8 Top Tips for Surviving as a Fresher

If you’re nervous about starting university, don’t worry – you’re not alone.

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About a quarter of a million students will be starting full-time degrees at British universities this year, plus nearly the same amount again taking other types of degree, such as part-time courses. All of them are in the same boat, with the same set of nerves about keeping up with work, staying within the confines of their budget, making friends and cooking something that isn’t just beans on toast every day.
The transition from school student to fresher is one of the biggest you’ll face in your life, as you’re likely to be moving out of the family home, to a new city, and adapting to a whole new lifestyle and way of studying all in one go. It’s entirely understandable that you might be worried about it. But it should also be a very exciting time. To minimise the nerves and maximise the excitement, here are our top tips.

1. Have realistic expectations

Many students have gone to university with an iron and an ironing board. Very few have used either more than once or twice in their first year, and probably then only for weddings, funerals or job interviews. Bringing an iron to university and then have it gather dust in your cupboard all year is not the worst thing that could happen, but if space in the car is in short supply on your way to university, then you’d be better off leaving the iron behind and bringing the waffle-maker – it’ll make you a whole lot more friends.

It's possible to personalise your student accommodation, but you're unlikely to live the Pinterest dream.
It’s possible to personalise your student accommodation, but you’re unlikely to live the Pinterest dream.

There’s a lot of nonsense spoken and written about student life. You won’t be living in a hovel with rats gnawing on your mountains of unwashed plates and fire alarms every three hours (every three weeks is more normal, for student accommodation). But nor will you be living in a Pinterest account. You might have plans for how you’re going to decorate your walls beautifully, which will probably be scotched by a no-blutack rule. You might have stocked up on scented candles, only to learn that the spoilsports at the Accommodation Office ban those, too. Or you might have tried out some wonderfully lavish recipes to delight your housemates with, which will prove impossible to reproduce in a tiny student kitchen with an oven that burns things on one side and leaves them raw on the other. None of this will be an impediment to having a great time, however, so don’t be too disappointed if your fantasies of glamorous student life don’t quite work out.

2. Drop your prejudices

One of the main challenges of being a fresher for most people is having flatmates (or in some cases, roommates). When you live at home, you have to put up with the irritating habits of people you’ve known all your life, but when you’ve first moved into student accommodation, you have to put up with a lot of brand-new irritating habits for which you don’t yet have a coping mechanism.

Washing-up wars can last for days...
Washing-up wars can last for days…

One barrier to dealing with this is your own prejudices. This isn’t to accuse you of a terrible prejudice like racism (though if that’s an issue, please do deal with it). It’s more to do with minor prejudices that you’re probably not even aware you have. Here are a few irritating things that flatmates might do:

  • Leaving lights on
  • Switching lights off so it’s harder to navigate the corridor
  • Eating really strange food
  • Eating at really strange times
  • Discussing politics or religion over dinner
  • Refusing to discuss politics or religion over dinner

Do you get the idea? There are a plethora of profoundly irritating things that a person can do that are actually not unreasonable things to do in their own right – it’s just that the rules of politeness they’ve been brought up with aren’t the same as yours. Before you let yourself get really annoyed, take a moment to work out whether what’s getting on your nerves is legitimately a bad thing to do, or if it’s just not something you prefer to do yourself.
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3. Get better at saying yes – and no

A lot of advice about having a good time as a fresher is about saying yes to new things, and that’s definitely a solid approach to take. Being a fresher exposes you to lots of new opportunities, and it may be that saying yes to signing up to the ice-skating society introduces you to a great new hobby that you’ll grow to love.

University is a great opportunity to try out new hobbies you’d never previously considered.

When you’ve been in one place with one group of friends for a long time, it’s easy to get into a rut where everyone knows your likes and dislikes and doesn’t try to get you to do anything new. Being a fresher is a fantastic and rare opportunity to break out of that. Maybe you decided you didn’t like hiking when you were 14, but now you’re at university, it’s time to give it another go.
But just as important as saying yes to new and exciting things is learning how to say a firm no to things that you definitely don’t want to do. That might be a student society that’s just a bit too pushy about getting you to sign up, or a flatmate who’s trying to get you to go out on a night when you’ve got an essay deadline. You might not have practised having to say this kind of yes or no to prospective new friends since you started secondary school, and it’s likely your social life has changed since then. Getting better at saying yes enthusiastically as well as saying no graciously will prove valuable in your first year at university and beyond.

4. Don’t get too excited about freshers’ week

In every year at university, there are presumably about four people who have the best time ever during freshers’ week. They go to virtually every night out, indulge in piles of free pizza, make dozens of cool new friends who they will go on to hang out with for the rest of their time at university and after, and two of them will ultimately end up married to one another. These are – presumably – the people who write student guides to freshers’ week and promise the best week of your life, because this isn’t most people’s experience.

