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5 Tips for Making it through First Year Engineering

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Don’t fear the plunge into the cold and stormy waters of your first year in Engineering studies. Many First Year students have emerged with their heads held high. To give you a kick-start for your first year in Engineering, Teagan gives you 5 tips to keep in mind.

“You’re studying Engineering? Impressive.” Something you hear a lot during your tenure as an Engineering student. It is definitely a perk – you get to nod your head, pretend to look tired and stressed and generally bask in the glory. Sometimes this can even get you out of that dreaded family dinner. But jokes aside, getting through your first year of Engineering can be a daunting endeavour. You have heard the horror stories of sleepless nights, impossible tests, theorems that were made to be misunderstood and the dreaded F word – failure. But never fear – many before you have managed to make it to the other side. Here are my top five tips for making it through your first year of Engineering more than just alive.

1. Study smart, not hard

Probably the biggest factor you will face is the sheer amount of work involved. I believe that the difficult bridging step from school to university is the same as the step between grades at school. There is, however, a lot more to get through. Think – your last three years of Physics squashed into three-months’- worth type of a lot. So you need to become efficient. Focus on what is relevant to the course – take a look at past tests and exams and see the type of questions lecturers like to ask. Do not spend days trying to study something that constitutes a miniscule portion of marks and have no time for that massive section that counts for half the marks. Plan these things to maximise your time in terms of results. Study smart, not hard.

2. Find your learning type

One of the things Engineering really tests is your ability to learn. There is a huge amount of information to digest. So make sure you know how to learn. Every person learns in different manners – some learn by writing the data down (lucky!) whilst some need to hear it, some need to be fiddling whilst others need external stimuli (smell or sound). 

If you learn best by listening for example, record yourself talking your notes through and play them back to yourself. There is a whole field surrounding the psychology of learning – put some effort into finding your learning type and save yourself the frustration. We are all different, so what works for your friends may not work for you.

3. Understand, understand, understand

Once you know how to learn best for you, remember the mantra “understand, understand then finally, understand.” Typically at university a lecturer will teach you a concept, often with a simple example. But then, BOOM, in your test you are expected to solve a three-page analysis of majorly complex proportions, which somehow relates back to this concept. Many people struggle in Engineering because they do not take the time to understand concepts right at the root. Essentially, by understanding, you will be able to successfully apply this to a problem, which at its core, is Engineering in a nutshell.

4. Practice makes perfect

Once you have understood, it is time to pin up the self-discipline badge and get your practice on. Another major shift in university is that there is no teacher hovering over your shoulder to make sure that, yes, you do all fifty-nine exercises. In your first year of Engineering you will typically be doing maths and the sciences. These are subjects that require practice and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Not doing sufficient practice (or just not at all) is probably the biggest reason for failure in first year Engineering. The temptation is big – I could be at the beach; I could be with my friends; I could… I know this is exactly what you do not want to hear but Engineering does require a little more dedication time-wise than some other degrees (but not all of your time).

5. Chill out, dude

Having said that, take a chill-out every now and again and do not be too hard on yourself. A good way to think of it is to ask yourself whether taking this break will make you more productive when you get back. For example, if it is past midnight and you have read the same sentence nine times, would having a few hours of sleep make you able to get past that sentence? Probably. If you have a bad week, are feeling behind and generally things haven’t been great, don’t be too hard on yourself. Prioritise, be grateful for the time you have been more relaxed and move forward.

Engineering can be tough and it can be pretty exciting. But the going gets easier after your first year, so remember – if you can make it through first year you have this thing down!

Student opinions

“In Engineering it is easy to fall behind and believe that you can catch up, but my advice is that you keep up to date, and that you utilise all resources available to you – especially the Internet (tutors can be helpful, but aren’t always). Form small study groups and push each other to understand. And if you don’t understand something, move on to the next section, then come back to the first one later.

It’s important to find a balance between your social life (definitely have one of those) and your Engineering life, which is very consuming. You’ll need a break from Vector Calculus, trust me. Also, take the time to learn about other degrees and faculties – this knowledge can really supplement your Engineering knoweldge, and drive you to suceed.

Don’t be discouraged by any test failures – they do not mean that you will fail the course or degree. I failed a few courses and yet I made it in the end. Engineering is tough, and it is difficult to explain to others why we suffer so much. Believe in yourself – it’s the only thing that will get you through tough times.”

– Rama  Afullo, UCT BSc Engineering graduate (Mechanical)

EduConnect 2cents

A lot of people have the opinion that Engineering is “hectic.” Do not let the fear or the apparent belief that it is hard put a psychological barrier in front of your studies. Believe in yourself and what you can do. I found that Engineering tended to come in waves: one week buried under with work and five tests in three days and the next week I was wondering what to do with my time. This sometimes has an impact on your social life as it can make it hard to commit to events, especially recurring ones. Just remember that it is but a phase and you will still have plenty of friends at the end (even if they think you have been in hibernation), I promise.


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