No Such Thing As a Stupid Question: 11 FAQs of Brand-New Students

Image shows an open door to an Oxford college, revealing the quad behind.

The dearth of information available to prospective university students is remarkable.

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Collecting data on the precise number of graduates in the UK is a surprisingly tricky business, but it’s certainly the case that at least one in four people have been to university. This should mean that when prospective students have a question about university life, at least one in four people are able to help them out with the answer.
And yet this clearly isn’t the case. The lack of good advice available to poorer students is one of the drivers behind the gap in attainment between them and their wealthier peers. Every year, forums such as The Student Room fill up with the same questions about university life, with baffled students unsure of where else to turn.
The reasons for the problem aren’t all that hard to work out. Students whose parents also went to university can ask them for advice, but that advice is likely to be a generation out of date. Variations in norms between universities can be significant enough that even an older sibling may not be able to help; the experience of one sibling at St Andrew’s (small, Scottish, ancient) might not map on to the experience of another at Warwick (large, English, modern). Universities provide advice, of course, but with one eye on their marketing; in a competitive field, they don’t want to risk providing information that might put prospective students off applying (and that’s precisely the information that prospective students are mostly likely to want). Schools can help to a certain extent, but teachers often have too much on their plate to be able to keep up with every new change in higher education as well.
We’ve run a pretty extensive series of articles on these topics (university admission, university preparation and student life), but there are always questions that aren’t long enough for a full article. We’ve gathered some of them here. Do you have any others? Feel free to leave a comment and we’ll do our best to get back to you. And if you’d like more extensive guidance, our UK University Preparation Programme (for students aged 16-18) or Gap Year Research Projects (for students aged 18-25 years) may be for you.

1. Can you come into a lecture at any time? Is a register taken?

Image shows an empty lecture theatre.
Showing up to lectures late may affect your academic record.

This will vary from university to university, and in some cases, from lecture to lecture. It’s not unusual for lectures to be optional (though strongly recommended) and seminars or tutorials compulsory. It’s sensible to attend as many lectures as possible, at the very least in your first term. Aside from any other consideration, you never know what obscure point from lecture 9 in a ten-lecture series will end up being central to your exam. When it is compulsory to attend – whether that’s a lecture, seminar or tutorial – you should definitely show up, even if there aren’t signs of a formal register. Some universities will penalise non-attendance by docking marks at the end of the year. Others won’t do this formally, but may be less inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt when you’re sitting on a grade boundary.
As far as lateness is concerned, it’s definitely a good idea to be on time. The doors won’t be locked if you’re late (that would be a fire hazard) but they will be closed and you will have the mortifying experience of 250 people glowering at you as the door creaking disturbs a particularly important part of the lecture. Again, what’s normal will vary from lecture to lecture. There might be that one lecturer who starts a 9am lecture at 8.57am exactly, and fires terrifying questions at anyone who dares to come in late. There might also be the lecturer who consistently shows up ten minutes late and sometimes fails to turn up all together. The vast majority of lecturers fall somewhere between the two.

2. How should I address my tutors?

Usually, you’ll address them by their first names, and they will do the same with you. This tends to vary by age and seniority. It’s a very rare PhD student or recent postdoc who will expect to be addressed by anything other than their first name. Some older professors might prefer to be addressed by title and surname. Thankfully, most of your tutors will introduce themselves in the manner that they would prefer to be addressed; if you’re stuck, address them as Dr + their surname as a default. They might be amused by the formality but they’re not going to be offended.

3. Will people ask me about my A-level results?

Image shows three students having a conversation next to a fountain.
Conversations about what you’re studying now are much more usual than conversations about your time at school.

Almost certainly not. Think about how often people asked you about your GCSE results when you joined the sixth form – maybe it came up once or twice in the first couple of weeks, but after that, who cares? This is particularly the case at university, because even if the person you’re talking to got vastly better A-level results than you did, you’re both now attending the same university, so you’re on the same academic footing.
In fact, don’t expect A-levels to come up all that much in general. In the first few weeks, when no one knows each other that well and so there’s a shortage of topics for small talk, A-levels and sixth form life in general might be discussed. After that, university will be the thing you have in common, and you’re much more likely to talk about that.

4. What’s provided in university accommodation?

This varies from university to university. At a minimum, you can expect your room will contain a bed, a desk, a wardrobe and some shelving. Some universities will also add a desk lamp or a bin. In the kitchen, there’ll usually be a microwave, but not necessarily a kettle, a toaster or pots and pans. There usually won’t be towels or bedding.
The question is then what to bring. We consider that question in detail here, but in general, if you can afford to buy things when you get to university, that can be the best option. University cities usually have a plethora of shops catering to student needs like cheap kettles, so you can wait and see exactly what you’ll need when you get there. If you’re sharing a kitchen with several people, this can also help avoid the situation of having seven kettles to store somewhere.

5. Can you bring pets into your student accommodation?

Image shows a dog lying on a rug.
Unfortunately, he’ll have to stay at home.

