your classes on time, the best food stalls on campus and where all the printers are situated in case the ones in the library stop working an hour before your assignment is due. If your university offers a bus system, make sure to always have the bus schedules PDF saved on your phone – this will come in handy on days you’re running late or need to go from one campus to another. 

8. Make use of your student discounts

I love student discounts! I got free entry to museums, galleries and half price at some many different places. If you’re a student, make sure to always have your student card with you and ask if they offer student discounts everywhere you go. You’ll be able to save money without having to compromise. I even took my student card on a family overseas trip and got discounts in France! 

Also read: Affordable university digs makeover

9. Budget

Do you really need to buy the R26 basil pesto panini for lunch? The chicken mayo is R13 and still fills you up. You’ll thank yourself when you have money to buy the vintage sunglasses you’ve been eyeing for months.

I made some horrible financial choices in university and I wish I had been more diligent with my expenses. The truth is, while it’s nice to take a cab instead of waiting for the bus or buying a large slab of chocolate because of cravings, it sucks when you have to stay home on a Friday night when everyone is out having fun. You can’t dance with an empty Cadbury wrapper. Save up for next semester’s textbooks, items of clothing you desperately want or just have money for when emergencies strike. 

Also read: Can your teen handle financial responsibilities?

10. Take care of yourself

Don’t try to go to all the parties, don’t try and appease everyone, and don’t take on more than you can handle. 

  • If you’re struggling with course work, talk to your advisor or tutor, you’ll be able to get concession to hand in your assignment a few days later.
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed, go see the campus psychologist or call home. It’s okay to cry, it doesn’t make you weak.
  • If you go out partying, send a screen shot of your uber driver’s number plate and name to someone you can trust. Always keep your belongings on your person and never except drinks from strangers.
  • Don’t succumb to peer pressure.
  • Find out where your nearest police stations is, you’ll know where to go to open a case.
  • Never walk alone at night and don’t get into a stranger’s car.
  • It’s okay to take some time off from seeing your friends. Pull a Kylie Jenner and protect your peace. 
  • The most important tip of all is to remember to treasure every moment. I will keep every good moment close to my heart and I know I learnt a great deal about myself during the really tough times.

This is just the beginning; the best is yet to come.

What advise would you give your younger self about starting university? Send us your stories and comments to

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