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A guide to academic life

We all have been there, bewildered at how we’re supposed to navigate a lengthy reading list in only a couple of days, forgetting to set our alarm for a 9am lecture or wondering what older students are on about as they talk about collections and tutes. Hopefully this brief guide to academic life will help alleviate some of the confusion in what will inevitably be a whirlwind of a first term. It can take time to adjust to academic life at Oxford and that’s okay – nobody expects you to understand everything right away! 

The academic year is split up into three eight-week terms called Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity. The first and last terms of the year, Michaelmas and Trinity, tend to be the busiest. Our terms are shorter than most other universities and it’s normal for academic life here to look very different from your friends’ at other places! Oxford has plenty of options when it comes to choosing where you want to study and your first term is a great chance to tour all the different libraries, try out study cafés such as Common Ground, or find the desk setup that works best for you. 

Glossary of useful terms: 

Collections: Collections are mock exams that you normally sit at the beginning of term. They are held within your college and the questions are usually based around the content you covered the previous term. Whilst it’s always good to aim to do well on collections, don’t stress! Collections are a great way to practise exam technique and identify gaps in your knowledge that you might need to work on further. Remember your first collection will be the first time you’ve ever sat a university-style exam which is very different to what you will have been used to at A-level. Do your best, take on board any feedback your tutor gives you, and don’t worry about them too much! 

Sub fusc: This is a special academic dress that you will be required to wear for events, such as matriculation, as well as exams such as Prelims or Mods. Some colleges may also ask that you wear your gown whilst sitting collections.  

Preliminaires ‘Prelims’: These will be the first university-wide examinations you will sit near the end of the final term of your first year, testing you on all the content you have learnt in that time. Prelims don’t count towards your final degree classification; you just need to pass them, as they are a stepping stone into the next couple of years! If you fail a paper, you will be allowed one resit later on that summer. If you do really well in prelims, you can get what is known as a ‘distinction’, which enables you to wear a special type of gown called a scholar’s gown to events such as formal dinners, in place of your commoner’s gown. Prelims can feel really daunting but it’s important to remember that you just need to pass them!

Mods: For subjects such as Law and Experimental Psychology, your first year exams are called ‘moderations’ (or Mods for short) and are sat earlier than those doing Prelims. Whilst sitting your exams earlier might seem like a scary prospect it does have its perks as it means you will be able to enjoy your summer term exam-free! If you are a classics student you will sit your first university exams even later, in the second term of your second year.


Lectures are where the majority of your course content will likely be taught to you. The number you will have in a week will vary depending on the subject you are doing. Nobody likes a 9am lecture but it’s important to try and go to all of them as your exams will probably be based on the content you learn here! 

Arranging to meet your coursemates and walk to lectures together can be a great way to meet new people in first year and can also help to break up the day.

Be punctual – coming in late can be disruptive for others already there and some lecturers will stop students from coming in after a certain amount of time.

Do ask questions at the end, but be mindful lecturers might have limited time. Most usually give out their email addresses so don’t be afraid to reach out with any questions afterwards. 

Try different ways of taking lecture notes. Some people prefer to type them, some to handwrite and some to annotate the lecture slides. There’s no right or wrong way – whatever feels best for you! For most lectures you will get access to the slides afterwards so don’t try and write down everything that is written, focus on getting the key point the lecturer is saying – you can always go back and add to your notes later! 


Tutorials, or ‘tutes’ as they are commonly referred to, are an opportunity for you to go more in depth into an aspect of your course with a tutor who specialises in that area. Depending on your course you will be asked to prepare work for the tutorial, which will usually be either an essay or a problem sheet. 

Re-read your work before coming to the tutorial so it is fresh in your mind. 

Write down any questions you have. This is your chance to go through anything you might be stuck on. 

Be respectful of your tutorial partner. Whilst you may have some one-on-one tutorials, the majority will be in groups of two or three. It’s important to make sure you aren’t talking over others in your tutorial and respect their ideas and opinions.

Think out loud, just like you will have done at interviews. This way your tutor can hear your ideas and see your train of thought so they can point you in the right direction. 

Remember tutors want to hear your opinion. 

Top Tips:

Organisation is key. Managing your own time can be one of the hardest parts of academic life so make sure you have a calendar, whether online or on paper, and put in all your commitments academic and otherwise for the week. Work often expands to fill the time you give it so break up everything you need to complete into smaller tasks and give yourself a time goal – this will help stop work dragging on all day!

Take regular breaks. It is unrealistic to try and work for long hours everyday. Make sure you plan in regular breaks and look after yourself. 

Remember you are here to learn. Nobody expects you to turn up knowing everything – otherwise there would be no point in you being here!

Just give it a go. It can be easy to get hung up on whether you are doing something just right and trying to make your work perfect. Whilst problem sheets will usually have a right and wrong answer, for essays the questions are usually an open end with no real ‘right’ way to answer them. Either way, no matter what work you are doing it’s more important to give it your best go and come to a tutorial armed with questions than not do anything at all! 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Your tutors and lecturers are there to answer your questions no matter how big or small. Speaking to older students who do your subject can be really useful as they’ve been in your exact position and can give you tips and ideas. 

Constructive criticism is a good thing! One of the hardest adjustments can be getting used to tutors critiquing your work or challenging you on your ideas. Don’t get disheartened. Thinking about it in a more positive way can help: if your tutors are challenging you and giving you constructive criticism to work on, it means they see the potential in you to grow and get better.

Don’t worry about making mistakes. Sometimes this is the best way to learn!

Everyone will have different strengths. Oxford brings together students from a wide range of backgrounds; don’t be worried if someone knows more about a particular subject or seems to be finding a certain topic easier. First year is all about getting everyone on the same page so don’t stress if you’ve never heard of something before – it’s likely that there are lots of people who don’t.

You will get the hang of things – maybe not right away but that’s okay. There will be many things you might have never seen or been asked to do before but don’t worry – it’s all part of the process, and even if you find it hard at the start, things will start to get easier the more you practise them! 

You deserve to be here. Even if your essay didn’t go as well as you’d hoped or you didn’t understand what to do with your problem sheet, you deserve to be here. 

Image Credit: Mike Knell/ CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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