A big Equipp thank you to Athena, who is currently in her third year at Durham University. Her advice on what to expect at university is brilliant reading for anyone off to uni this autumn.
For me, writing a blog about what to expect at university is slightly harder than most as I began in the academic year of 2019, going into 2020. Obviously, my university experience was significantly marred by two years of covid restrictions, lockdowns, and online lessons. However, for all you lucky applicants, this will not be a problem!
Try as much as possible
People will often tell you to get involved in societies, clubs, sports, theatre, and more. These are undoubtedly great, formative experiences, regardless of whether you have prior involvement with such activities. I also think its super important to emphasise that by no means do you need to be an expert in whichever society you want to be involved in. I would argue that its best to try as many as you can and see which you find the most fun! They are also great ways to make friends with similar interests.
I personally struggle with time management, and since my uni experience was cut short by Covid-19, I unfortunately never properly involved myself in extracurriculars. However, this is not to say that all you fellow disorganised folk will not be able to get yourself together to have a great bit of fun, salsa-ing away or kicking footballs to your heart’s content.
Work life balance
Since we have already established I am fairly disorganised, reading some advice on how to balance my work and social life in my years of university would have been so useful! Over three years, I eventually learnt how to balance these two seemingly contradictory notions. For me, a key lesson was that I most definitely cannot work when I am hungover. Although this may seem obvious, trying to read dense academic texts with your brain operating at 40%, is unbelievably hard. So, the first bit of advice is to… plan when you’re drinking! Again, although it might seem obvious, I wouldn’t suggest going out the day before a deadline, unless you feel you are finished enough to continue the next day with your head pounding.
Prepare for a drinking culture
This brings me onto the next piece of advice. Do not underestimate the drinking culture of UK universities! I went to Durham, particularly renowned for its profuse drinking culture, and I was not expecting it at all. Retrospectively, a little bit of preliminary research would undoubtedly would have informed me – so don’t be ignorant like me and Google your uni. Its remarkably easy and free, so save yourself any obvious shockers and use the Internet!
Back to alcohol, it is important to remember that if you don’t drink you still have fun at uni! Many universities are aware of the problems with drinking culture and do offer great alternatives, whether that is no-drinking socials, or organised dinners with societies. My college bar offered free soft drinks for those who come for the socials but don’t drink. For those who do drink, Freshers’ Week is obviously quite heavy drinking, as most of you will know. Prepare to get freshers’ flu, and to hear lecture halls echo with the sound of snivels, coughs, and sneezes. In fact, even the poor lecturers get freshers’ flu, so don’t think you’ll be exempt! Those of you who don’t get it are true warriors; the world of medicine has a lot to learn from you.
If you are planning on going absolutely wild in Freshers’ Week, as most people do, absolutely go for it. Personally, I bought a Freshers’ wristband and slightly regretted it. I felt like I had to go to events that I didn’t really want to go to, because I had already paid for it. This is obviously personal choice, but I would have much rather just bought each event separately and gone with the flow. If you would rather have a regimented, solid idea of what you’re going to get up to, then buy the wristband. If you are relatively easy, don’t really care what you do as long as you do something, then just go with the flow and see what the different people you meet want to do.
Freshers’ Week, however, is not just about drinking. In fact, the friends you make on a drunken night out, you’re more likely to forget the next morning. Try to make sure you get the socials of people you like, and if you really get on, get their number and try to go for a sober coffee! Also, it’s a great idea to explore the city with some new friends. You will be living with your flatmates for the next year, so you will have plenty of opportunity to get to know them.
Meeting new people
Try and branch out of your flat, it is not always a guarantee you will get on with everyone there. Usually, there are quite a few people in a flat, not everyone will be your cup of tea, but that’s okay. This is not to say you won’t love them, as I did mine, but living with people is harder than you think. Although it’s a cliché, university is great way of meeting a variety of people. It’s truly an experience you won’t have had before, as school is nothing like it. The great diversity of people means you won’t necessarily agree with everyone, nor get on with everyone, but unis are crammed full of people, so getting on with everyone is practically impossible.
Also expect entirely different levels of maturity. Some people have literally only just turned 18 when they go to uni, others will have taken a gap year, others will have taken a few, and others might be married and have kids. Some 18-year-olds might be more mature than those with kids, but you never know. Don’t be intimidated by the variations in maturity, there are enough people to go around.
Definitely look into first year accommodation beforehand. Go onto Student Room, or see if you know anyone who knows anyone who went to your uni and find out which accommodation was best. I didn’t do this, and although my accommodation was really aesthetically nice, it was not the most social of places and I would have preferred living somewhere atrocious, but with people who didn’t mind if you were up past 12!
A good idea is to not bring anything that you’re particularly precious about for first year. If you are a prolific cook, it is probably best to not bring your favourite equipment. In second year, when you’re living with friends that you have chosen, go for it, bring your favourite pans, plates, mugs, or whatever tickles your fancy.
Second year housing
This brings us on to housing. I cannot emphasise enough to not rush looking for your second-year house. In Durham, there is a significant shortage of houses and I ended up signing my second-year house in literally the first three weeks! I had known my friends for less than a menstrual cycle. Sometimes it works out for the best, as it did with me, but I know certain situations where it was quite messy.
Now, this is an absolute must – do not, under any circumstances, sign with someone you are sleeping with, even if they’re your best friend and you couldn’t possibly imagine something going wrong. Honestly, it’s far better to keep that friend separate to your living situation. This is not to say first year relationships do not last, I know several people still together, however, they did not live with each other in second year! Living with friends at the age of 18 or 19 is hard enough, honestly, I don’t think anyone is mature enough to live with a partner at that age.
