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What to expect at university

University is different from school in nearly every way, but this is how you can prepare for the change

  • Student life
Noorin Malik's avatar

Noorin Malik

April 12 2016
Students in library


University can be a big jump from high school, and for many it is an overwhelming change. The close-knit relationship students may have had with subject teachers at school; those many role models, who appeared to focus on your educational career alone, are replaced by a personal tutor who you might see once or twice in a semester unless you make the effort to seek them out yourself. The school atmosphere of familiarity and recognition disappears at university, and you suddenly bump into someone who has been studying on your course for the past two years and who you have never seen before.

While these things are not inherently negative in nature, they can lead to students feeling isolated on campus. The building housing your personal tutor is at the other end of campus and meeting strangers at regular intervals can be intimidating. It takes time and courage to get used to such changes; there is no quick way of getting around all the things that can startle you when you begin university. To make sure that you don’t receive a university culture shock as I did, here are some tips on what to expect and insight from a student who took a year to adapt to what academics term “independent study”.

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1. You’ll have to be more responsible

Lecturers and seminar leaders don’t come looking for you. They are most likely to be far too busy because many lecturers engage in research alongside their teaching. Or maybe it’s because chasing students is not necessarily their job.

They will make themselves available to you during their academic hours, but the responsibility to seek help is yours. That’s the difference: help doesn’t find you when you have an accident on the highway; you have to take that accident to the help desk.

Going to find someone with the knowledge that you’re after is what makes the whole university experience one of independence. That experience is not just confined to getting on with your reading list. This was a big burden for me and it left me struggling.

There are many resources, but you need to learn to navigate the available facilities and options for yourself. It may feel overwhelming, but adaptation is not impossible. It just takes time. The comfort, however, is that many first-year courses at university do not count towards your degree. Cherish that, and not just in terms of grades: use your first year to explore all the available help.

Ask yourself: “What kind of person am I? Do I need someone who will throw a list of articles and books at me so that I can chase up everything I think I need? Or do I need someone who will sit down with me and help me to figure out what it is that’s bothering me?”

Often the root of the problem is not that you don’t know how to revise, although you might think that you do. Instead, a feeling of isolation might be the cause of your distress. It is as though you are holding a map that has no route marked on it. Many times in a situation like this it might be best to seek an older peer, usually in the form of a mentor, rather than a personal tutor for the simple reason that the peer will be able to relate to you on a more personal level. It differs from person to person.

Don’t give up on yourself and definitely don’t think that you have to suffer in silence. I can tell you from experience that there is always someone out there whose job it is to address your specific problem; you may just take some time locating that person.

My advice for prospective students
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2. Get used to being on your own

You will likely be on your own a lot. The quicker you get used to this fact, the better. Whether you live on or off campus, in student accommodation or at home, getting from one lecture in building A to another lecture in building Z can be a walk of isolation.

The lecture halls are big, seats are not allocated, you have lost your friend in the crowd and neither of you wants to be late for the second lecture so you set off by yourself. This phenomenon of losing your friends in a crowd can repeat itself not just day by day but lecture by lecture if you aren’t part of a group or, like me, you don’t want to be because you prefer the quieter friends who respect your introverted nature.

What’s more, you don’t get to pick your seminar group, so chances are that none of your newly-won friends will be there. That means that you will make your journey to your seminar by yourself, sit through it by yourself, occasionally engage in a class debate with people who you might not even recognise, and return home by yourself.

I am not saying this to make you feel as though you will end up being a loner (you won’t!). It’s just that it was a reality I was unfamiliar with. There will be plenty of opportunities to hang out with your friends during your free time, at the end of a university day, on common days off during the week and at weekends.

3. Finding like-minded people takes effort

Friendship-building is a different process from what you may have been familiar with in school. Don’t confine your search for friends to the people on your course. Chances are that the course you are enrolled on will not be the most dominant common thing between you and everyone else because diversity on a course, especially at universities that pride themselves on their international character, brings with it diversity in interests.

These interests can range so vastly that being on the same course as someone else becomes the equivalent of having caught the same bus in the morning. And this is why there are societies at universities. Make use of them. Societies will not just give you a break from your studies and help you to find friends, they will help you to find the friends that you were looking for and help you to bridge that initial overwhelming culture shock and/or isolation.

Read more: 17 books you should read before (or at) university – chosen by students

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