What I wish I knew before starting university | The Ultimate Freshers Guide


September has come around and the academic year will soon be starting again. For some, it’s already begun but for those of us starting or returning to university, we have a few more days to go.

I’m going to be honest, making it through my first year was hard. Really hard. I went through two family bereavements, the first being three weeks into my course and the second three months later – this majorly affected my mental health in ways I can’t even begin to describe.

Grief is a complex and complicated thing and I’m certainly no expert on how to deal with it. What I did learn is that you kinda just have to go with it. There’s no point in trying to fight it or ignore it. It will come when it comes which is mostly in waves. Some days are okay, some days aren’t and some days you’ll hit rock bottom – probably more than once. But I got through it. I’ve completed my first year of university! Just saying that fills me with an immense feeling of proud as it’s something I never thought I’d be able to do – so that in itself is a huge achievement.

Fortunately, I’m in a much better place now and I feel ready to go back and give my second year my best shot. I also feel that having already completed a year of study puts me in a much better position; I know what’s what and I know what to expect – mostly. If only I knew the things I know now when I started my first year… So, for anyone starting university this month, this is for you.

All photos were taken using a Canon EOS 1200D and edited using VSCO and ACS.

1. Don’t splash out on books

For most people, university prep is well underway and with that comes one major purchase: books. Reading lists at uni can be overwhelming (and expensive) to say the least but here’s the thing, don’t spend a fortune on books; wait until the second week of your course to see which ones are actually worth buying or email your course leader to ask which top three books are necessary for student purchase. I couldn’t tell you one occasion where I’ve read an entire book; usually, I just need a few pages or a chapter at most – but never the whole thing. If you do decide to buy your own, it’s ALWAYS worth checking eBay or Amazon and if you have easy access to your university library, make good use of it! I promise you, it will be your best friend!

2. Choose what you put in your bag wisely

Next up, choose what you put in your bag wisely because the chance of you needing to refer to more than 1 book (if that) during a lecture is unlikely. In my experience, lectures are where you gain information (mostly from powerpoints) and you pretty much always refer to books for assignment purposes in your own time. Plus, if you do need to refer to a book, there will almost certainly be an e-book version which is much more convenient- perhaps opt for a laptop, tablet or just use your phone. Carrying books around all day makes your bag weigh a TONNE and the back-ache isn’t worth it – trust me.

3. How to make your student loan stretch further

Thirdly, if you’re looking to experience university on a budget: take your own food/drink. I don’t even want to think about how much I’ve spent in the on-campus cafe during my first year; so, this time around I’ve decided to prepare my lunch the night before using a re-useable bamboo lunchbox from Aldi – which is possibly one of the best purchases I have ever made. Unfortunately, I bought my lunchbox a while ago, so I wasn’t able to find a link but you can find similar lunchboxes in most supermarkets!

Seeing as we’re on the topic of re-usable food/drink containers, I take my own water in a stainless steel water bottle; my exact bottle is no longer in stock but you can find similar ones here. When I’m not running late, I make myself a tea in my travel cup from Home Bargains which I can rinse out and use again whilst at university – this way I can help the environment and get a discount on my drink!

I’m not saying to deny yourself of that panini or slice of cake, maybe treat yourself once in a while after working extra hard on a project or handing in an assignment, otherwise, you could end up spending a lot of your student loan on takeaway food and drink – trust me, it adds up! There’s usually a hot water machine and milk available for free from your university canteen so if you can, take your own re-useable cup, tea (or coffee) and sugar sachets – you’re sorted!




4. Get talkin’

Now, this next one is something I wish I did during my first year and will make a conscious effort to do in my second: try to sit someplace different in each lecture, get to know as many people as possible. I’m going to be honest, socializing and chatting to a bunch of people I’ve never met isn’t something I feel particularly confident in.

Last year, I made friends with the mums in my class – who are all incredibly supportive. However, not having children of my own (or the desire to) can sometimes make me feel like the odd one out. So, this year I’m determined to get out of my comfort zone and get talking to people, especially as I don’t actually have any friends my own age; after all, university is an environment full of people from all walks of life so it’s the perfect opportunity to make new friends!

That being said, I realise this is difficult when you have social anxiety – take it from someone who sweats profusely during any social interaction but in time, it will get easier.

5. Go out of your comfort zone (it’s probably not as scary as you think)

Next up, reach for the stars… okay maybe not quite that far on your first day but push yourself if you can. For me, even just making it onto the university campus was going out of my comfort zone but over time, it got less scary. University opens up so many doors to amazing opportunities that you just wouldn’t get anywhere else; so if you can, go for it! One of the things I really want to do during my time at university is to join a society; right now that probably wouldn’t be do-able seeing as I’m only on campus once a week (and have back-to-back lectures) but hopefully when I study my bachelors it’ll be something I can pursue.

6. I’m sorry, what was that?

Moving on to something that I’d consider a huge part of the university experience: lectures. For me, finding a note-taking technique that actually works took a while – and a lot of trial and error. If I were to give you any advice, don’t bother trying to get everything down. It’s virtually impossible and isn’t usually effective; although, everyone works differently.

I’ve found that using bullet points and lecture summary sheets (I particularly like these ones from The University of Leeds) are a pretty good way of making information stick and anything I don’t manage to get down, I can access later online – should I need to. Another tip, always make a note of references – this will save you a LOT of time when you’re working on assignments.

Recording software is another great way to catch university discussions without trying to cram everything onto a page – if you have a specific learning difference, try contacting your university’s disability team as you may be entitled to free software like this.


7. Academic writing

Speaking of assignments, it’s always a good idea to try to familiarise yourself with academic writing and your university’s referencing style as it can take a while to get your head around it, especially if you’ve never written this way before. There are plenty of resources online that explain what academic writing is and how to do it. Your university should tell you what referencing style they use; however, this may vary slightly depending on your course. There are plenty of guides online that tell you how to reference different sources from books, websites to journal articles which can lessen the time you spend writing assignments!

8. Know what works for you

Another super useful thing I wish I did before starting uni is recognise strategies that help maintain my focus. I had NO idea how mentally tiring university would be; having lectures from 9.15am – 5.15pm really takes it out of you. It isn’t just the lectures that drain your battery either, there’s the social aspect of listening and talking to other people and actually being able to maintain focus – believe me when I say it’s hard! Knowing what works for you really is the difference between finding a lecture useful or a complete drag. Here are some strategies I use to help maintain my focus and get the best out of my lectures:

  • Regularly sip water.
  • Get a drink or something to eat.
  • Go for a walk around campus, be mindful.
  • Find a quiet space, listen to Headspace or Calm.
  • Do some discreet exercises like pushing both hands together, pulling myself into my seat or giving myself an arm massage.



9. Don’t be afraid to take advantage

Make the most of the services your university has to offer: e.g. counseling, learning disability screening, advice, bursaries, etc. Being a university student means you can access a whole range of support services – most of which are usually free or discounted! The majority of universities offer free a counseling and mental health service which in my opinion, is always worth looking into; even if you feel like you don’t need to talk to someone, to begin with,  it’s good to know that you have the option should assignment stress or anything else arise.

So I guess that’s a wrap! I really enjoyed sharing the tips and tricks that help make life that little bit easier, hopefully, it will have been of some help to at least one of you! For those of you who aren’t going to off to uni, it probably wasn’t much help at all but maybe some of these tips could be used in other areas of life, so let me know if you do happen to try any of them – I’d love to hear from you!

Beth x

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