(En)roll with the Punches: A Guide to Australian Academia


I’m a worrier. If you haven’t noticed based on my previous posts, “stress” is practically my middle name. In the weeks before leaving for the University of Melbourne I freaked out—as I usually do—about almost everything. Funnily enough, though, the one thing that didn’t worry me was the actual “study” part of studying abroad. All my life I’ve been the kid who enjoys writing lots of essays and memorizing information. I take pride in getting good grades.

And then I arrived at UniMelb. Everything I’d previously known about academia was promptly thrown out the window. With its complicated registration system and unique methods of assessing students, UniMelb felt like—and still sometimes feels like—a whole new world. These differences can be tough to adjust to, at first. But then again, studying abroad is all about embracing changes!

Enrollment, Registration and Timetables, Oh My!

Before we begin, I should add that the terminology used by Aussie universities is close to what is used at home, but diverges just enough to be confusing. Here’s a key of fairly equivalent terms:

  • Australian “subject”: American “course”
  • Australian “course”: American “major”
  • Australian “breadth subject”: American “elective”
  • Australian “timetable”: American “schedule”

(En)roll with the Punches: A Guide to Australian AcademiaOut of the seven UniMelb subjects I originally got approved by my home university, only two made it onto my actual timetable. Some class times conflicted with others. One subject had a quota and all the spaces filled up before I had a chance to register. Your best bet is to thoroughly scan UniMelb’s handbook to ensure that the subjects you want are offered during the correct semester. (Quick tip: while the school year in America commences in the fall, school in Australia starts with the calendar year. This means Semester 1 in Australia begins in January, while our Semester 1 falls in August or September.)

Have you chosen your four subjects? Good—now it’s time to register. To do this, you have to first enroll in your subjects, which essentially means that you’re stating your intent to take them. All the available sections of lectures and tutorials for those subjects will then automatically appear in your timetable. When you find sections at times that work with your schedule, you can register for them as long as there are still open seats.

Why Do I Have a Tutor? I’m Good at This Subject!

Tutes are more akin to classes back home, in that they’re smaller groups of students doing hands-on work led by a tutor.

The concept of breaking a subject into lectures and tutorials was totally foreign to me at first. At home, we just have classes. Sometimes the professor talks for the entire class, or part of the time, or, on occasion, not at all. Likewise, students might work together during the class period, or they might not. You never quite know what you’re going to get—which is why attendance in these classes is so important.

(En)roll With the Punches: A Guide to Australian AcademiaMost subjects at UniMelb are broken into lectures and tutorials, colloquially referred to as “tutes.” Lectures are exactly what they sound like: a lecturer speaks for the entire period. Typically lectures are held in large theaters filled with students. Attendance is optional. If you miss one (or a bunch), no worries—they’re recorded and posted online. Tutes are more akin to classes back home, in that they’re smaller groups of students doing hands-on work led by a tutor. Unlike lectures, attendance to tutes is marked and you need to attend a required number of them in order to receive credit.

Wait a second, you might think. What if I don’t need to be tutored in a certain subject? 

“Tutor” has a different connotation here than it does in the States. Whereas a tutor in America gives you extra help in addition to your classes, a tutor in Australia is like a professor who guides you through the lecture material. They also usually mark your papers and exams.

No Homework? Sweet! (Or Is It?)

Speaking of papers and exams, you might find that you’re assigned fewer assessments at UniMelb than at your home university. A subject might only have a test and two essays due during the course of the semester. Wow, that’s great! you say to yourself. Less time spent working leaves me with more time to travel! 

Slow down, mate. Just because there is less work to complete does not mean the work is easier. These assignments are time-consuming and often require a great deal of preparation. On top of it all, assessments are heavily weighted—for instance, one paper may make up over 50% of your overall mark!

Getting Used to Grading Systems

(En)roll with the Punches: A Guide to Australian Academia

These heavily-weighted assessments are also harshly graded. UniMelb’s grading system is not only different from those in the States, but also from those at other universities in Australia. As someone who values getting high grades, this was initially puzzling for me and, frankly, a bit off-putting. Seeing your work get marked in the mid-70s can be a bit disconcerting when you’re used to grades in the 90s.

IFSA-Butler provides you with a chart explaining UniMelb’s grading in relation to American grading. IFSA-Butler will also convert your grades to American-style ones when they send your Australian transcript to your home institution.

One of the main reasons I chose to go abroad in the first place was to discover diverse means and methods of learning. Although it seemed daunting at the outset, adjusting to Australian academia has been an eye-opening and rather exciting experience.

Article by Danielle Zabielski