From making new mates to handling the workload; here’s what you really need to know about starting uni
There’s a load of old rubbish written about going to university. If you believe everything you hear, no-one ever bothers going to lectures and you won’t make any mates unless you’re up for getting trashed every single night.
Being better informed is easy – just talk to the people who are already there.
That’s what we did. We grabbed nine recent questions from the university life forum – questions that sum up the common themes that people ask about all the time. And we got current students Lydia, Chloe, Natalie, Jasmine, Evan, Alex, Ella, Kathryn and Becky – as well as staff at the University of East Anglia – to answer them. Here’s what they had to say.
I’m really not into ‘big nights out’. How am I going to make any friends at university?
This is one that chimes with so many people before they start uni. “I felt exactly the same,” says Jasmine. “But I found that I made good friends with the people I lived with in halls. Having movie nights was a great way of getting to know them.”
Your university will make it easy to meet other people – and there will be much more going on than just the next big student union night.
“Join some societies!” says Evan “They are a great place to meet people with similar interests. Friendships you make in societies are often more long-lasting than those you have with your flatmates.”
And remember, everyone wants to just chill sometimes.
“I like nights out in moderation, but have found myself going out less and less in second year,” says Lydia. “The real bonding time I had with my flat was early on when we cooked fajitas together; it was so nice to have a night in.”
I like a course at my local university, but I’m worried about missing out on ‘real’ uni life. Do I need to move away from my home town to get the true ‘student experience’?
“You can have a great student experience whether you live in student halls of residence or live at home,” says Roshan Walkerley, higher education advice manager at UEA.
“Get involved in the student union (SU) and sports clubs and societies – this is the best way to meet people who share a common interest. And don’t forget to spend lots of time on campus so you can enjoy everything that your university has to offer – study in the library, use the sports facilities and pop along to SU nights.”
“I think living at home only becomes a barrier if you let it,” says Lydia. “If a course is perfect for you then don't miss out on it just for the sake of worrying about not doing university 'the right way'. There is no right way.”
Chloe agrees. “Go where you feel most comfortable,” she says. “If you'd rather stay home then stay home. People put too much stock in the 'student experience'; you should just go where you'll be happiest.”
I'm a female-to-male trans man. I've come out recently so I have very limited experience starting something as a man – what should I do about starting uni?
“University is the perfect place to start with something like this,” says Alex. “I came out as bisexual in the summer before starting university and I cannot overstate how helpful and relieving it was to go somewhere completely new and not have to be selective about who I told. People at university aren’t judgmental!”
“Just be yourself,” says Ella. “I am not trans but starting uni I had a lil identity crisis, not knowing how I should introduce myself to people. The people I've met at uni have been open and welcoming.”
And while you can expect that openness from your fellow students, your university will also offer more formal support.
“Talk to the student union,” says Kathryn. “They can talk you through the process of having the correct name and other details on your student information. If there are any problems, call up the admissions people at the uni.”
I’m really nervous about the idea of moving away from home and living with people I don’t know. Can you give me any advice?
Sometimes you have to go through the nerves to get to a better place; and starting uni is like that for most people.
“Everyone is nervous!” says Ella. “People hide it or are honest about it. The awkwardness doesn't last long. It's all OK, it's part of your journey. As long as you're accepting of other people's differences, they should be accepting of yours.”
“Try to keep an open mind,” adds Alex. “You will be put with a mixture of people from all sorts of backgrounds, but this is the best part! You get to mix and live with people that you usually wouldn't, which will be a huge help in later life.
Remember not to pressure yourself to have an immediately awesome time. It’s often going to take a while to settle in, as Jasmine explains.
“Moving was really hard for me,” she says. “It would have been easy for me to hide out in my room once my parents left and cry. But I forced myself to step out of my comfort zone a little, to talk to people, to try new things, to make the most of communal areas. Everyone will be going through the same thing, so don’t be afraid to be social!”
What happens if I struggle to keep up with the workload at uni?
There are a lot of new things to take on when you start uni, and your academic work is only part of it. Yes, you can expect the workload to get busy, but universities are set up to support their students through tough times.
“Universities have loads of support available if you're struggling,” says Alex. “You'll have an academic advisor, your module organisers, lecturers, seminar leaders, plus loads of student support such as counselling, extenuating circumstances assistance and more. Even just the people in your flat or course friends will help!”
“Talk to your seminar leaders, your lecturers, advisers or the pastoral support team,” adds Kathryn. “Everyone struggles with the workload now and then, it's just about getting the help you need rather than struggling alone.”
How important are lectures at university? Won’t I just be doing all the work myself in the library?
University study is far more self-directed than you’re probably used to. At degree level, the onus is on you to get your work done, and getting to lectures is a big part of that.
“Lectures have been a fundamental part of my learning experience,” says Becky. “Without these I would feel very unprepared for assignments, exams and placements.”
“Most lectures are genuinely interesting, and open up your mind to new ways of thinking,” adds Myles Smith, higher education adviser at UEA. “Your work in the library is designed to complement your lectures, not replace academic input.”
For Lydia, lectures are important because they enable you to mine the knowledge of your lecturer.
“You might think ‘I could easily do this at home’,” she says. “But if there's something you don't understand it's way more likely your lecturer would've explained and expanded on it in the lecture.”
What happens if I get to uni and have trouble paying my bills? I’m worried that getting a part-time job still won’t cover my costs.
Before you get to uni, it pays to familiarise yourself with the financial support available. Yes, there are loans, but you might also be able to benefit from bursaries and scholarships. Check what’s available on the uni’s site, or ask the student support service once you get there.
Once you’ve got your income sorted, you need to make sure you know where that money’s going.
“It's important to keep track of how much you are spending and what you are spending it on,” says Evan. “I would recommend keeping a budget using a spreadsheet, especially for food, so you can manage your spending and keep an eye on where all the money is going.”
You’ll quickly get into the habit of shopping around for food and everyday items – but make sure you’re checking prices on everything else as well.
“There are usually a lot of options for houses with different rent prices, so you should be able to find the right thing for you,” says Kathryn. “Always switch electricity and gas suppliers when you move in to get the best deal!”
Don’t forget, if times get really tight, most unis will have a hardship fund that you can apply for.
Will I still make friends if I commute to uni instead of living on campus?
“I was a commuting student and I still made fantastic friendships,” says Becky. “You are with likeminded people so no one cares where you're staying, they care about you and your interests.”
Commuting into uni from home doesn’t mean you’re doomed to never meet anyone. Of course, people make friends with those they live with, but there are plenty of other ways to meet people, says Natalie Froome from UEA’s student union.
“Clubs, societies, events and your course are all places where you’ll have the chance to meet new people. At uea(su) we also run freshers events for commuters, so you’ll have the chance to meet other people in the same situation.”
If you are commuting, don’t forget to make the most of the non-academic side of uni, as well as just the lectures. “I was friends with someone who commuted, but they really struggled to maintain friends and it was someone I mostly saw before and after lectures,” says Ella. “Come to uni during your free time to meet up with people or go to societies.”
I’ve heard a lot of people say the first year of a degree course doesn’t really count for anything. Is this true?
“While it doesn't count to your final grade it definitely counts in terms of preparing you for the rest of your degree,” says Chloe. “If you apply for an internship with poor first year marks, they're not likely to take you on.”
Your first year is your opportunity to establish yourself at university and to learn what you need to take you through the rest of your course.
“The skills you learn in first year will help you no end in second year and beyond,” says Kathryn. “First year grades often count if you want to do something like study abroad in your second year, so read the fine print before you slack off!”
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