A practical guide to college

What happens if you don’t like your course? How should you manage your time? Here are some tips on getting through your first year

This September, thousands of students will make the jump from secondary school to third-level. It is only when you sit in your first lecture that you will realise just how spoon-fed and cosseted you were in secondary school. Gone are the teachers and parents watching your every move and ensuring you attend classes. The new-found freedom and change of pace can be daunting for many but with a little research and organisation, your first year should be a breeze.

Getting started

At some point in the initial few weeks you will probably feel a little overwhelmed. You may have taken to the social scene too hard, skipped a few morning lectures or missed an assignment deadline.

When this happens, it is important not to panic or stick your head in the sand and watch another episode of Ireland AM. Take out a paper and pen or make notes on your phone and think about what you have to do and then divide your tasks into those that are the most urgent and those that can be delayed.

Dublin Institute of Technology’s learning support officer Helen Carroll says the lack of supervision and new-found freedom can be a huge leap for young people.


“Students going to college are typically 17 or 18 and their pre-frontal cortex, which rules decision-making, is not fully developed and there is more propensity for risk-taking. Discipline is the ability to choose between what you want now and what you want tomorrow so if tomorrow you want a good degree you need to make reasonable choices and sacrifices to reach your goal,” says Carroll.

Speaking to a lecturer or course tutor, setting up a study group with friends or dedicating a solid weekend to study can get you back on track in most cases.

Changing course

So you got the requisite points and are five weeks into your course but you are struggling or feel overwhelmed. What should you do?

If you find the course isn’t what you expected it to be or you think you would be more suited to something else, it is advisable to move quickly.

Talk to your course co-ordinator about changing courses in your department or college. It is also important to note that if you drop out mid-term or after the first year, you will have to pay your own tuition fees and may lose your maintenance grant for that year too so it is preferable to change course within the first few weeks to avoid these financial penalties.

“The very first thing to do is in connect with your class tutor or career development centre. The pivotal date is October 31st as there is no fee implication if you leave your course before that date. If you leave after October 31st, you lose half your college fees and if you leave after January 31st you lose the entire fee for the year,” says Carroll.

“Students don’t like dealing with paperwork so if you do decide to leave you need to visit your college registration office and officially leave,” she adds.

Part-time jobs

With the student registration charge and the price of accommodation rising, part-time jobs are a necessity for many students.

Working and studying at the same time can be overwhelming but with focus and time management it is possible. It is important, however, to not dedicate too much time to part-time jobs at the expense of study. If you are really struggling financially, speak to the students’ union or apply for a student hardship grant.

Weigh up working life and see how it is working out for you. If work is interfering with study, it is time to reassess. If you can’t focus during your part-time job as you are anxious about an upcoming test or if you’re falling asleep in lectures because of working late, then it is important to weigh up the pros and cons. There will be times you cannot dedicate yourself to both and college needs to take precedence. It is important to discuss this from the outset with your boss or manager, particularly if you are given your exam dates in advance, so you can focus on exams while not leaving your co-workers in the lurch.

In some cases, you may find a job that links with what you are studying and this is worthwhile experience for your CV.

“There are only really 26 weeks that you are actually going to be attending college so that leaves you a fair bit of the year to earn but if possible, try to do it during breaks in term. Bar work, for instance, may leave you very tired for the next morning and will impact your attendance which, in some cases, you can be penalised for,” Carroll says.


“Attendance is important for many reasons. It is the best way to make friends and socialise and there is a direct correlation between making friends in college and staying in college,” says Carroll.

“Even if you get a less-than-desirable grade at the end of term and you are on the border line between passing and failing, your attendance throughout the term will be noted by the college and could get you over the line.

“Find out what academic support centres are available and find out what extra tuition is available and if there are any workshops on exams and assignment writing,” she adds.

More and more colleges are putting their lecture notes online but Carroll says it is better to go to lectures in person.

