The biggest differences between school and university

In Partnership with UEA

Find out what to expect from uni

When sixth form life is still new and shiny, going to university can feel a million miles away.

But it won’t stay that way for long. Before you know it, you’ll be arriving at your uni halls - starry-eyed and ready for freshers week and the three years that follow.

Going from GCSEs to sixth form is one big leap; but it’s this next step that will give you even more freedom.

To help you feel ready, we checked in with TSR’s student community and UEA recruitment manager Beth Bunn to discover the biggest differences between school and university.

1. You get to focus on the subject you really love

When you’re in sixth form, you’ll be splitting your time between a number of different subjects.

You might be learning about plate tectonics in the morning, the Cold War in the afternoon and then going home to write an analysis of a play.

At uni, you’ll have a laser focus on one subject (OK - maybe two if you opt for joint honours), and you’ll delve deep into your area of interest from all angles.

Think of it as ‘all killer, no filler’ - you’re choosing the EXACT subject you want to study, meaning you get to study the topic you’re most interested in every single day.  

When you’re specialising like that, you’ll want to have picked a subject you really love. If you’re not yet sure on this, the subjects you’re enjoying at college could be a good place to start. But don’t think you have to stop there...

Students in a lecture

2. You can choose from hundreds of subjects

The jump from GCSEs to A-levels doesn’t usually bring with it a huge amount of extra choice.

Most sixth forms offer up the same subjects you’ve been studying at school, with perhaps the odd addition such as law or economics.

But at uni, you have way more choice to explore your areas of interest. American studies? Meteorology? Creative writing? It’s all possible. 

In fact, there’s very little you CAN’T study at uni, so it really pays to start your research as soon as possible - even if you're not at the stage of starting your application.

TSR user dragonsonmars took a very methodical approach to choosing their course. “I started by making lists of what I wanted to study, then made pros and cons, what I could do with the degree etc, and that helped me decide.”

3. There are thousands of people in your year group

Most people go to sixth form with at least a few friends from school, meaning you can stick with the mates you’ve grown up with.

But by the time uni rolls around, people will be spreading out across the country, and you may worry about sitting alone in your room watching everyone else having fun on Snapchat.

This probably feels a bit daunting, but it’s actually an amazing opportunity to start afresh and throw yourself into uni life.

And if the idea of starting from scratch terrifies you, take TSR member DCFCfan4eva’s advice. “Joining societies is the best way to make friends as you already have a common interest, so you automatically have a conversation starter.”

Watch this video to hear about UEA student George's experience of settling into university

4. Suddenly everything seems much bigger

At school and sixth form, you’re probably used to moving between a handful of buildings. Within a few weeks, you can find your way around with your eyes shut.

But at uni, you’ll quickly discover that it’s virtually impossible to memorise every nook and cranny of your new campus. Universities are HUGE, and you’ll probably only ever need to visit 5% of yours.

It means there’s always somewhere new to explore, and whether you choose a campus uni or a city uni, you’ll become a pro at using Google Maps to find your way between lectures.

5. You get to do what you want, when you want to do it

For many people, going to uni means living away from the family home. FINALLY, you get to ditch the curfews, arguments about tidying your room and listening to your mum’s endless calls with Auntie Carol.

Being in complete control of your life is exciting, but it does involve picking up some new life skills.

You’ll become a dab hand at doing six loads of washing in one go (save those 20ps for the machines!) and rustling up your signature dish on the fly (spoiler alert: it’s pesto pasta. It’s ALWAYS pesto pasta).

All in all, while the leap from sixth form to uni is a big one, you’ll see that it shouldn’t feel completely alien to you.

While you’ll be learning to live independently and figure out your own budget and schedule, you’ll also have the freedom to study exactly what you want, make new friends and have loads of fun along the way!

Watch Toyin's video for more on living independently at university

6. You’re in complete control of your entire budget

For most people, going to uni is a first experience of sorting your own budget. That means rent, bills, food, transport, going out, gym membership…everything!

If you have a part-time job now, it could be worth trying to save a bit to help you out at the end of term when the student loan is running a bit low.

If you’re already worrying about how you’ll manage your budget at uni, TSR user TitanCream has a handy tip. “One good tip is to have two bank accounts and keep your big money in the student one, and put something like £10 on your main one. This means that you won't overspend if you set a budget.”

7. No-one is looking over your shoulder any more

As annoying as it is having someone telling you what to do and where to be all the time, at least it helps keep you on track. At uni, you’ll realise pretty quickly that you’re in charge of your own schedule.

It’s up to you to balance lectures, coursework, reading, socialising, societies and staying healthy, and while juggling all your obligations isn’t easy, it’s a massive step on the road to adulting.

“You will have a lot more free time than you did at sixth form,” says Beth from UEA. “However, having a less structured timetable can lead to being less productive. Making a schedule, listing your deadlines and organising your time will definitely help you manage your university life!”

You can also do some studying on how to be ready for the academic side of uni study. “The Pre-Uni MOOC is a fantastic online course that helps develop key skills that will bridge the gap between A-level and university studies,” says Beth.

“You own your studying at university – you study how works best for you,” says TSR member JustGeorgeJ. “It really brings out the best in you; there is no being 'spoon-fed' your work, it's just down to you to put what you will into it.”

Of course, there are people there to help you if you get stuck. If you’re struggling with your work, you can always talk to your lecturer or reach out to your personal tutor for advice.

In this video, Sam explains what it's like managing your own time at uni

8. You’ll be taught in a new way

How you're taught at uni is usually split out into two different ways.

There are lectures – where you listen to a lecturer talk about their specialist subject for an hour or two. Then, there are the more workshop-focused seminars, where you’ll often be asked to read materials and come prepared with feedback and questions. Active participation in seminar discussions sometimes contributes to your mark for the module, too.

If you’re studying something like medicine or science, you can also expect to have practical sessions.

Many universities also offer up non-compulsory, out-of-hours lectures with special guest speakers, which may be worth a look.

Some universities and courses also offer field trips, a year or term studying abroad, or a placement year working in your chosen industry to get some experience.

Overall, the learning style at uni is much more 'hands-on' than what you may have experienced at school or college. 

Here's Abby to tell you more about learning styles at university

Sixth form vs university: in numbers

  • The average uni student gets around 14 hours of contact time (in lectures, seminars or tutorials) a week
  • …and they spend another 14 hours studying independently
  • 60% of sixth form students feel at least somewhat prepared for university
  • Uni students spend almost five hours a week in paid employment
  • Medicine students can expect around 10 hours of placement work a week
  • The average uni class size is 16-50 students, with the average student spending two hours a week in a class of over 100 students
  • STEM subjects are more likely to be taught in large classes, while humanities and arts have smaller class sizes

Statistics from the Student Academic Experience Survey 2019 (Hepi)


Our partnership with the University of East Anglia

The Student Room is proud to work with UEA, a UK top-25 university (The Times/Sunday Times 2020 and Complete University Guide 2020), as the official partner of our student life section.

Not only is UEA highly rated in the league tables, it has also received a TEF gold award for excellence in teaching, learning and outcomes.

Located on the edge of Norwich, a lively city full of secret gems just waiting to be discovered.

Visit their profile page to learn more or join the conversation on TSR's UEA forum.

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