University life for the freshman/woman can be daunting. Take heart - many have passed this way before
THERE IS A SAYING that people who consider school days the best days of their lives didn't go to university. Everywhere, university is acknowledged to be the most exciting, vibrant time of anyone's life. This did not stop me, on the night before Freshers' Week, being scared to death. "It will be just like a school, only better," I said to myself. "Bit of work, bit of sport, degree. No problem."

But it was a problem. From a small school in the country, I was about to be catapulted into a class of 3,000 city-dwellers. I reckoned I could afford some degree of anxiety.

The carnival began in Freshers' Week. The rules were simple - spend as much money on as much drink as you can and maybe find "romance'' on the way. But I had another task - social rehabilitation. I had come from boarding school and hence a long list of basic civil liberties had been denied me for a very long time. When most people were out drinking, I was having too much fun leaving my lights on past midnight.

Ironically, life without rules soon became a lot less thrilling. At school, smoking was rebellion incarnate. It was like holding your school career on 10cm of tobacco. At university, though, it became boring and expensive, not to mention physically debilitating and (worst of all) "normal''. Moreover, I never really learned how to inhale. Smoking, therefore, became the first casualty of my university life.

The next day, I joined the students' union. "Don't put your real date of birth on it," a friend whispered. "Apparently, they really get you on your birthday.'' And I fell for it. But realistically, how can a union with 15,000 members arrange something unpleasant for everyone's birthday?

I spent the first few weeks trying to get a feel for the order of things. Judging by Freshers' Week, it seemed that we, the first years, were the masses and one level above us were the organisers: students in distinctive crested T-shirts who ordered you around. The lesser ones, it seemed, had short sleeves and their bosses had long sleeves with words like Treasurer printed on the back in bold print, for extra emphasis. Having been cornered by an exceptionally boring short-sleever, I asked him what the game was. "It's like this," he whispered, leaning towards me. "I went through all of last year without a snog. Nothing. So, I thought I'd pull on a union T-shirt and try my luck at Freshers' Week." But how would this enhance his chances? "Because," he slurred, "Freshers think there is a structure to university - some sort of social hierarchy, like in school. So when you wear this T-shirt, people assume I'm important, snoggable and in short, a good catch." To illustrate the state of affairs, he took me to the union's "Snog-a-Fresher" chart. Judging by the blank space beside his name, there was more to it than just a T-Shirt.

WHEN THE DUST of Freshers' Week had settled, the ugliest four-letter word in university vocabulary presented itself: Work. After slogging out night and day for my A-levels, I expected a bigger workload for university. Instead, I was timetabled 11 hours a week - the equivalent of one and a half school days. Nor was there any real contact with lecturers. I took my first lecture notes from a video screen in an overflow room, as the main lecture theatre was full by the time I arrived - more "Open University" than Educating Rita.

I had chosen joint honours physics and philosophy: the latter because I enjoyed arts but considered it useless, and physics to get me a job. It was only when I began university that I realised I had failed to read the small print; ie two hours of maths on Monday morning.

After three weeks, I hated maths with every living tissue in my body. It really sunk home when one day, a bloke sitting next to me described a formula as "sexy". After the lecture, I met a friend who had taken a year out and was, therefore, full of advice.

"Maths formulae aren't sexy. You think that, but this bloke doesn't. Good for him - he'll spend the next three years of his life being turned on by formulae. You should drop it. I'll tell you what's exciting: medieval history. People chopping each other's heads off. Crusades, Plague, Inquisition. That's what I call education."

A powerful argument. The next day, I changed to medieval history. It was the right decision - I actually wanted to get out of bed to learn about the Black Death. It was still sad, but it beat the Maclaurin formula hands down.

WITHOUT HALLS of residence, my social life would have never got off the ground. Two hundred Freshers, each competing to be the friendliest person alive. People would talk to you in the lifts. In the corridors. In the showers. People put signs on their doors reading, "Come in for a coffee and a chat." People bought huge posters and lit their rooms by placing study lamps at an obscure angle against the wall. I was one of the selected few who had a single room, secured by ticking the "bed-wetting'' box on the confidential room questionnaire. The food, of course, was revolting but at least all 200 of us had a common talking point.

I spent the rest of the year testing the traditional dictum that an arts student doesn't open his curtains in the morning to give him something to do in the afternoon. With only three essays to write per term, I was able to cram and survive. My university turned out to be not Chaucer and sports teams but Sega and Neighbours. I discovered that it was not a problem of "fitting in'' as there was no pre-packaged social base to "fit in'' to.

At the end of the year, I bumped into someone I had met in Freshers' Week and hadn't seen since. We exchanged stories of our first year: he had got involved with the student union and was all set to wear a T-shirt for next year's Freshers: I had the high score in Sonic the Hedgehog.

I hated to admit it, but he had the right idea. After cramming, dossing and breaking the rules, it took me a whole year to work out that university is what you make of it. It is only the best part of life if you get out of bed.