University is supposed to be awesome. Everyone's constantly reminding you that it will be the best time of your life. And it can be! But during the first year, that expectation might set you up for a nasty reality: starting university can really suck, too. Image by Tina Mailhot-Roberge.
It Can Be Hard to Make Friends
When I started university, I didn't necessarily think it would be easy to make friends, but I didn't think it'd be as hard as it was, either. A lot of people seemed to already belong to large groups, and since I didn't really know anyone at my school, everyone was a stranger to me. I felt awkward, out of place, and alone. It was pretty much the opposite of what I thought university was supposed to be.
This, of course, is even harder if you're shy or introverted. You'd rather go hide in your room, chat with old, familiar friends online, and do your own thing, but at the same time, you don't want to turn into some friendless hermit. So that means talking to new people, which some of us absolutely dread.
Sociologists say that making friends comes down to three key factors:
- Close proximity
- Repeated, unplanned interactions
- A setting where people are encouraged to let their guards down and confide in each other.
Thankfully, university is a great place to find all three of these things. Joining a study group or some other student organisation is a great way to get access to all three of those factors. Volunteering or finding a part-time campus job is another option.
When I was in university, I made most of my friends in organisations that I actually enjoyed, because they were full of like-minded people. For example, I joined a writing club at a local bookstore, and I hit it off with a couple of the other writers. We started writing together, and stayed great friends to this day. It helps to choose your activities wisely, but keep an open mind, too. Try a little bit of everything, and see what sticks.
Resist the temptation to go straight home after class or your other activities. Try not to hole up in your room all afternoon without exploring campus. I went to a commuter school, which meant that most of the students wanted to get out of there as soon as they could so they could go to their jobs or go home. To keep my inner introvert from taking over, I forced myself to say "yes" to campus activities, even if I felt like going home for the day. If I had to study, I tried to force myself to do it on campus, rather than isolated at home.
After a while, making friends becomes a bit more natural. It's not easy at first, but it gets even harder once you graduate. So take advantage of the fun groups and activities while you can.
Dating, Relationships, and Sex Won't Be What You Expect
A lot of people start university trying to maintain their high school relationship. You probably expect that to be somewhat difficult, but it can be a lot harder than you think, and for reasons you might not even realise. Or maybe you're not in a high school relationship, you're just prepared to meet the love of your life in university. That could happen, and it certainly happens to a lot of people. But in reality, many of us spend quite a bit of time coping with heartache instead.
Breakups are the Worst
University is a rough time for romance. Think about it: you've just started becoming an adult, and experiencing what that means. You're constantly growing, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. You change a lot. Some of those changes will surprise the hell out of you. You might be more or less the same person throughout your entire life, but in your early adulthood, your experiences will help shape your thoughts, beliefs, and opinions.
It's kind of beautiful, really. But unfortunately, all that change makes relationships a lot tougher. While plenty of high school sweethearts go on to get married and live happily ever after, don't be too hard on yourself if your own romance doesn't last. For the same reasons mentioned above, new university relationships can be hard, too. Serious relationships require maintenance, commitment, and communication, which is a tall order. And university is about self-discovery (and studying!) and that often conflicts with being able to devote all of your time or yourself to a relationship. Those relationships don't have to end in marriage.
That said, a breakup, especially your first one, is absolutely freaking horrible. It's confusing, heartbreaking, and you'll be surprised at the depths to which you can feel sadness. It gets better, but gut-wrenching heartache is kind of distracting when you have to, you know, study and go to class. It's tough, but you have to learn to stay focused while you're going through one. Take things a day at a time, allow yourself to let out your emotions, but don't dwell on them, either. I hate to say it, but you may have quite a few breakups in university. It doesn't necessarily get easier every time, but you figure out how to best handle it every time, and it always gets better.
It's Not Always Easy to Meet New People
And then there's the other university dating myth: you'll constantly get laid and meet new people. That certainly happens in university, but the reality doesn't look as much like a movie as you'd think.
Meeting people is tough, and even when you're successful, a casual encounter can turn into an "it's complicated" relationship very fast. Feelings take over, you don't even know what you want anymore, and before you know it, you forgot to study for your exams.
We'd also be remiss not to point out that meeting new people can be dangerous, especially at the beginning of university. It's a sad fact, but women, especially, should be aware of the "Red Zone." The Centre County Resource Center explains:
The first month and a half of college is the time when freshmen women are most likely to be raped or experience attempted rape. This time period is known as the "Red Zone" — a period of vulnerability for sexual assaults, beginning when freshmen first walk onto campus until Thanksgiving break." According to multiple studies, female students are at an increased risk for sexual assault during the first few weeks of their first semester on campus. Most college students who are sexually assaulted are victimized by someone they know.
Many rapists take advantage of the fact that a lot of people think there's a difference between rape and "acquaintance rape," also known as "date rape." In fact, many of them wouldn't even consider themselves rapists. The best way to stop rape from happening is to make rapists stop raping, but when it comes to right this second, the best you can do is be aware of these potential dangers so you can avoid them.
No One Cares If You Study
In primary and high school, you're used to having study prompts. Your teacher meticulously plans the syllabus to make sure everyone keeps up. Maybe he or she even gives you a weekly quiz to motivate you to read the assigned chapters.
You've probably already heard that university is a different story.
