15 Unexpected Things About Life at University

About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.

Image shows a group of graduating students in gowns and mortarboards taking a selfie.

1.Your friends are all incredibly annoying

By my second week of university, the mere thought of certain ‘best friends’ was enough to bring me out in a lumpy, red rage-rash.

Image shows a sink piled high with dirty dishes.
A student sink on a good day.

Whether it was the dishes smeared with grease and ketchup that never seem to moved from the area next to the sink; the fact that it was impossible to have a shower without coming out covered in someone else’s long, black hairs; the spontaneous bursts of Rihanna that would invariably begin at around 3am, or the mysterious lumpy, foul-smelling thing called ‘the curry’ that lived on our living room sofa for an entire term – I had chosen friends, I quickly realised, who were filthy, lazy, self-absorbed, and even downright evil. Do not be surprised if, having dreamed of living with pals from the first time you ever watched Friends, you quickly discover that you really, really miss your mum, who religiously disinfects the skirting boards once a week and is always in bed by ten.

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2. The library is an excellent place for many things that aren’t work

… But if they didn’t want you to sleep in there, why did they make it so warm and quiet, and buy such a soft, pillow-shaped encyclopaedia?

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Other activities more enjoyable to pursue in the library than almost anywhere else, but also indisputably either forbidden or very unproductive, are the following: eating chocolate; hiding one’s chocolate stash away from the beady eye of the librarian, behind some expensive-looking books; conducting long, loud conversations; watching back-to-back episodes of almost any TV show; designating a desk as yours by carving your name into it with a compass, accompanied by the words ‘THIS IS MY LIBRARY NOW’.

3. Ringing home is a skill that must be fine-tuned

Image shows a student sitting outside on a wall on a sunny day, talking on her mobile phone.
“I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now – I’m in the library…”

Everyone does it. Despite all your earnest promises to text your mum every day, in the chaos of new friends, parties, lectures, freshers’ week and societies that is the first few weeks of university, you will forget almost entirely about those people you used to call parents. The full extent of the communication they should expect is a hurried and misspelled text along the lines of ‘Hi m&d! Having fun. Off to  a lecture- must dash!xxx’. Until, that is, you run out of money. Then you will be on that phone faster than you can say ‘overdraft’. The skill you must perfect ready for this situation is pretending that you’re actually just ringing for a casual chat, and subtly guiding the conversation onto the subject of your woeful bank balance after you’ve built up sufficient goodwill. N.B. A good opening line for this conversation is, ‘I couldn’t ring you, because my money’s run out’.

4. Freedom is a good and bad thing

One brilliant thing about university is that you’re finally your own boss: at last, you can decide when to get up and go to bed, what and when to eat, and how hard to work. One potential problem with this new state of self-direction is that many people’s management style is more David Brent than Steve Jobs. Don’t be surprised if freedom takes some adjustment, and you’re one of the many people whose lives must descend into unwell, penniless, disorganised chaos before reaching a happy, independent norm.

5. The main point of going to university is to cultivate your Facebook profile

Image shows a blue flower with the Facebook logo in the middle.
Expect any nascent Facebook addiction to spiral entirely out of control, especially if it’s your primary means of staying in touch with your school friends.

Ignore all this talk of essays, lectures, societies and the world of work – at university, you will spend approximately nine tenths of your waking hours either being photographed, practising your ‘I’m having a great time while somehow managing to look very composed’ face in the mirror, ready for the moment when you will be photographed, or thinking of witty one-liners to write in the ‘comments’ section next to photos of yourself on Facebook. Indeed, everything anyone claims to do at university – sport, student journalism, law society – is an elaborate excuse to attend events at which they will be able to take photos to put on Facebook. An average Tuesday afternoon at university might go something like this:
2pm: Arrive at library.
2.02pm: Open Facebook and begin browsing.
3pm: Finish browsing and decide to write amusing status.
3.01-6pm: Endlessly reword status to give impression of effortless cool.
6pm: Library closes.

6. The esteemed professors from the prospectus sometimes make the worst lecturers

Undoubtedly, one of the best things about university is the opportunity to go and see some of the world’s leading experts in their field lecture on their work or subject. But every so often, you might get a surprise. No matter how brilliant and paradigm-shifting their latest book, some scholars are just not made for any form of social interaction, let alone trying to engage a couple of hundred undergraduates at once. Sometimes, you might even find graduate students make better teachers, as they’re closer to you in age and experience, and have more time to prepare their classes.

7. There are always right and wrong answers

Image shows a crumpled-up, scribbled-on piece of paper.
Your tutor’s opinion of your essay.

Remember your school days, when you could draw a picture or do an interpretive dance to convey your ideas about Macbeth, and your teacher would fondly praise your creativity and perceptiveness? And the old maxim, ‘you can say what you like, as long as you back it up’? Those days are over now. At university, even (or perhaps especially) in subjects with room for personal interpretation and opinion, you can be wrong – and, depending on your tutor, you can be informed of your wrongness rather scathingly. One tutor I had used to write on top of anything she didn’t agree with in red felt tip: NO NO NO! Another plumped for sarcasm over fervour, decorating my essays with comments like ‘eugh’, ‘Christ!’, ‘Yes, so?’ and even, once, ‘This all seems very uninteresting to me’. Perhaps my most memorable comment ever was ‘Last time I checked you were not a Daily Mail columnist – don’t write like one’. Be prepared either to take a LOT of criticism for your opinions, favourite scholars, writing style and method of constructing arguments at university – or, if you want a quiet life, just read your tutor’s book and copy that.

