Your higher education days won't last forever, so make the most of them, says Frank Tickner

Higher education. Two words that are very fluid and conjure up different definitions for different people. For some it is the logical progression of their studies, a chance for academic independence and originality. Others are more attracted to the unique social experience on offer, and are keen to strike a healthy balance between work and play. And yet, whatever your motivation for applying, a universal message still applies to the diversity of experience higher education holds. Your time as a student will be finite, and it is in this context that I stress the importance of not squandering the remarkable opportunities, curricular and extra-curricular, that will be presented to you during your college or uni years.

Freshers' Week

These first few days are likely to be something of a baptism of fire, but Freshers' Week is designed to integrate you into life as fully and as quickly as possible. Initially, there will be various administrative requirements to fulfil, such as course registration, for which you will receive as much help and guidance as you need. Now is also the time to settle yourself in. Orientate yourself around campus, discover the local area, sign up at medical and dental practices - these are all good things to be getting on with.

The most important part of the week is, of course, the socialising. Plenty of parties, often themed, will be arranged, typically based near your accommodation. It really is a must to attend as many as possible, because these early forays into college and uni nightlife will introduce you to many of the people you will be sharing the next few years of your life with. Trust me, it really is worth overcoming those nerves and making a genuine effort on the socialising front.

Clubs and societies

Various fairs will also be incorporated into the first week's programme. All are worth a visit. The Freshers' Fair is not only an invaluable source for a wide-ranging array of freebies (nutritional and practical!), but also the best way to find out about the myriad clubs and societies on offer. Whatever your taste, it's almost guaranteed there will be a group catering for it. Clubs are also formed by academic departments - a great way to meet colleagues with shared interests outside the lecture hall.

The Sports Fair is another popular haunt for first-years. I found it hard to commit to more than one club at a representative level, choosing athletics. But joining an inter-mural club (competing within the institution, between teams linked to degree courses and accommodation sites) is an ideal way to play at a less serious level, and allowed me to keep up with my hockey.

Whatever society appeals, be it sporting or non-sporting, getting involved as a member is the most effective way of building another network of friends and contacts beyond your immediate living area.

Volunteering

Many students find volunteering to be a hugely enriching experience. Not only is it a great way to meet plenty of like-minded people, but you also can make a genuine difference to the lives of others. It is also a valuable asset for your CV, and evidence of increased skills and responsibility, allowing you to stand out from other graduates. Student-led opportunities involve running a group while also providing a service to the local area, and working with local charities and organisations allows a more comprehensive understanding of regional issues.

You can get involved in a broad range of activities, from educational and environmental through to work with the homeless, the disabled, and with asylum seekers. Volunteering and is the perfect way to show your appreciation of your own opportunities, and there really is something for absolutely everyone, with any level of participation always highly appreciated.

Library services

Over the first year, and especially during the first semester, the university or college library may well remain an untapped resource for some. At most institutions, only a pass is required of first-year students, as the workload is designed to bring everyone up to the same level.

However, do not, by any means, ignore the library induction services that will be put on for you. Come your second year, reading around your course will be absolutely essential to get decent marks and, indeed, many find themselves almost living in the library during their last year!

Institution resources are typically extensive and well-equipped, with generous loan allowances. At the University of Birmingham, for instance, two million books and three million manuscripts and archival items exist alongside internet, photocopy and scanning provision, all arranged in an assortment of open-plan research areas and private study rooms. Not making the most of what is on offer will almost inevitably result in disappointing grades, so make sure you are fully aware of what will be at your disposal.

To sum up

Your university or college years will be unique; a time in your life that will have no precedent, nor repeat. I therefore strongly urge you to make the most of them, to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way because, believe me, if you actively go out looking for them, there are plenty to be found. Best of luck!

Frank has just finished his second year as a degree student in English and French at Birmingham University

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