The Student's Guide to Everything

The Student's Guide to Everything: university student and graduate life from a New Zealand perspective

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I'm a marketing communications professional, writer and blogger. I can't live without the internet, I love to travel and I'm a photography nut.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Summer jobs tougher to get

Student Job Search is warning the current economic climate means there are less summer jobs available for students this year.

What can you do to increase your likelihood of finding a summer job quickly?

  • Start early if you're looking for a job after graduation. Easy to say, hard to do while exams are going on. But at least make sure you're registered with FutureGrad if you're 2nd or 3rd year, since the best jobs on Student Job Search are often reserved for FutureGrad students.
  • Ask your friends if they know of any companies hiring in your field.
  • Check out companies which may have seasonal jobs like retail or hospitality - businesses still have a Christmas rush.
  • Register with several recruitment agencies.
  • Approach companies you like, and find out if they're hiring.
  • Make sure your CV is up to date and formatted professionally.
  • Use job sites such as TradeMe or Seek to find positions.

Be persistent, and remember there are lots of other people looking for work too, so you're not the only one. You'll find something. Also, try your best to save a week's worth of expenses to cover yourself in between the time that the unemployment benefit/ student hardship benefit starts, and the time you actually get paid. For a week you won't have any money coming in, so be prepared!


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

NZ universities chafing at fee caps

Now that we have a new Government, New Zealand universities are pressuring the Government to remove caps on the amount of fees universities can charge. Called the "fee maxima", Labour introduced the policy in 2004 to help keep university affordable for students. The policy restricts the amount that universities can raise their fees by, to no more than a 5% increase yearly. In practice, this means the universities have generally raised their fees by the maximum each year. In 2008 the program was extended, although the requirement to reduce the cost of courses already over the maximum was dropped.

So now universities are arguing that they need more funding, and they want to increase domestic fees (i.e. for NZ students) to compensate for what they see as a lack of Government investment and funding. They argue that they should be able to increase their fees to match those of the United States or Australia. Having lived in the US, I think it's worth pointing out that these are an unfair comparison - wages there are a lot higher comparatively, when you take into account the New Zealand dollar.

So, are New Zealand's universities as a whole, as desperate for funding as they say? Let's look at a few:

Victoria University - $16.7 million surplus in 2007
Massey University - $9.1 million surplus in 2007 (consolidated)
Auckland University - $22.6 million surplus in 2007
Otago University - $26.4 million surplus in 2007

I noticed while reading their annual reports, that even in 2007, the universities were complaining about fee maxima. From the Government's view, money is being prioritised to help more students afford university in the form of the fee maxima, allowances making it a tug of war between funding the universities or the students.

Education Minister Anne Tolley said National's policy was to retain the fees maxima "so no doubt we'll disappoint them [vice-chancellors] with that". She said there were no great plans to change the proportion of funding to students and to universities either.

Edit: Alexander has helpfully pointed out that the university surpluses may not be as big as they first appear, as each university is required by the Tertiary Advisory Monitoring Unit to maintain an operating surplus of at least 3% of total revenue.

Victoria University - 4.3% in 2007
Massey University - 2.4% in 2007
Auckland University - 3.0% in 2007
Otago University - "above targets" in 2007

Even if universities don't have enough funding to expand, taking the money from students by increasing fees would work against, or even undo the last Government's attempts at keeping education affordable.

First-years: What to bring to class

Source: flickr
It's easy to go overboard buying school supplies when you're in the stationary section of the local bookshop. (Guilty as charged. All those pretty pens!) But all you really need to bring to class is:

  • Notepaper / refil / IB5s (I find notebooks are easier as you don’t lose papers. Use graph paper for chemistry or math notes. Stock up for the year with about 8 at "Back to School" sales.)
  • Any textbooks/ student notes the lecturer tells you to bring
  • Pens
  • Whatever you need for the rest of your day – wallet, watch, etc.

And that’s it! Easy! Laptops, voice-recorders etc. are a good idea in theory, but don’t seem to work as well in real life. You'll be fiddling with them instead of listening. Laptops are heavy. Do you really want to cart one around in your backpack all day?

Arts and humanities lecturers tend not to give out notes, while science lecturers tend to send around their presentations afterwards. It depends on the individual.

First-years with huge backpacks – you don’t need to take all your books to class. Really. Only take them if the lecturer checks each person has theirs, or skips through random pages in class.

If you’re really daring, and you are absolutely sure the lecturer gives extremely detailed notes online, you can come to class without pen or paper. Generally, though, I recommend you do. No-one has a perfect memory, and you will need those extra scribbles come exam / assignment time when you’re struggling to decipher the lecturer’s cryptic notes and remember what she said about the assignment.

So, all you really need to bring to class is some paper and a pen to take notes. Bonus: you'll save money on school supplies!

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How to navigate the minefield of 'unwritten rules' at uni

In New Zealand, there are a few rules around academic work which aren’t really stated, but assumed: the ‘unwritten rules’. It's a bit like fallen logs in the bush at night: you only really find one by tripping over it!

The Dos and Don'ts of Doing Assignments

New Zealand culture is individualist, rather than collective, so students are expected to do all work themselves. Unless the assignment explicitly says you must work with a partner or a team, you must do the work yourself. You may ask others for a limited amount of help such as spelling or grammar checks, and you can work together with another student on the approach to a problem. So you can ask another classmate, “What approach did you take to solve this math problem?” Or, “What do you think the lecturer meant about the exam when (s)he said X?”

However, you can’t do the exact same topic or a similar one to your classmate, or use their original notes on that topic. You also can’t repeat a topic you studied previously in another assignment or paper.

New Zealanders often become defensive if asked their approach or the answer to a question, as grades in New Zealand emphasise individual merit and giving the answer is seen as allowing someone else to take their merit. Classes focus on self-learning and discovery rather than rote-learning things from memory. Hence assignments are designed to help you research and learn about the topic yourself, and decide what you want to think about it.

You can’t tell another student the answers to all or part of an assignment, or copy from another person’s answers. (Lecturers in non-technical papers are especially good at spotting copied work, and at spotting who the copier is. Universities tend to have harsh penalties for plagarism, accidental or otherwise.)

Work done in a team is marked as a team. Members usually get an opportunity to grade the work done by each person in the team, to minimise instances of slack people being awarded grades they didn’t deserve.

If you ask someone for help, generally it's expected you will help them in return on something else in the future.

Dealing with lecturers

Lecturers and tutors cannot directly tell you the answers to an assignment. They will instead guide you to work it out yourself by showing you how to approach the assignment or a similar problem.

Lecturers may refuse to mark your work if they can’t read it. Sometimes they will give you the benefit of the doubt, or call you back to read it for them, but not often. Mostly they will fail you. If you know you have messy handwriting, be aware.

Knowing when to shut up

What gets said in class, stays in class. Sometimes case studies or research are actually confidential. The concept of "academic privilege" basically means that university classes are open places where all kinds of ideas can be discussed for study, but not published in the wider world where it may affect business or politics.

There are other ‘unwritten rules’ which you'll only find out by breaking them. Listen and look closely at what other people do, to help you avoid the pitfalls.

What other 'unwritten rules' has anyone else noticed?


Thursday, November 20, 2008

The "real" purpose of Facebook

Today I saw this article, in which a bunch of psychology majors got together and decided Facebook, MySpace and other social media is primarily used by teens and twenty-somethings to experiment with their online personas and identity, and to "perform" to an audience of "friends".

"These social networking sites have a virtual audience, and people perform in front of their audience," said Michael Graham, a former UCLA undergraduate psychology student who worked on this study with Greenfield and Manago for his honor's thesis. "You're a little detached from them. It's an opportunity to try different things out and see what kind of comments you get.
I use social media to keep in touch with my friends, keep them updated about my life and peek into theirs. And of course everything online is part of an elaborate construction of identity, from tweets or profile updates, all the way to which photos you post. So, yes, it can be fun to "see what kind of comments you get". But you're still "you", it's not about creating a fake persona.

Some people don't get it....

