Tips For Starting A College Degree In A Pandemic


If you’re starting university this year you might be faced with at least one term (semester) of online learning whilst campuses are closed for the Covid19 pandemic. Some universities in the UK are partially opening, with lectures and seminars online, but campus buildings like the library and gym open for student use, and some universities even have halls of residence open again. This could go on for the whole academic year, so it’s worth getting in to a good routine now instead of thinking it’s just temporary and not getting yourself settled. I really feel for any students in this boat, especially as so many universities were not allowing students to defer. Starting university is a big milestone, and all the awkward first conversations, explorations and new experiences are part of it. It’s so weird to see adverts for companies hosting Zoom parties online for Freshers Week, I cannot even imagine how weird and horrendous those would be. Not everyone starting a degree is fresh out of high school and looking to binge drink until the sun comes up, so there’s no ‘one fits all’ student experience. But, everyone is very much in the same boat for now, so here’s some tips for studying from home and keeping your spirits up.



1.) Get a work station

Find yourself a work station away from your bedroom and living room if possible, that way you will feel like you’re ‘going in to’ the work space each day. If you don’t have a home office, this might be your dining room or a spare bedroom, or you could even go to a local library or cafe if you feel safe (wear a mask). Psychologically, you will get in to a work mood, and you can curate a nice background for your new classmates to see on Zoom. Get folders for each of your modules if you’re using loose leaf notebooks, or a hardback notebook for each module if you prefer, and for either option get some nice highlighters and pens to do organised notes as you go (pen shopping is the best). You can also make a folder on your computer for each module, so each time your lecturer sends handouts you can file them straight away and know they’re in the right place.


2.) Get organised

You can take away so much of the newbie-fear in any situation by getting organised and knowing what’s expected of you. Invest in an academic planner and write out your timetable, note down the Zoom links, make notes of when library books need to be back, write out all your essay deadlines, and then do the thing so few students do – read the handbooks. Each module you take will have a handbook (probably online now), in which you will find out week by week what the topics are, the reading lists, and the essay questions. By knowing the exact aims of each module and what’s expected of you, you’ll be able to work from a much more confident and organised perspective instead of just showing up each week and only having a vague idea what it’s all about.



3.) Use apps

Instead of using a student planner (or as well as), you can use Google Calendar to make sure you know when all your meetings, classes and deadlines are, and colour code them for different modules. Grammarly is good for essay writing, the premium version has a plagiarism checker, and helps you with the tone of essays as well as standard spell check and vocab suggestions. Forest is a good productivity app that blocks access to your smartphone for however long you need it to, forcing you to focus on your tasks at hand without constantly breaking off to mindlessly scroll. GoodNotes is great if you have an iPad and Apple Pencil. It allows you to ‘handwrite’ notes during lectures or whilst reading books, and then you can turn these into documents and put them on your computer. If you’re someone who likes to handwrite notes and then type them up, this will save you so much time. Notability is a similar note-taking app that’s useful for making notes on book chapters or journal articles you get emailed as PDFs. You can also download the Kindle app for books that you want to highlight passages from, and it allows you to look at all your highlighted bits on one page so you get a notes summary – you will need to buy books though, but you can find some real bargains. Quizlet is an app you might remember using at school, but it’s just as useful for uni, you can make yourself tests and flashcards to revise for exams, or create summaries of book chapters or modules to test your knowledge.


4.) Make the most of university resources

In the first weeks it’s a good idea to read through all the information you get sent so you know what resources are available to you. These might include meet and greet sessions with fellow students in your class, opportunities to join societies, one-on-one counselling sessions if you feel overwhelmed or anxious, and student services sessions. These can help improve your skills in research, academic writing, taking notes, using the library and giving presentations. It’s a good idea to access this as early as possible so you can start choosing essay titles and getting support, rather than leaving that all to the last minute. There’s also careers advice, though this is probably not much use to you in the first term unless you’re thinking of leaving your course (eek), and the library will have some online sessions on how to access everything. It’s good to know as early as possible how the library intends to support you – find out how to access online books through them, use JSTOR (for online journal articles), Google Scholar for book chapters, and ask your library if they have a mail service where they can photocopy chapters to email to you, or physically post whole books that you need to post back. Remember to read all emails from your university, especially as they’ll be updating you on their responses to the pandemic as it evolves and how this impacts on you.


5.) Make yourself a daily timetable

You’ll probably be surprised at how few contact hours you have, though some degrees are more full on than others. Rather than just showing up to the one class you have in a day and then heading straight back to Netflix, Xbox, Instagram, etc, it’s best to frame your ‘work day’ as being 9-5, or 10-4 if that’s more palatable, and know that you have to study in this window, even if you have no actual classes. As a degree student you need to be an independent learner, and you can start from week one, you don’t need to wait until the work starts piling up. For each module you’re likely to have a piece of reading to do for the next seminar, but there might also be additional reading you can do, or do your own further research by looking at the bibliography the author uses in your set reading. You can look for podcasts and YouTube videos relevant to your topic if you get bored for reading. There will be open-access lectures from other universities on YouTube you can look at, so for example if you’re studying Shakespeare’s Hamlet, type “Hamlet lectures” in to Google and see what comes up. FutureLearn, Open University, and Coursera have free modules anyone can do online that include video lectures from top university professors, so you can search for things relevant to your topics. Remember to include breaks in your day and try and stick to them.



6.) Look after yourself

It can be stressful starting any major new situation, be it a course or job or moving to a new place. Often when you’re a new uni student you end up doing all three in one go, and it can be overwhelming as well as incredible fun. When you have to stay home and start a new course online it’s going to be easier in some ways, but draining in others as you have to get used to managing your time more, and being able to motivate yourself. Make sure you give yourself some treats to look forward to, and get in to a good routine of self-care that’s in addition to your study timetable. So, take whole weekends off if you can, do a few workouts each week, try and go for a walk every day to get your steps in and some fresh air. Look after your posture, do gentle neck stretches and shoulder rolls every few hours. Write down your thoughts if you have no one to talk to, but make use of NHS counselling or university counselling if you need it.

Don’t be hard on yourself, it’s a weird time for everyone, and even when there’s no pandemic people struggle at uni with making friends and adjusting. If you feel like your lecturers are not creating enough opportunities for students to talk together and work on projects outside of classes, send them a polite email asking for this in confidence.  Use apps like Calm and Headspace to unwind, relax, and stay in control. Happify is good for using on your breaks, you can play games that help you overcome negative thoughts. The School of Life’s YouTube channel is great for both study videos and mindfulness ones. Get a good work/life balance, don’t feel like you need to be studying all the time, clock off at 5pm (or whatever time you chose for your timetable) and do something completely different – baking, shopping, catching up with friends on the phone, reading a novel that’s nothing to do with your degree, or have a nice bath and listen to a podcast. Good luck, and remember to ask for help as soon as you need it, whatever it may be, and remember that this isn’t forever, you’ll be living a campus lifestyle soon.


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