Transitioning to university and settling in may seem a daunting experience, so this article aims to outline what you may face as well as tips for making the most of your first term. It is certainly normal to feel nervous or excited, or both, as I certainly did!
Daniel is a second year BA History and Politics student at Magdalen College. He is a disabled student and the first in his immediate family to go to university. Daniel is also a Trustee of Potential Plus UK, a Founding Ambassador and Expert Panel Member for Zero Gravity, and a History Faculty Ambassador. Before coming to university, Daniel studied at a non-selective state school, and was a participant on the UNIQ, Sutton Trust, and Social Mobility Foundation APP Reach programmes, as well as being part of the inaugural Opportunity Oxford cohort. Daniel is passionate about outreach and social mobility and ensuring all students have the best opportunity to succeed.
- Expectations before you start Oxford: I recommend you read my article on reading which has some tips for approaching summer reading, as well as what I would suggest to prioritise. In short, make sure to rest as Oxford terms can be quite tiring, however make sure to do any work your tutor tells you to. If the reading is optional, see how much time you have and maybe read a few books, making only general notes on core ideas and what seems important – you won’t benefit from massively detailed notes. If you don’t get chance to do much reading, don’t worry as every essay will come with a reading list which fully covers the demands of the topic so you don’t need to rely on your summer reading; summer reading is to help you get an idea of what you will be studying.
- Aims of your first term: My general message about your first term is it is okay if it seems to go a little messy – I would see your first term as the time to settle in, to experiment and potentially make what seem silly mistakes, and to really find your feet so you feel far more prepared after Christmas. You may get your timings wrong for a deadline, or possibly need to request an extension; I spent too long writing my first Politics essay, giving me only three days to work on my first History essay so I didn’t have much chance to do lots of reading, and I found my tutor to be very understanding of this. He generously gave me an extension which allowed me to complete my first essay to a reasonable standard, and I was then better able to organise my time in the weeks that followed. Therefore understand you will make mistakes, but make sure to learn from them and improve as you proceed through the term.
- Pace yourself: You may find there are lots of social activities to get involved with and a vast range of societies to choose from, and definitely do get involved and explore your interests as well as trying out things you wouldn’t ordinarily do, however while the terms may seem quite short at eight weeks they can feel quite intense so you want to make sure you don’t burnout within the first few weeks. Looking after yourself in this way will best set you up for success, so try to experiment and find your healthy balance.
- Study skills: Something I found really helpful was attending all study skills lectures and classes offered by the Faculty and by my College. This is because it helped me to digest my course’s expectations, as well as giving me a further opportunity to ask questions to improve my understanding. I would say Oxford study is as much about learning how to study effectively as it is knowing a period or paper, so see developing study skills as core to the degree.
- Adapting to independent study: A key challenge you may face is adapting to independent study – in my case, I went from having lessons for around 20 hours a week at Sixth Form plus private study time to complete assignments to having an average of 10 hours a week of contact time at Oxford, and this can be a shock. My advice is to create a timetable or routine or a schedule to maintain discipline – make sure to attend or watch all lectures as they can be very beneficial for understanding the topic of study. I find lectures particularly help for making links between topics, clarifying my understanding of basic concepts, and for providing case studies for me to use within arguments. It is recommended you study for around 40 hours per week, so treat it as a full-time job and I would advise trying to keep office hours of 9am-5pm or 10am-6pm where possible. Note down all your deadlines, and I would recommend aiming to read and write for each essay in around three days (two days reading, one day writing is what I would suggest), with you being slightly more generous in the beginning as you adjust to the style of writing and reading expected. Also note down anything you do not understand from readings, or any questions readings raise, as this potentially gives you topics to discuss in your tutorials (I remember one of my History tutors particularly asking me to take charge of tutorials by laying down the topics for discussion and encouraging me to come forward to raise points I didn’t understand).
- Marks: One thing I found surprising in my first term was I never got a mark on any essay – this may seem frustrating or annoying, but actually my advice is to not worry about this as it is more important to focus on developing your writing and reading skills, and your tutor will raise if you potentially need further academic support or where you should focus your energies for improvement. I would recommend seeing your degree as a three-year journey, with the essays you write or collections (mock exams you will most probably sit the first of in January) not contributing anything to your final degree classification. This therefore gives you room to develop without any pressure, so make sure to hold yourself accountable while listening to what your tutor has to say about your progress. You will most probably meet with some of your tutors at end of term to discuss your work, and you may get a written report on OXAM which summarises your progress, so this is an opportunity to take stock of your progress and to set goals for the following term.
