A Week in the Life of a University Student
As the university application season gets under way for another year, and you start thinking about where to apply, what to study, and what to write on your personal statement, you’ll probably find yourself daydreaming about what university is going to be like.
You’ll pack an awful lot into your time at university; so much, in fact, that your three or four years as an undergraduate will be over before you know it. This is particularly clear when you look at the weekly timetable of the average university student and see how much there is to do, both on the academic side of things and socially. While everyone’s experience of university will be different, we can give you a rough idea of the sort of activities that will fill your weeks each term. Have a read of this article for a better idea of what day-to-day life at university will be like.
It’s fair to say that the bulk of your time at university will be taken up with your academic studies, though this won’t be to the exclusion of all else (until your final-year exams start looming uncomfortably close, anyway!). We divide this section into humanities and sciences, as the two branches of academia result in very different undergraduate timetables. Depending on how your tuition is scheduled, you may end up with entire free days, or you may have teaching every day; it will vary from one term to another. On some days you may have early starts or finishes, while on others you might get a bit of a lie-in and finish later; your timetable is a lot less rigid than the routine you’ve been used to at school, and that brings with it a great deal more freedom.
Humanities students generally have a less structured timetable than science students, because humanities degrees are more focused on private study, which usually revolves around reading books and researching and writing essays. You’ll have lectures to attend (these are usually around fifty minutes in length), interspersed by smaller teaching groups that involve more interaction with the lecturer, such as classes, seminars or tutorials. These are likely to involve academic discussion and group work, and you will probably find yourself having to give a presentation from time to time.
To give you an example, some of Oxford’s classes for humanities subjects are groups of eight students and a lecturer, and each person is allotted a week in which they give a presentation and provide handouts for the others to learn from. On top of this, students go to lectures and one-to-one or one-to-two tutorials. Other universities have tutorials, but usually with more students per group.
When you’re not actually being taught, you’re expected to devote a lot of your spare time to private study, which lots of students choose to complete either in their rooms, or in the distraction-free environment of the library, or a bit of both. Private study will involve reading and researching from library resources, writing essays and preparing work for classes.
The great thing about being a humanities student is that because your timetable is less structured, you get to plan your own time to a greater extent than science students. This means that you can be a lot more flexible during the day, so if you want to meet up with people for lunch or coffee, or attend a meeting of a student society during the day midweek, you can do so in the knowledge that you can catch up on work later on. It also means that you can work at the times of day when you’re most productive; some students prefer studying late at night, for example, while others are early birds, at their most efficient first thing in the morning.
If you’re studying a science subject, your academic work is likely to be based more around time in the laboratory learning practical skills, conducting experiments and so on. Lectures also feature significantly in the science degree timetable, and learning is generally more structured, with more tuition scheduled in (as opposed to the extensive independent study required in humanities subjects). Work in your spare time may involve completing problem sheets and preparing for sessions in the lab by reading up on the theory. You probably won’t have as many essays as a humanities student, but you’ll have plenty to do instead.
If you’re a clinical student – studying Medicine or Dentistry – then your weeks will also involve time in a clinical environment, and these sessions will increase in number as your degree progresses. You’ll be learning clinical skills, observing doctors at work, and developing skills in patient care. Unless there’s a training hospital on site, this will involve travel to a hospital, which you’ll need to factor into your day.
Whether you’re a science or humanities student, you’ll somehow find time to fit a social life around your timetable of academic work. At times you’ll wonder how you manage to juggle everything, but where there’s a will, there’s a way! You’ll soon see why university is renowned for teaching you time management skills. Here are some of the things you can expect to be fitting into your weekly schedule.
Breakfast and early morning exercise
If you’re in catered halls, you might have breakfast with your friends first thing, if their timetable is similar to yours. Some students are dedicated enough to get up early and do some exercise in the university gym before breakfast, or going for an early morning run around the park. It’s a great way to wake yourself up in the morning, as well as keeping you fit and healthy. While exercise is most important for those who are members of university sports teams (and early-morning training sessions may be mandatory for some activities, such as rowing), some fresh air and exercise is still a good idea whatever your other interests, as you’re going to be spending a lot of time at a desk. Unless you’re taking part in scheduled sports team training sessions, you don’t have to do it early in the morning, of course. You might manage a lie-in if you don’t have any 9am lectures or classes scheduled in.
