The first assignment

If it hasn’t already, the first assignment of your BA should be rolling back to you about now. Along with it will be your first round of feedback. The next part of your job as a student is learning how to take it.

Taking feedback isn’t just about reading it. It’s about really thinking about it – about celebrating the parts of your assignment that were fun, enlightening and convincing for someone else, and about reassessing the parts that weren’t.

Most students won’t get an A for their first assignment. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Your first assignments aren’t about getting As- they’re about aiming to work out what it takes to get As. They are the trial-runs, the practices, the dress rehearsals, for the dozens of assignments that are yet to come.

Although they’ll probably seem like a big deal, the grades that you’ve received so far aren’t important – chances are, they represent only a small percentage of your final marks. What is important is that you really take the time to seek and listen to your marker’s feedback. Book a time with them to talk about what you could do better next time. You’ve put the work in, now make sure you get the payment you’re entitled to.


Be a someone

When it comes to finding a job, or getting into a course, or enjoying your academic life, who you know is almost as important as what you know. It’s a competitive world full of smart people; no matter how awesome you are, you only take up as much space in list of applicants or stack of assignments as anyone else. Feeling like you’re a someone in the giant ocean of uni is integral to your full enjoyment of your BA.

It’s not about blatant self-promotion, or pestering, or stalker-like behaviour. It’s just about taking opportunities to make yourself known to the various shirt-wearing, spectacle-pushing, uber-nerds that are your lecturers. The goal is for them to be able to pick up your assignment and say ‘ah, (insert name here). I remember them being interested in this topic. I’m looking forward to reading this one.’ The other goal is for you to feel, when you’re writing your assignments, that you’re writing for a real person.

So, next week, answer a question in class. Book a time to meet with your lecturer during their office hours. Flick them an email for advice on your current assignment. Making the first move can be the toughest part – once you’ve crossed that nerdy threshold, you’ll feel more comfortable in piping up again next week, and then the one after that.

Back up, now!

My computer broke. Nine months ago it fell off the coffee table during a magnitude 6.3 earthquake; one week ago the hard drive finally packed in. If I hadn’t backed up my work, it would have been a disaster on multiple levels. Because I had, though, all it meant was that I had to pop down to Dick Smith to buy something newer, faster and prettier.

Back up your work. Now. Even if your computer has never experienced any kind of seismic activity, there’s a strong likelihood that it will break in the next week. Forgo backing up your work, and you can pretty much bet your student loan on it.  If it doesn’t get a virus or develop some kind of cancer of the hard drive, it will get stolen from your flat. 

As you’re working on your assignments, make sure to back them up every few hours. Attach them to an email to yourself and chuck them onto a pen drive. If you’ve never really done a large-scale back-up, buy a portable hard drive and chuck it all on there. Then hide the hard drive away somewhere and update your files every month or so. Back up now, or you’ll lose it – it’s Murphy’s Law now that I’ve made you think about it.

An example to follow

We all need examples to follow. We need role models to aspire to, job descriptions to work towards, instruction manuals to use as reference points. Academia is no exception.

If I set an essay assignment for my school students, I always give them an example of what I expect. Usually, I write my own essay response to the question, and share it with them. I explain what I enjoyed about writing the essay, why I took that particular slant, how I came to those conclusions. Later on, as I’m marking theirs, I get them to mark mine. I encourage them to point out the strong and weak parts, to circle the mistakes and to put question marks wherever they find my argument hard to follow. Seeing my work gives them an idea of the kind of writing that is expected of them, gets their own creative cogs turning, and, through letting them ‘in’ to the world of good essays, gives them a sense of power as they write theirs.

Before you start writing your first assignment, find some examples. Ask your lecturer if they have any essays on file from previous courses. If you know someone who’s done a BA, ask to see some of their old assignments. Look at the feedback they’ve been given and discuss with them why they got the mark that they did. Go online and search for essays that other BA students have uploaded. It doesn’t really matter what they’re about – you’re using them for inspiration, not information. The more you read and learn, the more you want to read and learn, and the more striking your assignments will be.

Getting underway

First week at uni over! How was it? Hopefully, you’ve found all of your lecture theatres, met all your lecturers and sussed out the best coffee, closest carpark and cheapest lunch on campus. If all’s going well, you’ll have a week’s worth of notes, a small fortune’s worth of textbooks and the names of at least a couple of your classmates. You’ll be feeling overwhelmingly inspired, and inspirationally overwhelmed.

Now you need to start studying. If you’ve got your first assignment already, great – you can get started with your research. Jump online and browse until you get a clear direction of where you want to head with the topic, then hone down your searches on the online databases and in the library until you’ve got ten or so good sources of info to work with. If you haven’t been given any of your assignments yet, you’re in a great position to get ahead with your readings. Read through the first chapters of your textbooks and course readers, taking your time and making sure to take clear, thoughtful notes as you do so.

Remember that it’s totally normal to feel put-off by the academic language – don’t worry, you’ll get used to it soon enough. All that really matters is that you make a start, and don’t let procrastination weasel its way into your student life. The only way to start is to start, so pick up that textbook, fire up that laptop, and start reading!