What would you tell yourself going into first year?


It's the day before freshers' week starts, which means that uni marketing has gotten slightly ridiculous (not sure why...we're all already signed up to be screwed out of money...maybe this is to make us feel better...). One question popping up over shiny social media is "what advice would you give to your first-year self?".

I screwed up a lot in first year. Hey, at least I've not screwed up too badly this year; true, that's mostly because I haven't actually started it yet, but I'm trying to feel more positive about myself. As such, I feel qualified to give first-year me a lot of (hopefully useful) advice. And if any first years come across this, I really hope this helps!

0: Keep an eye on your physical and mental health and seek help immediately if you feel unwell.
This is 0th on the list because it's the most important. You will have many, many chances to do well at basically everything. The thing with a body or a psyche is that you only have one. Please learn your reactions to things - which ones benefit you and which ones harm you. Don't just leave a symptom and hope that it will pass; if you put yourself under stress it might not. Please take it from somebody who overworked herself and didn't seek help until she was in a very bad state.

1: Go the hell to sleep.
Okay, we get it, you're at uni. Nobody's telling you to go to lectures, handing work in on time is up to you to do, first year might not even count for you, and nobody's telling you when you can or can't go out.

Unfortunately, your body still totally hates you if you don't sleep enough. What that means is up to your body - when you start feeling sleepy, how long you sleep for and so on...and sleep deprivation has a whole host of consequences, from mood and memory problems to weight loss or gain to adverse effects on the body healing itself to hallucinations (mine were harmless, but annoying and a bit boring).

Try and set a time to go to bed by and get yourself into a routine. If you can, keep your sleeping space and your work space separate (and avoid looking at your phone in bed...I sound like a grandma, I know, but the blue light messes with your brain and keeps you awake). I find that stopping myself from pulling all-nighters, except in dire circumstances, motivates me to work. Also, sleep is nice.

This doesn't mean that you can't go out and get home at 6am, just that doing that most of the time is a bad idea. It's really hard not to sound like a frumpy grandma saying this, so let me elaborate: I'm not opposed to the idea of having fun. It's just that when you haven't slept well in several weeks because you've been going out and pulling all-nighters, having fun is hard. Save yourself that experience and go the fuck to sleep.

(Me? I wrote this earlier and scheduled it. Although I stayed awake quite late, to be fair.)

2: Try not to skimp on food.
Student loans are shit. Buying perishables is expensive. Preparing and cooking meals is time-consuming. That said, your body will hate you if you don't put enough fruit and vegetables into it. (I am still working on this one, to be honest.) Your mood will drop, you might start coming down with random illnesses, and your body will be sending you not-so-subtle signals of "feed me this".

Making food you can then store works for some people, or using things like instant noodles as a base and then chucking in vegetables. Some people cook all of their meals from scratch; some don't for whatever reason. As long as you're eating a couple of meals a day and getting some measure of balance - that's important.

3: University is nothing like school.
Actually, this is probably something you've been told multiple times, about how the onus is all on you to do work. You have to experience it for yourself, though.

In general, tutors and lecturers won't chase after you for attendance or handing in work unless you haven't shown up for a long time (8-10 weeks). You might still receive penalties, but you will be expected to know what they are and the consequences of not doing the work without someone else poking you. There is also a great deal of help available - advice services, emailing tutors and lecturers, demonstrators and so on - but it is incumbent on you personally to seek it out. This is the main difference: nobody chases after you to help or chide you. To some students this might seem like apathy, and apathy's probably a part of that. At the same time, it's meant to encourage self-discipline (albeit in a really messed-up way).

University is nothing like school in another important way: exams are very different. You will not be prepped for exams by your lecturers or tutors; if they are nice, they will explain the exam format to you and give you some revision handouts, but that's it. If you want help on prepping for exams, you ask a lecturer or tutor about a specific question; they might also tell you when to start revising, but it's pretty vague. You should probably start about halfway through the semester to effectively revise all the material.

While past papers are available - up to 20 years of them - mark schemes are generally more difficult to get hold of. For quantitative subjects, you'll get bottom-line answers (just the solutions and no working). I'm not sure what it's like for qualitative exams. For older exams, bottom-line answers may not be available at all. Instead, your best bet is to look at exam feedback to see how to approach the exam. Technique is as important as ever.

Because of the lack of obvious solutions, it can be really helpful to discuss problems with people on your course. Which brings me to...

4: Don't be afraid to ask for help.
Help is not going to come to you if you sit there - you have to ask for it. And you should; university is hard, because a lot of material is thrown at you in a reasonably short time. If you don't ask for help, you will sit there and be confused. So swallow your pride and ask - there are hundreds of people who are, amongst many other things, paid to help you.

5: Just because it's first year doesn't mean you shouldn't work.
For a lot of people, first year either doesn't count or only counts for a tiny percentage. Honestly, you might be too busy adjusting to living away from home anyway to really focus on work. (That's why first year has so little weighting in your final degree classification; universities understand that students are adjusting.) And uni's supposed to be fun, right?

Yes, university is supposed to be fun. I'm certainly really enjoying it, even with all the stress, because I'm doing what I want to do.

The thing is that university can be much harder on you if you miss material, because you don't get a huge amount of time to hone your skills and notes or podcasts may not be available. And even if you don't do anything, what you do in the next years at uni will build on what you did in first year. If your course hates you, it's entirely possible you'll have to take exams which test all the material you've learned...including the things you skimped on in first year.

6: Organise!
If you're anything like I was, you're probably recoiling from that word in horror. People like us have systems.

Honestly, nobody's expecting you to have a super-ultra-pretty organised environment like studyblrs show. (People who run studyblrs: I love your aesthetic, I just have no idea how you have your workspace so organised. Entropy hates me.) But it's really easy for the world to get on top of you. It helps to be able to order the tasks you're doing in some sort of methodical way.

