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The big differences between school and uni

Applying to university is a demanding process, running alongside a pupil’s progress towards A levels. If all goes well, that will translate into the offer of a place.

Still, with teachers and parents shepherding you through the process, just as they have done all through school, it can be a shock to arrive at uni just a short time later and find that you’re, well, on your own.

Not literally, of course. But going to an institution with three, five or ten times the number of students your school had, and sitting down in a lecture theatre for the first time with 250 other people to be talked to by someone who doesn’t know your name? That can be a lonely feeling.

That, right there, is the independence you have been craving. And that independence is what lies behind all the big differences between school and university:

  • you’re responsible for your own learning
  • you need to look after yourself
  • you need to look after your finances
  • you can get involved in things that you choose.
  • The key to a successful transition can probably be summed up thus: Get Organised. We’ll suggest some ‘Get Organised’ Objectives below (and we will resist the urge to call them GOOs).

Independent learning

A school leaver is used to having teachers who know them pretty well, and who can spot when they might need some help and step in with guidance. A university lecturer or professor is there to provide a framework for the student to explore their subject. It can be a great feeling of freedom when you first learn that a piece of work isn’t due for a month and nobody’s going to hassle you for it. The flip side is that it is due in a month, and nobody’s going to hassle you for it – you’ve got to do it all yourself.

Remember, too, that nobody’s giving you credit any more for just trying hard. You get the credit for doing your assignments well – the “trying hard” bit is what gets you there.

The learning is done very differently at uni. If you only have twelve hours of lectures and seminars a week, it because you’re supposed to be in the library for the rest of the day, reading around your subject and developing your ideas, not in bed watching Netflix. You need to know what’s expected of you, and then put together a timetable that will make sure you deliver. Do that early, and start as you mean to you mean to go on.

Universities will offer help with the change in learning style, whether that’s through face-to-face taught classes, with guidance leaflets, or with drop-in or by-appointment advice sessions. FutureLearn offers a great six-week massive, open online course called Preparing for University, which you can sit before you go to uni (disclaimer – the course is run by the University of East Anglia, the publisher of UniBox).

Those lecturers and professors, the ones who we said are there to give you a framework for your studies, not hassle you to study? Well, they are also there to help you if and when you need. It’s just that you have to ask for that help. Don’t be afraid to – they are people who love their subjects, love talking about their subjects, and love helping others to discover their subjects.

‘Get Organised’ Objectives

  • Take any available advice on new learning methods and study skills. This could be on arrival at university, and/or beforehand through something like the Preparing for Uni Mooc.
  • Get a diary. It could be an online calendar, a wall planner or a paper organiser. Put your timetable of lectures, seminars, lab work, assignment deadlines etc into it, and then fill out the other hours in all your working days with what you should be doing and when.

Looking after yourself

Nobody’s going to nag you about getting on with your work. At the same time, nobody’s going to tell you to look after yourself either (except maybe during those phonecalls and Skypes with the olds back home). When your mum suggests it’s time for a haircut or to change your socks, that’s embarrassing – but in the big wide world, bad personal hygiene is just going to get you shunned.

There will be a refectory where you can eat something that might share the name, if not the appearance, flavour and nutritional benefit, of a dish you might find in the outside world. But cooking is a wonderful skill to have, and can be a source of great joy. As you’ll discover when you send the smell of simmering onions and basil, or cinnamon and star anise, wafting down the corridor from the little corner kitchen in your hall of residence, it can also help in developing friendships.

Video chat is great for keeping parents calm – everyone looks pasty (or, at least, badly-lit) on Skype. But what if you really are under the weather? Who’s going to mention it to you? Students need to look after their own health, whether that’s managing screenings and medication or just seeking help when something’s turned a bit… itchy. There’s a university health centre for that, and the good news is that a) this isn’t the same doctor your mum goes to, and b) they’ve seen absolutely everything before. You can be honest with them.

But those people at home, they have your best interests at heart. Make time to talk to them – it’ll help beat homesickness, and will remind you what you’re doing all this for. Don’t forget to call when you said you would, because that will just make them worry. They want to chat with you, not just wince at your antics on Insta.

It is liberating, in so many ways, when you’re new to a place. It can also be baffling. You have no parent taxi to call – you need to know your way around. New students should make time for this learning.

‘Get Organised’ Objectives

  • If you don’t already cook, learn to make a few cheap and simple dishes before you go to uni. Make them for your family. Help your parents do the shopping once in a while so you know what things cost.
  • Register with the university’s health centre straight away. Get registered with a dentist too, if you need to do that separately – or make sure you get appointments with your dentist back home during your holidays.
  • Walk around your university and find out where everything is – not just your own department, but all of it. Discover the town or city you find yourself in – and get some knowledge of areas that might be less safe.
  • Chat with your folks at home regularly.

Looking after your money

Your money is going to disappear fast, and on all sorts of things: food, rent, books, stationery and IT gear, socialising. Like your time, it is finite, and you need a budget as surely as you need a timetable. Any other approach is, essentially, just wishful thinking. Read your bank statements the moment they arrive, and critique them: what was good spending, and what was unnecessary or not worthwhile?

Many students will have had Saturday jobs, got up early for paper rounds (yes – they still exist), earned a few quid for doing a neighbour’s gardening, or whatever. These folks know how cool it is to earn their own money, and have a psychological head-start. They will probably be the ones with the nicer gadgets or even their own car.

If your studies allow it, get a part-time job. It could make the difference between hardship and comfort. It is also a great way of coming out of the bubble of academia on a regular basis. It could give you a foot in the door of a job the moment you leave uni, even if it’s only to tide you over while you seek work in the field you want a career in. is a good resource for financial advice, including comparisons of student bank accounts and their benefits, but there are many others. It’s especially important to know about managing debt – and never, ever, try to get a short-term, high-interest “pay day” loan. That’s a steep, slippery slope.

‘Get Organised’ Objectives

  • Get a budgeting tool and use it.
  • Start earning your own money while you’re still at school with some kind of part-time work.
  • Get part-time work at uni, if it doesn’t detract from your studies.

Getting involved

This new independence brings with it an adult voice. Now it’s time to use it – by speaking up and exploring ideas in your studies, but also in meeting new people and developing your interests.

There will be a range of university societies the like of which you’ve never seen. Want to learn to play Quiddich? Now you can. Joining societies is a good way to find like-minded people and quickly feel at home in a community. It’s worth doing this early, because joining up can be harder later in the term or academic year.

Maybe, now you’re out from under your parents’ roof, you have political opinions that you want to turn into action. Go for it – you can change things (like these students have by protesting about high rents).

New students should be careful, though, not to turn their enthusiasm into over-promising. If you need to quit something to allow time for what’s really important, then do. If you can’t give your support to something – a club, a cause, a community – then you’re letting them down if you keep saying you will be there, but don’t put the time or effort in.

Translating your ideas and opinions into action is what being an adult is all about. It’s the difference between wanting something to happen and having it actually happen. Employers want to see that, when you come to apply for jobs, but it’s also a trait that will see you successfully through your degree.

‘Get Organised’ Objectives

  • While still at school, do some voluntary work. This could be a one-off Children In Need event at school or somesuch, or it could be something longer-term like a couple of hours a week at your local animal sanctuary. Get the experience, enjoy the satisfaction of making a difference.
  • Before arriving at your new university, identify three societies you think you’d like to join. On arrival, join at least one.

Anything we should have mentioned? Let us know in the comments!

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 14 Feb 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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