Mary Lucey: The dos and don’ts for your first semester at college

From realising the course you chose may not be suitable for you, to keeping on top of assignments, the fact that colleges will do their best to retain their students means there is plenty of academic support and student services support to help college entrants in their initial term, writes Mary Lucey
Mary Lucey: The dos and don’ts for your first semester at college

Good self-discipline is essential from the beginning of the academic year to ensure sufficient attendance in college for success. Photo: Denis Minihane

To settle swiftly into a college course, what matters is that students are registered on a course that matches their strengths, interests, personalities, and career goals. After a brief settling-in period, a student will quickly know if the course they are registered on suits them.

If it doesn’t, the normal pattern that follows with students is that they start to skip classes, avoid their lecturers and start to fall behind. They very quickly get out of their depth with the coursework, resulting in a potential dropout or failure. If a student believes they are on the wrong course then rapid action needs to be taken. 

Firstly, they need to explain their situation to the college admissions team. Colleges will do their best to retain their students and may try to arrange a transfer to a more suitable course within the student’s CAO points range. If a transfer is not possible, students could look at possible relevant transfers, after the first semester, to other colleges that they listed on their CAO form. Such transfers will be entirely dependent on each of the individual colleges and their admissions policies and procedures.

If a suitable third-level option cannot be found, they should look at alternative courses offered in the Further Education and Training sector. These courses are highly affordable and will not impact third-level funding going forward.

Unfortunately, many students and guardians feel embarrassed and ashamed that students are not happy with their college courses. This attitude needs to change – we all make incorrect decisions and what is important is that students take corrective action in a timely manner. 

Many students do not deregister officially from their course. This will mean a student may lose their fees/student grant for that year, and it may impact other years if the student decides to return to college.

If a student officially withdraws from a course, normally before October 31 of the academic year, they should receive a refund and/or it should have no impact on SUSI grants going forward. This date is particularly important to keep in mind if a student wishes to leave their course, to ensure they will not be disadvantaged financially if applying for other college courses going forward.


When a student is on a suitable course, and ensuring they regularly attend classes and lectures, they generally settle in extremely well. It is surprising, however, the number of students who leave their college course because of not being able to deal with being away from home. 

Taking all the relevant steps - meeting friends, getting involved in clubs/societies, going out socialising, engaging with student supports, counsellor etc – some students just cannot cope with the change. 

Once all options are exhausted and a student continues to suffer from unrelenting homesickness, the fact may need to be accepted that they are not just ready to leave home at 17 or 18. 

A student should not suffer academically, personally and/or emotionally just for the sake of going to college. A plan of action should be put together for the year ahead which allows them to continue to develop personally and professionally, but just from their home base. 

This should not be seen as a failure - rather it is taking positive action when a problem arises. Students can decide to return to college at a later stage when they are ready.

Resolving College Problems 

College-related problems will undoubtedly arise when a student commences a course. Minor issues may be resolved by referring to the Student Handbook. 

If the issues are more serious, and students are not satisfied with certain elements of their course, they may wish to make a complaint. There are agreed formal complaints procedures in all colleges, but an attempt should always be made to resolve complaints informally, in the first instance.

Colleges will want to help students through their first year and ideally until graduation. Students need to remember this fact, and when they encounter a problem, contact their relevant lecturer, tutor or course head (via email to have a written record) as quickly as possible to reduce any potential impact on their studies or college experience. 

At times, a new student may not have the confidence to raise an issue themselves, the best option here is to request that their class representative raise the matter on their behalf. This removes the individual from the equation.


It appears obvious, but attendance in college is vital for success. Good self-discipline is essential from the beginning of the academic year. 

Students can struggle with this shift from secondary school where constant attendance monitoring was in place, and they felt “forced” to be in school. 

There is an enormous correlation between attendance and success rates for new college students. If they begin to miss classes, they start to fall behind very quickly.


No matter how much a student loves their course, they need to do the associated course work and keep up to date with assignment submission deadlines. A good tip to keep students on track is to use their first-semester assessment schedule issued as a tracking device to keep on top of studies and assignments.

First Assignment 

A major difficulty new students encounter, resulting in zero or extremely low grades in their assignments, is their inability or lack of experience using academic referencing. In very simple terms, if you use an idea or a piece of text or material that another person produced – you need to reference it. 

In college, assignments are submitted via software to identify work that may be copied. If students are having trouble grasping all the new academic policies and procedures, there are student supports in every college. 

Students need to be aware that college students are actively encouraged to seek both academic support and student services support whenever they need it.

Communicating with Lecturers 

One of the difficulties students encounter when they first start college is adapting to the student/lecturer relationship in comparison to that of the secondary school student/teacher relationship. 

It takes time to adjust and feel confident, but do partake in discussion and debate, offer opinions, question, and challenge the material covered in lectures and tutorials. Within the secondary school environment, this behaviour can be considered disruptive but is expected of students in a third-level environment.

Work and College Balance 

Juggling part-time work while in third-level education can be challenging. Students should continue to work as the benefits - both financially and personally - far outweigh the drawbacks. 

Good planning and communication with employers are vital to ensure academic success. Provide timely information to employers, around revision weeks and exam timetables, etc. so that they are aware of a student’s unavailability during certain periods.

  • Mary Lucey is an Educational Consultant and Founder of Career Ahead

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