University life

Five things I wish I could tell my first-year self

30 Oct 2023, 12:11

If one graduate could rig up a DeLorean and travel back a few years, here are the top five things they would tell their first-year self now.

First-year student studies wall of advice

Now that I've finished two degrees and four years of university, it's easier to see with hindsight the misconceptions I had about life at university and judge which things I would have done differently. Surprisingly, only a few of them are related to alcohol.

1. Hard workers don't always finish first

When I saw people who seemed to work constantly, pulling twelve-hour library shifts and skipping evening events, I'd get anxious that I was doing too little work. This can hit you particularly hard early in your degree (where you don't know how much work you 'should' be doing).

But working more isn't necessarily working smarter. For instance, you may take out a book that looks useful, but then figure out within a few pages that it's not relevant to what you're doing; spending two hours reading it anyway is hard work, but not smart work. You also don't know how much these people are actually doing. Perhaps they work more during the week so they can take weekends off, or they're spending half their 'reading' time on Twitter.

It took me years to learn to compare myself to myself rather than to other people. Some people want to pour their time into their subject, and that's fine; some people want to spend their time doing student theatre, society activities or political activism. Just because someone seems like they're working all the time doesn't mean that's right for you and your goals. You have to look at what work you want to be doing, and then see if your work rate and work style are helping you to do that or not.

2. Friends might take time – don't stress it

We all know the stories: uni is meant to be the best time of your life, the people you meet on the first day will be your best friends... It can be anxiety-inducing to be told that uni is the easiest place to make friends and that you'll bond with everyone in freshers' week, especially if you're one of the people who doesn't find a group early on. I probably tried a bit too hard to make friends with people who I didn't mesh with because of the anxiety around feeling the need to make lots of friends.

In the end, I made friends with my neighbours in first year, then joined a society in second year where I bonded really closely with the other members. When I switched uni for my masters, I made more friends on my course and in the quiz society there than I'd ever made during undergrad, while also getting closer to some people I'd met at my previous uni. I grew up a bit, as well, and my friendships developed as I did.

If you don't find your people right away, don't stress. You'll find them. And don't put too much stock in the 'best friends in week one' trope – some of those people may not be your best friends down the line!

3. Don't rely on your memory

After GCSEs, where you're doing ten subjects or more, and A levels, where you're doing three or four, a degree can sound like a breeze, at least in terms of organisation. You only have one subject - keeping track of work will be easy! The one most common mistake I made during university was thinking to myself, 'I'll remember that, I don't need to write it down.' The number of missed events, assignments forgotten about until the day before hand-in and last-minute panics that I can attribute to that one sentence...

If you're like me and you have to work to remain organised, keeping a calendar tacked up on your wall and a diary on your person helps so much. It might sound obvious, but it's incredibly easy after week two or so to get lazy, say 'I'll write that down later,' and then just forget about it. Taking those extra few seconds to note things down will subtract a lot of unnecessary stress from your life.

4. Staff and faculty are there to help you

Now that I've graduated, one thing I notice all the time is that many undergrads don't know that their lecturers and supervisors are there to help them. Some people come to university with a mentality that they need to do well, they need to impress people, and that inhibits them from asking for help. If you're having an anxiety attack on the day of a deadline, you've just had a breakup and the emotional stress is making it hard to work or you have a physical ailment that's playing up, most staff will help you and/or cut you some slack. Don't just push through – ask for help and give as little or as much detail as you're comfortable with. (For things like external exams and dissertation deadlines, there's obviously less flexibility than internal assignments, but there's still scope to apply for dissertation extensions or to get pastoral support.) University may be about learning, but nobody is capable of learning 100% of the time, and the staff and faculty are human beings who may well know exactly how you're feeling.

I struggled with mental illness for the first time at university and I wish I'd known sooner that if you're suffering and something's affecting your day-to-day life, you can and should seek counselling, even if you're telling yourself it's 'not that bad'.

5. It's okay to skip stuff

University is full of opportunities: endless events, endless socialising, endless resources. If I could tell my undergrad self anything, it would be that it's okay, sometimes, to skip the exciting-looking thing and stay in and watch Netflix. You will burn out quickly if you go to everything that looks important, and while you do want to make the best of your time at uni, you also need rest and space.

Instead of beating yourself up for every event you miss, give yourself props for every opportunity you manage to take. For example, I had a bunch of applications on my to-do list this year while I was writing my masters dissertation. I was exhausted and I didn't manage to get around to a few of them – but I did manage to fill in the one for the internship at targetjobs!

Dani Cugini, English literature graduate

Careers advice and job hunting tips on targetjobs

Ten skills that will get you a job when you graduate

Can you handle typical tricky interview questions?

I have a degree, now what?

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

People reading this also searched for roles in these areas:

undefined background image

We've got you

Get the latest jobs, internships, careers advice, courses and graduate events based on what's important to you. Start connecting directly with top employers today.