If you’ve always relied on your mum to pack your school bag and lay out clean underpants every morning, university will come as a big shock. Not only will it be up to you to sort your own pencils and pants, but you’ll have to organise every other part of your life too, from finances, to work, to time, to hobbies, to your impact on the social scene.
Let’s start with finances, as you’ll have to get these sorted out before you can begin on anything else. The first thing to do is make sure you have some. This means working out well in advance how much you are getting in grant, loan, parental contribution and from any other source, such as scholarships, sponsorships, or term-time or holiday jobs.
Write all this down and add it up. Most of your income is likely to land in lump sums at the beginning of each term so you’ll probably have to budget termly, rather than monthly. But you may find it easier to keep track of what you spend if you get everything paid into a savings account and then transfer money over into your current account every week or month. It can be a good idea to limit trips to the cashpoint to once a week.
Next, depending on what timescale you have chosen for your budget, work out how much you are going to need each week, month or term for fees, rent, gas, electricity, transport, telephone, washing, food, books, TV licence, study trips and any other fixed costs. Be realistic. In other words, don’t assume you’ll just wear an extra jumper rather than use central heating and don’t plan on eating nothing but baked beans. Subtract these fixed costs from your income and you’ll be left with the amount you can spend on socialising, clothes, hobbies and entertainment.
It may even be worth opening separate bank accounts for essential and non-essential costs so you know exactly what you have left for personal spending. Always make sure you keep something aside for emergencies, and keep a tally not only of your predicted outgoings but of what you actually spent. That way you’ll be able to take action before you find the only asset left in your account is an overdraft facility.
Remember, a free overdraft isn’t the same thing as free money, so don’t overuse it, and always make sure you ask the bank first before going overdrawn. If you do find yourself needing to borrow cash, try to limit it to a few sources because it can be easy to forget about debts if you’ve got them in too many places. It can also be easy to forget about bills, so try to set up direct debts or standing orders to pay for things like rent or fuel.
You should open a bank account locally before you get to university but get statements sent to your term-time address so you can keep track of what’s going in and out. Make sure you check your accounts on a regular basis. Don’t forget that you can always ask your bank or your university’s student services for advice on budgeting, as well as for help if you get into trouble.
Now that you know you can afford to be at university, you can sort out what you are going to do with your time while you are there. According to Stella Cottrell, author of The Palgrave Student Planner, this should depend on what you want to get out of your time at university.
Decide whether you want to become an expert in your field, broaden your skills and experience, meet new people, or just gain a qualification to get you on the career ladder, and prioritise accordingly. Then, bear in mind that just because you spend a long time doing something, it doesn’t mean you are using that time effectively.
“In planning your time, think ‘how well?’ rather than just ‘how much?’,” says Cottrell. “University study is different to school, placing higher demands on your organisational skills. You will have to manage more information from more sources at greater speed, using your own initiative.”
Buying a planner (such as Cottrell’s Palgrave Student Planner, 2008-9, Palgrave, £5.95), or just a diary with enough space on each day to write in a number of activities and location details, is essential. That way you’ll at least know what you are supposed to be doing when, and where. Alternatively, you could do all this on a small hand-held computer with a calendar – just make sure it’s something you carry with you all the time and keep regularly updated.
Whatever you use, write down not only essential appointments, such as lectures, deadlines and meetings with the bank manager, but also family birthdays and to-do lists. Review these lists daily and tick off things as you achieve them. But keep the lists manageable, otherwise you could be in for daily disappointments.
Think ahead, so that you can reserve library books in good time and so that you don’t find yourself missing a key student party because you’ve something to hand in the next day. Assignments usually have long deadlines so to avoid finding yourself with two or three looming over you in the last week of term you’ll need to break each one down into manageable chunks – background reading, data collection, writing the introduction, and so on – and plan set periods of time to work on them. Think about when and how you work best – whether early mornings or late evenings, short bursts or long uninterrupted stretches – and organise your private study times to fit in with when you are likely to be most productive.
Where possible, try to socialise or do chores outside these times. Look at study guides and attend sessions run by the university, and make sure you know how to read and take notes effectively. Keep a note of references and ideas for later use.
Finally, leave time for relaxation and fun, and don’t become so obsessed with planning that you never get around to doing what you’ve planned. A bit of spontaneity can be good too. Just don’t plan on spontaneously coming up with a brilliant idea for your dissertation without doing any work. You won’t.