The transition from school to university can feel like a big jump, and in many ways it is. It is natural to feel daunted by the prospect, especially in the circumstances of a pandemic. But this guide is designed to give you a sense of what to expect, how to prepare, and help you establish good habits from the start.
There are some basic differences between school and university that are useful to know before you start:
- You will spend less time 'in class' than at school, so you will have more free time.
- The academic content will be more difficult and demanding.
- You will have more control over what you learn and when you learn.
- There will likely be more social events and opportunities open to you (but in a different form this year).
- You will have to be self-sufficient and care for yourself.
Now you're aware of the fundamental differences, let's go into a little more detail. The remainder of the guide will be divided into two sections, academic and lifestyle, to give you some insight into both key elements of the transition.
The point of university is to develop your intellectual knowledge and skills by building on the foundations laid at secondary school. This means your academic work will be more complex and more challenging than you are used to. However, you generally have a lot more time on your hands to put in the work necessary to succeed in your assessments. This means that time management and personal motivation become increasingly important. You have to be organised with when you do your work and be able to prompt yourself to get it done. Your university will have an online module page, where you will be able to see what kinds of assessments each module uses and the dates they are due. It is a good idea to add these into a calendar so you can chart your workflow across the term and prevent deadlines from creeping up on you.
At school, pupils are often spoon-fed information by teachers so they can achieve good results in their exams. At university, teachers are less concerned with ensuring students obtain good grades - they want to transmit the information necessary for learning, of course, but it is not their job to get you the highest marks possible: that is up to you. You are now responsible for your learning, not your teachers. You will receive less direction and less individual feedback. Hence, independent study becomes much more important. You will need to be able to work through novel academic content on your own and in your own time. It is a good idea to practice this by doing some preparatory reading before the start of term: this will help you hit the ground running and get a feel for your subject at the level it is taught at university. This is especially important if your degree is in a subject you have not studied before.
Normally, the library is a useful place for students to concentrate and get through some of their work. However, library space will be limited this year, so you may not have frequent access to one. It is therefore important that you create an effective working environment in your living space, whether that be in halls or at home. Having a quiet workspace with an organised, decluttered desk, a personalised touch and some natural light will help you feel relaxed and positive and will aid your studies to no end.
The nature of lessons is different at university. Despite the majority of teaching in the upcoming academic year taking place online rather than in person, it is still useful to know the differences between class formats. Most universities and courses structure teaching in the form of lectures and seminars. Lectures are where you will learn the bulk of your content. Unlike school classes, lectures involve minimal interaction between teacher and students; the teaching environment is more impersonal. The class size in lectures will also be greater - there can be triple-digit numbers of students in a lecture if it is heavily subscribed to.
Seminars are where you consolidate and build on the information taught in lectures. They are more similar to the lessons you had at school: more discussion-based, with a relatively small class size, and greater scope for consulting the teacher on things you don't understand or want to learn more about. Seminars represent your chance to seek clarification on things you might not have entirely grasped during the lecture, so make good use of them.
At school, you have some say over what you learn in terms of picking the subjects you sit public exams in. At university, you specialise in one subject (or two for joint honours degrees). Within this subject, there will likely be core modules and optional modules. Core modules are compulsory and central to the nature of your subject. Optional modules are modules within your field of study, but which focus on a specific subtopic in that field.
Some (not all) courses offer the chance to take elective modules: these are classes you can take outside of your degree programme, and they represent a chance to expand your learning beside and beyond your main subject. For example, a biology student might take an elective module in French film, if it interested them. You can use your electives to learn more about your passions separate to your degree, or to complement your learning in your degree. Ideally, you do both. Before the start of term, take a look at the modular structure of your course and see which classes are available to you. Some classes are oversubscribed and don't have capacity to meet demand, so checking this early may help you secure the modules you want and avoid missing out.
Because of the pandemic, your learning will not take place in quite the same way as it would in a normal academic year. Much will remain the same in terms of content but teaching formats and methods may differ. We are currently working on a guide for How to Approach and Excel at Virtual Learning, which will help ease the transition and set you up for success in your studies.
In many ways, the lifestyle shift when you go to university is more challenging than the academic shift. Whilst everyone who has finished school is familiar with the processes of teaching, learning, researching, revising, examining and so on, few are experienced with the level of self-sufficiency and autonomy the university lifestyle demands.
In many cases, going to university is the first experience people have of living without their parents. This prospect is exciting for some but unnerving for others. For most people, it is a bit of both. Your nerves are also likely to be exacerbated by the prospect of going to university without being able to socialise in the normal way. But before we cover that, let's run through the very basics.
