Panicking about first year work?

Student Life

Hopefully by now you will be suitably pumped for freshers week, though perhaps slightly apprehensive about the small annoyance of your degree afterwards. Most of you will have got a reading list by now as well, and will probably be reeling at the length of it. Don’t worry; the good news is that there’s a long held tradition at Oxford of freshers arriving having read precisely none of the set materials, as your college parent will probably let you know.

The bad news is that you are going to have to work once you get here, and you might not even get fresher’s week off – tutors don’t really seem to fully grasp the concept and the majority are likely to set you at least something to do before your first tutorial.

But hey, if you weren’t good enough, then you wouldn’t be coming here. Although the workload can seem intimidating, everybody’s in the same boat, and the OxStu are here to provide with subject-specific tips and info to help you glide through the first couple of weeks and allow you to concentrate on why you actually came to uni.

Sound good? Then keep reading…



First up, English students can look forward to weekly essays as well as some Old English reading in the first term. But don’t be anxious about the latter: Old English starts slowly so you don’t need to worry too much about learning how to use this entirely dead language. I bet you thought you were safe from learning any new languages when you signed up for an English Language and Literature course…

Advice: Don’t be too ambitious in the first few weeks. It will take time to get used to how tutorial essays work and your tutors realise this.

Historians-to-be can expect some light pre-arrival reading followed by an essay in freshers week. Some colleges will expect you to make choices about which papers (modules in normal speak) you want to study before you arrive, but don’t angst too much about deciding whether your passions lie in researching the Norman Invasion or Pitt the Elder – you’ll end up loving some essays and hating others regardless.

Advice: don’t spend your entire freshers week grappling with your first tutorial essay. Like with any other humanities subject, the tutor will have plenty of criticisms whatever you produce, simultaneously the most and least reassuring thought you will read here.

Lawyers have one of the tougher break-ins for freshers, though if you’re sufficiently masochistic to apply for law this will probably be of little concern. Get ready to be chucked into the deep end in first week, and be hit with the full brunt of the extensive reading lists – unlike most students, you’ll be sitting exams at the end of the second term, so tutors are keen to throw you in at the deep end.

Advice: leave behind the A-level mindset and try to convey your ideas as simply and concisely as possible. Try not to do anything you’ll regret too much in freshers week. Luckily to regret something, you have to remember it.



Budding Economists should prepare for introductory textbook chapters and/or maths problem sheets. Don’t try and understand every detail of what you are trying to read. Also, don’t be in the mindset that there is a single correct answer which all reading corresponds to. Unlike E&M students, PPEists won’t have to remember this because they are quickly forced into the mindset that there is neither a single nor multiple correct answers to anything.

Advice: to feel most at ease, talk about your assignments with other freshers, as well as 2nd and 3rd years who are often very willing – and occasionally able – to help. Just don’t freak yourself out too much.

If you’re studying Geography, prepare for a lot of jokes about colouring in, particularly from history students.

Advice: don’t bother actually bringing colouring pencils. All of your friends will give them to you on your birthday.



Good news for Medics, who will receive mostly background work rather than essential exam content. Tutors set a very light freshers week load, softening the blow of the subsequent decade’s enslavement.

Advice: when essays begin, ask the year above for a look at theirs to get an idea of what to be including and the style that tutors are looking for. And get the best books out of the library as soon as possible. Most importantly, make sure you enjoy freshers week!

Any Mathematicians can breathe a small sigh of relief: initial content is dumbed down slightly so you can get used to the problem-sheet style of learning (or realize what a huge mistake you’ve made).

Advice: don’t be meticulous about making the work you hand in pristine. The more important thing is to get into a good routine. Start work early so your subconscious mathematician can work away in the background. (Or realize what a huge mistake he/she has made.)



Linguists can expect a decent but not too consequential workload in the first couple of weeks, involving commentaries on texts and contextual research. Freshers work won’t tend to influence your work for the rest of the year or your prelims result, and the volume is less than the amount set for the rest of the course. (The rest of Oxford is still trying to work out whether linguists are noses-to-the-grindstone types constantly bent over grammar exercises and vocab lists or more inclined to sit with a glass of wine pondering ennui and reminiscing about their year abroad. Feel free to keep them guessing)

Advice: don’t spend hours slaving away or taking it too seriously. The best things to do are know your deadlines, know the primary texts and get advice from fellow students for secondary material.



Keep these in mind and of course give it a good shot but, so much more importantly, DO NOT take freshers week work too seriously. It’s the only time in your degree that you can legitimately consider work a distraction from partying, chilling with people and doing whatever you fancy, rather than the other way round.

If we haven’t covered your subject here (sorry Art History, with only about ten of you in a year, we couldn’t quite justify it…) then remember that your college parents and other students will have been in your situation a pretty short time ago. If you’re panicking about academic workload or anything else related to uni, the best thing you can do is ask someone who’s already come out the other side.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of the summer, and remember to get in plenty of sleep, Netflix and time with home friends alongside work. You’ve got three (or maybe four, or about a thousand if you’re a medic…) years in the future to concentrate on essays and problem sheets, so make the most of the time you have now!


Thanks to: Christopher Archibald (English, Christ Church), Elliot Pawley (History, Exeter), Noel Li (Law, Christ Church), Matthew Li (PPE, Balliol), Philly Lip (Medicine, Christ Church), Qays Langan-Dathi (Maths, Christ Church), Isabelle Reuser (Spanish & French, Pembroke).