There’s almost always one very popular person who manages to keep a secret hamster in their room all year, but as a rule, don’t do this. Your lease is likely to forbid it expressly, which means that if you get caught keeping a pet (yes, even if it’s just a goldfish), you might be thrown out and lose your deposit.
If you’re renting privately, rather than in student accommodation, there’s more flexibility. You’re unlikely to be allowed anything as substantial as a dog or a cat, but small pets like hamsters, mice, gerbils or fish are sometimes permissible – best to check with your landlord first, though. And do be aware that student life and pet ownership are not often compatible.

6. Should I learn to drive before university?

If you can do so easily, yes. Plenty of people learn to drive later on, of course. But if you have the money and the time when you’re 17, it’s usually by far the easiest time, especially if you can get some practice in with your parents’ car. There’s also less pressure to learn at university (most universities have great public transport connections) so you’ll feel less motivated and chances are the money you’re spending on driving lessons will feel much more significant now you’re paying for all your own food. Yet being able to drive after university can open up additional job opportunities, or enable you to move somewhere where the public transport isn’t that good.
Note that this doesn’t necessarily apply to other skills. Cooking skills are easily enough picked up as you go along, and you might find that the talents you learned at home aren’t easily transferable to a small student kitchen with only two working hobs and a non-stick pan that’s lost most of its non-stick coating. If there’s a skill for a hobby that you’d really like to learn, it might even be better to wait until you can use the superior facilities and expertise available at university.

7. Will I have to share a room?

Image shows a twin university room.
Not a standard sight at British universities.

Almost certainly not. While sharing rooms is the norm in American universities, it’s highly unusual in the UK, and in campus accommodation at some universities you’ll struggle to find a shared room if you want one. The main exception to this rule is Durham, where several of the colleges require students to share a room for some or all of their first year.
However, you are more likely to have to share a bathroom, particularly in universities with older buildings. If you want an en suite, you’re likely to have to pay a good bit more, and accept living somewhere more modern and probably less beautiful as well.

8. How much local knowledge is it normal to have before going to university?

Pretty much none. While it’s highly recommended that you visit your university at some point before you show up there with your suitcase and your duvet, there are a decent number of people at most universities most years who don’t. Part of the purpose of Freshers’ Week is to give you the chance to explore the local area without the pressure of having to find your lecture theatre on time.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few things it’s good to know before you go. It’s worth buying a decent map of the area before you go (or be confident that you’ll get strong mobile internet signal for Google Maps), figuring out where your nearest supermarket and your nearest corner shop are, and checking if there are any unsafe areas between your accommodation and your university that you need to avoid stumbling into if you get lost.

9. Who do people spend time with during Freshers’ Week?

Image shows Yale University's dining hall.
You might get to know people in your university dining hall.

Usually, people end up spending time with their new flatmates. A few will know people from home already, but the standard advice is to avoid clinging to people you already know (after all, you’ll still know them the week after) and aim to make new friends as well. As Freshers’ Week rolls on, you’ll also get to know people from student union and society events.
It may be that you develop an immediate affinity for the Knitting Society, spend every day of Freshers’ Week at their events and get to the second week of term with a firm group of knitting friends to hang out with already established. Or it may be that you and your flatmates chum along pleasantly when you don’t know anyone else, but you find kindred spirits elsewhere – on your course, in the lunch queue, or even in activities that are outside the student sphere. Most people are in the same boat in Freshers’ Week, so will be quite pleased to have some company even if you know you’re not on track to be best friends forever.

10. What if you don’t get on with your flatmates?

If you have four or five flatmates, chances are you won’t get on with all of them. But chances are, you also won’t dislike all of them. You might not have had any experience to date of sharing a living space with peers you don’t get on with, but it’s not so difficult. Restrict conversation to small talk, clean up after yourself and don’t be actively unpleasant, and you should be fine providing your flatmates do the same. If they don’t – if they are actively difficult to live with – be reassured that you are not the first person to have this problem and you won’t be the last. Speak to your housing officer (or your university’s equivalent) – if it’s really troubling you, you might be able to switch rooms and hope for better roommates second time around.
Do remember that the start of term represents the time when you’ll see the most of your flatmates by far – that’s when parties and socialising are at their peak. By the time everyone knuckles down to serious study and gets to know a wider range of friends, they’ll be spending much more time in their rooms, the library or outside of the flat and much less time being irritating in your kitchen.

11. What do students do at weekends?

Image shows a train in Paddington station.
You could even spend your weekends taking advantage of discounted rail tickets to explore the country.

This varies surprisingly between universities. When a lot of the students come from places less than an hour or two away, a sizeable number will go home at weekends (taking their laundry with them). When less of the student population is local, halls will be livelier at weekends.
That’s not to say that there’ll be no one around at weekends if you’re not keen on regular trips home. For instance, there will always be international students about, for whom home could be a lengthy flight away. Most students recommend not going home for at least the first couple of weekends of your first term, in order to get to know people and not to give in to homesickness too quickly. Oxford and Cambridge strongly discourage students from going home, lest they get behind with their studies.
Beyond this, what you do at weekends will be much like what you did in the sixth form, only with rather more freedom. Some people will use it as a chance to get in some extra library time, whereas others will indulge in hobbies or socialising.
Do you have any more questions? No matter how silly or trivial they might seem, post them in the comments and we’ll do our best to answer.

Image credits: banner; lecture; conversation; dog; shared room; dining hall; train.