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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Nursery Nurse

£7 - £8 per hour: Randstad Education Leeds: Nursery Nurse Leeds November start...

EBD LSA required - Vale of Glamorgan

£60 - £65 per day + plus free travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The J...

EBD Teacher - Food Technology Specialist

£100 - £181 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: The JobTo plan and deliver all ...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker