Academic adjustment: How to thrive in your college exams

The skills you need to transition from Leaving Cert student to a third-level student


Grief, a major accident, the break-up of a long-term relationship, and moving house. What do all of these have in common? They’re major life transitions, but to them can be added another one: starting college.

Dr Brian McKenzie is a lecturer on the critical skills programme at Maynooth University, which helps students adjust to the academic demands of life at third-level and to study effectively. “Students come from secondary school where life is highly structured and they know what they are supposed to learn,” he says. “At third-level, it’s a very different story. They’re not students, they’re junior scholars, and it is assumed they’re on this course because they’ve chosen it. We think of them as autonomous, self-directed and independent learners – or, at least, that they are trying to be.”

Indeed, college students often come to miss the discipline of having an annoying teacher checking if they’re showing up to class or if they’ve done their work. At third-level, they’re responsible for themselves.

With a little self-awareness, self-discipline and experience, however, third-level students can thrive academically.

Time management

“Time management is the biggest killer at third-level,” says McKenzie. “Before we even get to study skills with students on our critical skills module, I plot their attendance and marks on a chart. It clearly shows that attendance is the biggest marker of success.”

In school, a teacher will confiscate your phone if you’re caught with it during class. In college, there won’t be any punishment – but you’re likely to do worse in your coursework and exams.

However, technology is a student’s best friend here. Google Calendar allows students to timetable, remind themselves of deadlines, make to do-lists and set notifications a day (or a few days) before an assignment.

“When you’re in college, nobody is going to remind you of due dates,” says McKenzie. “Because you have unlimited freedom now, it means you can check out and play Fortnite six days a week if you like. That freedom means that college can be the best years of your life but also that you have to try and impose a structure on yourself. Like a mountain climber, you need to learn the concept of ‘aggressive self-rescue’. It’s really important, for your own survival, to develop good habits early on and stick to them. If you form the habit of leaving it all to the last minute, that’s likely to be a habit you keep.”

Get involved in college life

Academic life and college social life are usually treated as quite separate. Academics are to prepare you for the tests that will determine your final marks and your career trajectory. Getting involved in clubs and societies is a way to develop yourself as a person and burnish your CV.

McKenzie takes a different perspective. “There is plenty of research to show that students who get involved in the social life of college are happier. It’s not even about succeeding in college or marks, it’s about satisfaction. Yes, it turns out that getting involved in student clubs and societies is really important for employment. But it’s not about networking or making connections, it is about how content they are. This applies whether they’ve joined the youth wing of a political party, a sports club, or the Pokemon society. Students who commute some distances to college – and there are, relatively, quite a lot of them in Ireland – may find it harder to make that time to join sports clubs or student societies, or even to exercise.”

He acknowledges it isn’t always easy to fit in time for social life if students are also studying, commuting and working a part-time job, but says that good time management can help.

Studying at third-level

With good habits so vital for academic success, McKenzie strongly advocates that students use the plethora of apps and tech tools at their disposal to start off on the right foot. For referencing, he recommends Easybib, while Mendeley and Zotero are useful for managing research.

Study groups are another effective outlet, says McKenzie. “We really encourage students to form a study group. Peer group formation is crucial for a student’s success. So many young people commute to college that they have to get back on the train and bus and head home. In a big class, sometimes with 400 students, they can feel isolated. That’s one of the reasons why our critical skills class is small, with just 25 students. If you’re out sick for a few weeks, you can catch up much easier with that support network.”

Students with learning difficulties are particularly advised to familiarise themselves with campus resources, particularly the access office. Writing centres, maths support centres, counselling services, students’ unions and chaplaincies can also be major sources of support.

Learn what is expected

Very broadly speaking, the second-level system places a higher emphasis on content and facts. “It equips students with a basic vocabulary and certain facts, such as the basics of cells in biology,” says McKenzie. “In third-level, the expectation is that students read a little less for information and more so they can operate on an analytic level. Again, they are reading as a junior scholar so, for instance, a sociology professor does not want students to give a basic definition of homelessness: they want students to discuss competing arguments about the cause of homelessness and their assessment of those arguments. Students should go beyond the basic readings; they need to address the bigger questions.”

McKenzie’s critical skills programme helps students to understand when a claim is being made and to examine the assumptions behind that claim. “Question everything: if a professional footballer starts to talk about soccer, listen to them, but if they talk about politics? Maybe not. Part of being a critical thinker is to recognise that you are bombarded with claims. Critical thinking is to ask whose voice is being heard, whose voice is not, and why. Students also need some basic statistical literacy, because statistics are used and abused so much.”


“We see this as the key fundamental, transferable skill,” says McKenzie. “Science students, in particular, can underestimate the importance of writing. Engineers in particular get their jobs because of their degree, but they get promoted because of their soft skills. And lecturers don’t always spend as much time teaching about writing and thesis statements because they need to focus on the assigned material.”

McKenzie highly recommends that every student reads Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence, by author Amy Guptill: this is available free online and examines how to write, develop a thesis statement, string paragraphs together and, crucially, how to engage with sources (Google search: writing in college amy guptill digital commons brockport, it’s the first result).

“Writing can be hard and, for some, it can be like pulling a tooth,” says McKenzie. “But the more you do it, the better you get at it. I advise students to try and write every day, and advise students to build in revision time, perhaps even pretending that their due date is a week early.”

Note-taking and plagiarism

It’s common for lecturers to put their notes online, and some students may be tempted to sleep in and download the information later. This is a mistake.

“Lecturers put the notes online because it gives them the freedom in class to talk about the big picture. We always advise students to use the Cornell note-taking system, which involves dividing their notes page into three sections: one with the main ideas, details and systems; one after class where they write down keywords and questions and a third section for reviewing and summarising.”

Notes on a laptop or with a pen and paper? It differs for every student – although there is some evidence that we codify information much better when we write than when we type – and McKenzie says what matters most is the notes taken are meaningful. “Don’t write down a list of the kings of France: your notes ought to point to the bigger ideas.”

On plagiarism, he says there’s evidence that students are most likely to cheat when they leave their essays until the last minute – another reason to be prepared.

With a little self-awareness, self-discipline and experience, third-level students can thrive academically. Photograph: iStock
With a little self-awareness, self-discipline and experience, third-level students can thrive academically. Photograph: iStock


Start by figuring out the expectations of the lecturer, and make sure to attend a library information skills tutorial in the first few weeks of college, McKenzie advises. Third-level colleges spend a lot of money on journals and databases so there should be good sources beyond physical books.

When it comes to reputable sources, he says peer-reviewed books and journals are at the top, followed by publications from reputable NGOs like Focus Ireland or the Economic and Social Research Institute, reputable newspapers such as The Irish Times or Irish Examiner, and then websites. Be extremely cautious of Wikipedia, which can be edited by anyone – but it can point to other reliable sources.