What university is really like

University students chatting

Here's what to expect from student life...

“I can’t wait to leave home, move to uni and make loads of new friends. But that doesn’t mean I’m not a bit nervous…what if I don’t like my course? What if I run out of money? What if my diet of pasta and toast gives me scurvy?”

Does this sound like you? If so, you’re far from alone. Everyone who’s thinking about going to uni experiences a mixture of excitement, nervousness, being desperate to get there but apprehensive about leaving sixth form or college behind…

Feeling ready for uni is a bit easier if you've got an idea what to expect – and that's what this article's for. We’ve spoken to real students and university staff to get their take on the uni experience – and they’ve left no stone unturned.

Do you have to get wasted every night to fit in? Should you join a million different societies? Does everyone get on with their flatmates? Read on to find out, or tap one of these links to zip straight to a particular section.

In this article we'll cover...

University sports clubs and societies

Clubs and societies are hands down one of the best things about uni. This is your chance to try your hand at all those activities you’ve always wondered about. Why not have a go at rowing, debating or a new language? Or you could write for your uni magazine, sample some culinary delights in gastronomic society or learn to code.

And if you have a brilliant idea for a society that doesn’t exist yet, you can even apply for funding from your Student Union to set it up yourself.

Before I went to uni, my friend advised me to join two societies and go to them religiously. I didn't exactly listen - I joined three and have only actually been to one properly, but going to every single event from that society was the best decision I made all year. I made so many friends and had a great time!

VickyDoodle

University student union websites will show which societies are running. Or, once you arrive, you can visit the Freshers’ Fayre. You’ll be bombarded with sign-up sheets from slightly overenthusiastic reps from each society, but you can sign up for free tasters of whatever takes your fancy - and you’ll also scoop armfuls of freebies in the process.

The sports fair is for you if you fancy representing your team in the university leagues, learning a new sport or just keeping fit. Try out for the rugby team, take to the river as a rower or show your support by joining the cheerleading squad - there’s almost too much choice, and it’ll get you chatting to a whole new group of people to expand your social circle.



How not to starve (or 'cooking for yourself at uni')

So you’ve absolutely rinsed your Deliveroo free trial for the first couple of weeks, the staff at Maccy’s already know you by name and you’ve munched through all the snacks your mum left you. It's at this stage that you'll realise it might just be… time to cook.

If you’re already a bit of a whizz in the kitchen, you’ll make yourself very popular very fast. But if your culinary skills extend no further than making toast (and you won’t be alone!), you’ll need to add a few basic recipes to your repertoire to avoid blowing your entire student loan on overpriced ready meals.

To get you started, here are three things every student needs to know how to cook. Once you have these down, you can add whatever other ingredients are reduced in the supermarket that day to make a tasty meal.

  • Pasta
    Chuck your pasta in a pan of boiling water for 10-15 minutes (check the pack). Adding a glug of oil can help stop the pasta from sticking. Then drain it in one of the six colanders you have somehow accumulated in your kitchen, stir in some pesto or sauce from a jar and voila! A super easy, super cheap meal. Top with cheese, olives or cooked veggies if you’re feeling fancy.
  • Rice
    Another easy one - boil your rice for 10-15 minutes. While that’s cooking, heat up a jar of curry sauce (or just a tin of tomatoes with a spoonful of curry spice) and cook up some meat, tofu or veggies to go with it, and you have yourself the easiest curry ever.
  • Ramen
    The ultimate lazy/hangover meal. Just rip open the packet, leave the ramen in boiling water for a couple of minutes and you're good to go. If you’re really pushing the boat out, stick a poached or fried egg on top. Easy!

It's all about planning, making the best use of staples and efficiently using your freezer space. For example, you can batch cook things like bolognese and then freeze it, same with curries.

claireestelle

In first year, we split the bill for basics like bread and milk, and anything extra we paid for separately. As for cooking, we had dinner together for the first couple of months, but then everyone started doing their own thing in the evening, like going out with mates.

Little J

Food costs can quickly add up when you’re paying for yourself, so you might choose to buy some communal staples with your flatmates to keep spending down. 

