From toil and trouble to joyful adjustment: How I made the transition to uni life

Being a “first generation college student” is more intimidating than most people are willing to believe. My parents didn’t attend university – both completed apprenticeships (“Ausbildungen”), so I really had no prior family experience to rely on when it came to university life. That isn’t to say they didn’t support me as best they could; they encouraged me when I was stressed about applications and getting everything organised for my studies. However, transitioning into everyday university life was a feat I needed to master by myself.

Having grown up in California (my family and I lived there for roughly 11 years), teachers in high school would often warn us about how easily the balance between finding free time and completing work for university could be overthrown; they also informed us about how different a college environment is from a school environment. Granted, it would’ve been an immensely different experience had I stayed in Silicon Valley to study, but I feel that finding an equilibrium is important in a university environment anywhere. What surprised me was how little focus teachers during my A-Levels in Germany put on preparing students for their prospective college lives: Yes, they described application processes, the numerus clausus…but not once did they address the personal aspect of it all. By the time I was ready to apply to TU Chemnitz, the advice I received from my high school teachers was a distant memory, and no one warned me about how frustrating the transition to university life could be.

It won’t come as a surprise that my first semester at TU Chemnitz was ridiculously difficult and more overwhelmingly stressful than it needed to be. However, as time passed, I became increasingly aware of how I was spending my time and managing situations related to my studies. Organisational habits changed, efficiency became a priority, and I gradually learned to be flexible regarding teachers’ expectations. I won’t claim that I’ve figured out the “perfect” method for transitioning from school to university life – but here are a few things I’ve learnt:

1. Approach your lecturers and professors: If I’d had someone to advise me on taking advantage of office hours, transitioning would’ve been a lot smoother. Asking for help directly instead of guessing or assuming has spared me a great deal of stress. It was rather intimidating at first, especially since I was used to a significantly tighter-knit school environment; the sheer size of the university can be a hindrance in seeking guidance. However, all the lecturers and professors I approached were willing to help me understand anything I had issues with.

Here is a link which lists the staff of the English Department:

It’s easy to find their office hours – just click on “detailed information” under their names – if they don’t have that link or don’t list their office hours, just send them an email and ask when they would be available to meet with you.

2. Papers/Coursework/Exams: Basically, don’t wait until the last minute. I know some think that this is overrated advice, but listen to your lecturers and professors when they counsel you not to put anything off. When I began studying at TU Chemnitz, I was still used to the school system of my A-Levels – several assignments, all of which are graded and make up your overall mark.

Keep in mind: I didn’t have my parents to tell me it would be a completely different process at university. For example, in the programme English & American Studies, the grade for each course consists of one or two graded assignments or a single exam which establishes your proficiency in the subject area. Additionally, you should be informed about (though I won’t go into too much detail about it here) whether your exam or term paper is a preliminary “Prüfungsvorleistung” (on which you receive a pass/fail mark, and which is often required to be eligible to register for a later “Prüfungsleistung”) or a “Prüfungsleistung” (which is graded numerically by certain criteria).

After my first semester, I began to plan term papers as soon as I was informed about them, and reviewed notes for at least a month every day before an exam. It might seem like a lot of work and hassle, but getting into this habit has given me much more time to relax and has significantly reduced my stress level.

3. Studying: During my A-Levels, I had a few lessons in which I was taught about the different types of learning styles. Teachers would advise us to study according to those. According to a questionnaire, I am a visual learner. However, because studies at a university are much more intense and fast-paced, I learned quickly that I needed to readjust my study habits or fall behind.

My tip? Find out what works best for you. I personally need to sit at home with music blasting in the background and my notes separated into sections of four or five bullet points that I read through repeatedly. Studying this way is efficient for me – by the time I’m done looking through a page of my notes, I can quiz myself and retain all the information effortlessly. This is also how I write term papers – I can’t write a well-formulated term paper or essay without background music.

If writing a song about your notes and playing guitar as an accompaniment helps you memorise things or understand something, do it. If you retain information better with diagrams or visuals, draw them. There is no “correct” way to study.  There are no set guidelines. Sure, people might wonder how you’re able to remember anything for an exam with AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” blasting in your ears, but if it works, it works.

4. Ask for advice: Don’t be shy or stubborn about adapting other people’s study or work habits. Ask them how they do things, enquire about their note-taking, and discuss things with them. I developed the habit of separating my notes into groups of four or five bullet points after I observed other students using notecards to study. I stopped handwriting my notes because I realised how much more efficiently my classmates were at gathering crucial information (which I missed when taking handwritten notes) on their laptops because typing is faster and easier.

A typical break for me when I need to relax (Photographer: Rebekka Nötzel)

5. Relaxation: Above all, take time to regenerate, be inspired and relax. Again, this is much like the study habits – just do what works for you. For example, I take walks, read a book, play guitar or go horseback riding if I feel overwhelmed and need a break. Even just taking one hour to do something you love will have a positive effect on your mind and how it works. Before I started attending university, I was a workaholic; my first semester was a constant battle of forcing my brain into overdrive and working nonstop – I quickly realised how much the quality of my work suffered because of this. I’ve learnt to take time for myself, put my notes into desk drawers or close whatever document I’m typing, and just chill out for a while so my work is the that best I can offer.


Rebekka Nötzel

(Bachelor British and American Studies, 5th semester)

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