Starting at university for most people can be an overwhelming experience, your first time truly living away from home, outside of the school bubble and with hundreds of people that you don’t know. It’s also probably the most exciting time of your life so far, with an opportunity to make friends and develop yourself in a whole new city, away from the prying eyes of parents and guardians.
The first and foremost thing to remember is to be open minded: try as much as you can, because 3 or 4 years at university vanishes in the blink of a bleary, sleep-deprived eye. Sign up to university societies, like me you’ll probably never go to 95% of them again, but now and again you can find something you’ll end up really caring about and enjoying, and meet amazing people in the process. This openness extends just as much to where you’re living, leave your door open and try to get to know your neighbours, some of the people I lived with are still close friends of mine (I still live with 2 of them!). There will always be the neighbours that don’t want to be friends, would rather stay in their rooms (or in my case, a neighbour who woke me up in the morning twice while drunkenly singing “God Save the Queen”) and that’s fine, but by going out and just saying hello, you can start growing friendships that can last a lifetime.
Something I encounter amongst freshers at my current university is an utter obsession with their grades: I’ll get nervous questions on whether they can get every mark for the lab script which counts to about 0.1% of 25% of their degree; I try to remind all of them that they are at university to learn, not to get a piece of paper telling them how clever they are. Try not to compare your academic experience and prowess with your fellow students and don’t spend all your time fretting about how well you’re doing. Work hard by all means, but keep in mind why you’re doing a degree, don’t give up on the rest of your university experience because you’re worried about not getting a 2.i.
Do remember that you’re in charge of your degree: it’s up to you do find the best way that you learn and make a success of your degree. Also remember that universities are flexible and that your choice of course is not set in stone, many people don’t enjoy the degree they chose and don’t realise that changing courses is perfectly possible.
Treat your loan money like you’ve taken it from the mafia. I knew so many people who would blow the lot in the first week of term and spend the next 9 weeks forced to eat stale beans from the back of Sainsburys (I may be exaggerating a little). The point is to be very mindful of how far your money will stretch, there are loads of ways to go out and have a good time on a student budget and not break the bank. Whilst I think writing a huge spreadsheet of all your likely incomes and expenses is a colossal waste of time, try to keep track of your spending.
Remember that being a student is not all about getting drunk. Whilst some students love going out every night and ensuring they make as few lasting memories as possible, this is not for everyone. Don’t feel pressured into drinking if you don’t want to. There are so many more things to do than just clubbing, but the social pressure to simply join the crowd on the lash can be overwhelming at times. This ties in to my earlier point about being open and meeting people, since you’ll almost certainly meet others who share your exasperation for yet another night at Whetherspoons and who would rather be playing monopoly/going to a Ceilidh/watching films etc.
University is, for most, a fantastically exciting, challenging experience that makes you a much richer person. The trick is that it doesn’t happen passively, you need to be active: try the new things on offer, take charge of your learning, know what you want and what you don’t, and don’t worry about the loan, most of us will never pay it back anyway.
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Adam Drew has an MSci degree in Natural Sciences from the University of Cambridge and a Master of Research degree from Imperial College London. He is now a PhD Student in the Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London. His research interests focus on developing treatment methods on small molecule electronics for manufacturing devices such as organic LEDs.
Having been actively tutoring students for 8 years, Adam has a strong interest in education and widening participation, leading numerous outreach programs and teaching workshops focusing on bringing disadvantaged students into STEM degree subjects.
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