Get organised before you leave for university

With a wealth of information available to parents and students, it pays to get organised long before that pot plant's in the car, says Paul Dinsdale

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The Independent Online

Over the next few weeks, teenagers and families across the country will be celebrating good A-level results, or commiserating with each other and worrying about the future. Although the number of students who achieve A grades has increased exponentially over the past few years – and some critics say without a corresponding improvement in academic ability – the number of students going to university this autumn will be at near record levels.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) says that there will be 500,000 places available at universities and higher education colleges this year, and they have already received 618,000 applications for a place. Clearly, some students are going to be disappointed about getting in to university in the UK, and may even look abroad for higher education. For instance, universities in the Netherlands have been receiving an increasing number of applications from UK students.

Those who are going to university face an inevitable time of transition, moving from the highly structured and teacher-led environment of sixth-form colleges to the freedom of the university sector, with its emphasis on independent learning and study. It's also a time of change for teenagers who have lived at home and now face having to make all their own decisions about how hard to work, how much to socialise and what else to do with their time as a student.

Since 2006, some fascinating research has been carried out by the Institute of Employment Research at Warwick University, in collaboration with the Higher Education Careers Service Unit in Manchester. The Futuretrack study has followed a cohort of 130,000 students from the time of their application in 2005-06 through to their graduation in 2009, and into employment – or not – afterwards. Researchers initially asked students about the reasons for their choices of course, their plans and the support and guidance they'd been given.

One of the key findings was that a student's motivation to enter higher education and their access to information had a clear impact on their chances of making a successful application and embarking on a suitable course. The findings also revealed that following their courses, most students were broadly happy with their academic experience, but personal finances and the need to undertake paid employment were a continuing concern.

Kate Purcell, professor of employment studies at Warwick University, says: "We found there were wide variations in both students' experience of higher education and the resources available to them, and the access they had to extra-curricular opportunities that being a full-time student provides.

"There was also evidence that students were not making full use of the careers services available to them. A high proportion of those who didn't go into higher education (HE) or who subsequently left it, intended to re-enter HE within the next three years."

Professor Purcell says that students' reasons for entering HE have shifted gradually over the past few years, as the increases in tuition fees have started to bite: "When tuition fees were first introduced as top-up fees, students and their families had to pay around £1,000 per head, but then it reached £3,000 and this year it will rise to as much as £9,000 for most institutions," she says. "This has made students much more aware of what their career options might be after they leave university and they tend to think about the vocational aspects of courses more than previously."

For students who have made their choices and been accepted on to a university course, the next couple of months can make the difference between having a good start at university and finding it a positive experience, and feeling like they've made the wrong choice and not fitting in with the institution, the course, or other students. Being prepared for university is key to a student's future success, and there are both practical and psychological aspects to it.

In terms of planning, completing and returning all the paperwork needed by your university should be their top priority. Most institutions send all successful applicants a welcome pack, with forms to complete for course registration, tuition fees, accommodation where required and other formalities – these should be sent back promptly as there are usually a number of cases where students turn up and find that they're not "on the list" in one way or another. This can be disconcerting for the nervous new student, not to mention irritating for the officials concerned – it's best to start off on the right foot.

Most students will have visited their chosen university before accepting an offer – and if not, they should certainly try to do so before final decisions are made. All institutions now have websites and you can find lots of useful information there on courses, departments, extra-curricular activities and other amenities in the local area. The more orientated the student is before arrival, the easier those first few weeks will be. Recommend that they look for areas matching their interests, such as sports clubs or any societies that they might want to join.

Money is often a cause of difficulties and concerns in the first term, and new students need to be as prepared as possible. If they haven't got a bank account already, they can do this in freshers' week, but it's important to remember that it will take time to set up so that money can be paid into it. Recent Liverpool University politics graduate, Rebecca Sims-Robinson, 22, definitely thinks earlier is better. "Freshers shouldn't wait until they get to the campus to set up a bank account, as they'll have lots of other things to do," she says.

"Some student accounts have great benefits, for example NatWest gives a free five-year young person's Railcard and Santander offers a £50 cash bonus for opening an account. Arranging a small interest-free overdraft can also be a very good idea, and learning to budget is vital."

Dr Annie Grant, dean of students at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, says that managing a budget is one of the key skills in surviving in the first year. "Many students will never have had a large amount paid into their account before, and it can be quite tempting to blow some of it on new clothes, PCs or social activities, but students need to be able to allocate their funds wisely," she says.

