Remember, you are in control: What to expect from university

The freedom of university study requires a level of self-discipline that’s hard to master

I clearly remember my first day of university. I cried. Real tears. In front of my mum as well. One look at the bare prison cell of a room in which I was supposed to reside for the next year and the thought of leaving behind a life built up over 18 years suddenly filled me with overwhelming dread and anxiety.

And I wasn't alone. According to the National Union of Students, between 50 and 70 per cent of new UK students suffer from homesickness to some extent within their first two or three weeks, although most students find their symptoms begin to fade after the third week.

Thankfully, it didn't last. Indeed, three hours later I was getting merry in the student bar having had a slap up meal with the people living on the same floor and my home city of Manchester was already becoming a distant memory.

And that's the thing. You may think going to university will be years of hard graft with hardly any time to take a breather as your eyes become numb to words on a page and fingers are down the bone through endless typing. Or you may see university as a chance to get away from your parents, make the corner of a bar your own and come out wiser and more merry. For all of the clichés and all of the advice you will be given there is one thing to bear in mind: you may well be homesick during your first week or so of university, but by the end of term most people will be sick of having to go home.

"Before I went, university seemed quite daunting and I had the stereotypical worries of 'what if I nobody likes me?' and 'what if I don't like my course?' running through my mind," confesses Cameron Neck, a 19-year-old second-year law student at St Mary's College, Durham University. "I was quite excited to meet everyone, but there was always the lingering fear that I might not get along or have anything in common with anyone."

The National Union of Students advises new intakes to keep their room doors wide open and make themselves appear approachable. They say students should knock on the doors of others on their floor and visit social areas from the bar to the common room. By remaining friendly, smiling and remembering that starting from a blank slate is no bad thing (you come without any of your past embarrassments), the initial weeks will fly by.

"As soon as I stepped through the doors into college, I realised that everyone was in the same boat," says Neck. "We all came from different backgrounds from every corner of the world knowing almost nobody and stepping into the unknown. I was shocked at how quickly I made friends with people. People who to this day have become some of my closest friends."

The university experience you have will depend very much on the institution you enrol at. Collegiate universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Durham are close-knit and foster college loyalties. Campus universities can be outside of town and aim to provide a more insular experience, while big city universities give students a taste of the high life.

But your first taste of university life will be freshers' week, which showcases the events, activities, clubs and societies that are available to you.

These groups will put you in touch with people who share your interests and it is crucial you keep yourself busy. It is easier to feel homesick when you are sat alone in your room, less so if you are out and about. So while some students may feel freshers' week is overrated, it's better to be involved than not.

You will be introduced to some major events during the first week ranging from club nights to comedy, all aimed at getting you involved and settled with a group of people who may well become your friends.

But there is one thing to be very aware of: what happens in that first week of university life is not how the rest of your university career will progress. At least, it won't be if you actually want to achieve something at the end of it and make the expensive courses work for you.

Depending on the course you take, you may be working for much of each day (and this is typical of a science-based course) or for a few hours each week (for arts-based courses) in lectures, seminars and tutorials.

The temptation to stray when you have few commitments each week is strong. Arts students, for instance, may only have around 15 hours of lectures and seminars, but the rest of the time is supposed to be spent reading and researching, even if doesn't always seem to work out that way.

"I enjoyed coming home when I liked, eating and drinking what I liked, buying what I liked and there were the obvious temptations of sex, drugs and alcohol," says Holly Powell-Jones, a 23-year-old Masters student at Goldsmiths, University of London, studying radio. "But most dangerous were the temptations to sit in your pyjamas and watch back-to-back box sets of Gray's Anatomy, eat pizza every night and wonder why you're putting on weight, spend lots of money just because you had been given a huge chunk of loan in one go, and simply skip your lectures because nobody's going to chase you up or tell you off if you do."

You simply have to remind yourself that you are not at school or college. Your university life is in your own hands. And while there are some amazing facilities around – from the sports clubs and societies to the Student Union – you need a balance.

It is crucial, then, to get yourself a diary and jot down all of those deadlines that are coming up. It is also important to be honest about what is most important. "Whatever you do, have a mix," says Powell-Jones, who gained a first in drama at Royal Holloway, University of London. "All work and no play makes you dull, and all play and no work also makes you dull."

Adjusting to work will be your biggest challenge due to the different way you are taught at university when compared to school or college. In a school classroom, a teacher invites interaction among the 30 or so pupils, but in a lecture, you sit with dozens of other students and you are not expected to chip in. The lecturer talks and you listen.

The most stark difference, however, is in the learning process. A trained teacher will ease you through a course at school, but you will seldom get this at university, where some lecturers will launch straight into their subject and bombard you with what could be a confusing torrent of information.

As a second year English literature and linguistics student at The University of York, Jonathan Frost explains: "Academics aren't teachers, for better or worse, and sometimes they will be awful at explaining things."

In order to cope with this, you need to pay attention to the course reading lists, since this will enable you to better understand what is being said and get more out of your lectures. By keeping abreast of your subject, you will also feel more comfortable and less embarrassed when it comes to the seminars and tutorials that are conducted in smaller groups and in which you are expected to contribute.

If you are not doing this, then you will start to lose your confidence and there will be a growing temptation to start putting more effort into extra-curricular activities. "Books have all the answers," explains Frost. "Do the reading."

And if you don't, then it's up to you. At university, nobody is going to be on your back. "I guess part of the struggle is learning your own limits: for the first time in your life you won't have an adult telling you what to do," says Powell-Jones. "If you need to stay in and study the night before an exam, it's only you who can tell you to do it. Likewise if you deserve a night out with your friends and it's important to you, only you can decide to do it. And if you need to simply go to bed and rest because you're overdoing it, again, only you can make that call."

Which brings us to our final point. University will be what you want it to be and, above all, it is primarily about the experience. The people you meet and become friends with will have lasting impressions on you.

There will be challenges. Living in shared accommodation with house mates can turn into a nightmare, but most universities will let you stay in halls of residence for the first year. The key to survival is to be yourself and try to overcome any shyness you may have. "It's crucial to look after yourself, emotionally, physically, everything," says Powell-Jones. "Be nice to yourself, give yourself the best chances, enjoy yourself and push yourself. No one else is going to do it for you any more."

Most students can kiss goodbye to the 80 per cent plus marks they may have been getting at GCSE and A-level. Suddenly seeing grades between 60 and 70 per cent can sap some people's confidence, but you have to remember that this equates to a 2.1.

The good news is that, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, around 64 per cent of students gain a first or upper second, so if you're achieving between 60 and 70, you're in good company. You're excelling if you get above 70 per cent.

In order to achieve such marks, you do have to put in the work. This will typically be through assignments in which you are expected to research well and demonstrate a great understanding of your subject in essays that are thousands of words long. Tutors want to see well-cited essays drawing on research in books and journals and they take time to get right, although you will still find students burning the midnight oil in the library to get a submission in for the following morning.

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