No one cares if you study — it's up to you to keep up and pay attention. You learn to create your own schedule and manage your own time, and if you don't, you'll fall behind fast. In university, I took a couple of remote classes, and there were no quizzes, just one final exam at the end of the semester. The classes were available on videotape at the library, but rather than watch one lecture every week, I'd find something else to do and procrastinate. Of course, this meant when final exam time rolled around, I had a week to cram in three months' worth of lectures. It was a nightmare — literally, to this day, I have nightmares that I forgot about the class entirely and never graduated!
To combat this, you need a study plan. Like a syllabus, but one that you create for yourself. HowtoStudy.com has a good skeleton you can adapt:
- Chart your current activities: For a week, take note of how you spend your time, whether it's working, sleeping, going to class — you get the idea. There are plenty of time tracking apps out there, and a few of our favourites include RescueTime, SlimTimer, and ManicTime, but you can also use a calendar or pen and paper if you prefer. See what free time you have in your schedule for studying.
- Build your schedule: Now fill in those free time gaps. Pencil in certain times in your schedule to study for certain classes or subjects.
- Make some study goals: Make weekly study goals. That might mean brushing up on a couple of chapters for an upcoming test. Or if, like me, you only have one big test at the end of the semester, you'll have to break out your entire semester's studying goals into smaller chunks.
- Stick to the schedule: You might have to tweak your schedule here and there, but try to be consistent as much as possible. If you turn it into a habit, it will be easier to stick to.
Of course, you'll also want to note in your calendar all the important dates on your class syllabus, train yourself to take great notes, and adopt some killer studying skills to help you study smarter.
No One Cares About Your Finances
Similar to your studying habits, no one really gives a damn about how you manage your money.
In fact, there are a lot of entities counting on you being really horrible with money, and many of them walk around campus offering you free t-shirts and other swag hoping you'll sign up for their latest offer. They're hoping you'll open a credit card, not be able to pay it off, and spend years paying crazy high interest rates. They're hoping you'll screw up your budget and need to take out a payday loan. These are common debt traps that a lot of us fall into when we're young and we don't know beans about money.
If you're lucky enough to have parents who taught you good money habits, you're a step ahead of the game. If not, here are a few basics you should know. They might seem obvious to some, but when you're just starting out, the fundamentals of finance aren't as clear at all.
- Avoid bad debt: There's good debt and there's bad debt. Your student loan, as high as it may be, is typically considered good debt, because it's (hopefully) an investment in your future earning potential. A car loan is bad debt, because you're borrowing money to buy something that depreciates. You can't always avoid getting into debt, but you should avoid it as much as possible, because the interest can add up so much over time, it will make your head spin.
- Don't take out more loan than you need: Getting a loan may be fine depending upon your circumstances, but don't take out more money than you actually need. For example, I know someone who took out a $US100k loan, even though her tuition was much lower than that. When she told the loan company she didn't need that much, they actually told her: "You don't have to spend it on tuition. You can spend that on whatever you want." So she did, and now she's still paying it off. Again: no one cares about your finances.
- Don't spend money you don't have: Spending your paycheck before you get it is a good way to get stuck in a cycle of constantly being broke. Only spend what you have — don't write a check you can't cash, so to speak.
Beyond those rules, you'll also want to come up with a basic budget, which can be challenging when you don't have a lot of money. But it comes down to tracking your expenses, categorising them, and coming up with a spending plan for each category based on your income.
You'll Get Homesick
Most high school students look forward to university because they're finally free. You get to get away from your family! At some point, though, homesickness will probably set in, and you'll actually start to miss them.
And it will be the dumbest, most subtle things you'll miss, too, like watching TV with your parents. I'm in my thirties, and I still tear up when I realise I don't get to watch Seinfeld reruns with my mum whenever I want.
It might not hit you at first, but eventually, something will likely trigger your homesickness. You might not even realise you feel homesick at first. You might feel resentful, or vulnerable, or think you're just feeling blue for no reason. That it could very well be homesickness setting in: feeling a lack of familiarity and security. When it hits, a few things can help:
- Create new traditions: This can be as simple as going to the same store every morning for coffee and then settling down to read for thirty minutes. A routine will help you feel a sense of familiarity again.
- Resist the urge to call home: At least not every five minutes. Schedule regular calls, but don't go back to your old friends or family every single time you feel sad. In order to overcome homesickness, you have to let it sink in so it can pass.
- Don't dwell on the past: Try not to compare your life back home to your new life on campus. Keep an open mind!
Simply learning to identify and admit your homesickness can make a big difference, too. It's a lot easier to manage feeling blue when you know why you're feeling blue.
Your Plans Will Change
A lot of people don't realise just how much your plans will change in university. I had a completely different course when I started, then switched my second or third year. Thankfully, a lot of my credits still carried over, so I only stayed a semester longer, but for some people, that change can throw them off by a year or more.
This is something you want to be prepared for ahead of time, when you're planning your courses. If you're not 100% sure about your direction (or even if you think you are), you might want to opt for the classes that have a bit more overlap in other areas.
Also, knowing that your plans will change can help you financially, too. You may want to be a little more frugal with your spending now, knowing that you might have an extra year before you start looking for full-time work.
In fact, a lot of things can change in university. Sixty per cent of US first-years surveyed say they wish they had been more emotionally prepared for university, and half of them say they don't feel like they belong. This is normal. Our expectations of university can lead to a surprising, and sometimes disappointing, first-year experience. After a while, though, you do learn to adapt, and, if you're lucky, your university years will indeed become some of the best and most memorable of your life.