10 things I wish I knew before starting university

Annabelle (second year UCL English student) shares 10 things she wishes she had known before starting her degree.

1. Everyone is in the same boat

When you find yourself overwhelmed by the change in environment, make sure you remind yourself that you’re not the only one. It might seem that everyone has made friends for life by day two of fresher’s week, but they are probably as nervous as you. If you’re struggling with feelings of isolation, it’s likely others are too, and would appreciate a new friend as much as you would.

2. You deserve to be here

‘Imposter syndrome’ is the feeling that your achievements are somehow a fluke, and that one day, you’ll be found out. It’s a feeling that I found difficult to shake when I started university and would often compare myself to my course mates. I would convince myself that everyone on my course knew more than me, was a better student than me, and deserved to be there more than I did.

Deal with imposter syndrome as quickly as possible by reminding yourself that you deserve to be at UCL, studying the subject you applied for. You should be proud of yourself for getting this far!

3. Ignore the Fresher’s pressure

Fresher’s week is a weird time. This year it’ll be taking place without fresher’s club nights all week, but it can still be a time of social pressure for many students. Your first week at Uni is a bit like New Year’s Eve—the movies make it look magical, people hype it up for weeks beforehand, and yet the reality is often underwhelming. A friend told me before I started Uni that I should go to every event possible because ‘it’s what everyone will be talking about for the rest of the year’, so I placed huge expectations around it and ended up underwhelmed. You might make great friends, meet your future partner and have the best experience of your life, but don’t worry if you don’t. Most people make their closest friends later down the line. You have several years so relax and don’t worry about cramming all your socialising into one short week!

4. Find your people

The biggest difference between school and Uni is the range of people you can hang out with. You’re no longer in the microcosm of college or sixth form. Although this can feel overwhelming, it’s also a great social opportunity. Hang out with people you like, who you can be yourself around, and who make you feel good about yourself. Try to meet new people when you can, because the more you put yourself out there, the more chance you have of meeting people you click with.

5. Be open to new experiences

Although it can feel great to meet someone you seem to have everything in common with, don’t close yourself off from people who are different to you. If you meet someone who has different views to you or different hobbies, see your interactions with them as a learning experience. You don’t have to change who you are, but chatting to people who are different from you can broaden your world view and might lead you to new experiences. These might be a new group of friends, a new hobby or simply a different way of seeing something which will add to your personal growth. You might discover something new about yourself or be able to share something that’s new to someone else.

(Of course, being accepting of personal differences does not mean you should tolerate any form of discrimination. Invalidating someone’s identity is unacceptable whether it’s through homophobia, sexism, racism, ableism or classism and is behaviour UCL takes very seriously. If you experience anything like this you can report it to your department, the head of welfare in a society or to the welfare officers at your accommodation, depending on who was involved.)

6. Make an effort with your flatmates

Being friends, or at least friendly with your flatmates can really improve your time in first year. They may have different interests and personalities to you, but you’ll be living with them for a year. They’ll see you at your best and worst. Say hello when you meet them, learn people’s names as quickly as possible, and ask them about themselves. Be respectful of the people you’re living with—washing up a plate or turning your music down is a lot easier than dealing with a resentful flatmate for the rest of the year. You might end up closer to people from societies you’re part of or your course mates. You might not keep in touch with your flatmates after first year. Even if you don’t, getting back to your flat and having someone to chat to while you make dinner helps your student accommodation feel more like home.

7. Make memories

One of the best things I ever bought for Uni was a disposable camera. For my first year I bought one disposable camera per term. Snapchat memories are great, but it feels even better to have a physical reminder of all the fun times I had with my friends. I think doing something physical to commemorate your time at UCL, (whether it’s taking pictures or writing in a diary) is a fantastic way to preserve memories you can look back on. I often flip through the shoebox of photographs I took in first year and it never fails to cheer me up.

8. Look After Your Health

It might seem like everyone around you can pull regular all-nighters and live exclusively off pot noodles, but believe me, it takes its toll eventually. It’s hard to say this and not to sound like your mum, but a balanced diet and a full night of sleep every once in a while will help you out in the long run.

Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, so take care of yourself mentally. Starting university is a massive social and environmental change, so take extra time for yourself and check in with yourself mentally to make sure you’re coping okay.

Your GP should be the first place you go with any health concerns, mental or physical. The start of student life is filled with endless registrations and forms and I found it tempting to put GP registration firmly on a backburner marked ‘adult responsibilities’, but it’s an invaluable resource you should never hesitate to use. If your health is impacting your studies, look at UCL’s ‘Student Wellbeing’ resources and inform your personal tutor or member of your department. 

9. Plan your studies

Some people are naturally organised and motivated. I’m not one of them. I spent more of my fist year than I care to admit in a cycle of procrastination which turned to frantic cram-sessions whenever a deadline reared its head. What it took me almost all of first year to figure out was that, with the smallest amount of planning, this could have been completely avoided.

Write down the work you need to, whether it’s on your phone or in a diary, then work out how long you have to do it and prioritise accordingly. It can take all of half an hour to get your deadlines in order, and it’s well worth the panic and boredom of sitting in a lecture when you haven’t familiarised yourself with the topic.

10. It’s okay to not know

If you don’t know how to do something, it’s okay! Whether it’s course material you don’t understand, or how to put on a white’s wash, don’t beat yourself up about it. Google it, ask a friend, email your lecturer or call your mum, and learn how to do it for next time.

Starting university is a brand-new experience for most people there, and because you’ve never done it before, you’ll make mistakes. Be kind to yourself and remember that everyone in your position feels just as nervous, unprepared or overwhelmed as you do. University is a huge learning process: not just in terms of your course material but for your social skills, life skills, and gaining new experiences. Be proud of yourself that you’re daring to do something you’ve never tried before and remember—you’re not alone!

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