How to Survive Going to University or College

by Audioworm

About this time of the year newspapers and blogs all come forward with the best advice and tips for getting through that first year of University or college.

Most of the advice presented in these newspapers or blogs is well-meaning, but painfully useless. The advice is written to keep parents happy, not to actually ensure the happiness of you the student. Everything is written to ensure that you turn up on the first day, loaded like a pack-mule, and relatively clueless of what to do now. The actual steps and necessities are relatively easy, and do not need to be as overwhelming as it may appear.

Moving In

Living Away from Home for the First Time

For many of you attending University or College, this may be the first time you have spent any substantial (or even at all) time away from home. For some this idea is scary, for others it is a dream, but for most it is a task they are not entirely prepared for.

One of the luxuries of living in a home where your parents provide most of the necessities is that you kind of take for granted things being there. You may not think about the need for a muffin tray until you are sitting in the house one evening, and decide you really want some cupcakes. While that is a relatively niche example, there are more practical ones you will come across from a lack of bowls, to subpar utensils. At home there are plenty of options, and they can all be found somewhere, while in your new residence space is a premium, so not everything can be brought with you.

This can be alleviated in your later years when you move into private houses. If you live with a group of people you trust you can share the more unique items so you don't end up with cupboards chock full of doubles.

You Only Need One of Anything

The biggest mistake people make when moving to 'independent' living is bringing a huge amount of useless duplicates. Unless you are extremely accident prone you are unlikely to break more than one plate a year (I did four years with no breakages), and if you do, it will cost next to nothing to replace them.

Depending on what you eat, some people can get away with their only crockery being a deep plate, which is able to act as a bowl, plate, and everything in between. Other people need a plate and bowl separately, but only bring one of each. The same stands for your knife, fork, and spoons. It stands true for everything in the kitchen except for glasses and mugs.

Even if you are not traditionally sociable (going out drinking or clubbing), you will find a place where you fit at University (as I will discuss later), and hosting and entertaining in some capacity will become a norm. By having multiple glasses you can offer people drinks, and can allow for some drunken fool to smash one. 

Mugs are the lifeblood of being a British student, as having someone around for a cup of tea has magical healing effects. It is the universal message that you are happy for someone to stay for a while (offering them a cuppa shows you are willing to spend the next 30ish minutes with them), and is a good way to bond when you first arrive. For many it also has a comforting effect, as it provides some warmth and security in a new environment. And lastly, those with brutal hangovers the next morning will forever love you if you offer them a cuppa first thing.

Tea heals all wounds

Having only one of everything else is the way to go though. It saves space in already confined space, it ensures that you always stay on top of your washing up, and come the end of your time at University you throw away less waste.

Another important exception is your cutting knife, you still only need one, but make it count.

You want to purchase a single blade that can be used in almost all situations. Having a rack of knives for every situation may be useful, but you will not use them all very often, and they will take up more space.

My personal suggestion would be something like a Faberware. The distinct colour makes it easy to spot as your own, as the design and materials are very friendly to novice users. 

If you are familiar with using knives for cooking then the 8-inch will be perfect, allowing you to do the most tasks possible. If you are a novice the 6-inch will make doing the day to day tasks significantly easier, but will leave a few jobs in the difficult range.

Kettles, Toasters, and Grills

If you are British, you are probably well aware that the last thing you pack when moving, and the first thing you unpack, is the kettle. A cup of tea helps the process along. As a result most people will turn up to university with their own, as well as a toaster, and possible some other counter-top devices.

This can very quickly leave all the workspace in the kitchen usable. I know you may like your toaster, as you know exactly where to have the dial to make perfect toast, but you're pretending to be an adult now, so you can adjust.

The reality is that the residential services will often supply kettles and toasters to you (in the UK), as they want to ensure a basic level of electrical safety. If this is the case then you don't need to worry. If it isn't the case then try and get in contact with your new hall mates if possible. Many universities create Facebook groups to allow you to all mingle a little before meeting for the first time.

And if you do turn up on the first day, and no one has any of those things, you can have a nice dorm bonding session as you go to the nearest supermarket and pick up the cheapest toaster or kettle available. It will break, and you will throw it out within three years, so don't waste money on it.

