A guide to surviving your first year at university

There’s a lot of hype around university life. This hype raises expectations, creating excitement and a perhaps a degree of nervousness for first year students. But how does it compare with the reality of university life?

University wasn’t the experience I’d anticipated at all, and I had to adjust my expectations in my first year. I did more than survive, I enjoyed my course and went back to university for another one, and another one again. But I now realise going to uni at eighteen was a life transition I hadn’t planned for. I’d love to have had some guidance from someone who’d been there, done it and come out the other end.

So this is a brief guide to life at university. If you’re a first year, I hope some of it is useful to you. If it is, please share the link.

Tip 1: Outsource the cooking

If you’ve been living at home, you’ve probably been eating well thanks to the cooking skills of someone else. And now you’re cooking for yourself. Which should be easy, right? It looks easy. But preparing good meals quickly, day after day, requires skills you gain only by cooking, day after day, for months. Cooking is hard when you don’t really know what you’re doing.

On top of this, you have to share an eight-foot kitchen with seven other people who don’t really know what they’re doing either, though some of them pretend they do, while the sink has evolved into a freestyle crockery unit cum compost heap. It’s sub-optimal.

Go to the refectory; eat in town from time to time; cook for a friend and let them cook for you. Outsource the cooking whenever you can.

Tip 2: Do your washing up

Don’t leave it in the sink.

Tip 3: Your hall of residence doesn’t have to be your life

The way people talk, you might expect life in halls to be a year-long party.

Of the three halls I stayed in, some worked better than others. There were very funny times, and I met some vibrant personalities who I wouldn’t have got to know otherwise.

When people fell out, the issues from a clash between two different types of personality. When they tried to settle their differences directly, the resulting argument caused further hostility but that was relatively short-lived because people just had to get on with living, and they knew it. The tension eased but wasn’t forgotten. My tip: if there’s a clash of personalities, don’t get drawn in.

Tip 4: Make friends in the year above

The second years and third years have been through the the things you’re now going through. Not least, they have opinions on the lecturers, which they’ll probably be happy to share with you. Read more about this in my article on how to do well at university.

Tip 5: Don’t worry about living the life

One sunny afternoon outside the union bar, a coursemate, with a pint in his hand and a panama on his head, told me that he wasn’t sure if he was living university life enough.

But he so was.

I guess some people go to university with an idea of what their social life should be like. But you can spend too much effort thinking about that preconceived idea, instead of enjoying your life.

Tip 6: Stay close to friends back home

If your university is not in your home town, make time to catch up with old friends and share your experience of university life. Beyond family, old friends are your link with the life you led before university. On top of that, they know you really well. They may be able to help you establish perspective on recent experiences. That stuff that seems really dreadful right now? Might not seem so bad when you tell your mates.

Tip 7: Look to the future

Have an idea of what you want to do after university and take some steps towards it. It will motivate you, and provide context for everything that happens at university. I didn’t take any action about a career until my course had finished, at which point I wished I’d given myself a head-start.


To sum up, certain aspects of university life might be sources of stress or fear, and you might feel lonely. You may be able to get beyond these negative emotions by focusing on the opportunities that led you to university in the first place.

Some aspects of self-sufficiency will be stumbling blocks but you should be able to work around them.

Critically assess the messages you receive about ‘student life’, particularly if they don’t match those you started out with. They might be right, they might be wrong; take a position.

Maintain a wider perspective by communicating with friends back home and with more experienced members of your university community.


Alex Bailey went to university three times and lived to tell the tale.

Find out what he learnt about the academic side of university life by reading the sister article to his one, How To Do Well At University.