"I hate to be an older person decrying the relationships that young people form and their communication tools, but I do wonder about them," said Kaveri Subrahmanyam, associate director of the CDMCLA, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and senior editor of the special journal issue. "Having 1,000 friends seems to be like collecting accessories."
I disagree. I actually view Facebook as my modern Rolodex. It's about networking and contacts, not "accessories". It's especially important for "weak links", people who are acquaintances, because social media allows you an intimate look into the minutae of peoples' daily lives without having to contact them all the time. I don't know where most of my friends live, or their cellphone numbers. Or even, shockingly, their email addresses. We all move around too much. But I know that if I need to contact them, I can find them on Facebook.

(Which begs the question, if you're not online, do you somehow not exist?)

A couple of things to keep in mind when managing your online life:
  • Remember to keep profiles private, since more and more employers are checking out prospect employees' social media profiles.
  • If you're looking for a job, make sure your profile picture is tame (i.e. no beer bottles in hand) and presents you in a good light. Anyone can see it.
  • Untag any photos of you on your friends' profiles that you wouldn't want a boss to see.
  • In the age of Google caching, nothing ever really goes away.
How do you use social media? Is it about being able to control the way you present yourself to the world? Or something else?


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Five signs you should change your major

Most people change their minds about what to study at least once as a student. It's pretty common, especially in the first year as you realise that topic that enthralled you in high school has become an entirely different beast at uni.

Five signs you should change your major:
  1. You're bored to tears.
  2. You absolutely hate it and can't stand the thought of another minute of class.
  3. You're working really really hard, but only getting C's.
  4. You're really, really interested in something else and think about that all the time.
  5. You realise the reasons you had for taking that major weren't really reasons.
If this is you, it's OK. Relax! You can do this. Lots of people change their majors. Even, sometimes, after completing entire Masters degrees! Book an appointment with the Course Advice department of your university or one of the careers people, who can help you plan a new major and change any courses necessary.

Sometimes you may have to wait out that semester, if you can't change immediately, but remember that it's a relatively short time to wait. You may be able to credit those courses to your new major anyway.

How will you know when you've found the right major? Here are five signs:
  1. You'll be much happier.
  2. You'll enjoy going to class and doing assignments.
  3. Your grades will improve.
  4. Doing schoolwork will be mostly interesting!
  5. You'll feel a sense of purpose, like the major fits in with your skills and personality.
Good luck!

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Friday, November 14, 2008

How to find your first student job

OK, so you need a job because there isn't quite enough from the student allowance or student loan to pay for the weekends. There are usually lots of jobs available to students. Here's how to find one.

1. Make a basic Curriculum Vitae (CV)

Believe it or not, yes, you do need a CV. It's a summary of your skills and experience, and shows the employer that you are serious about getting a job. It also gives them something which showcases you in the best light and helps them to remember you.

Sit down with a blank piece of paper or computer screen. Make a list of anything you've ever done which you've been paid for. Washing Dad's car? Babysitting? Milking? Write it down. Also, if you've involved with sports or another extracurricular activity, write those down as well.

Next, think about the skills that you learned to do each job or extracurricular activity, and the challenges that you overcame. Write them down. For example, babysitting your neighbour's children probably taught you to be responsible, how to be on time, and how to sort out an argument. Playing sports probably taught you how to work as part of a team. Working in the school tuck shop probably taught you to be trustworthy and to handle change. Even if you have no work experience, you can still show the employer through your CV what kind of person you are, and what your strengths are.

Employers want people who will show up on time, work hard, and keep working even if they don't feel like doing it. They want people who aren't afraid to ask questions if they don't understand, but who can take the initiative sometimes and not require constant supervision. They want people who can get along with others with different backgrounds, and work as part of a team. Make sure your CV shows how you have these skills from your other jobs and activities.

Create your CV on a computer. First list out the words 'Curriculum Vitae' on the top, in large letters. Then below, in smaller letters, list your name, address, contact phone number and student email address.

List each job you have done before, in order of the time you did them (month and year). Underneath, list the skills you already identified earlier. Do some research online to help format your CV, or ask someone to help you. When you're happy with it, print out multiple copies of your new CV.