Your Room

The Inner Sanctum

Your room may end up being where you spend a lot of your time as a student. While you will be in lectures, and enjoying whatever social activity takes your fancy, when you return to your domicile you will most likely be in your room.

Many first year residences only have one social area: the kitchen, so comfort is at a minimal there. Your room will be where you go to relax, study, sleep, sleep with, and sometimes even entertain in. Often you will be in the halls and see seven or eight people crammed in a room watching a film or TV show off someone's laptop. 

But even though this will now become your home, there are some things to note.

Don't Make it Too Good

Being away from home, for some there is a lack of authority figure enforcing working behaviour. No one wants to do assignments, but they are often a necessity. Having a room that is an all round entertainment centre can distract you from your work, and will also make you a must visit spot for those who don't have work to do. While this is a fantastic way to meet everyone, a routine and ethic for work needs to be built up in the first year, when the stakes are lower. 

Having everything you want in your room can also make you less sociable. University gives you a fantastic opportunity to meet a huge array of people, and by holing up in your room you can miss out on that opportunity.

My Desk in 4th Year
My Desk in 4th Year
Keep it Tidy

Everyone hates tidying and cleaning, and with no nagging you can often let it slip. The simplest way to prevent this is to have less stuff, and to have a system for keeping it tidy.

You'll have a small desk, big enough to work on, and possibly a bookshelf provided. Don't bring too many of your recreational books (though bring the ones you are going to read) as this space allows you to keep your floor free of papers and folders filled with your work. Having a laundry basket that you actually throw stuff into, and keep a litter bin by your desk so you put any rubbish straight into a bin bag.  

It all sounds very simple and obvious, but if you don't set it up when you first arrive the amount of work to do rises very rapidly, and you can take weeks or months to get it back to a managable position.

Surviving Freshers Week

When the most people will drop out...

Freshers week is the very first week of University. There are no real lectures, there are no real commitments, and you have nothing to do but socialise, get to know your new home, and explore life at University. If you University is hardcore (like mine was) the celebrations of Freshers week actually go on for nearly three weeks. It can all seem a bit mad when you are first dropped into it all. We'll break down and go through the major things you need to get done this week.


The simplest, but most important you need to get done. Many of you will have done it already (go you, have a cookie), but for those who haven't you will need to collect and deposit all the documents the University requires. This usually includes passport photos and proof of address. You will also most likely have to register with your department, to confirm they have you down for the correct course and modules.

At my Freshers Fayre a Kangaroo Learnt Taekwondo
At my Freshers Fayre a Kangaroo Learnt Taekwondo

Societies are the clubs, activities, and sports teams of the University world. They cover almost every conceivable aspect of life. You have the standard sports like rugby, football, hockey, netball, but also the more unusual sports like lacrosse, ultimate frisbee, water polo, and handball. The same breadth is found with the clubs available. You'll find societies representing every major academic field, as well as clubs for fans of science fiction, film, literature, and baking, to debating, young entrepreneurs, and computing. Many Universities now even have a Quidditch team. 

It's all about finding something you want to do, and throwing yourself into it. You'll meet some like-minded people who share the same passions and obsessions, and you'll get the opportunity to travel the country (or world). Your first year is the year where you have the most freedom, so it is good to make the most of it.

Have Fun!

This is where a lot of people got hung up over nothing. Freshers week has a reputation for being a week of alcohol fuelled debauchery, which can be somewhat tree. Every single night of the allotted will have some sort of event going on. Some are simple places to go for a good night out, others are more elaborate involving bar crawls and fancy dress. 

These events can be a great way to get to know the people you now live with. They can be fun, and stupid, and they begin to create some of the stories that may become legends by the time you face graduation coldly in the eye.

But if you are not comfortable with drinking or clubbing do not threat. If you do not drink, you don't have to. There is a lot of pressure to drink, but if you say you don't drink, or don't want to drink, most people will push it no further. If you are uncomfortable with clubbing and do drink, alcohol will make that uncomfort go away. If you don't drink then you can make use of the Chill-Out Zones most Student Union events run, which are quiet safe spaces. You can also just not attend any of the clubs. 

Many prefer pubs and restaurants, or even just sitting around the kitchen table with a cup of tea. It is good to push your comfort zone a little, but do not force yourself into activities you are uncomfortable with. Having fun has to be fundamentally linked to being comfortable. 