Are you catered or self-catered? If the former, you must know when mealtimes are scheduled. If the latter, you need to know how to cook healthy and nutritious meals. This also means knowing how to shop for yourself. Try and get some practice at this before term starts so you don't spend your first term living off microwave meals and Pot Noodle. Looking after your health is more important now than ever, so try to strike an appropriate balance where your diet is concerned.
Most halls of residence require you to do your own laundry. Hopefully you have some experience of this already. If not, get some! It is not rocket science but knowing how to do it properly is one less thing to worry about when you arrive. Bring your own detergent in case your halls don't supply it for you. It is very important to keep on top of hygiene in halls (even more so in the current climate), so prepare yourself adequately.
As you will know by now, your social experience will not be like it has been for others in the past. You probably will not have the wild freshers week you were expecting. In my opinion, this is not a bad thing; despite the intended nature of the event, my freshers experience was the loneliest and most isolated I felt whilst at university. Not because I was alone, but because the superficiality of having people who don't know each other coaxed to socialise like cattle in a pen felt so unnatural, I wasn't able to be my natural self. After freshers week, when people began engaging with each other like normal humans, I felt much more comfortable and only then did potential friendships start opening up for me. So, don't worry about freshers - it's overrated.
Having said that, it is important to put yourself out there and try to engage with others to establish friendships. In this case, the best advice is the most boring, but the best thing you can do is to go out there and just be yourself. This may not be the magical slice of wisdom you were hoping for, but there is a reason you've heard it a hundred times already. By being yourself, the people drawn to you will be those who genuinely see something they like or admire in your personality. This means they'll appreciate you for who you are, not for some person you're trying to be. Secondly, the people you meet at university won't be stupid; they will see through people who are fake or putting on a front to try and impress their peers. It's neither an effective nor sustainable approach, so just focus on staying relaxed, keeping true to yourself, and being welcoming towards others.
There has been talk of freshers mixers moving online, in the form of video chatrooms with your new peers. Whether this makes you feel more or less comfortable about it, try to contribute to the virtual event as much as possible by entering into discussion with others, learning more about them and helping them learn about you. This may be obvious but remember everyone is in the same boat and others will be nervous too. Just engaging with a couple of people at these events will relax you on the social front and give you more confidence going forward.
Public health guidelines have recommended that university students should live and study in bubbles made up of people on the same course to reduce transmission of Covid-19. In some ways, this will make your life easier: rather than meeting swarms of new people, few of whom you'd get to know on any meaningful level in the early stages, you will be assigned a cohort of coursemates to spend most of your time with. Arguably, this narrows your search for companionship, since you will get to know each other more personally at a quicker pace. Furthermore, because you're studying the same subject, you will have a shared interest and focus from the very beginning.
Since your timetable may be devised such that exposure to other bubbles is restricted, your best chance of widening your social circle and meeting new people is through sports clubs and societies. They are great things to be a part of regardless of the pandemic, but under the circumstances, this is an especially good opportunity to get out there as much as feasibly possible, so I really recommend you sign up for at least one (two or more is better, but don't overwhelm yourself by signing up to too many). Even if you're not particularly sporty, consider joining a physically active society. It doesn't have to be a competitive sports team; it can be a leisurely sports society, like a weekly running group or recreational tennis club, for example. Being involved in a sports society is a great way to stay physically and mentally healthy, as well as a great way of making friends.
Looking after your mental health is absolutely critical at university. Basic things like having a regular sleep schedule, healthy diet, and active lifestyle all strongly contribute to good mental health, but you also need a person you can call upon if times get tough. Whether it's a friend or family member, having someone to rely on when you're feeling low or worried is an essential at all times. Although many profess that the years spent at university are some of the best of your life, students are still prone to experiencing loneliness, anxiety and low mood at times. It is important that you keep tabs on how you feel and self-monitor appropriately to keep track of your mental wellbeing. If you don't feel like you have that person to confide in, universities have student counsellors who can help you if you're struggling with your mood or your studies, so be sure you know how to contact them and make use of them if necessary.
University is an amazing experience and something you should be excited about. You will learn so much about yourself and society, and by the time you leave, you will have developed into a competent, responsible person ready to seek vocational success.
The most important things to take away from this article are:
- Know how to stay organised and motivate yourself.
- Be able to take care of yourself - physically and mentally.
- Be brave, be yourself and try new things; make the most of the experience!
- Stay active and be proactive. Remember: mood follows action.