First Year at UCT: The Survival Guide

Approximately this time, last year, was one of the greatest periods of transition I’ve ever known; I’d just wrapped up my school-leaving NSC exams, and had parted ways with the majority of people in my grade whom, apart from appearing on my Facebook news feed from time to time, I will most likely never see again. At this stage, I’d been accepted into the University of Cape Town (UCT), and I was beginning to pack up my belongings for the big move to Cape Town. I wasn’t heading to residence like many others – I was heading to a new home, with new challenges and new people.

In many ways, I was experiencing more than the typical “academic shift” most others go through – I was experiencing a change of lifestyle. It was a time in which I remember actually asking my mother to let me cook in order to gain as many skills as possible before I left home on my own journey.

Now, I have not by any means navigated this new year alone. I’ve moved into the vicinity of my immediate family in Cape Town, and having them has been a boon to my confidence and enjoyment of the year thus far. I’ve also been staying with a very good friend of mine, from 3rd grade school, who has shared this year’s elations and pitfalls with me.

It occurred to me, reviewing the year as it has progressed, I’ve changed much from the Fresher who didn’t know what University was all about. I recalled myself as the rather tall bloke wondering around campus trying to find someone to help direct him to his lecture venue – and in a few months time, I’m probably set to direct some poor lost souls to their venues myself. This being said, as quick as it was, the transition is far from painless. What I have decided to do with my now copious free time and this blog is set out a little survival guide detailing how to cope with those first few weeks at UCT, if that’s where you’re planning to head. It’s fortunate that the change I’ve experienced this year has equipped me to further detail all the changes you’ll likely experience. This guide is rather rudimentary, and it doesn’t cover any of the intricacies of res orientation as that’s not something I experienced – but it’s my hope that reading through it will colour your expectations with just a little experience.

Welcome to UCT.

You’ve officially done it. Provided you’ve gotten your conditional or firm acceptance, you now have the chance to complete your chosen course at the most prestigious university in Africa. You couldn’t have chosen or performed better – and it’s your right from now on to remind those Stellenbosch kids who’s got the 3rd most beautiful campus in the world.

Some notes on the transition from School:


Once your NSC results have been disclosed at the start of next year, I can guarantee that whatever school you attend is going to host a celebratory function of some sort for your grade: enter Glory weeks. Despite whether you’re happy with your results or not, you’re going to have to endure a full fortnight of results comparison, mark peeking, competition and bragging. Everyone who’s anyone is going to either quietly – or proudly – declare their intelligence to the world. Regardless of how you’ve done, let it slide. Because…


Now we begin to hit the fun stuff. Orientation week (the initial orientation week for Cape Town residents, and the second orientation week to outsiders and Capetonians who missed the boat) is where you’re going to meet the people who will shape your year and university experience. The wonderful thing about Orientation week is that, due to your nature as kids who’ve just hopped off the school roundabout, you’re all pretty equal and uncertain. Nobody really minds what kind of toothpaste you use or how many A’s, B’s or C’s you got in school – it’s the nature of human groups to band together and establish a leader, and you’re in that sweet spot where nobody’s yet brave enough to show their chest hair. Very few people will know what to expect of the institution they’ve only likely seen in news clippings; so here are some general tips for O-week that I’d wish that I’d known:


You’re (probably) in a new city, with your circle of friends halved. Perhaps quartered. Maybe even sixteenthed, like mine was! The people you know will be divided up between faculties, groups, tours, and getting lost within UCT. The best advice I could give, ever, and this includes the year as a whole: GET OUT THERE AND MEET PEOPLE. The world’s just opened up to you, and you’re thinking of slugging it out with your 6 school friends? Don’t be absurd. Chances are, if you’ve cultivated good friendships, you’ll stay in good contact with them anyhow, but no-one’s stopping you from making new buddies, either. It’s great to have friends across the spheres of your lectures and interests who can facilitate and develop all those wonderful elements which make up you. The freshers you meet will probably be looking for some support as well – any more than one is a team. In doing this, you’ll probably end up discovering new facets of what appeals to you and what doesn’t.

Also, please take note here: the best way to introduce yourself to someone else? Just walk right up, say, “Hi, I’m X, how’s orientation going?” It works. Most people are too eager to talk about themselves or how you feel, and by doing this you’re showing a great deal of maturity and openness in communicating – two crucial parts of any friendship. Sometimes, you will end up talking to a complete asshole – but fear not, and keep walking on. Of all the people you’re about to meet, some will go on to be your best friends – possibly for life.


