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Getting used to all that freedom, and other advice for new college students...

Students have far more freedom and it’s a significant transition from leaving cert studies, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THIS TIME OF year annually heralds the return of tens of thousands of students to Ireland’s universities and institutes of technology. Those of us who are privileged to work in higher education must readjust as our campuses, places of relative peace and tranquillity during the summer months, transform into bustling hubs of activity and – we hope – infectious enthusiasm for the coming academic year.

Here at NUI Galway last week, alongside a university-wide welcome and orientation, each academic discipline offered its own specially tailored series of events for first year students. Similar programmes are underway, or will soon take place, at universities and institutes of technology around the country.

Putting together my own presentations, as well as listening to the talks given by my colleagues, prompted me to write and to offer some advice to those commencing the first year of what should be one of the best journeys of their life. What follows is based on my own experience both as a student and as an academic.


First, students who have just completed the leaving certificate must accept and acclimatise quickly to the difference between their studies at second level and at third level. It is a significant transition.

shutterstock_229206451 Source: Shutterstock/VGstockstudio

Specifically, third level students have far more freedom, but must assume far more responsibility. Unlike at second level, attendance at lectures typically is not strictly policed, the daily schedule is relatively unstructured and students often are not personally known to their lecturers. This is a most unfamiliar educational environment for students who have finished secondary school a few months previously.

It is, however, the manner in which students opt to exercise this newfound freedom that will determine whether they succeed or fail. If they regard freedom as a licence not to engage with their studies, they will do poorly. If they take this freedom and assume the personal responsibility to engage with their studies that comes with it, they will thrive.

Having to take responsibility for one’s education and the “growing up” that this simultaneously entails and ensures is perhaps the best lesson that a third level education can teach – leaving aside the academic content of the many degree qualifications students pursue.


Second is to understand what it means to engage with one’s studies. This does not mandate that students be all-consumed by their courses or that they get caught up in foolish and counterproductive competition with their fellow students when it comes to appearing intelligent in lectures or tutorials, spending hour upon hour in the library each day or always getting the best mark on exams and assignments.

shutterstock_94325839 Source: Shutterstock/Stokkete

Being engaged means that students 1) attend lectures and tutorials; 2) set aside enough time for regular study – keeping up to date and not falling too far behind is crucial; 3) endeavour to reflect upon and think critically about the content of their course at regular intervals; and 4) avoid getting overly bogged down in the minutiae, and retain a focus on the bigger picture, in each of their individual modules. Students can be fully engaged and perform exceptionally well without studying incessantly.

Be social 

Third, from the first days on campus, students should become involved with those extracurricular activities which they have prior experience of or a strong interest in. The range of clubs, organisations, sporting teams and societies at Ireland’s third level institutions is extraordinary. There literally is something for everyone.

Traditionally, first year students have been slow to participate in extracurricular activities, but the upper level students who usually lead these activities invariably bemoan this caution and are eager to recruit new members.

Clubs, organisations, sporting teams and societies also host events with high profile guest speakers. These events present unique opportunities to meet and to question people who make national and international headlines. In sum, a lot of the learning and personal development that happens on campuses occurs outside of the lecture theatre.

Address Problems

Fourth, when and if personal or other problems arise, relevant individual(s) should be notified as soon as possible. Structures at universities and institutes of technology exist to promote student welfare and to ensure that students in difficulty will be facilitated.

When students’ issues or problems are known at an early stage, they can ordinarily be addressed. When they do not come to the surface until weeks or months have passed, they are less amenable to speedy resolution.

shutterstock_231916297 Source: Shutterstock/Jasminko Ibrakovic

Understandably, it can be very hard to talk about what may be sensitive or tragic circumstances, yet students can almost always access appropriate support services that will be of assistance and enable them to progress in their courses.


Fifth, students should seek to enjoy every minute of the years they spend earning a degree. To do so, it is important to maintain a healthy balance by allocating appropriate time for studying, socialising, extracurricular activities, part-time employment, family and friends. Achieving this balance will take time and will necessitate some trial and error. Nonetheless, most students ultimately do manage to find what works optimally for them.

Finally, I would be a liar if I claimed to have heeded fully the quite similar advice offered to me 23 years ago when I was in the shoes of this September’s first year students at universities and institutes of technology in Ireland. They surely won’t follow mine to the letter either. But I like to think that the advice I received stayed with and helped me. Here’s hoping my advice stays with and helps some of them, too.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

Read: This student found an excellent college ‘care package’ hidden in their dorm room wall>

About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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