Life at University: 10 Things You Really Have to Know
Your university experience probably isn’t going to be exactly how you imagine it will be while you’re in sixth form.
While you’re still in the comparatively restrictive schedule of lessons, study and exams imposed by sixth form, you’re still enjoying the benefits of living at home and you probably don’t have to worry about everyday practicalities such as cooking or finance. When you get to university, it’s time to fend for yourself, on top of completing all your academic work, and that can be a bit of a shock to the system for those who aren’t prepared for the day-to-day reality of university living.
The motto “Be Prepared” is every bit as relevant to those about to start at university as it is to the Boy Scouts who famously adopted it, so here are a few things you need to know before you begin this exciting new chapter in your life.
1. Your student loan won’t go as far as you think it will…
…and nor can you or should you rely too much on the Bank of Mum and Dad, either. Your student loan should cover the bulk, if not all, of your accommodation costs. However, it probably won’t stretch to everyday essentials such as food, laundry, toiletries and so on. Nor will it stretch to ‘luxuries’ such as nights out spent drinking, going to the cinema or eating out, or paid-for extra curricular activities and the gear you may need for them. Or trips you might have to pay for as part of your course. Or birthday presents for your friends. You’re likely to be faced by numerous expenses you simply hadn’t bargained on, so try to think of everything you might need to pay for and budget for it. The cost of living at the moment is high, and food in particular is likely to prove an unexpectedly high cost.
In the summer preceding the start of your first term at university, it’s advisable to get a summer job and start saving some money – you’ll find your savings invaluable extra support when it comes to day-to-day living at university, not to mention that you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that it’s your own hard work that’s paying for your living costs. And as well as helping you pay your own way, it’ll be good work experience for your CV as well. It’s a no-brainer! Even better, try to arrange with your summer employer to go back and do some more work for them in your university holidays, as this will give you a top-up ready for each term.
This won’t be a problem for conscientious types who do this in the parental home already, but it can come as a shock for those who are used to having mum doing everything for them. However, it’s not difficult to learn a few basic recipes over the summer – try spaghetti bolognese and chilli con carne, for example, as these are great for if you’re cooking for large numbers of people. Very simple foods such as jacket potatoes or scrambled eggs will provide quick and easy meals as well as being nutritious, and are good strings to your bow for when you get bored of baked beans on toast.
Before you go to university, learn how to use a washing machine, tumble dryer and iron if you don’t already know how. While some students save their laundry for weekend trips home, you’re going to have to learn eventually because laundry is a basic life skill – and some of you might be too far from home to save it for your mum to do!
3. Your accommodation might not be as nice as home
For most freshers, university is their first experience of living away from home. After the warmth and cosiness of home, university accommodation can seem a bit bleak and impersonal. This can lead to feelings of homesickness, so do what you can to make your new room as homely as possible. Before you go up to university, have a think about how you’ll decorate your room to help keep homesickness at bay. Here are a few suggestions…
– Your own duvet set – university rooms sometimes have duvet sets provided, but they may not be a colour you like, and they’ll be the same as everyone else’s.
– Posters and photos – most university rooms have large pinboards to allow you to put up photos of your friends and family and perhaps some posters of your favourite films or works of art.
– Soft furnishings, such as cushions and fleece throws, will not only keep you warm in cold weather, but they’ll help personalise the furniture you’ve been given and make your room cosier.
– Fairy lights or a lamp – it’s amazing what a difference lighting makes to a room. Rather than relying on the clinical ceiling light that may be your only source of light provided, take a bedside lamp and some fairy lights (the latter perhaps less appealing for the boys!), as these will help soften the lighting in your room.
– Take a houseplant or two – plants can transform the atmosphere in a room, not to mention making the air itself more pleasant by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Just don’t forget to water them!
4. Your stuff might get nicked from communal areas – or used, or broken
It’s a sad fact of life that some people are more respectful of other people’s stuff than others, and nowhere is that fact more apparent than in a shared kitchen scenario. You might find things go missing, or end up in the sink caked in the remnants of someone else’s dinner just when you want to prepare yourself a meal at the end of a long day. You might find that that chocolate mousse you thought you had left, that you’ve been craving all day, has mysteriously vanished from the shared fridge. This sort of incident can be disheartening, and tensions can arise and even lead to fallings-out. But it’s not worth losing friends over, and can be avoided by being sensible about looking after your own kitchen equipment and food. If you’ve brought your own cooking utensils, pots and pans with you, you’re best off storing these in your room, and likewise cutlery and crockery. Label anything you do leave in the kitchen, such as cartons of fruit juice or milk in the fridge.
5. Equip your room for entertainment
You’ll be in a better position to make friends more easily during Freshers’ Week if your room is equipped to entertain – and you’ll also find that adequately kitting out your room will stand you in good stead for your whole university career. During Freshers’ Week, keep your door open and make your room a social hub that passing students want to wander into. Invest in the following:
– Kettle – a kettle will be handy for offering people cups of coffee or tea, as well as enabling you to make hot drinks and soup during those cold winter months.