Fun for us involved buying Nerfs
Fun for us involved buying Nerfs
Then having house wars
Then having house wars

Find whatever thing you find fun and revel in it. Whether it is hitting the dance floor hard twice a week, or sitting in a pub and shouting at the football screen because the referee is obviously blind, or sitting on your couch with two housemates arguing about how the wizards in the Harry Potter Universe are really quite rubbish when you consider modern technology (instant messaging vs. owls). Find what you love and revel in it.

My group of friends also took to acquiring Nerf guns and shooting each other because when you are 21 nothing seems like a much better option. We also baked a lot, because cake and cookies solves all problems. 

The Anticipation
The Anticipation
We made a lot of cakes
We made a lot of cakes

Many first years are based in or next to the campus, and as a result don't take the time to really explore their surrounding city. There is a big difference between attending the University, and living in the city, and far too few students actually live as a member of their city. 

Every student can tell you where the pubs, the clubs, the supermarkets, and the major shops are. Not enough can tell you where you can get the cheapest sandwich in the city, or where you can buy high-quality second hand clothes. Every city has shops and stores that are far better than the chain brands. Swansea has a little diner that does a dish that is just a huge plate of meat for less than a tenner, a little coffee shop where the owner will ask about your day and try to set you up with her daughter, and it has an iron monger who knows everything and everything, yet charges nothing for his wisdom. He also owns a cat that breaks into your house at night.

The more you know the more you will enjoy your time. Many locals don't particularly like students, but a lot of that comes from the stereotype of us not becoming part of the community. We are seen as people who are here just over half the year, and then leave, with no connection to their home.

The more you know about the local environment and area, the more you will discover from the locals themselves. When you find a pub off the main road owned by an Englishman who is ecstatic to see a few English people to talk to about life across the border.

Iron mongers cat breaking and entering
Iron mongers cat breaking and entering

From this we became friendly faces in the pub, and he would offer us samples of any new casks he brought in, and from this we became involved in a darts tournament at the pub that we sorely lost. 

These little adventures and stories only emerge when you become a proper part of your city. Don't be a stranger to your new home, dive into it.

University is Weird

So just go with it

University is just weird in general. Things will happen that would make no sense in any other situation or context, and eventually you will forget this. Having frequent Nerf wars will be seen as the standard, and intra-office bin-basketball competitions will become the way it should be.

You'll come home to find a washing machine in your living room and think nothing of it. You'll get bored when evening so convince your housemate to let you shave his head. 

You'll take the afternoon off to go meet an astronaut. You'll set up a teleconference with Hong Kong so one of your society members on their year abroad can run for a committee position.

You'll do all these things, and more, and you will think nothing of it, because you're at University.

New Washing Machine
New Washing Machine
We're not Hairdressers
We're not Hairdressers
Meeting Chris Hadfield
Meeting Chris Hadfield
Hong Kong Calling
Hong Kong Calling

It will be the best time of your life, and you will look back on those memories through a teary smile. With a little bit of common sense, a lot of minimalism, and a smidgen of self belief you will sore. 

I miss being a student at Swansea every single day, because it was the greatest four years of my entire life, and I want all of you to have as much fun as I did.

Updated: 08/08/2014, Audioworm
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Audioworm on 08/09/2014

It wouldn't surprise me. That same article also suggested bring wine boxes so your child has a sort of peace offering for the rest of the house. While a little middle class, I do know a good few people who drink wine, but a crate of beer would go down universally better.

But one of the commenters on that article was worried it would encourage her daughter to drink too much. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

JoHarrington on 08/08/2014

Tea set?! Oh dear... was it bone China? I firmly agree that any British student needs access to cups of tea, but a mug or three will cover it.

Audioworm on 08/08/2014

@Jo I know that the papers are just aiming at their reader market but the parents pass them down to the students who learn nothing useful. I remember reading one from the Telegraph or Observer about how you should make sure your child has a tea set so they can make tea for everyone. I think they missed the whole 'kettle and mug' solution that is popular among those who hate cleaning up.

The greatest years for me so far.

JoHarrington on 08/08/2014

You nailed it. This is the most accurate What to Expect from University guide I've read. You're right, the usual ones are for the parents!

I only had to change a detail here and there for it to have been my experience too. Fabulous years!

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