How to make the grade during the crucial first six weeks at college

Making the leap from school to third level can be difficult, but there is a lot of expert support on offer, writes Áilín Quinlan.

GOING to college for the first time brings huge change for school-leavers — and these first six weeks, in which you navigate an unfamiliar environment, make new friends and get to grips with independent living, can be crucial to your ultimate success.

Perhaps your biggest challenge lies in having to cook all your own meals or take responsibility for self-directed study.

Maybe it’s the suspicion that you’ve chosen the wrong course or that you’re lonely because the comfortable network of friends which has surrounded you since childhood has scattered.

No matter what your expectations, warns Nóirín Deady, first-year experience co-ordinator at UCC, “nearly every student encounters challenging experiences or obstacles at the beginning.”

How to make the grade during the crucial first six weeks at college

It’s increasingly acknowledged that colleges are going to great lengths to provide relevant supports for first-year students. 

Open days and orientation sessions as well as well-resourced student support centres, are crucial to helping them find their feet and stay on track, though of course, it’s up to the student to take advantage of what’s on offer to help him or her with both a new style of study and a whole new way of life.

Last year, data from the Higher Education Authority showed that more than 6,400 students, or about 16% of all first years quit their courses — a trend which has remained stable since about 2008.

Feeling welcome and part of things is crucial, believes Marese Bermingham, head of the Student Engagement Office at Cork Institute of Technology. 

“Research tells us the first six weeks are very important,” she says, pointing to the findings of the What Works programme, carried out by the Higher Education Authority in Britain between 2012 and 2015.

How to make the grade during the crucial first six weeks at college

“Students need to feel they matter and that they belong,” she says, adding that to this end and like many other colleges, CIT has put in place a range of specific programmes including the popular six-week-long Good Start programme, along with a network of pop-up information desks, Good Start Ambassadors (older, experienced, helpful students), and a successful Get Connected programme which runs throughout the year.

Such supports are crucial to students grappling with a new kind of study because, according to Deirdre Moloney, senior student support officer at Dublin City University: “Independent learning is what happens at university compared to the very structured learning at Leaving Certificate level.

“It has been identified that to be an independent learner you need to have study skills, critical thinking, research and essay writing skills.

How to make the grade during the crucial first six weeks at college

“However students are coming to third level without a high competency in these skills,” she warns, adding that DCU has put in place special student support and development centres.

Mark Farrelly from Drogheda and a third-year business student at DCU, says it’s important to make the adjustment early: “The first thing you need to know is that you’re spoon-fed or molly coddled in secondary school, but in college you’re expected to teach yourself to an extent.”

So attend the special support classes on, for example, essay writing or referencing, he advises.

“Your lecturer won’t spend the class showing you how to write an essay. Know about the available academic support structures. 

"I didn’t go to those classes in first year because essentially I didn’t understand how important they were.”

Not realising that it is they who have the responsibility for directing their own learning, and taking steps to tackle any academic weaknesses, can have a significant impact on the performance of students who are slow to realise the change in the way they are expected to learn.

“We find the first semester runs away with them. They will have important exams before Christmas to they need to get the balance right,” says Bermingham.

How to make the grade during the crucial first six weeks at college

She says a major issue for first years is learning to grapple with the concept of self-directed learning and time management. 

As a result, the college has put in place a raft of academic support activities from academic success coaches and peer-support groups to workshops on time management and even a booklet on how to get a good degree.

Some students experience difficulty with particular modules or subjects — here again the college steps in, providing free tuition in a number of subjects including maths, economics, and financial accountancy, Bermingham says.

If things are not what you expected and you’re feeling a bit lost, don’t be afraid to ask for help, says USI president Annie Hoey.

“There’s this idea of what post-second-level life will be like — this Americanised drama of what college life is. 

"There is a perception that third level is all about living with friends and partying all the time and if it’s not like that you can feel something is wrong.

“We can put a lot of pressure on ourselves to fit into what we think we should be doing and that can create huge pressure.”

How to make the grade during the crucial first six weeks at college

In terms of life issues, says Deirdre Moloney, students may encounter challenges in terms of everything from domestic chores to time management, money management and making new friends.

Living away from home can be a big challenge, says 20-year-old Galway native Jack Kane, a second-year global business student at Dublin City University.

“Cooking was an issue for me, and the organisation of laundry,” he admits, adding that such domestic chores were something he didn’t have to think about before. 

“But now there was no one double-checking that I was doing the laundry.”

Realising you’re now responsible for yourself is a big challenge, he says. Time management can be a major issue if you’re not careful.

“If you don’t keep on top of things you could find yourself in trouble, particularly if you get into the habit of skipping a class you don’t like. You’ll pay the price — the exams come up very quickly at the end of the year,” he says.

“If you’re having trouble with any part of your course, see the lecturer or tutor — they won’t do a roll call and ask if everyone found the homework alright. If you let yourself slide, you will slide because some third-level classes are huge.”

