11 Truths About University Life Every Applicant Should Remember

Image shows two graduates taking a selfie.

To those who have yet to experience university life, it inevitably feels like a big unknown.

You might also enjoy…

Understandably, many are nervous about what it’s going to be like when they arrive, and this isn’t helped by the many common misconceptions about the university experience. Admittedly, it’s impossible to say exactly what your personal university experience will be like – there are too many variables, such as which university you go to, where you live, what you study, your own personality, and so on. But what is true is that there are some things that virtually all students will come to experience or realise at some point during their university education. In this article, we take you through a few truths about university life to help you gain a more realistic view of what it’s going to be like, and we hope this will allay your fears!

1. Academics are people too

Image shows students and academics standing around at the top of a stairwell.
You’ll probably have more in common with your lecturers than you expect.

Many students – particularly as they start university for the first time – are inclined to find their lecturers intimidating. This fear starts even before they get to university, because they’re often afraid (whether they realise it or not) of the admissions tutors who will be reading their personal statement. This fear is easily overcome simply by remembering that academics are people too. They too have a life of their own beyond the university environment; they have a family, friends and hobbies, and they’re subject to the same worries, struggles, ups and downs as everybody else is. They are human beings, and experience the same range of human emotions as you: they’re just as capable of being bored, frustrated, happy or unhappy as you. Remember this in your dealings with them, whether it’s writing a personal statement that they would actually find interesting, chatting to them in Freshers’ Week over a cup of tea, or discussing academic matters with them in class. They’re not there to intimidate you, and you will almost certainly find that you have a more easy-going relationship with your lecturers at university than you did with your teachers at school (first-name terms are common).

2. Everyone is just as anxious to make friends as you are

When you’re new to the university environment, and you don’t know anyone, it can sometimes feel as though everyone else is more switched on than you, that they know something you don’t, or that they’re somehow better at making friends than you. This is not the case. Everyone is in the same boat as you, and everyone’s just as anxious to make friends as you. If you walk into a room and everyone seems to be chatting to each other and already to be best friends, don’t be fooled: they’re probably just as nervous inside as you are, and this external show of confidence is probably only skin-deep. Use this knowledge to reassure yourself, and pluck up the courage to go and say hello – they’ll almost certainly be as glad as you are that you did.

3. The nurse on campus has seen everything before

Image shows a nurse talking to two medical students.
Nurses are, as a rule, unshockable.

Many students will, at some time or another, be afflicted by some ailment, which is why it’s always advisable to register with a GP in your university city, and to be aware of where the campus nurse’s office is. If you’re feeling too embarrassed to go and see the nurse, remember that they’ve seen everything before. It’s far better to bite the bullet and go to the nurse than it is to let whatever’s bothering you escalate into something that’s harder to treat (and that may end up impacting more severely on your studies).

4. You will never manage to read everything on the reading list

When you’ve been used to A-levels, a university reading list can come as rather a shock to the system. But, while a long list of books certainly looks daunting when you’re just sitting down to begin working through it, remember that this is now the only subject you’re studying, so you have more time for getting through the reading list. What’s more, few lecturers would expect you to read everything on it from cover to cover. If there are no page numbers given, it’s because they want you to use your own initiative to find relevant passages yourself. If there are page numbers, but there’s a scary number of pages to get through, it’s perfectly acceptable to skim over the bits that don’t seem relevant to the essay you’re writing. Part of gaining a university degree is honing your research skills, which means learning to sift out relevant material from the rest.

5. There’s rarely a right or wrong answer

Image shows a heavily corrected essay.
You will find that there are different degrees of wrongness.

Many students go to university afraid to say anything in classes or seminars because they might “say something wrong” or be ridiculed for failing to identify the “correct” answer. In fact, once you get to university, you’ll soon realise that there’s rarely such a thing as a straightforward right or wrong answer. You might have begun to suspect this at A-level, but university-level work (particularly in the humanities subjects, but also in the sciences) is going to require a lot more deliberation, working through different arguments before arriving at a more likely answer, rather than the “right” one per se. This means that your contribution to the discussion is more than likely going to add to the debate in a meaningful way. And, let’s face it, anything you say is going to be a lot better than sitting in awkward silence when the lecturer has asked a question to the group and nobody else has the confidence to say anything.