You can also time your supermarket trips for when they start reducing food that’s close to its sell-by date (lots of this fresh food can be frozen), and use cheap pulses like chickpeas and lentils to bulk up your meals for healthy, satisfying food.

Budget supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl also sell own-brand versions of popular foods at lower prices than the main supermarkets, so be sure to check them out to grab some bargains.

How to budget at uni

Let’s just put this out there: the vast majority of students are skint at uni. When that first loan payment hits your account, it can be tempting to blow the lot on rounds of shots and Domino’s deliveries, but learning to budget is an essential part of living independently.

Even the most financially savvy students can struggle with temptation, so it’s important that you flex those willpower muscles and spend wisely.

Working out how to budget is a new skill for most students, and our Money & Finance section is a good place to check for advice. Even though it's a few years old now, we still reckon the downloadable budget in this discussion is a handy tool for getting your head around managing your money.

I'm probably gonna have a separate 'going out' and 'essentials' fund, so I don't spend all my money on partying!

WhereDidIPutMyCar

Every month, I'll transfer some money from my current account into my student account to cover food etc. I also have a credit card, which I'll use to buy petrol and train tickets, so the money left in my current account will go to paying off the credit card (build a credit rating and all that jazz) and cover any extras I find myself coming across.

TattyBoJangles

As long as you send in your student finance application before the deadline, you should receive your first loan payment at the start of term in September - just in time for Freshers’ Week. A lot of people find applying for loans stressful, so there’s plenty of advice over in our Student Finance section if you have any questions.

You’ll also want to open a student bank account before term starts. You may well have had the same bank account since you were a kid, but a student account gives you an interest-free overdraft (an absolute lifesaver at the end of term when you have about 16p left from your loan) and often other goodies, like a 16-25 railcard (perfect for those weekend trips home) or cash rewards.

International students can apply for special international student bank accounts, or a standard current account. Our article on choosing a student bank account will give you a good idea of the accounts on offer.

Your student ID card is also your golden ticket for grabbing student discounts at all sorts of places, from high-street shops to pubs (especially those close to your uni) and even transport providers for cheap bus and coach travel. You’ll also want to sign up for a free online service like UNiDAYS or StudentBeans to score discounts on your online shopping.

But if you DO find yourself broke, seek advice before you do anything else. Your uni can help if you’re struggling with money, and there will be a hardship fund available for students who have run out of options. Where possible, avoid payday loans - the interest rates can be HUGE, and you can end up more in debt than before you took the loan out. Your uni’s support team should be your first port of call to help get your finances back on track.

What lectures are like

Studying at uni is way different to what you’re used to at sixth form or college. Gone is the tedious lesson > homework > revision > exam cycle, and in come lectures, seminars, labs, coursework, independent study and research in the library.

Science students will spend a lot of time in labs carrying out experiments, while humanities students will get to know every nook and cranny of the library.

While you’ll probably experience fewer teaching hours than you're used to, you’ll be knees deep in independent study, so learning to create a great study timetable is a must.

Uni terms explained:

Lectures
Lectures will be the most similar to your college lessons - there will probably just be more people and less room for interaction. There may be hundreds of students in some of your lectures. Come prepared with a notepad or laptop to take notes and jot down anything you don’t understand - you can always ask any questions in your seminars.

Seminars
Seminars are much smaller than lectures, and are usually focused around discussing the material from lectures and possibly solving some problems in groups. You’ll usually be expected to have completed some reading before each seminar, so come ready to discuss your thoughts. This is also your chance to clarify anything you don’t quite understand, so don’t be afraid to get some time with your tutor.

Labs
If you’re currently studying science subjects, you should be familiar with labs. In labs, you’ll be doing supervised experiments in very practical, hands-on lessons. They’re all about demonstrating techniques and collecting data, which you’ll then write up into a lab report.



City unis, campus unis and going out

There are two main types of university: city unis and campus unis.

City unis are - unsurprisingly - based in cities, and the uni buildings tend to be spread around the city. Chances are you’ll need to catch public transport to get to your classes.

At campus unis, your student accommodation (at least in first year) will be in the heart of a dedicated student village, with everything you need within walking distance.