– Mugs – you’ll need plenty of mugs to offer round, not just one for you.
– Crockery and cutlery – similarly, don’t just get one plate and one knife, fork and spoon – invest in a set, so that you can cater for friends.
– iPod speakers are another good investment and allow you to create whatever atmosphere you like. Just don’t annoy your neighbours by blasting music out day and night!
– Drinks – ok, so they probably won’t last long, but having beverages to offer will get you started in those crucial first few days. If you want to be super-organised, buy some disposable plastic cups or glasses to drink it out of – that way you don’t need to worry about broken glass or washing up.
6. You’ll be coerced into signing up for every university society during Freshers’ Week
During Freshers’ Week there will almost certainly be some sort of Freshers’ Fair, at which all the university societies exhibit and try to lure new students into signing up with abundant free pens, mugs and other less useful paraphernalia. Don’t worry if you end up signing up for way more than you have time for – you’re not committed to going to any of them if you don’t want to! Do, however, be prepared for the fact that you’ll probably be bombarded with emails from the Badminton Society, Conservative Association or the Doctor Who Fan Club for the rest of your time at university…
Freshers’ Week is your chance to sample what your university has to offer, and you can always go along to the first meetings of the ones that sound interesting before you decide which ones you want to pursue. There are likely to be a huge number of extra-curricular societies that cater for a vast range of tastes and interests, so you’re sure to find something you’ll enjoy. University is also the perfect time to get involved in something new (I joined the university gliding club, choir and origami society – and loved all of them!), so keep an open mind.
7. Invest in a decent laptop, and back everything up
You’re going to be using your computer a lot when you’re at university. Making notes, writing essays, emailing essays to tutors, catching up on your favourite programmes on iPlayer, keeping up-to-date with what’s going on socially – all these things necessitate a reliable computer that will perform the tasks you need quickly, as well as providing ample storage space for your academic work. The last thing you want when you’re writing your thesis is for your computer to crash and lose all your hard work, so not only do you need a trustworthy computer, but you also need to back up all your work onto an external hard drive so that you have a copy of everything just in case something goes wrong.
You’ll probably find that a small, fast, quiet and lightweight laptop will be best for library-based study. Trust me, in the hushed environs of a library, there’s nothing more embarrassing, nor more likely to attract the disgruntled glares of fellow library-users, than a laptop that sounds like a jet aircraft powering up its engines. What’s more, if you’re going to be having to carry your laptop for any length of time, a heavy one will soon take its toll on your back, so choose your laptop model wisely.
8. If you’re not already on Facebook, join it
If you’re one of the few people who haven’t yet succumbed to the Facebook craze, or you’re keeping a principled distance from it, it’s time to bite the bullet and get yourself an account. In this day and age, Facebook is something you’ll struggle without at university. It’s a great way of connecting with people you meet in the first few weeks and beyond. Event invitations get sent round via Facebook, photos get shared, last night’s gossip gets aired, and if you’re not part of it, you may find yourself feeling left out and isolated. If nothing else, it’ll help you keep track of everyone’s birthdays (avoiding that potentially embarrassing situation of not having realised it’s someone’s birthday when you’ve just spent an hour having coffee with them), and it’ll help you keep in touch with friends back home, too.
9. You might be needing some smart clothes
Contrary to what you might be expecting, students don’t always lounge around in hoodies and jeans. There are likely to be a few formal occasions each year that require you to get dressed up in black tie (or even white tie, for balls), so it’s worth packing a cocktail dress or two if you’re a girl, and a smart suit if you’re a guy (you’re probably better off renting a tux should you need one, but if money’s no object then it’s a good item to have in your wardrobe).
10. You’re going to have access to a lot of discounts
As a student, you’ll enjoy a fabulous array of great discounts on pretty much everything, from local restaurants and cafes to cinema tickets to Apple computers to train tickets. It pays to be aware of what discounts you’re entitled to, as you’ll find this a great way of keeping your costs to a minimum. Get an NUS card at the earliest opportunity, sign up for a 16-25 Railcard if you don’t already have one, and find out what deals are available specifically to students of your university (these should be outlined in your Freshers’ pack). Remember to ask “do you do student discounts?” whenever you pay for something – if you don’t ask, you don’t always get!
In addition to student cards, it’s worth signing up for supermarket loyalty schemes, Tesco’s Clubcard being one of the best. These award points for the money you spend on day-to-day items, which can then be used to get money off your shopping or put towards treats such as days out, meals or even airmiles. You’ll also get money-off coupons that will help keep your shopping bills down.
Armed with these tips, you’re ready to take the big step and start your university career in style and comfort. These are some of the best years of your life – so make the most of them!