It’s a normal feeling to feel overwhelmed in your first year. As a first year BA History student, I share the general feeling amongst peers that moving to an undergraduate level is exciting and intellectually liberating but also mixed with a sense of anxiety that you’re misplaced as a learner. Speaking from my perspective, I’m in a position where I’ve experienced both emotional poles, which means I’m well-suited to give some tips on how to smoothen your transition from A levels to undergraduate level.
1. You’re going to get things wrong.
As much as I’d feel flattered to be told I’m giving outstanding advice, unfortunately this is not the case. Each student has their own subjective experience of their degree, packaged in their own preferences, learning style and strategies. Suffice to say however, whatever you expect from your degree, expect the unexpected. What’s important isn’t what you get right in your academics, but what you get wrong. Only when you make mistakes can you improve your learning approach and adapt to an academic environment fitted with different expectations of you as a student.
2. However… Some common experiences
There are some caveats to what I’ve said. While your experience of the ‘jump’ between A levels and undergraduate level will differ, many students have similar experiences.
A frequent observation is that at university, you’re expected to think more critically and learn as an independent learner compared to sixth form. This is accurate as you’ll no doubt spend time with your head spinning asking yourself whether you’ve done enough reading or how your performance compares to the rest of the cohort. This is a perfectly natural feeling to have.
Another common experience is the loss of academic security: this applies more to subjects like history, where previously course textbooks and detailed specifications provided a walled garden of knowledge to learn, degree level now takes a wrecking ball to it and opens up to a wider intellectual terrain to explore.
3. Ask questions: use contact hours and resources available from LSE
Rest assured that first year is designed to complement your transition to undergraduate level. LSE has lots of facilities and resources to offer. Use contact hours in lectures, class or office hours to ask questions about your course structure or content. While the best learning is done individually, staff like teachers and academic advisers are there to push you in the right direction and are happy to help.
4. Get your friends and learn with them
It’s great to have a group of friends or classmates with their value as a study tool. Make study groups, share notes together, discuss essay questions with different perspectives – all of these will enrich your understanding of the topic, but also make learning much more engaging and social.
5. Give things a try
There are several aspects that make up your learning experience: reading, note taking, answering class questions and essay questions. While by no means an exhaustive list, this will give you an indication of how university expects you to be an independent learner. It takes some mental adjustment to the university environment: find a sense of achievement in understanding a topic, rather than getting everything done; aim for conceptual understanding rather than detailed schema; explore the parameters of a debate, rather than a simple dichotomy.
Overall therefore, it’s best to understand the challenge of degree-style learning, but dive in anyway. I’ve been deliberately vague about specific techniques because everyone learns differently. However, it stands true that everyone shares the same will to survive and thrive in an environment. By tapping into your natural enthusiasm for your subject, you’ll no doubt find the energy to study that suits you.
Best of all, your first year counts for one-ninth of your final grade – if all else fails!