For the vast majority of students university or college is the best time of their lives. At some point though, things may get too much, no matter how prepared, practical or positive you are. But there's a network of help available for students dealing with the academic, financial and emotional challenges of higher education, and all you have to do is ask...

Rule one is to separate the handbooks to your university and student union services from the avalanche of paperwork you'll receive when you begin your first term. Both are invaluable reference points, giving details of the university-run student services and the student welfare organisations.

Rule two is to take immediate action if you feel yourself in difficulty. You might think that your problems are trivial and no one will want to know, but support services are run by people who understand the unique problems students face. A cup of tea and a constructive chat can save you a lot of misery.

Dealing with university life

Study-related issues are usually dealt with by the academic body of an institution. The A-level to degree transition can prove disconcerting, no matter how bright you are, so don't be afraid to approach tutors if you're finding things difficult. It's their job to help you excel academically. If there are areas in your course you do not understand then ask for clarification, and if you get a bad mark in an essay don't panic, ask why.

For non-academic welfare issues the student welfare system is a first port of call for most day-to-day problems. Run by sabbatical officers and full-time NUS staff it acts as a citizens advice bureau and is often the most approachable option for new students.

"It can sometimes be daunting to seek help if you're new and have a problem. Student welfare provides a vital link between the student and the university, and we're a good place to start because we've all been students and we're closer in age, yet we have links into all the other areas of support available," says Gemma Killian, Education and Welfare officer for Royal Holloway College, University of London.

Facilities vary between different institutions, but will typically include advice on all aspects of student life, including finance, accommodation and health. If student welfare can't deal with a problem it will refer you on to student services or relevant external bodies. All services are free, confidential and non-judgmental, as Harvey, a recent graduate from the University of Brighton found:

"I had a horrendous time in my first year. I sorted out my accommodation late and ended up in a terrible room. My landlord was very unfriendly and one of my neighbours was really dodgy, while the other never came out of his room. I moved out after three days and slept on people's floors. I was in a complete state and had done very little work.

"I also felt incredibly lonely and homesick. A friend suggested I talk to student welfare, so I went along, had a chat with them and a little cry and felt a lot better. Welfare counsellors helped me get a place in halls and got my deposit back from the landlord. They also suggested going to see my tutor about my work - which I did - and provided me with the support I needed. I can honestly say I wouldn't have stayed on and finished my degree had it not been for them."

Student welfare can also guide you through grants, loans and entitlements, as well as giving advice on budgeting effectively and making your money stretch further. If you get into financial difficulty student services have professional financial counsellors who can negotiate repayment schedules with the university, banks or credit card companies should you get into serious debt.

There are, sadly, many students who become seriously depressed. If you need to talk things through more thoroughly, go to the counselling services provided by most universities. Here you can talk to a counsellor for free and in confidence. They are used to dealing with a wide range of problems, including personal or relationship difficulties, eating disorders, drugs and alcohol problems, and depression. They really do help.

Lastly, don't ignore your friends - they can help to assure you that you are not isolated and can provide valuable moral support. You are never alone.