“Lecturers tend to be more directive at lectures and will recommend readings or give advice and maybe even exam hints so it is better to go in person than rely on online lectures or someone else’s notes,” she says.

Time management

Time-management skills are useful whether you have a part-time job or a degree with few contact hours.

A Sunday well-spent brings a week of content – at least from a time management point of view. Remember all those lovingly highlighted timetables you made during the Leaving Cert? Well why stop now. Every Sunday, sit down and plan out your week. Try to schedule specific times for study or assignments, your college timetable and part-time job. This works particularly well if you are aware of assignments, exams or projects several weeks in advance and you can engage in sports or society activities or other hobbies without encroaching on your study time. This will help you to avoid overnight coffee-fuelled sessions in the library and leave time for activities you actually like.

Try and tick off a list of tasks you have completed each day. Put the most difficult tasks or that boring reading first and when it is done you can reward yourself with the easier activity and satisfaction of knowing you have completed the task. Another helpful tip when you’re mired in procrastination is to ask yourself, can this be done today and if it can do it immediately instead of putting it off.

Managing college and work is a juggling act so it is important to take time out too – and that doesn’t always mean going to the college bar. If you plan your activities, you will have something to work towards and looking forward to that will help you to stay motivated and stop you burning out – a win-win from your point-of-view.

Make the most of your time

We all have the same 24 hours in a given day but sometimes we don’t use our time effectively. You can use your commute time for college reading or sending emails or you could use your hour between classes to exercise. Your time spent waiting in traffic or on the train can be the time you schedule your week, make flash notes or listen back to audio recordings of lectures.

Another type of study you can easily do on your way to or from college is to record your notes on your phone and listen to them. This may not work for all types of lectures but more so where rote learning or repetition is required.


Assignment and essay writing can present the biggest learning curves for students making the transition to third-level. Gone are the learned-off essays and spoon-fed quotes. Everything is more research-led and the ability to write a logical and solid assignment can sometimes prove difficult for students.

Planning is key to a good essay. Read up on the subject and plan your argument.

Break up the essay, organise it into different points you want to make clear in your head. Be clear and concise and do not go over the word count. You may think you are impressing your time-constrained lecturer whereas in reality your essay is, in-all-likelihood, just one of hundreds they have to mark.

A spider-diagram or a brainstorm can be a good way to get started if you are procrastinating or are having trouble articulating your ideas.

One piece of counter-intuitive advice is to write the introduction of your essay last as the theory is once you have reached your conclusions, you can start your essay with what you have set out to say or prove.

Make sure to reference your essay properly and thoroughly.

Always read through the essay when you are finished. Get a second pair of eyes to re-read it as sometimes you cannot spot your own mistakes. You will be surprised at the number of sentences that don't make sense and the spellings that spell-check missed.

While we are used to screens, it is also a good idea to print out your assignments and go through it with a pen to spot errors.


Plagiarism, whether intentional or unintentional, is one of the most common issues first-year students face. It is important to get your college’s referencing guide and attend any classes or workshops on referencing so you do it correctly. As the first generation of students who grew up online, it is tempting to buy or copy an essay online but colleges are all too aware of this so it is not worth the risk. New technology such as turnitin.com means essays are automatically scanned for plagiarism so there is no room for cheating. Your lecturer is usually an expert in the topic and plagiarism will stand out a mile as will manufactured essays. Any time you include someone else’s idea or argument you must credit them in your references and bibliography.


College books are expensive so there is no need to buy every book on your reading list. Listen to your lecturer and if they emphasise what books are essential and which don’t need to be bought

, take their advice.

Check out second-hand book stores on your campus or online to get a better deal.

Sometimes it may be a good idea to split the cost and share a book with your classmate but this may not work for core texts.

The first few minutes after a lecture or in the run-up to exams is when certain books in the library may be in demand so you may just have to plan ahead and photocopy key passages to save you having to buy them.