The FIVE bits of software that every undergrad needs to know about

This post is advice for undergrads about to start Uni. Two things, get a computer that gets the job done, not a piece of marketing. Two, get a simple workflow happening before you start. It will make your first two months easier. It’s exciting getting into Uni and the first few weeks will fly past as you meet new people, avoid others, get lost, work out the best coffee lines … before you know it, the first essay is looming large and the mind-demons are saying “just knock it over on the weekend”. For staff, the first few weeks are hectic, especially as many tutors (like me) are casual and have limited face to face time, and a stack of things to bring into your line of vision. As much as everyone might like, the reality is that many students don’t have the digital-kit they need and often don’t find the supports on campus extend to things like digital work flows, configuring your digital back-packs, but instead hand out reading lists and statements such as “that’s in the library”. It might be, but libraries are not essay-whisperers.

The biggest thing to remember, the statement I repeat all the time to students:

If you don’t have a digital workflow, then you will spend much more time on every aspect of your study until you do.


My pick right now for Uni-undergradlings would be a secondhand Samsung Slate PC at under $500, with a Microsoft PL2 Wedge Mobile Keyboard. A proper computer in tablet form running Win 8.1 Pro. Avoid Surface 1 and 2 and why buy 3 when it’s three times the price? If you want to spend $1000+ you can get a decent i5 machine with lots of RAM. Do not waste money on a $400-$800 piece of out-going junk.


Universities run on two things in your first semester. One, MS Word and two, referencing, grammar and spelling. No first year is expected to set the academic world on fire … just master Word and get a workflow happening and you’ll do better and feel less stressed. You need to connect writing to referencing and store it effectively. It’s not hard, but it can feel hard with so much on offer out there.

  1. Get Word, buy Word 2013. Uni’s run on Word, don’t bother fighting it.
  2. Get Firefox for one massive reason — it will run Zotero add on and you want that so much.
  3. Get Zotero. Like Word, it’s essential to starting University study. Zotero talks to Uni databases (and more). You find the references you need and save them to Zotero and even share that with your friends (group reference folders). You can browse the Uni databases in Firefox, pull references into Zotero from the URL locator (save) and also make notes, tag and organise all inside Firefox. A super simple an easy workflow.
  4. Get Evernote, it’s amazing for everything else you’ll have to make notes about. You can also share those notes and organise them.
  5. Get OneDrive, it’s like Dropbox. You want this because you can dump and sync Word documents to OneDrive without lifting a finger. Store all your Word documents on OneDrive, never ever store them on a Flash Drive and don’t even ask about a shared-drive.

Power Ups

Get an external phone battery. One that top up your phone when it dies. There’s nothing more useless than a phone you can’t use during class (assuming the teacher has noticed the Internet is everywhere). Use your phone to PHOTOGRAPH your notes and upload those to Evernote as regularly as you check F4ceBook.

Connect Word to OneDrive so that you’re always saving your work to the cloud. Once a week, get that work FROM the cloud and store it on your computer. If you’re paranoid, back that up to Dropbox or Evernote too. Having a SINGLE STORAGE plan (especially a LOCAL STORAGE plan) is on reason student lose their work at critical times.

Brain Training

Go to a Zotero Class if they offer them in the library. If not, go to and EndNote class, it’s the same idea, but Zotero is better on the web, so start there … not EndNote — don’t listen to them if they question your amazing fortitude.  Go to a referencing class in the library. This is as important as going to your first tutorial if you want to blast past the “p’s get degrees” zombies.

Now I know some people are going to say Google Docs and EndNote. To them I ask, have you taught 200 students who just arrived at Uni and have to pull an essay out their hat in three weeks with zero XP?. No, then back off. Other stuff later.