Another key piece of advice I was repeatedly told in first year, but never quite believed, was that everyone was feeling stressed, scared, nervous and unsure. To me, it seemed that all these people had formed concrete, life-long bonds in a matter of days. I was so nervous to think that I most definitely hadn’t. It seemed like the friendship groups were solid, that people had known each other for years, and attempting to penetrate them was an impossible task. My home friends who had already gone to uni before me repeatedly told me that this was not true, but I didn’t believe them for a second. Now, having watched those seemingly impenetrable and lifelong friendships dissolve after the first term, I know that my friends were right. We came back from Christmas holidays, the groups had entirely rejigged, and people were suddenly lifelong friends with other entirely new people.
Expect bumps in the road
So expect quite a lot of fakeness and pretending. Whilst this sounds overwhelmingly negative, it isn’t. It is perfectly natural to pretend to not be scared, and people deal with this differently. It is quite hard to give generic uni advice, considering there are so many universities in UK and so many different experiences. However, this is one universal piece of advice. Everyone has never done this before and you are all navigating unprecedented waters, with little to no expectations of how it’s supposed to be done. Everyone going to uni thinks that first year will be the best year – it doesn’t count for your degree, you are moving away from home, you party a lot. The supposed trisector of fun.
However, for everyone I know, in universities throughout the UK, even with Covid interrupting our uni experience, second year was infinitely better than first. You simply feel more comfortable and at home. Everything is new in first year: a new place, a new city, new friends, new learning environments, new climate, new room, new living situations. After a year, it isn’t so new. I think we can all accept that such big changes are scary, even if you are the sort of person who loves a bit of change.
Take time out
Since first year is universally scary, don’t feel like you can’t go home. I didn’t go home once in the first term and I regretted it. Going home is unbelievably refreshing, even if it’s just for a few nights. If you are going to uni far from home, just book your train tickets in advance. Get a railcard as soon as possible, it’s a great investment. I would recommend booking a journey home, or to visit a home friend’s university, for halfway through your term.
Take advantage of first year not being worth a major part of your final grade! Work hard but remember that for second and third year, you will definitely be working harder. First year is a practise year, practising how to make friends, how to go out, how to live with new people and ultimately how to do your degree. Going to your lectures is actually useful and you are paying for it, so definitely don’t be like the other freshers… and attend your lectures.
Get value for your money!
If you feel like you have to make a choice between lectures and seminars, definitely go to your seminars. Also talk in your seminars. It’s intimidating to express your ideas in a new setting, but honestly you will be in almost £30,000 pounds worth of debt (just from tuition), so use first year as a learning curve. Do the required reading for your seminars, which will give you the confidence to express your ideas towards the group.
Different unis and courses will do seminars differently, so I can only speak from my experience. For me, I had one seminar per module (so six in total) every two weeks. My seminar groups were about ten to fifteen people, so at first it was intimidating speaking in such an intimate group. However, doing the reading for the seminars and subsequently discussing your ideas, issues, and misunderstandings with a group, prepares you in an entirely different way to simply taking passive notes in a lecture. Unfortunately, as a humanities student, I have no idea how to help you scientists, so you’ll have to figure that out on your own – doing your lab reports or whatever STEM students do. I clearly have no clue!
First year modules
Again, advice on work depends on your uni and their respective system. Durham offered an elective module – basically a module that you can do whatever you want in. A lot of my course friends chose to do another history module because they didn’t read the form properly, and completely regretted it when coursework season came. Since I always look for the easy route, I chose to do beginner level Spanish as my elective. When all my friends had six essays to hand in in the dark, dark week of coursework February, I only had five. A fact which I never failed to rub in their face, because yes, I am that annoying person.
However, since not all unis will have that choice, I would recommend looking into whether you can do a module outside your degree. It will be one of the few times you can learn a language, or learn about anthropology, with relative ease – facilities and teachers are at your disposal.
I also think it’s important to mention, don’t worry much about grades in first year. I always say aim for a first but be happy with anything. Like I said before, first year is about practise. If you don’t get a first for the entirety of first year, that is not a problem at all, there is plenty of time to learn and improve. Try and maximise the use of office hours with your professors. They will ultimately give you the best advice to improve your grade, not some random finalist like me, and you’re paying them to help you, so use them as much as you can!
Every experience is different
In sum, university is a wide, varied experience and you cannot ever really generalise or compare. Unis in Scotland are completely different to Manchester or Leeds in terms of course structure, social life, and types of people. Equally, there is one universal rule to university: first year is tougher than you initially expect. However, this does not mean it isn’t amazing in its own right. Nor does it mean that the entire year is hard. Nor does it mean that there aren’t people who absolutely adored the entirety of first year and would do it all again. Nonetheless, if you are finding first year tough in the first term – just go home for a few days, or to a home friend’s uni.
Remember to have fun, to work, but not as much as you’re having fun! Hopefully, you will find your course fun too and then working is almost the same as going out! Joking, that doesn’t quite happen (and I love my course). That being said, the best thing you can do in first year is take everything as it comes. You are guaranteed to learn so much in your first year – about yourself, about people, about the world, and about your subject. So prepare for an onslaught of knowledge; big changes; and a whole lot of fun!
Thank you so much, Athena, for this excellent round-up of what to expect at university! If you’ve found this helpful, you might also like to read our blogs on surviving Freshers’ Week, and essentials you might forget when packing for uni. These are also written by current or recent uni students – we’re big believers on getting advice from those who really know!
If you’re off to uni later this year, lots of luck. You’ll love it!
Louise & Anna x