26/08/12 - A Fresh Start - advice for first time university students

So here we are.  The moment of truth.  Your A-level results have been opened and I hope you're very happy with them.  You've accepted your place at university, whether it was the one you had your heart set on or otherwise (and trust me, even your fourth choice university can become the best experience of your life).  You've finally recovered from the post-results celebratory shots that seemed like such a good idea at the time.  But now reality's dawning.  You have a month (give or take) in which to pack your entire life in your familial home, with its lovely free meals and lovely Sky HD and lovely home comforts, and move into your - I assume - halls of residence of some form or another.  And while on the outside, you're excitedly discussing all the stuff you're going to buy for your new room and bragging about the fact that you wouldn't know a washing machine from an iron if they both came up and danced in front of you - yes, we've all been there.  But on the inside you're screaming; what on Earth do I do now?!

[Disclaimer: this is not a definitive list of (hopefully) useful tips.  These are just the ones that instantly sprung to mind/the ones I wish I had been told two years ago.]

1) Don't freak out too much.  I know it's terrifying - I was a sobbing wreck the night before I moved to university two years ago - but everyone is in the same boat.  And everyone will tell you that and it won't make you feel any better, but it doesn't make it any less true.  While you're at home, try and channel the excitement into planning things that you have some control over.  Savour the last few weeks (sob) with your best mates; go shopping for kitchenware, bedding and stationery together - who is ever going to pass up the chance of a day out to IKEA?  Don't stress about whether you'll get on with the people you're living with, whether you'll find your way around the campus, whether you'll be able to make the 9am lectures without your mum banging on your door.  Don't stress about them because these things are totally out of your reach.  No amount of worrying will make you feel better.

2) Serious note: money.  Your student loan is unfortunately not 'free' money.  Ditto an overdraft.  Don't do what I did and treat yourself to your first ever Topshop spree because it's the first time you've been able to afford it.  Yes, it'll feel good at the time and a lot of shopping centres have a Student Lock-in night in the first few weeks of term, luring in poor unsuspecting freshers with cash burning a hole in their bank account by using 20% offers and free food.  Go along for the experience, sure.  Treat yourself a little, maybe - I mean, you did just get into university for goodness' sake!  But remember: it's only a bargain if you want/need it.  Those impractical glittery heels or latest Xbox game won't be filling your stomach come the end of term when you're living off scraps of mouldy bread and whatever condiments you can steals from pubs.  I wish I was exaggerating.

3) Skype will become your best friend.  It's easy, free and a great way to keep in touch with people you used to see every day without feeling too far away.  Seeing a friendly face rather than just hearing a tinny voice at the end of a phone really makes a difference.  For the past two years, I have had a weekly Skype date with my family which I always try desperately not to miss - even if that means speaking to them, eating my tea and doing my make-up for a night out simultaneously.  Try and keep regular contact with home, even if you're living it up during Fresher's Week and don't really feel like it.  Remember that it's not only your life that has been uprooted and rearranged by this change - and your parents don't get the benefits of new-found freedom, cheap drinks offers and an exciting three years of possibility stretched before them. 

4) Do your research.  Watch the Channel 4 programme 'Fresh Meat' (second series coming up in September) - partly because it's hilarious and partly because it is, scarily, fairly accurate in parts.  Don't get me wrong, it's hugely exaggerated in parts - thank goodness - so don't let it scare you too much.  But it'll show you some, shall we call them, 'worst case scenarios'.  Equally this article on the Student Beans website - it doesn't paint the picture of higher education your teachers and parents would want you to see, but it's realistic.

5) Throw yourself into it.  Fresher's Week is probably one of the best times of your life - you don't have any reading to do yet, no pressure to do essays or attend lectures...it is a full week of doing absolutely nothing.  You may have the occasional introductory session, but ultimately this is a time to settle in, meet new people and get your bearings around your new home and school.  So get involved!  No doubt your university student union will be running all sorts of things to go along to - at my university, these include a huge poster sale, the Freshers Fair where different local businesses and organisations try and lure you in with free pens and sweets, and the Societies and AU (Athletic Union) Fairs where you can see what extra-curricular options you have.  Add to this themed club nights and various other drinking events, and you might feel a little overwhelmed.  My advice is to go along to everything you feel you can - it's a great chance to talk to new people and opens your eyes to all the exciting opportunities available to you.  In my first year, I didn't join any societies which I kind of regret now.  My current society (Performing Arts, if you're interested), which I joined in second year when it was set up, is one of the best things I have done at university.  We're like a little family and I love them all so much!  You'll make lifelong friends with people you would potentially have never met otherwise, as well as enjoying something you're passionate about.  Also, it looks good on your CV if you seem like a 'joiner-inner' - being on the executive committee of a society in your second or third years looks even better!

And finally...

Enjoy yourself!  Take this opportunity to make new friends, have new experiences and make the most of every possibility.  University is probably the most relaxing and freeing period of your life when compared to school (full days of teaching, school uniform, etc.) and the working world (9-5, responsibilities, student loans to pay off) - yes, essays and lectures are important but the social aspect of the uni experience and the valuable life lessons that go along with it are just as vital.  Going into my third year now and having to think about post-graduate jobs or courses and things is terrifying, and I am SO JEALOUS of anyone who is just starting out.  I haven't stopped moaning about how much I miss being a fresher since...well, since I stopped being a fresher.

So, best of luck, my children.  Go forth and buy IKEA out of shot glasses and cheap throw cushions.  I'm with you in spirit every step of the way.

Are you starting university this year, and found this helpful (or not)?  Or do you have any further advice for first time students?