Go for it: Notre Dame law student Rebecca Lennard advises students to "grab each opportunity".

Go for it: Notre Dame law student Rebecca Lennard advises students to "grab each opportunity". Photo: FIONA MORRIS

Students who have been there, done that, made errors, survived and thrived are a priceless source of advice for those starting out, so we asked  some third and fourth-year students for some true confessions. Their tips are short on preachiness, long on practical counsel that will be useful to newcomers. 

Jump when opportunity knocks

"In the second year of an undergraduate degree in international and global studies, I got to go on a six-month exchange to Vancouver University. It really opened my eyes to possibilities,"  Rebecca Lennard says.

Now halfway through a post-graduate Bachelor of Laws degree at the University of Notre Dame, Lennard has a paralegal job that came from being paired with a lawyer who works with the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). 

"If I could have seen myself now from my first year, I wouldn't have believed it," she says. "Grabbing each opportunity has set me up."   

Her other tip is to find out early and be prepared on which elective subjects you'll need to complete your degree. 

"Don't get caught having to scramble to finish them at the end," she says.

Getting to know others in your degree course will also help you keep tabs on what you should be doing. "When I started uni, I was comfortable with the friends I had from school who were also at uni," she says. "But I should have taken opportunities to be involved in societies and got to know my class peers better to broaden my social life. 

"I now appreciate that the main thing is to make sure you enjoy your university experience, and that making contacts  can help you in your career and endeavours post-uni. 

You're on your own

"I wish I'd know how independent you're going to be at university compared with school,"  Sebastian Howe says, who is about to start his fourth year of advanced science, majoring in astronomy, at Macquarie University. "It would've given me the motivation to get things done."

 Howe's tips include setting goals, getting organised for assignments and exams, and joining societies.

"In first year you have time to get to know people, before the work becomes harder. Spread out and get to know other people who may have similar interests," he says.  

To help him be organised, Howe has a whiteboard in his room on which he writes everything he has to get done. He also writes two lists: one with everything he's achieved that semester, the other noting the things he's done and the people he's met. 

"After being at uni for a semester or two, it's important to set goals and to give yourself the pat on the back when you achieve the goals. You're learning but you also need to recognise that you're growing as a person. Succeeding at uni is all about confidence." 

It's OK to sleep in the library

Come exam time, don't be afraid to put your head down,  Bridgette Glover says. "I wish I'd known that if you're really tired you can fall asleep and no-one will touch your things while you have a nap."

 The third-year University of New England media and communications student also wishes someone had told her how easy it is to obtain general extensions on assignments.

"I only found out this year that there's a link on my uni's site. You click on it, give your student number and the reasons you need an extension. Usually you'll get an extra week to hand the assignment in."

When it comes to submitting assignments, use weekends to your advantage. 

"Assignments are always due at 11.59 pm. If the due date falls on a Friday, you have until first thing Monday to submit it and still be on the deadline. I thought this was an urban myth, but it's true." 

Ps don't equal degrees

Soon after he enrolled at the University of Sydney, Michael Turton realised a high Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) didn't increase the likelihood of topping a subject. 

"Come exam time in the first year, it was the people who'd just got into their course and wanted to be there that ended up putting in the extra work and coming top of the class," says the fourth-year mechanical engineering student. 

"The ones who got high ATARs cruised through, partied hard and suffered for it." 

If he had his time over as a first year, Turton says he would put in the hard work from the start. "It's wrong to think that Ps equal degrees," says Turton. "If you want to get a job in the field of your specialty, you need to do more than pass to impress future employers and stand out from the crowd." 

To have a competitive advantage at graduation, he recommends getting involved in clubs and societies relevant to your degree. Turton joined the Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) racing team halfway through second year and is now president.

"Knowing how good it has been for my studies and socially, I wish I'd joined up from day one," he says. Team members design, build and race vehicles and Turton reckons those who join the society in their first year come out "miles ahead" of students studying the same degree who aren't members.