7 Assumptions to Stop Making Before You Go to University

We all have assumptions and preconceptions ahead of going to university.

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It makes sense; being a student commands a huge amount of cultural baggage. Think about how many adjectives you could come up with to describe a ‘typical’ student, and then do the same for an apprentice, or a new graduate, and you’ll see the difference. We don’t think of apprentices or new graduates as a group with distinct features in the same way, whereas if you think of a student, you might be able to describe what you’d expect them to wear, where you’d expect them to work, what you’d expect them to do in their spare time, what kind of music they listen to and even what their politics would be.
But when you take a moment to think about this, it’s clear that as students are as diverse a group as either apprentices or new graduates (the latter by default), so many of those immediate cultural associations must be wrong for a sizeable number of them. Most people, ahead of going to university, have many more assumptions that are entirely unconscious, and that they don’t learn they have until they’re challenged. In this article, we take a look at some of those assumptions, and quite how wrong they can be.  

1. Everyone there will have the same background as you

Picture a first-year university student. How old are they? If you said 18, think again. Yes, this is the ‘standard’ age for starting university, but more than a quarter of UK university students are now mature students – so over the age of 21 – and even those who are not classed as ‘mature’ may have started a year or two later as a result of taking a gap year, or working in order to build up their savings. You might be sharing a lecture hall with some people who are fresh out of school, others who are studying in order to change career, and others who are new retirees taking a degree for the fun of it. That means that you might be surrounded by fellow students who have lengthy career experience, and who have children or even grandchildren.

You will meet people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

And it isn’t just in terms of age that you might get some surprises about your fellow undergraduates. Tabloid newspapers in Britain produce relatively regular articles about the struggles of schools where few pupils have English as a first language – such as this one from the Daily Mail, but while that kind of diversity is unusual in a primary or secondary school, it’s par for the course at university, where students will come from all over the world and English may not even be their second or third language, let alone their first. Along just about every other axis – ethnicity, sexuality, religion, gender identity, class or financial circumstances – university students are a mixed bunch. Assume that everyone will look and sound like you, and you’ll be in for a surprise.


2. You’ll fit in with the other people on your course in the same way as your class at school

An even more unlikely sight at university.

Think about the classic cafeteria scene in Mean Girls, repeated in countless other teen movies, where a character reels off the list of different cliques to be found in the school, (“You got your freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, J.V. jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, varsity jocks…”). Though few school cliques are quite as tightly defined as films make them out to be, there’s some truth in the stereotypes – secondary schools can be clique-filled places, where your role is, to a certain extent, defined by a social group that you belong to, whether that’s in the clothes you wear, the music you listen to or the friends you hang out with. And you might expect university to be the same: that if you were a nerd in secondary school, you’re going to be a nerd at university as well.
But the size of universities compared to secondary schools, and the melting-pot atmosphere that we discussed above, mean that cliques don’t really exist in university to the same extent. You might spend time with different sets of people on your course, in societies and when you’re relaxing socially, unlike at school where that’s likely to be the same group of people for all three. And given that everyone’s an adult, they usually have better things to do than pigeonholing people according to their music taste.

3. Your academic performance at school will be reflected at university

Being a big fish in a small pond is unlikely to cut it any more.

The academic environment of a secondary school and of a university can be quite different. Learning in a school environment works well for people who benefit from having their progress monitored by an authority figure, from having their timetable and workload set for them, and who are academically skilled across a variety of different subjects. Learning in a university environment works well for people who favour a more hands-off approach where there’s no one looking over their shoulder, where they have a significant say in determining their own workload, and who can motivate themselves to focus on a single subject all the time. As a result, some students who were mediocre at school blossom at university – and vice versa.
It’s not only your absolute academic performance that might not carry over from school to university. Your relative standing among your classmates is also likely to change. Let’s take a typical Oxbridge student. Even the most successful schools in terms of Oxbridge places might only send 10 to 20 students there every year, out of a total intake of perhaps 120 – and these are schools that are already elite. But once you’re at Oxford or Cambridge, you’re surrounded by people who were in the top 10% of their schools or better. An outstanding school student becomes an average university student; and that’s true at top universities beyond just Oxbridge. Don’t assume you’ll be top of your class at university just because you were top of your class at school, because that isn’t likely to hold true.

4. You already know how to carry out an experiment or write an essay

Both the facilities and level of commitment required at university will be far superior.

