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The Independent's editor shares his best bits of advise from his university years

About halfway through my gap year, I remember very distinctly speaking to a mate called Chen who was at university already, and who said it was sheer bliss and life doesn’t get much better than this. We had all heard the clichés about these being the best days of our lives, just as Bryan Adams had sung about the Summer of ’69. And I remember thinking, just before I went up to Cambridge, that I shouldn’t get too excited, because if I thought they would be the best days of my life I was bound to be disappointed.

Nostalgia is for losers, generally old losers in fact, but being one of those myself now at the ripe age of 32, I can at least say this: I kind of know what Adams meant. My friend was right. I don’t say that the three years at university – was it really that long? – were as good as it will get for me, because I’m having a pretty good time of it right now, and it will be fun having a family and so on. But there was something magical about the university experience, about the boundless potential, the emotional intensity, and the total freedom; and if I had just five minutes with my 18-year-old, gap-year-happy self, I guess my message would be simple. Make the most of it, mate.

Look, I know it sounds almost mournful or sour to say you don’t realise how lucky you are at 18, or to say, as Oscar Wilde did, that youth is wasted on the young. I have to tell you that it’s true. Those of you who are about to embark on a degree are some of the luckiest people now living. Above all, you’re free! Free as a bird, free to roam and rant, free from responsibility – you don’t have kids yet, do you? – free to experiment and to enjoy. As you get older, other wonderful things happen, like wives and expenses accounts. But freedom diminishes. Therefore you should optimise it. Here are five ways to do that.

1. Be nice to people. This maxim is valuable in life generally, of course; but it is especially vital during that time in your life when you are making more friends than ever before (or after).

2. Work very hard. I know you thinking memorising two sonnets is hard. It’s not. Memorise 50 of them. Then 50 more.

3. Stay healthy. I’m not just talking about avoiding STDs, though that’s a good idea. Too many students don’t wash for days and consume crisps, beer and nothing else. You’ll get more out of it if you’re in good condition.

4. Try new stuff. No, I’m not saying you should be taking tequila in week one and acid in week two. But if there are scratches you want to itch – acting, paragliding, karate – now’s the time.

5. Be positive. There will be ups, there will be downs and there will be plenty of both. If you’re thinking of quitting to become a pilates instructor, just remember, you’ve got time on your side. And that’s not something you’ll always be able to say.