During O-week, you’re assigned to mixed tour groups who will do activities with you from Campus tours, to social sessions or library exploration. Perhaps the most exciting element might be the Fresher’s Braai, where every fresher is sent out into the wilderness of the rugby field to mix and mingle with some nosh and drink, accompanied by some live bands or DJ’s. It’s a great, sober jol. Unfortunately, during mine, I didn’t meet anyone I didn’t know, partially to my own nervousness about meeting all these new people.

However, I don’t think I’ve ever regretted anything more. You’ve really got no excuse – everyone around you is there to have a good time, no-one’s about to throw up on your shirt, and very few people know each other. Most folk will form isolated groups themselves which prevents them from meeting new people – JOIN IN on their circle. Meet as many people as you can. There’ll be duds, and goldmines – dig in. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to your graduand peers, who are for the first and final time all together in the same place. This doesn’t happen again, guys.


During O-week, you’ll be supplied with a handy orientation leader to navigate you from activity to activity. One of my biggest regrets was possibly not asking enough questions! These honourable souls have granted YOU hours of their life to integrate you into university – use it. Ask questions, get directions. Find out where you can print in the library. Find out where the hell what Jammie Shuttle goes where – they’ll know. Treat them as an organic university encyclopaedia. They disappear after O-week.


As a day student, like myself who doesn’t live on campus, so much goes on beyond the splendor of Upper Campus that it warrants exploration. Take a weekend afternoon, head down, and get involved – there’s so much to do, and so many res folk to meet. A res buddy is good for the soul, too – they have access to DC, the campus’ unofficial file sharing service. If you want all the seasons of Friends in the span of two minutes, head to them. And, by the way, that’s no exaggeration.

Life after O-Week: The hard slog begins

Despite the tranquility of O-week, the uphill jog begins the week afterward. Lectures and tutorials begin, and as a first year who’s parents have (most likely) funded this occasion for you, please do us all a favour and attend at least MOST of them. You have an amazing opportunity here – don’t let it slide because you’re lazy. Here’s the academia lowdown:


Ah, lectures. The stuff of legend, regardless of whether you’re experiencing them from behind the back of your eyelids or not. A lecture is where a professor, or some academic of similiar persuasion, facilitaties explanation of your course’s content. They’ll most likely use power point slides to accompany their presentation, which you can either download if possible (we’ll come back to this) or jot down study notes from. If you do study from summaries, this is a biggie.


Tutorials are where you’re going to negotiate the issues or intracacies of what you discussed in your lectures and the readings which have been given to you for your particular week. Whilst in most courses you can miss as many lectures as you like, as they’re not compulsory, a certain number or tutorials are mandatory, or else you’ll fail the course. In tutorials, a senior student will direct your class of 20 in discussion and debate, or through teaching, reinforce the course curriculum.

Your tutors are excellent people to become friendly with, as they can provide a wealth of insight into university life and can generally answer your queries about the course/ your degree. Most are great folk, anyhow, and will be people who share interests you do, as you’ve enrolled in the same course.


The days of getting 98% for everything under the sun have passed. University is a time of both success and failure. What might help to facilitate this change in your mind is to consider the following: UCT works on a scheme of 3rd, 2nd, and 1st class passes, which will vary upon the following:

50-60% – Third. You answered the question and have passed, though there’s room for improvement.

60%-75% – Second. Congratulations! You’ve answered the question and have passed, and have demonstrated sufficient knowledge.

75% – Well done, this is the equivalent of a school A. You’ve performed with outstanding merit. However, dont expect these to drop by too often. Fundamentally, 75% is the new 99% – be proud of what you have achieved.

Any pass is ideal at the end of the day – you’re not at university to claim the top spot as you’re forced to in school. You’re in university to simply pass your courses and get your degree in whatever field – passing well isn’t as much of a priority as actually passing is.


DP! The big killer. DP stands for Duly Performed, and it’s what you achieve if you pass your coursework sufficiently. This allows you to write your exam at UCT, and pass the course. DPR, on the other hand (DP refused) results in you failing the course due to failing course work, or not attending tutorials, or an unhealthy mixture of both. Without saying, try and avoid this. If you’re not enjoying the course, rather drop it, change, try get a refund if you’re within your first week of the course, or run like hell. Getting DPR for a course stays on your Academic transcript, forever, and while it won’t really hurt anything beyond your pride and your money, some departments frown upon it.

This isn’t school anymore – now we pass to get to write the exam so we can pass to pass the course!


Vula is a magical piece of web software which facilitates your course’s facilities for handing in work, online, checking marks, and doing online tests. This will be covered in-depth on O-week, so I’ll skip a lot of detail here. Up till now, you’ve been using…


Which is a rather clunky facility for you to check your timetable, your academic transcript, the status of your fees, and many more self-service related activites. Again, you’ve experienced half of this already, and it’ll be covered far better than I can during O-week, so I’ll skip detail once again.