8. Takeaway exhaustion

Here is a list of things I’m to this day unable to enjoy, having eaten almost nothing but takeaway until my first student loan ran abruptly out one grey day at the end of October 2008: chicken chow mein, crispy duck pancakes, fish and chips, chicken tikka massala, chicken biryani, chicken korma, poppadums, sushi, burritos, bacon, eggs, hash browns, paninis, fried chicken, and anything from any of the following chains: Noodle Nation, Wagamamma’s, McDonald’s, Pret a Manger, KFC, and Edamame. Before university, I thought it impossible that I would tire of any one of these delicious treats – so quick to get hold of, and easy to clean up! And surely the gherkin in the middle of a burger can be counted a health food? How sadly mistaken I was – by Halloween of the first term I was having delirious visions of carrots and broccoli, and couldn’t even look at a chicken nugget without feeling queasy.

9. Pasta and pesto exhaustion

Image shows a bowl of pasta with pesto.
At least learn to make an omelette.

If I have one piece of advice for future students, it is this: before you set off for university, learn to cook something other than pasta and pesto. Not only is being able to whip up a good spaghetti bolognese, a roast dinner or even a stir fry a great way to make yourself the most popular person around, and get out of ever having to wash up (though, to be fair, you probably wouldn’t ever wash up anyway) – but once your first lump of money runs out, and the takeaway train must finally stop, you will quickly discover the extremely limited appeal of pasta and pesto, beans (even the ones with sausages in them) on toast, tortellini and other quick-fix meals. One girl I know, never having learned to cook anything at home, and having tired of pasta and pesto, ate nothing but noodles with soy sauce and cabbage for the whole of her second term. Another ate Uncle Ben’s rice with sweet & sour sauce and no meat or vegetables for lunch and dinner for about a month. And if that isn’t enough to scare you – if you don’t eat anything with vitamins in it, sooner or later all your teeth will almost definitely all fall out.

10. Food theft

Image shows a fridge empty but for a single pot of dipping sauce.
Welcome to your student fridge.

Everyone will steal your food at university – this is one of the unchangeable facts of the universe, like gravity or time, and there’s no point complaining about it. Not that you won’t want to complain, of course – no one is happy when they open the fridge to find only a single slice left of the cake they spent a fiver on yesterday, too little milk left for cereal, and their biscuits devoured – but in my experience, the angriest of ‘Don’t steal my food!’ notes will achieve precisely nothing. The best way to ensure your survival at university is to become very accomplished at stealing other people’s food in return. Some top tips for doing so include:

  • Always buy Tesco Value everything (the lower the quality, the better – remember, you won’t be eating your own food), while choosing exclusively rich friends who will shop at Marks and Spencer or Waitrose.
  • Always take entire packets of things from the fridge and drop them straight into an opaque bag (this reduces the amount of time spent at the open fridge, and the risk of getting caught).
  • If anyone complains about their missing food, join in clamorously, so as to deflect attention from yourself – even better, drop subtle hints to incriminate a different housemate, along the lines of ‘Well I have noticed Ollie looking a bit fatter recently – I wonder whether he has seen your parma ham?’
  • If caught: deny everything. Admit to nothing. Make counter allegations.

11. Your clothes don’t fit you as well as they used to

Mysteriously. Or perhaps not so mysteriously, considering entries 8, 9 and 10 on this list.

12. And they’re all a strange greyish colour

If at all possible, avoid washing your clothes at university. The combination of the terrible quality of the university machines and driers with your inevitable incompetence at the task will most likely mean that all your nice new things will end up, irreversibly, grey-brown, oddly stained, and smelling worse than when you put them in. Instead, cheerfully accept your new, slightly musty, quite-homely-actually smell of perfume layered over various cooking and bodily smells, and anticipate your parents’ joy the first time you turn up for a surprise visit home, with the twin intentions of washing four IKEA bags full of filthy clothes and raiding their fridge.

13. University sport brings out the worst in everyone

Image shows two teams of Oxford rowers competing.
Getting up at 5am to spend time on a freezing-cold river seldom improved anyone’s temperament.

I hate all forms of exercise – I find myself unable to distinguish between the feeling of being out of breath and that which I imagine accompanies a serious heart attack, so I avoid getting out of breath altogether. But even if I liked running about the freezing cold rain and mud, sporadically being bashed in the knuckles or ankles by the hockey stick of a bullish and deranged-looking person about three times my height, I would not take part in university sport. Think chino-wearing ‘lads’ with names like Octavian and Barnaby shouting chants presumably invented in a prehistoric age; think almost universal sexism from boys and girls alike; think bizarre bonding rituals.

14. The best things in life are furiously expensive

When you lived at home, your money used to be for new clothes, music, meals in restaurants, books, chocolate and train tickets to faraway places. At university, while you’ll certainly still buy all these things, the concept of pocket money sort of goes out the window – instead be prepared to watch sadly as all the money that doesn’t go on ‘joining societies’ (Freshers’ Week) is sucked into a vacuum of food, bike repairs, new bulbs for the bathroom light and library fines.

15. Shopping bags are surprisingly heavy

… And your bike basket is a dangerous place to put the eggs. Or the milk, or anything that comes in a jar. Unless, that is, you want to cause the messiest road accident ever.

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Image credits: banner; sink; phonecall; HowToStartABlogOnline.net; crumpled paper; pesto; fridge; rowing.