There are pros and cons of each. City unis give you the opportunity to explore your new city and give the best experience of independent living, but it can be trickier to get around, while campus unis are super convenient and make socialising easy, but you may not venture off-campus and into your new city too often. You can find out more in our article about choosing between a campus and city uni.

Whichever you'd prefer depends entirely on your personality. It's essential to visit, too - I thought I'd hate campuses but I ended up loving them more than city unis!

Brouhaha

At both city and campus unis, your student union will be a great spot for cheap drinks and meeting people, and there will be lots of pubs, bars and clubs set up to cater to students. Midweek is when you’ll find all the best student nights, and you can grab loads of drinks deals and cheap entry to clubs keen to attract the lively student crowds.

If you choose a campus uni and want to check out the nightlife in town, you’ll need to hop on public transport (don’t forget to ask for a student fare!) or share a taxi or Uber - your Student Union can recommend a list of trusted taxi companies.

At a city uni, you’ll quickly become an absolute pro at hopping on and off buses, trams and tubes (don’t forget to grab a student Oyster card if you’re in London), and you’ll be able to carve out your own completely unique experience of the city.

What the unis say
Every university is a little bit different, in particular the facilities they offer and the environment that students are studying in. However, you can broadly categorise most unis into either a campus or a city uni.

There are pros and cons to each and many people have a strong preference to one type. Understanding whether you want a campus or city experience can really help in narrowing down your choices and finding the right five universities to apply to.

A campus university typically has all facilities located on one main site. This will include academic buildings and facilities, halls of residence, student union and sports facilities as well as a range of social and eating venues all together.

It can be great to live only a few minutes’ walk from lectures and seminars and you can make the most of your time between classes by popping back to your flat or using the sports facilities. You feel a great sense of community; being surrounded by students in a dedicated space can help in that first move away from home.

The other type is a city uni. Often nestled amid shops and businesses, this type of uni is right at the heart of things. You may have a commute from accommodation to get to classes, but once you’re there, you are right on top of everything your chosen city has to offer.

University buildings may be scattered around the city and so as you travel around to different departments, you have a chance to really get to know your new home. Sometimes students feel less part of a student community, but feel a greater connection with their city.

The best way to help you decide on campus or city is...an open day, of course! If you are able to visit a few places, it's well worth the time and effort to see the facilities, accommodation and get a sense of what the university campus and/or city is all about.

Lydia Newton, recruitment manager, UEA

Looking after yourself at uni

Unless you've already lived away from home, going to uni is going to be your first experience of 'life admin': thrilling things such as paying bills, doing the washing and finding accommodation.

In halls, your bills are generally included in your rent, but once you move into private accommodation, it’s your responsibility. That includes everything from gas, electricity and water to your internet connection and any parking permits.

Some halls provide a cleaning service to clean the communal areas, though not all do, so it’s worth checking if you’ll need to stock up on your own cleaning products. Either way, you’ll be responsible for keeping your own room (relatively) clean and tidy, and you’ll be responsible for doing your own laundry too. Keep hold of your loose change so you can power the machines!

You’ll also want to think about security. Students can be seen as easy targets, so shut your windows when you go out and be aware of anyone you don’t recognise in your flat. It’s definitely worth getting contents insurance - it may seem like an unnecessary expense right now, but if your laptop gives up the ghost or your phone screen smashes, you’ll be very grateful that you don’t need to shell out the full amount for a replacement.

I managed to spill Coke on my laptop this year - it was fairly old anyway so it was a good excuse to get a new one. But this is definitely good insurance cover to look into.

Ollie F

Another boring, but important thing to remember is to keep track of all your documents - and there are A LOT of documents to keep safe at uni. Bills, contracts, student finance letters - tuck them all away in a folder (real or virtual). Hopefully you won’t need them for anything, but if you do, it’ll save you from trawling through endless emails to track down your customer number.

Support at uni

At uni, you have access to an entire support team whose job it is to help you with everything from accommodation to finance to your mental health. You will also be assigned a personal tutor who can help you with any administrative or personal issues, or refer you to the person who can.

When you move into halls, you will meet your accommodation reps, who live on-site and will have regular drop-in hours for any questions you may have.

