Getting the most out of your first year – Undergraduate View

Firstly, we want to say a huge welcome from the School of History to all of our new students! To mark the start of the new academic year, we will be publishing guest posts from students in the School covering their advice and tips on getting the most out of your time here. Today we are delighted to hear from Lauren Hossack, who is a fourth year joint-honours student in History and English, on getting the most out of your first year as a historian at St Andrews.

Photo attr. Daniel Peckham, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Photo by Daniel Peckham, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Getting the most out of any subject, and university as a whole, is really all about balance. You’ll hear this said a lot over the next four years, but as someone due soon to emerge from the other side, I can tell you: it’s all true.

Learn how things work. I can’t say enough how worthwhile it is to spend time reading through and familiarising yourself with course content, structure, assessment criteria and the school’s standards for things like essay layout. These will differ in other subjects so be aware of how the school wants you to present your work, as it can mean the difference between gaining and losing marks. On a related note, you’d be surprised how long it can take to format essays, so be sure to allow plenty of time (a good few hours) to do this before you submit them.

At the same time, don’t expect to know it all. Sure, information is there and no one but yourself can make you read it, but remember that it takes time to adjust to studying at university level. Cut yourself some slack and allow yourself time to relax away from an academic setting. I mean it when I say that establishing healthy, balanced attitudes to study and leisure time early will serve you well later in your degree.

That said, scheduling your time is key, and something else that will be ever more pressing as you progress into Honours. Self-discipline is needed, and again, no one is going to do this for you. The biggest favour you can do yourself is to establish a routine. It can help to view your studies as a 9-5 job – this distinguishes between academia and any extracurriculars you might have.

Always, always, always be prepared for tutorials. Make sure you’ve done the reading, even if you didn’t really understand it. Note down what you can anyway, and be prepared to share it. If you’re not entirely comfortable with the topic, contributing early on can be useful so you can get your thoughts out there before the discussion runs into unfamiliar territory.

Attend lectures! This sounds so obvious, but as the semester wears on, it can be tempting to just not turn up. Sure, a lot of lecturers will make notes available online, but these will be in summarised form, assuming you have the information that fleshes them out. The most effective way to get this information is to go to the lecture and hear it explained. If you’ve missed a lecture then don’t be scared to ask someone to share their notes, though it’s always better to have your own where possible.

Figure out where, when and how you study best. Of course, reading is inescapable, but all the better if you can place yourself in an environment that allows you to get it done. When taking notes, bear in mind you’ll look back at them later on, so make sure they’ll be useful, and present them in a way that can help you remember them. CAPOD has lots of resources to help you with your studies, and the library website has lots of information about how to find resources. Don’t be afraid to make use of these – they’re there to help you do your best.

Never be afraid to ask questions. Tutors are there for you to approach them with concerns related to the class. If they have office hours attend them, or speak to them at the end of tutorials. If you have an issue with your studies, you can contact the school president ( who can advise anonymously and help you resolve any academic problems you might have.

Photo by Graeme Paterson, CC BY 2.0.

Photo by Graeme Paterson, CC BY 2.0.

Most of all, take care of yourself. If you start to feel overwhelmed, remind yourself that everything is new, and you can expect to trip up while you get used to it. In this respect, it’s helpful to connect with people in your tutorial, or fellow historians in your hall of residence. They’ll likely be feeling the same as you, and you can support one another through the year. Organising study groups can be a particularly good way to get more discussion time in beyond the allotted tutorial hour, and a great way to study for exams. This kind of support network can become a vital place for you to vent any frustrations, and the university’s Nightline service is always ready to lend an ear to your worries.

In History, as in any subject, there will almost certainly be weeks you don’t enjoy and topics you aren’t hugely interested in, and this is ok. The aim of first and second year is to get a taste of what’s on offer in Honours, and to develop the skills needed to succeed at that level. Here’s another truth: if you’re prepared to make the effort, you will reap the rewards.

About standrewshistory
With over forty full time members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from S cotland to Byzantium and the Americas to the Middle East and South Asia.Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching and tutorials allowing for in depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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