"It can be useful to work out what their first month's spending on essentials is likely to be, and then they'll know how much disposable income is left – that can be an eye-opener."

Emma Dixon, 21, graduated this year from Hull University with a 2:1 degree in geography, and is a firm believer in tapping into the resources that are out there. "If students want a part-time job in the first year, the student job hub is always a good place to look for them," she says. "And a great website is, which helps you to find the best offers in the area."

There is often a nervousness for students in being away from home for the first time, and some universities now encourage students to make use of social media to make contacts before they arrive.

"It's a way of helping students ease in to their first term," says Dr Grant. "So, for example, they could go on Facebook and see if other people they know are going to university and whether it's the same one as theirs. Or they could send a tweet saying something like 'I'm living in Devonshire Hall at UEA next year, is anyone else going there?' As young people are used to finding common links with people on social media, this can help to allay some of the anxiety they might have about starting uni."

Dr Grant says homesickness is a frequent problem for many first-year students, and UEA – like most others – has a counselling service available for students who need to talk about their feelings. "The important thing is to ask for some help if they're feeling that way. Usually, female students are better at doing this, but male students are all encouraged to seek support if they need it. We offer a adviser in our student office here, as many students are embarrassed about approaching their tutors or lecturers about personal issues."

Students with disabilities are also encouraged to make contact with the university beforehand, although those with special needs will normally have been asked to declare it on official forms before arrival. Dr Grant also recommends that students should think about volunteering in clubs and societies run by the university as a way of helping to integrate into the student community, as well as proving valuable for their CVs.

Jeff Goodman, director of student services at Bristol University, says that it provides a welcome pack to students which gives advice on arranging finances, preparing for starting a course and general information on student living.

"We have a counselling service for students that experience any problems, with senior students acting as mentors'in student residences. We particularly offer help to international students coming from abroad, who obviously experience a big cultural change when they arrive.'

In terms of adjusting to life as a full-time student, this can be the biggest challenge of all for many first-years. As teenage years bring some of the biggest personality changes, taking into account the psychological effects of starting university life is important. Dirk Flower, a chartered psychologist who works with young people and families, says that the biggest challenge for most students is time management.

"Some 18- or 19-year-olds are good at managing their time and others aren't, and many can fall by the wayside if they get the balance wrong,' says Dr Flower. "Adolescence is a period of great changes, physically, emotionally and intellectually, and on top of this, new students are living in a new environment where they have control over their own time. In sixth-form, everything is more or less planned out for them, but once they're at uni, they have to make their own choices about how much to work, when to socialise and what other activities to take part in. That can be exciting and stimulating, and is part of maturing into an adult, but it can also be challenging, as there are lots of temptations on offer and some students cope better with that than others."

Dixon remembers the early days of studenthood well. "The most daunting feeling was how I was going to make friends on the first day," she says. "But once you're actually there, you're so excited rather than nervous, and it all falls into place. New students may think of taking, say, a kettle or toaster with them if they're in self-catering accommodation, but it's worth finding out what's available there first, so they don't take unnecessary stuff.

"Students should learn to cook a few dishes, so they don't always have to rely on takeaways. Earplugs too can be pretty handy in a noisy student residence."

Sims-Robinson also advises freshers to take a few home comforts with them. "I'd recommend taking a few soft furnishings and pot plants to remind them of home – some student rooms are pretty bare," she says.

"And I'd go for catered accommodation in the first year – the food may be pretty terrible, but it can be a great way of getting to know other students as you eat together. In terms of preparing for a course, it's worth getting up to speed with any new developments or breakthroughs in your field. Remember: they're moving to an institution where they're going to be taught by research experts, not by teachers."

And don't forget...

  • Make sure students have their finances sorted out – bank account, overdraft facility, tuition fees payments, student loan etc.
  • Consider arranging accommodation at their second-choice uni. If they don’t get their first choice, it might help avoid them settling somewhere unsuitable.
  • Taking several sets of passport photos can be invaluable – new students will find they’ll be needed for things like a hall or canteen pass and library card.
  • Avoid overpacking – they’re not moving away from civilization.
  • Essentials will be available on campus.
  • Encourage them to try to work out a provisional budget before they arrive – if they keep to a budget, they won’t overspend and need handouts.
  • Preliminary reading about the subject area is always recommended – eg, latest developments. This will help them to ease into the course.