6. A part-time job is often a necessity

If you manage to get through university never having had to take a part-time job then you’re one of the lucky ones. With tuition fees at an all-time high, and the cost of living soaring, it’s financially a more difficult time for students than ever. Universities (other than Oxford and Cambridge, whose terms are shorter and more intense) are unlikely to have a problem with you getting a part-time job to supplement the income you receive from your student loan, providing it doesn’t impact on your studies. It will certainly be a balancing act to ensure you have enough time for both, but it would provide you with a much-needed injection of cash, as well as more work experience to put on your CV. Many universities have their own job sites, on which both local work and part-time jobs on campus are advertised, so keep a look out for something that fits with your timetable. It doesn’t have to be anything high-powered; bar work, waitressing or manning a desk in the department library are all common student part-time jobs that teach various useful workplace skills, which can be transferred to any working environment.

7. You will come up with all sorts of nifty ways of saving money

Image shows a jar full of small change.
There’s no shame in trying to save money as a student.

It’s amazing how ingenious you can be when you’re watching the pennies, and as a student, you’ll soon start to discover a multitude of money-saving tricks. It’s particularly easy to save money as a student, because there are so many great student discounts and deals around. You’ll quickly learn where the cheapest places to drink coffee or go out for a meal are, which evening of the week student nights are on, which supermarkets have the best deals, and so on. You’ll learn how to make cheap meals, and you’ll find out which discount cards and mailing lists are the ones to be on. And you’ll almost certainly have a purse or wallet bulging with those “buy nine coffees and get your 10th free” coffee shop loyalty cards.

8. You can’t “wing it” with university work

If you managed to get good grades in Sixth Form despite doing very little work, don’t expect the same to be true at university – particularly after first year. The difficulty level of the work you’ll be set will take a big step up, meaning that you’ll have to put in a lot of hours if you’re to keep up with it and get a 2.1 or above. At some universities, your performance in the first year decides whether or not you can continue with the degree, so there’s often an element of pressure right from the start. There’s no substitute for long hours spent in the library when completing a degree, and, though it may feel a slog at times, it’s a time you will eventually look back on with nostalgia and pride.

9. Awkward social situations are as much a part of university life as they are anywhere

Image shows a single white egg in a box of brown eggs.
Everyone ends up feeling like the odd one out sometimes.

The older you get, the more you will realise that awkward situations are a fact of life, whether you’re at school, university, or in the world of work. There’s just no escaping them, so don’t go to university imagining that it will be a 100% positive social experience; it’s not always as universally rosy as the stock images of happy students in university prospectuses would have you believe. There will be people you get along with less well than you do with others; you might have an awkward romantic encounter with someone whom you then have to see in lectures the next day; you might inadvertently offend someone or say something you didn’t mean; you might forget someone’s birthday; someone might not invite you to their party; university, like life in general, has the potential for all kinds of faux pas and social awkwardness. The trick is not to let them get to you too deeply, or to spend days agonising over them, detracting from your studies. Life’s too short to worry about such things, especially when you have a mountain of work to do!

10. You name it, there’s a university society dedicated to it

University is a place where you have the luxury of being able to pursue your interest in a particular subject for three years or more, but the subject of your degree is not the only interest you can pursue during your undergraduate studies. Most universities have hundreds of societies, clubs and special interest groups available for you to join, which means that it’s a great time to take up a new hobby. You name it, there’s bound to be a society dedicated to it – and if there isn’t, you can probably ask the student union if you can start your own. Student societies are also a good place to make friends with other like-minded people, which can be a refreshing change when you’re around the same people all the time in halls or for your lectures.

11. University isn’t just about partying

Image shows a cinema.
This is a perfectly fine place to spend a Friday or Saturday night.

Finally, the biggest stereotype about university life is that it revolves around partying, and that students spend all night partying and all day sleeping. For most students, this stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. While it’s perfectly acceptable to let your hair down once or twice a week, most conscientious students are serious about the studies they’re paying £9,000 a year for, and get up at a reasonable time each day, attend lectures and classes religiously, and devote much of their other time to working studiously in the library. What’s more, partying is only one of many entertainment options when you’re at university. We’ve already mentioned the plethora of university societies you’ll have available to you at university, but there are also plenty of quiet social activities such as meeting friends for coffee, going to the cinema, going for walks and such like. Indulging in quieter activities such as these does not make you a “loser” and there will be plenty of others whose tastes match yours if this is what you’re into. It’s your free time to do what you want with, and there’s certainly no need to bow to peer pressure in order to “fit in”. University is an environment that supports individual interests and tastes to a far greater extent than most schools do, and you certainly don’t need to compromise your individuality to fit in. In fact, you’ll probably find that those around you will value and admire you much more if you don’t.

Image credits: banner; academics; nurse; corrections; saving money; eggs; cinema.