What do students need to know before starting university?

When Richard and I set up Chameleon PDE the first group we started writing lessons to support were post-16 students. We consulted closely with students and teachers to be sure that our content was relevant and covered the issues that students wanted to know about. Just over 2 years later we are already updating and adding to our material and are delighted that lots of settings are using our resources with their post-16 students. However, as you will see from the article below written by a student who has just completed their first year, there are many young people who enter the next phase of life with lots of unanswered questions. We are not suggesting you share the article with students, but it will highlight some of the key challenges of university life in the UK. Rest assured that the Chameleon PDE resource library addresses all the issues mentioned in this blog.

What I wished I’d known before starting university

My first year at university has come to an end. It was nothing like I imagined it would be.

For a long time, I had a set expectation of what university was going to be like. I had an image in my head of how my first year was going to go. Reality slapped me in the face in several different ways, from having to live off £23 a week to constantly wanting to go home. I must admit, there are a few things I wish I’d known before going.

I have always thought of myself as a very independent person, I love my own company and I expected to enjoy my new independent life away from my family and the familiarity of home. However, I quickly found that those home comforts are something you really miss when you’re on the 21st floor of a tower-block in a 10-person flat that constantly stinks of weed. The beat of the DNB music is blasting below you. It's also disappointing when your flatmates don't turn out to be 9 of your new best friends.

I wish I had paid more attention in food tech during secondary school. As it turns out, my "speciality" when it comes to cooking is cheese on toast and I can even manage to burn that. I also had one incident of food poisoning, who knew that raw chicken shouldn’t be cut on the same board as your veggies? Not me apparently. I really wish I knew how to cook a few meals before going to uni. I always relied on my mum cooking me something tasty, which by the way, I appreciate a lot more now that I’m home. When it came to cooking meals for myself, I was stumped, I didn't know the first thing about preparing a balanced meal. If I could go back in time, I would use that huge summer after sixth form to learn to cook a few basic meals so that you're not stuck eating a frozen pizza, pasta, or beans on toast.

Another thing that I wish I knew is how lonely university can get. Some people will argue that you just need to surround yourself with people and ‘jump in the deep end’ however, it really isn't that easy. It's very easy to spend too much time by yourself and not make the effort to see people. When you're at home and you feel lonely,  all you have to do is walk into another room and someone is there. However, at university you must really put the effort in to make friends and be with these new people that you don't really know, which can sometimes feel very overwhelming. I missed my friends from home a lot, it's very natural for friendship groups to drift apart when you go from seeing each other most days to talking maybe once a week. It's also difficult seeing all your friends make new friends, especially if you're finding it difficult to make new friends yourself. It helps to remember that a lot of people are in the same boat as you.

I cannot stress enough how important joining a society is. These days there is a society for practically everything, sports societies are usually the most popular however, there are societies for things like chess, cultural societies, debate…there was even a nacho society at my university! There will be something for everyone and every university has a fresher’s fair, where you go to look at the different societies. I found that everyone was very friendly and helpful at the fresher's fair, and you can go to try-outs for the sports teams. Even if you don’t make a team, which is very common, there are usually lots of friendly games that you play with others just for fun. This is a great way of meeting new people.

Drugs. They are everywhere. I used to think that cocaine was a super expensive and dangerous drug only used by the mafia and shipped from Mexico to the US! Wrong. Although it’s dangerous and expensive it is scarily common to come across a random girl in the toilet approach you with hands shaking, eyes bulging, and asking if you'd like a key of coke. I would always recommend saying no - especially if you don’t want to turn into the shaky, bulgy-eyed, coke-head offering it to you. You'll also find that you might even live with a drug dealer, if that's not the case then there is likely to be one in your halls of residence. You'll be able to tell by the stench of weed, which as previously mentioned, was always present in my experience. Now there's no point in me saying ‘don't do drugs’, you've probably heard that from every adult and read it on every school wall there is. However, I would like to offer my advice and say, if you are absolutely set on doing something risky, weigh up the pros and cons, be very careful, and don’t do it alone.

There was also an epidemic surge in ‘spiking’ during my first year at university. This was done using drugs dropped into drinks or increasingly commonly via a hypodermic syringe. I and several of my friends in universities around the country all experienced this assault, often resulting in a hospital stay and blood testing.

When asking my friends what they thought about their first year, I received a few different answers. One of my friends, found that uni life just wasn’t for her. She also had a very specific expectation of university that wasn’t met. She didn’t like the city that her university was in, she found that it was far too quiet and did not provide the experience that she craved. Due to this and a few other factors, she decided to take a year out and try again next year, this time really looking into the different cities and what they provided as well as the university itself. So overall, her advice would be to make sure you like the place that your uni is in, as that's where you're going to be living for the next few years. Another friend found herself in a city that was too boisterous, and she has also changed both university and course. The ‘virtual’ university tours held during Covid has led to many students from my year making choices that have proved not to be ideal.

Overall, I think it's very important to accept the fact that university is a rollercoaster for everyone, forget your expectations because I can guarantee they will be completely different when you arrive.

(By EMMTull)