2. Make a list of places to apply

Think about the places you might like to work. Make a list of them. Why do you want to work at each one? Look through job listings at Student Job Search, online or the newspaper. Remember that not all jobs are ever advertised, and sometimes it's best to just walk into the places you want to work, and ask them. It shows the employer that you are interested and ambitious if you ask them even when no job is advertised.

3. Iron your shirt!

Prepare to apply to each company you will walk into, by dressing neatly and wearing a shirt. (You don't have to wear a suit. Take out your piercings, though.) First impressions are very important, and if you don't dress nicely to impress, the employer will think you don't care enough about the company or the job.

4. Walk in confidently

Stand up straight and walk in confidently when you approach a company. Ask to see the manager. Make eye contact and have a firm handshake. Managers want to hire people with good communication skills, who are confident and approachable. If you slouch, or look shy, and act like you aren't serious about getting a job, you won't get one. You may feel terrified, but act confident and show the employer you are serious about working for them.

5. Prepare for "no"

Sometimes, employers that you've approached just are not hiring at the moment. It's nothing to do with you personally, although it may feel like it. Nobody gets accepted at every single place they apply for a job. Nobody. Be prepared for someone to say, "No, I'm sorry."

When a manager or business owner says they have no need for you, hold your head high and say, "Well, if you do need someone in the future, please give me a call. I'll leave you a copy of my CV. Thanks for your time."

This shows the manager that you are serious about getting a job, and you have demonstrated the ability to follow up. If you sulk out of the store or are rude, it shows you aren't mature or serious about the job. Again, do not be rude. It will backfire on you. Cities are surprisingly small places.

6. Follow up

This is one thing that's really important. Following up with the employer after an interview or meeting shows responsibility and a willingness to get involved. Call the employer back or visit again about a week later, and ask whether they've made a decision on the job. Make sure you talk to the manager, instead of relying on someone else to pass along a message for you.

Keep applying and following up until you get your first student job!


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Monday, November 10, 2008

What people don't tell you about moving overseas

There are some things people don't tell you about moving overseas: sure, it's exciting. But there can be huge hassles involved as well. Here are some of the things I've discovered:

Everything will take a lot longer than you expect. For example, three months ago (in July) we shipped a bunch of boxes from San Francisco to London, expecting them to be there when we arrived. They weren't. After a few frantic phone calls, the shipping company responded. It would ship the boxes on the 24th of August. We still haven't got our boxes, and it's November. Almost winter in the UK, and we mostly have shorts and t-shirts. It's freezing.

Everything will cost more than you expect. You'll probably blow through all your savings in the first month. Mostly on transport.

Save copies.
The bureaucracy of most overseas Government agencies means that they're bound to lose something. Take photocopies and date yours before you send anything. If it's especially important, use registered mail which gives you back a receipt.

You will get annoyed and upset over weird, small things.
Like why the US and UK still use pennies. It's actually part of culture shock. It's OK. Vent to your New Zealand friends, not your foreign ones. They won't understand, because it's part of their everyday life.

It will take you longer than you think to find a job.
Even a bar-tending job. This does not mean you are not employable. Promise. Just keep looking. Use the local websites such as Craigslist in the US, or Gumtree in the UK, to find casual jobs. Or simply walk into the places you want to work at, and ask if they're hiring.

The most unlikely things will go wrong.
Things you've never thought of, or even knew existed. You'll lose your wallet on the subway. You'll get off at the wrong bus stop and have to walk for miles. You'll get lost. A lot. It's normal. Don't beat yourself up.

Dealing with these things will help you grow as a person.
Fast. It's not all bad. You'll become more resourceful in strange situations. You'll be calmer. Most of all, you'll know that you can deal with whatever gets thrown at you, because you've handled craziness before. While it may be horrible at the time, it's part of travelling, and you'll be a better person because of it.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Is National or Labour better for students?

The New Zealand elections are tomorrow! The two major parties, National and Labour, have both promised policies to benefit students. Which will benefit you most?

  • Keep interest-free student loans for tertiary students
  • Limit university fee increases
  • Student allowances: from 2009, reduce the age at which parental income is considered and increasing the parental income threshold for student allowances.
  • In 2012, abolish the student allowance parental income test entirely.
  • More Step Up scholarships
  • In January 2009, increase the number of Bonded Merit scholarships to 1,500.


