Freshers’ guide: seven ways to make the most of your first year at university | The Guardian clearing hub
From partying to joining the tea society, to discovering where the seminar rooms are – the first few weeks and months at university can be a whirlwind. But while it’s an exciting time, it can also be bewildering, especially following many months spent studying at home during the Covid-19 pandemic.
As a result of Covid, freshers’ week will be different from normal this year. Students will start university at a time when restrictions are easing and the country is opening up, but the pandemic still looms large. “Last year, everything was basically online and no one knew what would happen,” says Jo Linsey, who studied English at the University of Southampton and then worked at her students’ union before starting an internship. “People went ahead with trying to make the best of the situation,” she says. And, if some events such as socials go online, she recommends still attending them.
Alice Wilson, head of mental health and wellbeing at Birmingham City University says it’s difficult to predict exactly what will happen with restrictions and the pandemic this year. “None of us like uncertainty and we’ve had to deal with a lot of that,” she says. “Last year, students came into the academic year not really sure how it was going to look. Being prepared for that is really important. Students will have to come into it with quite a lot of flexibility.”
But Beth Eyre, president of the students’ union at the University of Sheffield, points out that those starting university this year will have already built up a lot of resilience over the past year. “Try to keep the resilience,” she says. “Remember to enjoy uni and have fun with it. See the new beginning as something fresh after such a bad year and a half.”
As a new student you’ll want to make friends, settle in, and get a good balance between studying and your social life. “For me it was quite overwhelming,” says Bethany McLaine, who studies nursing at the University of York, “but it was also really exciting”.
We spoke to current students and students’ union representatives to get their top tips on how to make the most of your first year at university. Here’s what they had to say.
Connect with people on social media before you go
Before you even attend university, it can help to connect with potential friends online. This can take away some of the first-day nerves and make freshers’ week less daunting. “My best piece of advice is to find as many people as possible on social media,” says Eyre.
When you do reach out to people, don’t worry if it feels a bit awkward. “You’re going to find yourself saying the cringiest stuff and acting in quite a strange way because you have to put yourself out there,” says Eyre. “Just remember that everyone’s in the same boat.”
Don’t be afraid to make the first move
Don’t be afraid to approach people you’d like to talk to, says Linsey. Being friendly and proactive goes a long way. “Say hello to people on your course, ask how they are, and see if you can sit with them,” she says.
Realise you might not meet your best friends straight away
If you don’t find your tribe straight away, don’t panic – it’s completely normal. “Don’t be afraid if you don’t make your friends for life in the first week,” says Conor Naughton, president of the students’ union at Nottingham Trent University. “At freshers’ week everyone’s trying to impress and people can put across a certain image of themselves,” he says. “But you get past that and settle in eventually.”
Keep an open mind and try new things
From the cheese club to karaoke singing – there’s pretty much a society for everyone at university. And societies are a great way to meet new people and make friends.
It’s a good idea to go to a variety of different society tryouts, because you never know who you might meet or what you might like, says Linsey. “You might end up sparking an interest in a random sport you’ve never heard of,” she says.
Give new things a go. Harry Potter fans could end up in the Quidditch society, for example. Or maybe you’ll like the 20-minute society, where members have to drop everything and rush to a specific location in 20 minutes.
Create a study plan
In your first year of university, settling in can take priority over your studies. So having a bit of a study plan can help you to maintain a good balance between your studies and social life. It will also help if some lectures and seminars are moved online due to the pandemic.
Maleeha Mir, who is studying a master’s in modern literature and culture at King’s College London, got used to studying online last year. “I made a priority list every day,” she says. “It can be good to have a to-do list with monthly and weekly goals and to write down deadlines, or to put them on your calendar,” she says.
Realise that others sometimes feel lonely too
While the start of university is an exciting time, there’s also a lot to process and it can be a bit overwhelming. “I’m quite an outgoing person but I remember I had a real pang of loneliness in those first few months,” says Eyre. “You’re not alone if you’re feeling lonely, especially after the year we’ve just had, because emotions are a bit heightened at the moment,” she says.
Naughton agrees. “I wish I’d known that everyone is in the same boat,” he says. “There’s always that person at pre-drinks who’s the loudest and most confident, but [many] people feel the same. They just handle it differently.”
Support is available if you need it
One of the most important things to know is that support is available if you need it. Wilson says the main piece of advice she and her team give prospective students on open days is to reach out and get support early on. “You can meet with a mental wellbeing team before you even start your course, to talk through what your needs might be and get information,” she says.
Many universities have a team of wellbeing and mental health advisers, counsellors, and therapists. “The support can be quite wide-ranging and you don’t have to have a mental health diagnosis to come and talk to us,” adds Wilson.