Freshers' week can be a blast, but don't panic if yours isn't.
Freshers’ week can be a blast, but don’t panic if yours isn’t.

That’s not to say freshers’ week is bad! It isn’t. It can be a really fun time, and it has been put together by people who want to make it as easy as possible for you to settle in, feel at home, have fun and make new friends. It’s not often as an adult that other people will arrange things specifically for you to have a great time, so do make the most of it. But if you don’t make lots of friends immediately, you find the nights out a little boring, and you don’t discover a society to which you want to dedicate most of your effort for the rest of your degree, don’t think that you’ve failed at freshers’ week – that’s a normal experience that most of your university peers will share.

5. Read everything on your reading list and then some

This piece of advice will vary by university, course and lecturer. Some lecturers delight in producing reading lists with three short compulsory articles, and then a million or more words of optional reading, some of which is only tangentially related to the subject of the course. But most of the time, the reading list will not be everything you should read; it will be a recommended minimum.

Put the kettle on, find a comfy place, and get reading.
Put the kettle on, find a comfy place, and get reading.

Later on in your course, you’ll have the knowledge to pick and choose from the reading list, and supplement it with writing that isn’t on the list, perhaps even from academics your lecturer hasn’t come across. But you won’t reach this level of understanding as a first year (and some would argue you’re unlikely to reach it as an undergraduate). So read everything on the reading list. Your lecturer chose it because they thought it was important, and if one of your exam questions is a quote from an academic text followed by “discuss”, chances are it’ll come from one of the books or writers on that reading list.

6. Have a budget

Budgeting is one of those scary things that you might not have had to do before, or you might have had to figure out how to budget the money from your Saturday job for clothes and driving lessons, rather than for food and keeping the lights on. But for surviving as a fresher, having a budget is invaluable.

When done correctly, budgeting take a real weight off your mind.
When done correctly, budgeting take a real weight off your mind.

This doesn’t have to be complicated. There are lots of apps and budgeting spreadsheets available, but even this is a stage of complexity beyond what’s absolutely necessary. You could just figure out how much money you’ll have for the academic year, divide by the number of weeks, and keep track each week if you’ve spent more or less than that amount. Keep track of the overall total and occasionally check it against your bank account to see if there’s any spending that you’ve missed out, and you have a budget. It’s straightforward, and using it properly will mean that you’ll be able to afford something other than value brand bread and squash by the time third term begins.

7. Show up to the library orientation

Familiarise yourself with the library and avoid confusion later on.
Familiarise yourself with the library and avoid confusion later on.

There will be a lot of orientations, especially in freshers’ week but also a few afterwards. Expect tours of the gym, fire drills and other orientations of university facilities. Depending on your university, you might even have workshops on things like tolerance or consent. And quite a lot of these things might feel obvious or skippable – you know how fire drills work, after all. Unfortunately, the fire drill is usually compulsory, whereas the library orientation is not. It might even happen a couple of weeks into term, when you’ve already had a wander around the library yourself and feel confident that you can find your way around.
All the same, don’t skip it! You’ll probably be able to find every compulsory item on your reading list for yourself, but there will come a time when you’re desperately chasing an obscure reference for your essay, deadline tomorrow, when the library is still open but the librarians have all gone home, and at that point, you’ll wish you knew where the early printed books, or the reference-only books that can’t be withdrawn, or the long-loan books, or whichever type of book it is that your library chooses to hide somewhere obscure, can be found, because that will be the one section you need.

8. Talk to your parents about what they do for you at home

Here’s something that you can start doing months or even years before you head off to university: talk to your parents about all the things they do for you at home. This isn’t about saying thank you to your dad for doing the ironing or your mum for changing the oil in your car (though it’s nice to be appreciative).

How does Dad get those creases so perfect?
How does Dad get those creases so perfect?

Instead, it’s that there might be things your parents currently do for you at home that you aren’t even aware they’re doing. These might be passive things, like including your mobile phone and laptop in their gadgets insurance, or slightly more active things, like registering you to vote. It might be washing clothes, ironing, car maintenance, or ensuring that you have regular dentist appointments booked. Once you go to university, you’ll have to take care of most or all of these things for yourself. In order to do that, you’ll have to be aware that they’re being done for you in the first place.
If you don’t cook at home, you’d probably notice if you carried on not cooking at university. But if your parents have been using fabric softener on all your clothes before washing them, or topping up your car windscreen fluid when it gets low, you might well be going around with itchy clothes and a dirty windscreen without ever realising what’s changed. And what’s more, your parents might well do these things as part of a general household routine and not think to mention them to you unless you bring up the subject. So make sure to ask!
What do you think is vital for survival as a fresher? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Image credits: bookshelves; beans; bedroom; dishes; ice hockey; students; book and coffee cup; calculator; library; ironing


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