There is a big jump from school to university and many students approach their first year unsure of what to expect. We’ve spoken to a current first-year law student at Brunel University who has kindly shared some top tips for students looking to start their law degrees in September.
Before you read any further, I want to make it clear from the outset that I am in no way claiming to know all the ins and outs of a law degree. But what I can tell you is what to expect from life as a first-year law student; something I wish someone had told me. Now mid-way through term 2, I now know what to expect, not just from a law degree but generally at university. If you are also confused about which degree to choose in the first place, you are not alone. Hopefully, this article can give you an insight and some fresh information so you can weigh up your options better informed.
Make sure you don’t waste your first year
“…use this year to figure out what works for you”
My first piece of advice is to disregard anything you’ve heard about how easy-going first year is. Yes, it is true that the results from your first year do not count towards your overall degree, but nevertheless, you still need to pass in order to get to second year. And yes, the pass grade may not be as challenging to achieve but instead of wasting the year, a better option would be to use it as a ‘trial run’.
What I mean by this is to use this year to figure out what works for you. The jump to university is a big one, but instead of taking it easy and extending your summer, you’ll make your life much easier later on if you take your first year seriously. We all have our own lifestyles and routines so by figuring out how university life fits into yours, you’ll be able to make sure you’re getting the most out of it as well as still being able to do what you want. Hence what I mean by ‘trial run’; once you know the structure of your days you can work around them to fit in what you want as well as get any work done. Whether you spend your time in the gym, at work, going out with friends or just staying home with a cup of tea, it’s important you are able to manage your time well enough to still do those things and get your work done. This is why I would recommend using this first year to get into a routine, by allocating time for work but also making sure you have time to relax. First year for me is all about trial and error and finding out what works best.
Use your freedom wisely
“You are in the driving seat and in charge of what you get out of university.”
One thing you might have heard about, which you shouldn’t disregard, is the freedom you get. There is no one at university making sure you turn up or that you’re making notes or doing your seminar work. The general attitude is “it is what you make it” and that is the truth of it; you are the one paying to be there so only you choose how you spend that money. You are in the driving seat and in charge of what you get out of university. Whilst at first this new sense of freedom seems brilliant, you soon start to realise the lack of structure and enforcement means no one is pushing you to get your work done. This is when the realisation kicks in that you now need to be your own motivation, you need to be the one to force yourself out of bed and make the trek there. I know this is easier said than done and you should use this first year to get yourself into the habit.
Once you set yourself a goal, it all becomes much easier as you know what you’re working towards. And if all else fails, the 9K you’re spending every year should be motivation enough. I’m not saying you must go to every single lecture and seminar because let’s be honest, it’s just unrealistic. Inevitably there will be a day where you are either not feeling great or just generally think “is it really worth it?” and decide to hit snooze. This is completely understandable, however, days like these are what you make them. There’s nothing wrong with staying home or in your room as long as you actually get work done.
Work out where you study best
“Making good use of the first year will… give you confidence going into second year.”
To tie everything together, you should use the first year to get to know what works for you so that when it comes to the more important years you won’t be wasting time. No one is going to tell you exactly what to do and how to do it in order to get the most out of your degree which is why it is even more important that you figure it out as early as possible. Simple things like knowing if you can work at home/in your room or need to be in an environment like a library to get work done can make such a difference to your productivity, leaving more time for you to relax. Making good use of the first year will answer a lot of questions about how you learn best and give you confidence going into second year.
Work out the best study habits for you
“As well as knowing where and when you work best, it’s also important to know how you learn the best.”
As well as knowing where and when you work best, it’s also important to know how you learn the best. You may already have an indication of this from sixth form/college, however, in university no one gives you the green light on how you should be learning. To put it simply, you are given a lecture where a lecturer may or may not use a PowerPoint to talk about and explain a topic. This PowerPoint is usually uploaded for you to access later (potentially along with other resources). Then, in due time you will have a seminar, in which you discuss with a small group what the lecture was about and potentially have questions to answer based on the lecture topic.
As mentioned above you are not compelled to go to either, although I would recommend trying to get yourself to the seminars even if you can’t make the lectures. They give you the chance to ask any questions you might have one-to-one with the seminar leader and just generally understand the topic better in a more interactive classroom environment rather than just a lecturer talking to a room of 300 blank faces. However, another thing no one is going to ask you to do is make notes.
Obviously, everyone has their own way of learning and you might already know what this is for you. You might find writing the notes out in a single colour and then highlighting later works, or typing the notes up and then printing them out, or writing different topics in different colours to help you remember, etc. Like I said, use this first year wisely and hopefully you can go into the following years reassured that what you’re doing works for you.
Top tips for first-year law students:
1) Make notes as you go along: Don’t wait for someone to tell you to start writing things down because you’ll find yourself in exam season with no notes. Don’t wait for the weekend to binge on note taking from the lecture PowerPoints from the week. Instead use any gaps in your timetable to go through the PowerPoint’s during the week, preferably as close to the actual lecture as possible. Or if you find making the notes beforehand easier, then just add in what the lecturer has said during and you can save yourself the hassle later.
2) Research the cases mentioned in the PowerPoints: If the case is being used an example to explain or support something, it must be there for a reason. It may be the leading case for that sub-topic and so it’s important not just to copy the name of the case into your notes without actually knowing what happened in it. Take a few minutes whilst you’re making your notes to quickly search what the case was about and what judgement was made, briefly summarise this in your notes next to the relevant topic.
3) Read the books: Having spoken to previous students I heard the same story; they all spent a lot of money on a pile of books which they never read. Prospective law students, however, should not be misled by this. Yes, those books do cost a lot and yes, they are more in-depth than the revision guides you previously used, but believe me in law more than ever you will need them and they do help. Going to lectures/seminars and making notes is fine but you need to make sure you actually get what you’re learning about, the only way to do that is by reading the textbooks. I’m not suggesting reading a ridiculous number of chapters every night but just simply highlight any key information on the topic taught. The most effective way to do this is by reading the corresponding topics once you go through them in the lectures, that way you can tick off the relevant chapters covered without having to read the entire book.
4) Just relax: Law and university in general can seem pretty intense which is why it’s important to maintain that balance talked about earlier. Managing your time wisely will help you keep on top of your work and still enjoy your free time. One way to make sure you are relaxing, (this is to all students), is to have a cut-off point. You need to have a certain time where you put away all work for the day and just chill out. Because honestly your first year at university is not the be all and end all, so go out, enjoy yourself and have days off. Doing a law degree doesn’t mean your whole life should revolve around it. Don’t stress too much and take it so seriously; learning the law, believe it or not, is actually interesting but your first year will be what you make it.
by Munaza Ajmal
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