- Be realistic: It is important to remember you are only human and are only capable of what you can do – you aren’t expected to read massive books in two days or to know every fact there is to know on a topic. Instead you need to understand the key debates in the historiography or key factors which caused an event; look to the question to guide what you specifically need to take away from your reading. Just try your best, and I certainly found I improved massively in my first term, particularly benefitting from the personalised support the tutorial system offers. Don’t expect that the reading you do on the topic will be the last time you ever see it as there are preliminary examinations at the end of the first year which act as a milestone, an opportunity to show what you have learnt from the year before proceeding onto the next stage of the degree where you begin your final degree papers. You will get time to revise, and holidays are a good time to consolidate learning, so do not worry if you don’t think your notes are the best or if you didn’t fully understood a topic as there is time, and I certainly found my skills massively developed by the time I returned to the topics again in preparation for my Prelims.
- Imposter syndrome: Many speak of ‘imposter syndrome’, and it is something I think we all most probably face to a certain degree about whether we are right for Oxford or for a job or whatever challenges and opportunities we may experience in life. I find it helpful to remember this is a shared experience, and also to remind myself of the fact the tutors selected me through a rigorous selection process, so they obviously saw some form of potential. You are not a failure in any way if you find the first few weeks chaotic, sometimes not reading as much as you like or finding a topic puzzling – they are certainly experiences I had, and since then I feel I have found my footing much better and been able to produce much higher quality essays. Also a key reason that many of us come to Oxford is because we are passionate about our subject, and it is good not to lose or forget that passion – take the opportunity to immerse yourself in the subject and enjoy the increased academic stimulation, and the ability to have high-level conversations with potentially leading authorities on topics. It may seem intimidating but actually it can be very enjoyable, being challenged and encouraged to think in new ways, and again they are not expecting a ready-made historian to walk in through the door; they are expecting a new undergraduate who is getting to grips with what is expected of them and who is willing to learn. While academic work is certainly important, if you are enjoying the Oxford experience, feel you are settling in and are immersed in your academic topic of study, then I would see this as a form of success.
- Coming from a state school – I know there can be concerns about coming from a state school and if you can fit in or if you will be at a disadvantage because of it. Again, my advice would be to be aware of how hard you have worked and how many barriers you have had to overcome to come to Oxford; in my time at Oxford I have never felt discriminated against on the basis of coming from a state school, and the vast majority of people regardless of background just want to come to learn and to get to meet new people. Formal dinners in College where you may dress up in formal clothing and potentially have a three course meal, or if you have in-person exams having to wear sub-fusc (traditional academic dress) may seem a little odd or intimidating, but actually I find it can be quite fun to participate in this, and actually I have found them to be a small part of the Oxford experience. Of course, people may have had very different life experiences and may have been on holidays for instance you may not be able to afford, but one of the things I really like about Oxford is this diversity of experience which provides new perspectives in discussions. When you have tutorials you are all equal participants, so make sure to contribute to all the discussions and raise areas which you are struggling on so you can get further support or so you can spend more time improving those parts.
- Accessing support: Don’t be afraid to reach out if you need further support as adjusting to university can be a challenge, and there are specific systems in place to ensure all students can access the support they need. These are the 4 top places I would recommend seeking support from:
- Your tutors – I haven’t met a single mean tutor, and all tutors I have had have been very understanding of my personal circumstances. If you need more guidance on approaching a reading list or a topic, or if you have a question you aren’t sure of the answer of, or if you just want to check in on your progress do make sure to speak to them after a tutorial or send them an email. I’ve found my tutors to be very responsive to my emails, and the answers proved useful for clarifying expectations or reassuring me I am on track.
- College welfare team – your College will have some form of welfare system, like a tutor in charge of welfare or a welfare dean (a welfare dean is just the same thing), so don’t hesitate to reach out to them if you need support. You may also have a personal tutor at your College who is for pastoral questions, so it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the support available and how to access it.
- Student welfare support – every Oxford College will have some form of JCR (Junior Common Room) which represents all of the students, with students elected or appointed to positions. JCR’s usually have a Welfare team, so make sure to know who they are and what support they offer. At my College for instance, we have weekly welfare teas which are an opportunity for students to leave their rooms for an hour and to get to see others, while making the most of free food and drink. You may also have a team of peer supporters who are students who have received appropriate training to provide welfare support. Additionally there are student-run initiatives like Oxford Nightline which is a listening, support and information service.
- Friends and coursemates – speaking to friends and coursemates can be really beneficial if you are struggling, and they may be able to provide advice or point you in the right direction, or you may find you are having similar issues so are able to work together to resolve them. Working closely with your tutorial partners for instance can be beneficial, like having conversations about the essays or problem sheets you have set or clarifying deadlines, and you may be able to set up a note-sharing system where you distribute readings among a number of students to minimise duplication and to maximise the amount of content covered.
And if I was to add a bonus tip, make sure to enjoy yourself! Oxford can seem a weird and wonderful and surreal place but make sure to make the most of it. I hope these 10 tips help you to settle in at Oxford, and try not to worry too much about your first term as it is an opportunity to adjust and experiment. Good luck for the start of your Oxford journey!