  • Keep interest-free student loans for tertiary students
  • Establish a 10% repayment bonus on a loan balance for voluntary lump-sum payments of $500 or more, for 10 years following the start of borrower repayments.

So which party's policies are best for you? It depends on whether you are a student or a graduate. As a student, especially if you plan to study for at least a year in 2009, Labour's policies are best. As a graduate with a student loan, National's polices are best, because it's essentially a 10% rate of interest on your lump-sum payments.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

"Bill and Ben" the Flowerpot Men... I mean political party

Image source
I was surprised to find the political party "Bill and Ben" on my NZ electoral ballot today (I'm voting from overseas). Turns out "Bill and Ben" is a joke party created by the hosts of TV3's programme Pulp Sport, Jamie Lineham (aka "Bill") and Ben Boyce. It's actually surprisingly easy to create your own political party in NZ. According to the NZ Electoral Commission, all you need are:
  • a name that is not likely to cause offence or confusion, which refers to a title or honour, or is too long;
  • 500 or more current financial members eligible to enrol as electors;
  • and an auditor.

Being registered requires a party to, among other things: have rules providing for the democratic participation of members in candidate selection, make annual returns of donations, make annual declarations of having at least 500 current financial members and the intent to contest elections, and make party election expense declarations.

I'm not sure whether the Bill and Ben party will be getting any voter donations this year, as they already turned down electoral campaign funding so as not to waste taxpayers' money. But should you ever want to create your own political party, now you know how!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Do you qualify for a NZ student allowance?

Are you in your final year of high school? Are you heading to university next year? You may qualify for the Student Allowance! (AKA, free money!)

What is it?

The Student Allowance is a weekly benefit paid to students aged 16 years and upwards, to support you while studying. You may have to supplement this income with part-time work, especially in the more expensive cities such as Wellington or Auckland. But at least you won't have to spend all your valuable study time working at that Fish'n'chip shop down the road, just so you can pay your rent.

Do I qualify?

Aged 18-23? (Some 16-17 year olds also qualify.) The allowance is based on several things: your parents' income (because it's assumed they'll help you out somewhat, true or not); whether you live at home; and whether you're married and/or have kids. Check out the WINZ website to find out.

24 or over? The allowance does not take parental income into account, but it does take your partner's income into account, and whether you have kids. Check out the WINZ website to find out.

If I'm an adult now, what do my parents have to do with it?

Yes, I know. It's unfair. You've moved out of home, you're an adult, and your parents' incomes are still taken into account!

If your parents live in separate households or if they're supporting more than one student, then the amount of income taken into consideration will be reduced.

If only one parent supports you, then that parent should complete the Single Parent Allowance application to have only their income taken into account. This application usually only works if you are estranged from the other parent. (Here's the new list of reasons considered "unacceptable".)

If your parent has a new partner, and you live with them both, then WINZ will take both of their incomes into account, and decline the Single Parent Allowance application. (Check the website, because sometimes they'll allow it if you've only lived with your parent's new partner a short while, and that person hasn't supported you in any way.)

If you're estranged from both your parents, and neither of them support you, you can apply for the Independent Circumstances Allowance so that their incomes are not taken into account. You still need to apply for the Student Allowance as well.

Free money! How do I get it?

Make sure you enrol now, since the WINZ centres get swamped in January and you'll avoid having no money for the first few weeks. I know it feels quite complicated, but just take your time and read though all of the information on WINZ's main website, or their student-oriented website Studylink to make sure you're getting the most allowance possible for your individual situation.

Returning students also need to re-enrol each year. So don't forget!

What if I don't qualify?

Luckily, Labour has recently announced plans to raise the parental income limits from 1 January 2009, and scrap the parental income requirements entirely in 2012. This effectively creates a universal student allowance! I think this is a fantastic idea, because it treats all students fairly regardless of parental income.

In the meantime, you can borrow up to $155.00 per week from your student loan. If you qualify for a reduced student allowance, you can borrow from your student loan to make up the difference.

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