7: Results you're not happy with aren't the end of the world.
Some of you out there are probably used to getting 90-100 UMS points on everything. The first time you look at your exam results and see a 60 you might even cry; I know I did.

But first year is relatively unimportant in your final degree classification. It's okay to make mistakes - plenty of them, actually. The important thing is to not fail - and even then, there are resits (I've not had to take one yet, to be fair, but it's better than not having them as an option at all). And a 2:1 is usually good for most things. You can always request to look at your exam script or discuss your performance with your tutor to see what happened. You can keep improving and keep trying - that's what's important. It's not like A-levels, where at least a year of your life hinges on them. It's closer to a very long continuous assessment where the final decision comes down to whether anyone will actually hire you.

Some people will be horribly snide about your results. Those people are terrible and their opinions don't matter; learning to block them out is a skill.

8: It's okay not to have a placement.
Do you remember the careers service at your school or college? Did you miss them? I hope you did, because they're back again and as intense as ever.

Don't get me wrong, they can be helpful, but they can also cause a lot of employment anxiety. It's your first year. Nobody expects you to have a placement - in fact, many institutions won't offer placements for first-year undergraduates. It's great if you can get one, but nobody's going to dismiss you as forever unemployable if you don't.

(Seriously. Spend that summer having fun.)

9: Don't go ham on the societies.
I will be the first person to say I'm a fan of university societies. I think they're a great way to make friends, do something you enjoy and possibly make yourself look shiny and employable (volunteering and organisation in particular look great).

Really, though, pick 2 or 3 and stick to them for at least the next semester. While each society might only require a couple of hours in the week, that adds up very quickly and particularly for students who already have a lot of contact hours.

10: Please be nice to your flatmates.
You will almost certainly be living in shared accommodation. (If not, I would like to know your secret.) You probably have to share things like kitchens and bathrooms - things which are not as communal as people like to think they are.

Don't treat the people you live with like shit. Noise and parties are okay but if some people have early mornings (or it's exam season) you are basically impeding them from feeling comfortable in the space they have to live in for the next year. The communal space is communal, so making the people who also need to use it really uncomfortable using it is shitty. Having people over to stay is okay, but if you decide to bring in a new housemate or flatmate (or someone who pretty much permanently lives at yours) at least discuss it with your other flatmates first. Particularly when you have to pay for your own utilities, having someone living rent-free while using the flat everyone else is paying for can cause a lot of resentment. And passive aggression will also cause a lot of resentment...

...Lastly, don't vandalise other people's stuff with bigoted slurs or sexually harass your flatmates. I have no idea how you fuck up badly enough to think either of these things are okay to do to anyone, but people still do it.

11: Most people suck at living in shared accommodation, so don't assume it's your fault for not being "good enough" to live with other people.
In the last section, I probably came over as a little sanctimonious, didn't I? Or a bit of a killjoy telling you not to have parties in your own flat. Maybe if you were to live with me, you'd think I was a bit of a pig, or too antisocial. Maybe I wouldn't much like having you as a flatmate either for any number of reasons.

This is okay.

Living in shared accommodation is hard. Everyone needs some level of space and privacy, and when you live in the same space with other people you have nowhere to go but your own bedroom. You might not also have much in common with your flatmates, which can make things awkward. Or you might have radically different personalities or attitudes to housekeeping; some people will sweep up and do the vacuuming every one or two weeks, while other people might snap at you for not cleaning up when you're feeling very ill.

I actually felt very relieved when my friend told me this. Some people get on very well with their flatmates, and if you're one of them I'm glad for you. Most people...don't. It's not really anyone's fault or a sign of being a bad person; it's a consequence of needing space.

12: Fun is important too.
I've probably made uni sound quite daunting, what with all my talk about taking care of your health, working and being a decent flatmate. Man, I really do sound like a grandma...

...At the same time, uni is a very unique experience. You can be doing things you love, making new friends and feeling accepted. Nobody's telling you what to do; you have to figure it out for yourself. That is difficult. Some people enjoy it. Some don't.

(Also, you will never have summers that long again.)

There's a lot of guff going around about how uni is supposed to be the best time of your life and I feel like it puts an awful lot of pressure on people to enjoy themselves even when their environment is making them feel miserable - which it can easily do at uni.

The best thing to do is not to pressure yourself, but to listen to yourself. That's how you figure things out and carve out a happy little niche for yourself.

I know I've probably sounded like a boring adult who doesn't really know what the concept of fun is in this post. I know you're probably itching to get away and live your life without people nagging you.

Here's the thing: adulting is hard and boring. Yes, it also allows you to have a lot of fun, but the reason it allows you to have a lot of fun is bound up intimately with the reason it's hard and boring.

You have a lot more responsibility for doing things yourself - organising your own learning, your own space and your own health. Standing or falling your on your own might feel great, but it also means making a lot of mistakes and figuring out how to fix them, which requires yep, you guessed it...things like trying to get actual sleep, working and eating semi-properly. With that responsibility also comes accountability towards others; because you're more adult, people have less of a responsibility to protect you. If you don't do work, you're accountable for the consequences - there are hundreds of undergraduates on one course alone and while nobody will chase you up, they still have to grade you. If you treat your flatmates badly, you're accountable to them and they are under no obligation to pussyfoot around your behaviour.

(I mean, complain about them all you want. They will still hold you accountable for your actions.)

Nobody wakes up one day and decides to be a killjoy. We discover that our bodies physically can't handle our idea of what life should be like, and that the rest of the world isn't too keen on conforming to it either.

Despite that, this whole life business is rather short and silly, and we try our best to have fun and not take the whole thing too seriously.