By Radha Baan

For me, it is a great feeling to finish the first year of university successfully and move on to the second. However, before completely putting the first year to bed, it is always good to reflect on the year as a whole and find out what you have learnt.

When starting university, people at home are always very eager to offer advice, based on their own experiences, whether it be from 10, 30, or 50 years ago.

When you arrive at university, believing that you are well prepared for what is to come, things may not always go how you pictured them.

So, for the new freshers at all Law faculties, here are a few things that I wish I had known when starting and how I am going to incorporate what I have learnt in the past year to make my second year even more successful:

  1. Pick and mix advice

We have acknowledged the barrage of advice you get when starting university. It is easy to dismiss a lot of this because times change and you’re not the same as the person giving you the advice. However, don’t completely shut yourself off to their wise words. Of course you are a completely different person, but consider the big picture of what you are being told, and then take on advice that is relevant to you. Continue to pick and choose specific kernels of wisdom that apply to you. Also consider: who is giving you the advice? Is this someone you aspire to be like? Are there elements in their life that you want to incorporate into yours? This also goes for people who you want to become the opposite of!  Listen, but be selective with the advice you actually use.

Everyone has learnt valuable lessons throughout their lives and it is a waste not to learn from them so you don’t have to make the same mistakes.  Of course, you are going to make your own mistakes, even ones that you have been warned about. This is a normal part of life and a good experience to build on.

  1. ATTEND lectures and tutorials!

School and University are very different to school life: no nagging parents and no nagging teachers running after you to make sure you attend all the classes and do the homework. In fact, you are set free to do what you want (as long as you have paid the fees!) No-one bothers if you miss lectures, tutorials, or handing in assignments. The first time that you will become aware of it is when (or if) you sit the exam and the results come in. There is always a small percentage of students who think that they will catch up by doing the reading, later. That will never happen.

The people giving the lectures set the exams. They can explain if there is something you don’t understand.  The very process of sitting in the lecture room and listening to the lecture is another way to fix the information in your memory (and the anecdotes and jokes that the speaker incorporates are very good reference points). Tutorials and mentoring sessions provide another physical reference point in the memory for establishing what you know and understand and clarifying what you don’t with the person who knows more than you.  Asking a fellow student, months later to explain will not give you the same knowledge.

There is the danger that once you miss one lecture or tutorial group, it becomes the “trickle before the deluge”.  Then you find that you are easier about missing another. It means that you can’t do the assignment and so you miss handing that in, and still no one chases you up about it. In this way, it is easy to skip more and more – until the exams draw near! You can’t catch up on what you have missed then – there are not enough hours in the day.

  1. DO your reading!

You will be told countless of times by your lecturers and tutors that it is important to do your reading, and I am just another person telling you the same. However, take this advice!

We are of the generation that has information at their fingertips. Our generation has become very good at “fishing” out little bits of information. We may even gather what “might” be useful from the internet and file it away “to read later” (however, this just results in having a sketchy picture of what you need to arm yourself for your vocation).

The compulsory reading is set to improve and EXPAND your understanding of the subject; after all, there is only a limited number of lectures available!  The recommended reading embellishes your basic knowledge, so that it teaches you, for example, how to be critical, so you can give a first class answer. There never is just one way of looking at things and the recommended/further reading should inspire you, make you think and enable you to form an informed opinion.

In order to make sure you understand and more importantly remember what you are reading, it is not a good idea just to scan the pages and convince yourself that, though you can’t exactly remember what you read a few minutes ago, you did read it so it will be stored somewhere in your brain. That is just not true (unless you have a photographic memory, of course).

Most important is to make notes, so that when you are revising, you can go over them and don’t need to do all the reading again.  Also, recent research has proved that when you make your own notes or highlights, the brain has taken in, understood, and processed the information.

One of my tutors this year also told me of another way of reading more effectively: look at the tutorial questions and try to find the answers in the reading. This is an incredibly effective way of getting to know the subject and learning how to use it so you are fully prepared for your exam.

  1. The lecturers set the questions in the exams. Make sure your lecture notes form the base of your revising.

I was told this by a lawyer at a panel event. It seems very obvious, but easy to forget that the person writing the test is the person to learn from. Learning what they teach you means that you use the same phrases and key terms and that you have the same basic understanding of the subject as they do.

Please note: I am, in no way, advising that you study the lecture notes and disregard the rest of the reading. As stated above the reading is to help you understand the subject (as not all explanations work for everyone and explaining it differently might just make the difference).   It should also help you to think about the subject further and form an informed opinion that you can write about in the exam. This is a key part of your studies.  However, remember to use the same vocabulary as the lecturer, so there is no confusion (to him) about exactly what you mean. (If you are studying equity and trust or land law, you will know that there are often many definitions for a phrase and that terms can mean very different things depending on the context.)

  1. Find a balance between your studies and your social life (and don’t forget events!)

In the first year, it is very easy to get lost confused about balancing your life. Many of you have just moved away from home for the first time and find yourself free to do whatever you want to do. Of course, you are going to explore what there is on offer and the image of students spending most of their time partying definitely originated from somewhere!

If you are at university to learn and grow as a person, you need to find the correct balance that works for YOU, so that you make the most of your academic obligations and your social life.

Set clear rules for yourself. I found that I became my own parent, to the point where I set clear goals. For example, I decided that would not go out with friends unless I had finished my reading. This might seem silly, but it does work. Find what works for you and stick to it.

Something else that you need to make time for is a large number of events in your field of study. Your university and faculty will undoubtedly organise events, your student union might too, but most importantly: outside institutions also organise events to introduce you to the professional side of life (such as firms, barrister sets and Inns of Court for law students). These can help you, not just to learn about the field you are going into, but also to start your own network and meet interesting people that you can learn from.

But don’t forget your social life! No one can study 100% of the time. Take breaks, attend parties or social events so that you meet people outside of the faculty and most of all learn to RELAX. Also, include some kind of sport or hobby as a balance to the study.

  1. If you need help: ASK!

There are a lot of stumbling blocks in the path of a student and it is easy to lose yourself. Don’t forget that the university knows this and there is a support network to help succeed in your study.  But only if you ASK!  The support network ranges from your personal tutor to mental health and social workers to help with study-related, and also non-study related issues, and there is always someone to talk to and help steer you on the right path.

There is absolutely no shame in asking for help! Don’t suffer in silence, as it may seem that everyone else knows what they are doing and you are the only one with a problem. We are only human and everyone is going to come across a stumbling block sooner or later. Knowing when to ask for help shows that you are in control of yourself and that you know what to do in difficult situations. The support network that is provided will advise you on getting back on track so that you are sure that you are doing what you should be doing and that you are prepared for whatever the world will throw at you.

Remember that, if you have just moved away from home, (but also if you still live at home) the safety-net that keeps you fed and watered and attending studies is no longer there.  Now YOU have to fend for yourself, and you decide how to run your life. So the choices that you make will have a direct connection to the life you lead. You need to be able to take care of yourself, find the balance that works for you and then you can steer your life in the direction you want it to go.

Most important of all: enjoy this new phase of your life and make the most of it.

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