The first term of nearly any humanities subject involves a lecturer explaining in great detail how to write an essay, to students who often dismiss them because they’ve been through A-levels, so they think they know essay-writing back to front and upside down. Then they get their first essays back and learn that this is very much not the case. Much the same is true of experiments and lab reports in the sciences. It’s best to save yourself a bad mark by listening up at the point when the lecturer is trying to teach you how to do these things well, rather than assuming you know it all already.
There are two reasons why the demands of these tasks change so much at university. One is that university work is simply more demanding. Remember the change in what was being asked of you between GCSE and A-level? This is much the same, only more so. And the other is that these situations develop different skills. An A-level essay, for instance, doesn’t usually require much by way of footnotes, and when it does (for instance, in coursework), your teacher won’t be too exacting about how they’re formatted. All of this changes at university, where you’re effectively learning how to write a proper academic paper. Beyond that, you’ll probably have to unlearn a lot of the techniques that you picked up because they play well to the exacting requirements of A-level marking schemes; university marking schemes are more flexible, and demand high-quality work in general rather than jumping through hoops.

5. You’ll stay close to all your school friends

Most people want to keep in touch with their school friends when they go to university; we even wrote an article about how to do it. But the reason that lists of tips are required is because staying close to your school friends – or even just staying in touch with them at all – is hard work once you get to university. In the long summer between A-levels and heading off to university, you might well imagine that you’ll be friends forever, because that combination of going through a period of intense stress together, and then having lots of free time to relax together afterwards, is great for cementing a friendship.
But once you start university, you’ll be experiencing that combination of stress followed by relaxation with a lot of new people instead, and you’ll have to divide your time between the two. What’s more, you’ll begin to have less in common with your schoolfriends and more in common with your university friends, which can put a strain on your older friendships. And there’s always the challenge of geographical distance between you, especially if people’s families move away from where you all went to school. None of this is to say that it’s impossible to maintain a close friendship with your schoolfriends – but it is something that requires effort on all sides, and you might find that once you’ve begun to drift apart, you’d sooner put that effort into cultivating your new friendships at university instead.

6. You’ll continue to study in the same way despite the loss of structure

The lure of the duvet can prove dangerously irresistible,

You might assume you’ve got the studying process all worked out from A-levels. Perhaps you’re someone who gets in from school and gets stuck into your homework straight away, such that you have plenty of free time to enjoy yourself at weekends. Or maybe your schedule is more eccentric, but it works for you. Either way, if you’re currently at school, chances are it’s structured around the idea of having a set timetable each day, followed by a reasonably predictable amount of homework each night.
But that’s not the way things work at university. In the sciences, you’re likely to have a reasonably full timetable during the day, but the amount that you have to do outside of class can vary a good deal – often depending not only on what’s set, but on how much additional reading you choose to do independently. In the humanities, it’s radically different – you might have fewer than ten timetabled hours every week, and a reading list for the term that you can work on getting through whenever you feel like it, whether that’s at a leisurely pace the summer before you start or in a mad hurry just ahead of the exams. Either way, the change in workload, timetable and the level of supervision from your lecturers is likely to mean that whatever structure of studying you worked out for your A-levels won’t hold in a university context.

7. No one else will share your niche interests

From crafts to cosplay, you’re sure to find the right society for you!

If you have niche interests – and in a school context, something as benign as knitting or ice-skating could count as niche – you might seldom have met anyone else who shares them. Schools are small places and popular hobbies tend to dominate. It’s natural to assume that you won’t meet anyone who shares your interests at university either, especially if they’re generally perceived as being a bit weird.
But universities, in their big, diverse, melting-pot way, filled with people who have more independence and more freedom to determine the use of their spare time than they’ve ever enjoyed before, are a fantastic home for niche interests of all kinds. For one thing, it’s a numbers game – a typical British secondary school might have a thousand pupils, and most of them will be in age groups that you’re not interested in spending time with. A typical university will have ten times that many, all of them adults whose company you might well enjoy. So you’ll already be off to a good start in that the chances of meeting someone who shares your interests is higher.
Beyond this, university is also a time when people are actively looking for new hobbies and activities to get involved with. So even if there isn’t already a dedicated ice-skating-and-knitting society, if you start one, you might well find a collection of people who’d like to try it out with you.

Image credits: typing; walking; rainbow; big fish; chemistry; cat; larp.