Transitioning from school to tertiary education: Practical pointers for a seamless adjustment  

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Making the move from high school to a university or college is an exciting time for students, with the opportunity to pursue new subjects, meet new friends and enjoy a range of new experiences. However, making the adjustment can also be tricky.

Atelisha Harilal, the Head of Student Recruitment and Marketing at JSE-listed higher education provider STADIO, says most school-leavers are used to the high school structure, where teachers engage with them, expect certain outputs from them, and manage these outputs quite strictly. In a tertiary institution, there’s generally far more freedom for students. Timetables are more flexible and the onus is on the student to submit assignments, attend class and study for exams, with little intervention from faculty. Many students embrace this freedom, without realising that they also need to embrace self-management and time management to ensure they succeed in their studies. 

Tips for a successful first year 

“There’s often a sense of overwhelm in the first few weeks,” says Harilal. “While there are lots of new things to come to terms with (and enjoy), my biggest tip for success in first year is to start studying early. Try to set aside time to work from the very beginning. Do not wait for the exam date or to be given an assignment before you start preparing for those assessments. It is easier to prepare a little bit at a time and to also set aside revision times, as opposed to try to ‘cram’ everything all at once.” 

She says that the volume of reading required at tertiary level makes cramming more difficult than at school level. Her other tip is to attend all lectures and tutorials. “There’s very little push for you to attend, and students seem to think it’s fine not to attend because no one’s checking up on them. It’s far more fun to visit the campus cafeteria, but attendance at lectures and tutorials is what you’re actually paying for.” 

What to do if you’re struggling 

Harilal says that while finances are the leading reason for university dropouts in South Africa, another big cause of first year students falling away is that they are unable to cope with the transition of having to take full responsibility for their own studies, and the increase in volume of work required. 

However, every tertiary institution has support structures in place. “Usually, there will be support offered in terms of both academics and student life,” she says. “For example, at STADIO, we have the Centre for Student Success, which offers help with life skills, like time management and study skills, as well as academic assistance. I encourage students and their parents to investigate these services and make use of them.” 

Working while studying 

Many students work part-time jobs to help make ends meet, but Harilal cautions that it’s important not to get carried away with the work. “Student jobs are often exciting – working as a waiter or in a bar, and having the chance to meet new people and earn your own money – but they are also transitory. They are not usually the type of job you plan to stay in long-term,” she says. “Try to remember this. The job is there to help you meet your financial commitments, but not to provide an alternative to achieving your overall ambition. It’s important to remain focused, to ensure that you don’t get talked into allocating hours for your work that should be allocated for attending lectures and tutorials or studying. Maintaining that work / academic balance is key. Finally, make sure you’re getting a job in an industry that is not placing you in a very high-risk situation. You’re young, which means you are a bit vulnerable. It’s important to ensure you are not exploited.” 

Keep your eyes on the prize 

Harilal advises students and their parents to remember that acceptance into a tertiary institution is only the first step in attaining a qualification. “You’re in – now you need to stay in,” she says. “That takes work too, so it’s important to remain focused on your reason for being here. Yes, it’s a great time to meet people, to grow, to socialise. But don’t let any of those things distract you from your objective of getting a qualification that will enable you to conquer the world of work.  

I think the challenge of getting into tertiary is only the first step of achieving a degree. It’s like the gates open, you got in and now find your way to the end and get out again. So once the gates have opened to you, know that this is just the first step, the rest of it involves actually staying in. Remain focused on the reason why you’ve engaged into tertiary. It’s a great time to meet people, grow through socialization and learning from your peers. But don’t allow that to distract you from the core purpose of your tertiary education journey, which is getting that qualification that will empower you to conquer in the world of work.”