International students will often have dedicated events to help them get settled in their new country and meet people, and even if you’re commuting from home, there are often events to help you meet other students who are travelling in from home.

A lot of people feel anxious and homesick when they first move out, but there’s plenty of support available to help you deal with it.

If you find your homesickness doesn't improve even a teeny bit in a month or so, make contact with the right people and ask for help before it gets worse. Look into counselling, or have a chat with a tutor, student welfare, GP etc. There is support out there - you're not alone.

daisydaffodil

The Student Union can provide you with advice and support and most will have a representation service which will support you if you run into any tricky situations with your course or personal stuff.

Nightline, a national student peer-to-peer listening service, will also be based at the SU. There will be a multi-faith chaplaincy on campus supported by members of each faith and religion that you’ll be able to talk to as well as faith-based student groups.

You’ll also need to take care of your health - both mental and physical. During Freshers’ Week, head along to your uni’s health centre to register with a GP.

You may also want to consider registering with a local dentist (though some students prefer to stick with their home dentist). Before you go to uni, it’s also worth getting a meningitis vaccine, as students are considered an at-risk group.

Many universities have a counselling service, which is provided free and has much shorter waiting times than NHS services.

Origami Bullets

Pretty much everyone will feel homesick at some point, and usually it will pass. But if it’s affecting your mental health, you can access mental health support services, such as counselling or talking therapies (as well as getting support for any existing mental health conditions). You can also access sexual health services for those very important STI screenings, stashes of free condoms and access to contraception.

How to find jobs at uni

Maintenance loans are available to help with living costs at uni, but most students find they need to pick up some part-time work as well. Of course, you’ll need to find a job that you can fit around your studies.

Make sure your CV and cover letter template are up to date with all your relevant experience and academic results. And, if you're coming to the UK as an international student, remember that your work opportunities are dependent on your visa restrictions.

Have a look on Indeed! I've always used this website to find part-time jobs while studying. It's updated regularly and there's a range of job profiles on there from your local area, such as bar work, retail, office work and so on.

annablagg

Common job types as a student

Part-time jobs
Pros: Reliable, fixed schedule, fixed income
Cons: Less flexible, may clash with unexpected uni commitments

Zero-hour contract
Pros: A good way to top up your income with no obligation to accept shifts
Cons: The employer isn’t obliged to provide you with a minimum number of hours, so it’s an unreliable source of income

Temp jobs
Pros: Get a varied range of professional experience
Cons: The length of contract will vary between employers, so it can be tricky to fit contracts around your uni schedule

Student Union jobs
Pros: It’s based on-site, so it’s convenient and generally easier to fit shifts around your studies
Cons: They’re very popular, so it can be harder to snag a coveted spot

There's usually bar/waitstaff work around, although this tends to be a bit more competitive as these are the first things most students apply to. There may also be some roles within the university, such as temp work doing alumni funding drives or longer-term library shelving type work.

artful_lounger

You should also make sure you’re being paid at least the National Living Wage (if you're 23 or older) or the relevant minimum wage. As of April 2023, these minimum hourly rates are:

  • National Living Wage (23 and over): £10.42
  • National Minimum Wage (ages 21-22): £10.18
  • National Minimum Wage (ages 18-20): £7.49

These rates will be going up on 1 April 2024, and from that date anyone aged 21 or older will be entitled to the National Living Wage.

Watch out for dodgy employers who try to pay you less - for example by asking you to go self-employed, paying you ‘cash in hand’ (i.e. with cash, without paying your wage into your bank account) or including tips in your wage.

What the unis say
How do unis help students find part-time work?

Lots of students have a part time job whilst at uni – a great way to build skills and flesh out the CV as well as supplement that student loan too.

At UEA, we employ students to help out with events and visits – the ambassador scheme is a really flexible and rewarding role that is open to students throughout their degree. Additionally, some of our students work in our on campus eateries.

The SU also employ lots of students in the shops and bars so there are plenty of opportunities to work on campus. For all these and lots more vacancies in the city centre and beyond, the Careers Central team offer a comprehensive job listings service as well as CV drop-in clinics, mock interviews and careers advice.

Lydia Newton, recruitment manager, UEA

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