Pre- or post-lecture coffees and lunch
Some of your time will be taken up with getting to and from lectures and other academic commitments, which will be more or less of an ordeal depending on the proximity of your accommodation to the lecture theatre or your lecturer’s room on campus. If you live on the other side of town, you’ll have to factor in time for cycling, walking or getting the bus. You might meet your friends from lectures for a quick coffee before a lecture, or have a more leisurely chat over coffee or lunch afterwards, so that you can discuss what you learned and catch up. You will almost certainly relish the freedom you have at university after the rigid learning environment of school.
Mundane domestic chores
University life isn’t all glamorous: at some point during the week you’ll have to find time to squeeze in going to the supermarket for your grocery shopping, and you’ll head down to the university laundry room to get your washing and ironing done. The amount of grocery shopping you need to do will depend on whether you’re in catered halls or not; even if you are, you’ll probably want to keep some snacks in your room to keep you going during those long study sessions. If you’re living in halls of residence, there will probably be a cleaner employed to keep the communal areas clean and tidy, but you may be responsible for cleaning your own room yourself, changing bedding and so on. If you’re in a privately rented house with other students, you’ll need to decide between yourselves who does what jobs and when. Many students opt to create a cleaning rota to make sure that everyone does their fair share.
A part-time job
Many students put in a few hours a week in a part-time job, such as working in the library reception one or two evenings a week (reading their own academic books during quiet moments), or working in the bar in the student union, or at a local coffee shop. Providing it doesn’t have a detrimental impact on the quality of your academic work, most universities have no problem with you taking on part-time work alongside your studies (the only exception being Oxford and Cambridge, which have shorter, more intense terms), and it’s a good way of boosting the income you get from your student loan, which may not cover all your living expenses. What’s more, it gives you extra work experience to put on your CV, which will be an advantage when you come to apply for full-time jobs after you graduate.
One of the best things about life at university is the wealth of activities available for you to take part in. Every conceivable hobby – from sports clubs to political groups to craft clubs to orchestras – will be represented by a student society, club or special interest group, so whether you have existing hobbies you want to carry on when you’re at university, or you want to try your hand at something new, or both, university is the time to do it. Some societies meet midweek during the day, others in evenings, still others at weekends. These are a great opportunity to let off some steam and get you away from your academic work, as well as being the ideal place to make friends with like-minded people.
Contrary to popular belief, many students don’t fill up all their spare time with partying, though you can if you want to. Some students – especially those whose primary motivation for going to university is for the social life – go out with friends most nights. But it’s in no way mandatory, even in Freshers’ Week, and if it’s not your kind of thing, you shouldn’t feel pressured into it. University is about being an individual, and nobody worth knowing would think less of you for not wanting to go out all the time.
If you’re more in favour of quieter evenings, you could go to the cinema with your friends, go out for a meal with them, or cook dinner together at home. Students often spend downtime chilling out in their own rooms, watching television on their laptops, and early nights are by no means unheard of. You’re also at liberty to go home and visit your parents if you wish; there’s no rule that says that you must remain at university for the duration of term. Many students go home for a weekend during term time, eager for the comforts of home, such as dinner cooked by their parents. If you work hard during the week, a whole weekend off work is often easily achieved, at least in the first couple of years of your course; your workload may not permit so much time off as your final-year exams approach, but that’s a relatively small percentage of your overall degree.
As you can see, you’ll have lots to keep you busy when you’re at university – so much, in fact, that you probably won’t even have time to miss home too much. Whether you’re researching essays in the library or spending time with your new friends, you’ll never be short of things to do in the time when you’re not actually being taught. Towards the end of degree, your workload will become more intense, leaving less time for other activities, but by this time you’ll be taking the work in your stride and you’ll already have had ample opportunity to have fun and enjoy your new university city. With so much to occupy you, you’ll soon settle into your new way of life, so if you’re worried about the prospect of starting this major new chapter of your life, you needn’t be.