Just as a note to explain, whenever you hand an essay in, you hand in two copies – a printed hard copy to your tutor (generally) who then marks it and returns it to you, and a soft copy which gets uploaded to Vula and is checked by a facility called Turnitin to see if it’s been plagiarised.

Plagiarism, put simply? Big no no. This is when you’ve directly copied from an article, book, or web page, without crediting the author through referencing.

You likely haven’t referenced beyond bibliographies in school, but in University you are required to cite sources you use in coursework and essays. Each department uses their own system which you will be given instruction in tutorials on how to use, like Harvard or Footnotes. Allow me to save you some time, and tell you that if your department allows you to use CHICAGO as a referencing style, USE THAT. MS Word has built-in support for it, and it works like a dream.


Your days of Wikipedia’ing your homework? Yeah, that’s long gone. Now, you might actually have to read a book. Fortunately, UCT’s Library is awesome, and they have nearly every book you might need. They also provide quiet study space if res or home just won’t cut it. You’ll be given a great tour during orientation.

Other important stuff:


If you were dreaming of 5-Star meals at UCT, you’re going to be disappointed. The food on campus is generally D-Grade at best, and is apparently beyond terrible in res. You’ve entered the world of the takeaway. Beyond the doughnuts in the Humanities Grad Building’s Moot Room Cafe, and the pizza slices at Cafe Quencha in Leslie Social Sciences, you’re on your own. It’s going to be rough. If you can afford it, getting some pre-cooked meals from Woolworths might be a great idea now and then. If not, grin, smile, and eat.


The Jammie shuttle are those blue buses which transport students around UCT, and to Cavendish Mall. The unfortunate reality of the Jammie Shuttle is that it’s a mobile zone where manners need not apply. Everyone pushes, and don’t expect to be offered a seat. Hold on for dear life, and you’ll get to your destination. Apart from when the service goes on the odd strike, it’s fairly sound, and the busses aren’t in bad condition. Jammie stops are usually crowded, especially by Tugwell & Leo Marquard res. Get there early to avoid a mind-blowing queue… especially during lecture and exam time.


Jammie Thursday is a weekly event where some form of entertainment will be held on Jameson Plaza. Try keep THURSDAY, 1pm – 2pm, free in your weekly schedule lest you really want to miss out on the biggest campus social gathering during academic time.

Wrapping up…

As I said earlier, this is by no means an extensive guide. If you’d like me to detail something I left out, leave a comment and I’ll update the post. In the meanwhile…

Studying at UCT isn’t easy. Embrace the concept of failure – this isn’t school anymore, where you can do your spelling test and forget about it. You’re doing research on fundamental human aspects regardless of your academic persuasion. Many friends of yours, regardless of how intelligent they might be, will experience failure or disappointment – you will, too. This is a central part of growing up during this amazing phase of personal revolution. For the first time in your life, you’re absolutely free to play things the way you want – but I caution you, play carefully, treat everything with respect, and DO NOT come in with the intention to fight the system or make a big deal out of yourself. You’ll be ground into dust faster than you can blink. Adopt the mindset of patience and humility, and you’ll do just fine. Keep an open mind, and the world will open up. You’re no longer constrained by four walls – everyone and everything is waiting for you to climb that proverbial mountain you’ve been waiting for.

However, enjoy it. You’re entering into the best years of your life, so don’t let it go to waste. My years at UCT were some of my best. Get out there and make memories – take trips around the Cape with your friends, and experience life. The whole wide world is set to come knocking on your doorstep once you’ve graduated – savour the time you have. I’ve just completed my first year, and I regret everything I didn’t do, despite all that I’ve done.

I hope you’ve found this somewhat helpful if you’ve read up to here. This is my gift to you – just a little bit of information to colour your expectations. I hope you use it wisely, and enjoy the future ahead of you at UCT – and if you have any questions, my earlier offer of updating this post will always stand.


PS : a little bit of humour from my good friend and roommate –

  • First: Marry Vula.
  • Second: Memorise the Jammie schedule.
  • Third: There is no etiquette when using the Jammie – every man for himself.
  • Fourth: figure out what time you have to wake up and then set your alarm two hours before that because everyone loves the snooze button.
  • Fifth: if you lose your teeth expect unlimited abuse from your friends and family.
  • Sixth: Don’t use Wikipedia.
  • Seventh and the most important: don’t miss tutorials – forget lectures – If you miss a tut – you’re practically screwed .
  • Final advice: when in doubt, reference like crazy.