How to Survive Your First Year at Uni: The Basics

So you’ve got your results, and hopefully you know where you’re going. Now the worry starts to set in. In this blog, I answer some of your biggest questions about university, even the ones you thought no-one else had.

How scary is it to actually live independently? How am I supposed to deal with all the cleaning and cooking, and not poison myself?

Image by Karen Micol on Deviantart:
Image by Karen Micol on Deviantart:

Ok, first of all, it’s not as scary as it sounds: this isn’t the Hunger Games. You’re not being cast out, shut off from the rest of society and being forced to hunt for your dinner (although I guess learning how to use the oven can be pretty scary too). For at least the first couple of weeks, most of you will probably still be phoning home to ask how long to cook chicken for (sad but true). If you can practise a little bit of cooking at home before you leave, then great for you, because you will look so savvy and independent while everyone else is fretting about using the microwave to heat up their beans. But if you’re the one fretting about baked beans, don’t worry. The sooner you branch out and experiment with foods you’ve never cooked before, the more confident you’ll feel about cooking. If you eat ready meals for too long, you might just run the risk of turning into that 21 year old who doesn’t even know how to make a spaghetti bolognaise. And you really don’t want to be that person. I’d recommend asking a parent/carer to write down a few of your favourite recipes before you leave and maybe invest in one of those “nosh for students” cookbooks. They cover everything from a jacket potato to homemade nacho dips if you’re feeling fancy. As for cleaning, that’s something you’ll just have to buckle up and get used to. Open your window after you shower so you don’t get mould, and check there’s nothing rotting in the back of the fridge. Oh, and actually hoover every now and then. Honestly, it takes five minutes. You’ll survive.

Will I still stay friends with people from home?

In my experience, most people do manage to maintain their home friendships. Sure, it’s good to text every few days and even skype or make a phonecall every couple of weeks. Most universities will even allow you to invite a friend to stay for a couple of days, and it can be great fun introducing your home friends to your uni friends. But please don’t spend every day texting and skyping your home friends and completely neglecting to make any new friends at university. Familiar faces might be more comforting, but you’ll miss out on one of the most important parts of the university experience. Even if you’re not great at texting, any real friends will still be there when you go home at Christmas. They might change a little (or a lot) and so will you, but that’s just how life works. To keep your balance, you have to keep moving forward.

But I won’t know ANYONE! Or anything!

The important thing to remember is that everyone is in the same boat. No-one shows up at university with a clique of their best friends, and then never has to introduce themselves to anyone ever again. This isn’t Gossip Girl. University is one of the times when it’s actually acceptable to just walk up to a complete stranger and start talking and no-one will think you’re weird (and if they do, there are enough people in a university that you may never have to bump into them again). Everyone is a stranger until you meet them. You’ll quickly get used to the whole “what’s your name? Where are you from? What are you studying? Which accommodation are you in?” speech. Maybe you feel like having some time to yourself occasionally, and that’s fine. Just because you live with people, that doesn’t mean they’re expecting you to be by their side every minute of the day. But when you do want to talk to people, make yourself accessible. Just put yourself out there, knock on some doors and introduce yourself to your neighbours. You’ll be glad you did.

Are lecturers actually helpful? Can I ask them questions or does all this “independent” stuff mean I just have to read the textbook?

The University of Birmingham. Image by Graham Norrie [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The University of Birmingham. Image by Graham Norrie [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I can’t sugarcoat this. Much like in college and school, some lecturers are a nightmare. I had a bad experience in my first few weeks when I emailed a lecturer to clarify something with them, and received a snappy, snooty reply telling me that I needed to figure things out for myself. But these people are bad lecturers. They are literally paid to help you learn. Naturally, they’re not going to hold your hand every step of the way, and some questions you can answer yourself with a quick peek in a textbook. But if you do want to ask a question, whether it’s in person during or after the lecture, or in an email later, they should help, and most are more than willing to. A lot of them actually love questions. It makes their job a lot more interesting if they actually get to converse with a human being rather than just talking to a room filled with zombies. They’ll like that you’re pro-active enough to go out of your way to find out more, and this can be helpful later on when you’ll want to ask lecturers for advice on your final year dissertation or project. No question is ever stupid and if a lecturer ever makes you feel like that then that is their problem.

Are we supposed to share food? Or will it be “every man for himself”?

This depends. If you’re the kind of person who only uses milk for tea and there’s someone else in your house or flat like this, then it might be handy to split a bottle a week. Equally, if you’re in a shared bathroom, you probably want to share toilet rolls and soap (just make sure you pay equally, or else this can cause some uncomfortable situations). Cooking meals together is really cost effective, so if you find someone with similar taste (or even better, someone who’s good at cooking) to make meals with, this can be really fun and really cheap (fajitas are a particularly great group meal). If you’re only cooking for yourself, Tupperware boxes can become your best friend, so use them to freeze leftovers so you can go back to them later for an easy meal.

Am I destined to run out of money?

Unfortunately, money issues are just the sad truth of student life. Luckily, you’re not the only one with this concern, as pretty much everyone is in a similar, penniless boat. Depending on what loans or grants you’re entitled to, they might not be able to fund you all by themselves. First year accommodation is usually shockingly expensive, so first year can sometimes be the hardest in terms of keeping hold of your money. Most student bank accounts offer a big overdraft with no interest, which can be really handy towards the end of term, and most universities host some sort of jobs fair at the start of the academic year, so these would be well worth taking a look at. You can also save money by shopping smartly, taking advantage of offers, steering clear of Starbucks and swallowing your pride and following all the other students to Aldi.

Is the workload going to be a huge jump?

Image by
Image by

This depends on the subject and how much independent work you put in at college. But yes, there will probably be some sort of jump – otherwise it wouldn’t be a challenge. Subjects like English or geography generally don’t have many contact hours but have a fair amount of independent work and reading to fill your spare time, while hard sciences (chemistry, biology or physics-based subjects) will probably have a lot more (sometimes more than double) the contact hours and still have plenty of independent work. This whole “independent work” business sounds scary but it just means that you won’t be getting a lot of “actual” homework. Instead, it’s up to you how much work you put in, and it will definitely be reflected in your end of year grades, so use your free time wisely. In first term, I would aim to write up most of your notes by the end of each week and you’ll find it makes exam season a lot less stressful, because you’ll actually remember what you learnt back in October. Extra textbook reading is also helpful, and you’ll definitely need it for any essays or second and third year exams.

University gets less weird. After the first year you’ll be used to seeing someone who used to be a stranger just wandering around in a towel, and you’ll be used to the smell of someone burning their toast. You’ll laugh about your antics on nights out and all cringe together when you think of some of the things you did in freshers’ week. The most important thing is to embrace the change and get stuck in. Say yes, take opportunities, and join societies. Change is what makes a person who they are. Comfort isn’t.

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