How to make the grade during the crucial first six weeks at college

Making a conscious decision to go out and make new friends can be a challenge for a lonely first-year, says Moloney, adding, however, that orientation sessions, with talks and smaller classes, are specially tailored to help students get to know their peers — so attend them.

“Create a network of good friends around you — they will look out for each other, and do things as a group,” says Jack Kane.

“It’s about making the effort to put yourself out there and it’s not that hard when you do it because all first years are facing the same challenges so you might as well face it together. Plus, you will keep an eye out for each other when you’re out socialising as well.”

The freedom of living away from home, meeting new friends, socialising also brings issues with negotiating sexuality and the issue of the drink culture, warns psychologist and psychotherapist Helena Ahern, head of counselling and personal development at DCU.

“Should I go home with someone or not? When is ‘no’ actually ‘no’? What happens if my ‘no’ is not taken as a refusal,” she points out.

“There is definitely pressure to have a boyfriend/girlfriend, to be cool — to be in a sexual relationship is quite expected for undergraduate students.”

First-year students can become very fearful, says Dr Declan Aherne, head of counselling at the University of Limerick. 

They’re adolescents, he points out, and thus often at “their most vulnerable and rebellious”.

How to make the grade during the crucial first six weeks at college

“The anxiety is about a fear of failure, a fear of not being accepted and depression can be a follow-on from that fear of not fitting in and not being liked. They start off being afraid and it can result in despair,” he warns.

“Young people are looking for an identity and to feel OK in themselves, to fit in. Their self- esteem needs to be developed. 

"They’re coming from secure homes and school environments into a very adult and more independent environment, and if their sense of themselves is not strong they are vulnerable and they can be open to running into difficulty.”

First-year students have big hurdles to navigate. 

“There can be a sense of loneliness and loss. They can find it hard to connect,” he says, pointing out that while social media looks like a great connection tool, the personal human connection is missing.

“They are trying to fit in and that’s not easy,” he says, adding that image is of supreme importance for both sexes: “It’s all about image and how you are perceived which fits into the drive to belong and fit in. 

"They also have to have the sense of their own independence and it’s hard to get the balance.”

The clash between expectations and reality can come as a shock to many.

Warns Nóirín Deady: “Often they have unrealistic expectations and fear the unknown. Depending on their home environment and setting, the physical and social environment of the university can be intimidating for some, overwhelming for others and very exciting for most.

“Some students feel isolated, especially those coming from closely knit families and rural settings. They may be breaking from family and friends for the first time in their lives. This creates a lot of anxiety,” she says.

While some students may be enthusiastic about college initially, she says, they may discover that the actual experience falls short of their expectations and they don’t feel happy, comfortable, or secure in their new environment.

Along with an increase in personal freedom, she points out, comes greater responsibility.

How to make the grade during the crucial first six weeks at college

“First years must make choices about when and how to study, socialise, become involved in activities, budget money, exercise, and make time to eat and sleep.

“They are faced with the challenge of learning how to balance going to lectures, participating in activities, completing assignments on time, and having fun as well.

“Students are faced, often for the first time, with the need to take more initiative to address responsibilities.

“Many are coming from very structured environments where parents are constantly shadowing them and are overly involved in their lives. 

"For example, parents often complete their daughter’s/son’s CAO application, accept their offer, and complete online registration. These students are more challenged in their transition to college,” she says.

“Other students know that they’ve chosen the wrong course of study and this creates an enormous amount of anxiety.”

To help with what is acknowledged to be a huge transition, however, third-level institutions have gone to unprecedented lengths to put in place a range of relevant peer, academic and social supports for first-years — whether it’s the Open Door Welcome at UCC, the Good Start programme at CIT, or UL’s First Seven Weeks programme, all the newly fledged fresher really has to do is ask.

The first six weeks ...

How to make the grade during the crucial first six weeks at college

Go to orientation.

Decide to meet one new person every week. Join relevant clubs and societies.

Get organised. Buy a big wall calendar. Work out when and where your lectures, tutorials, and labs take place, when your assignments are due and the date of your examinations.

Find a place to study.

Don’t rush out and buy unnecessary (and often expensive) books. Wait and see what you really need to get. Talk to someone a year ahead of you.

Attend your lectures.

Get the balance right. If you want to play hard, you must study hard.

Strive for good results. Ask yourself what you want to get from your course and how you’ go about getting it.

Have a goal and a focus.

Give yourself every chance to succeed in the first term. Don’t throw in the towel if you find yourself struggling in the first few weeks. Be patient and give yourself time to find your footing academically.

Attend at least two academic skills workshops to enable you to do your best with your coursework you are assigned. Take responsibility for yourself and your actions.

Don’t procrastinate. Complete assignments on time and aim for good results.

Link into the college support services and website if you experience difficulties with anything from accommodation to finance.

If you’re feeling a bit lost and out of sorts understand that this is normal. Most of the other new students are feeling much the same. It’s not just you.


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