Doing your degree work may be the core of your time at university, but what about the rest of your time? Whether it's picking up CV points, learning important life skills or making sure your mental health is in a good place, here's a rundown of nine useful things to do at university besides your degree. And these are equally valid for incoming freshers and world-weary finalists.
1. Scope out the society territory early
Three years is simultaneously a long time and not much time at all. You don't have to be 'on it' from day one, but the earlier you join a society, the easier it will be to progress in that society. Equally, if you're going into your final year, don't write societies off: a year is still a lot of time to have fun, make friends and gather experience.
To help get you started, think about what you'd like to do across the year. What are your goals? A good place to start is by looking at the societies at the freshers' fair: do you want to pick up a sport? Learn a language? Be politically active? Meet people who share an interest? Are there societies that tie in to the careers you're considering? You won't have time to do everything you think you might enjoy, but you'll have a wide range of options to pick from. Make sure you take advantage of the often-free welcome sessions and taster sessions for societies in first term, since they can help you decide whether a society is for you.
If you can, go to the freshers' fair every year (unless your university restricts it to freshers only). You'll pick up endless free stuff and you might spot something in second year that you missed in first year.
2. Get on a committee
A sure-fire way to demonstrate your employability is to take on extra responsibility, such as a student society committee role, an event committee role or a departmental student ambassador role. It may be a touch stressful, but you will thank yourself down the line because your organisational skills, your ability to work in teams and your ability to liaise with others on professional matters will improve significantly. Also, don't assume you need to be a final-year student to tackle one of these roles – second years can also join committees, and some committees are open to first years as well.
3. Make sure to pick up intel from other students
University means coming across people from a wide range of backgrounds, who are doing a broad array of subjects and who hail from all across the country – and the world. Talk to people: what are they working on, what societies have they joined, what brought them to this uni? (Don't be pushy, but be open to starting conversations, particularly if you're a first year. Everyone's nervous at the beginning of first year and they're usually thankful for someone who starts the conversation off.)
You'll end up learning about topics you knew nothing about and becoming more empathetic, which will serve you well long after you graduate. As for your actual time at university, going out of your way to chat to other students means getting a useful insight into other students' experiences. Knowing that X nightclub has a £3 special on Fridays, Y supervisor is really difficult to work with and Z accommodation block's heating is constantly broken will enhance your university experience significantly, because you'll be able to take advantage of hidden gems and avoid problems if you know about them in advance. Even if you're already a finalist, there are likely still a few secrets you haven't discovered yet...
4. Pay a visit to the careers service
The careers service is invaluable for everyone, regardless of whether or not you know what career you want. It's easy to be intimidated by the careers service and it's easy to forget about it, so just get yourself through the door as soon as you can, even if it's just to have a look around. Look at what your university's career service provides: can you book interview preparation meetings? Are there specialist meetings with people from different sectors about applying to jobs? Classes or workshops? Useful documents you can look through? An alumni network? Bookmark their website; tack their address up on your noticeboard. If you're looking for work experience, internships and/or a graduate job down the line, they will be a crucial port of call.
5. Socialise with different people
University's a good place to make friends and to meet people in various contexts: your accommodation, your course, the societies you're part of, random nightclub toilets and house parties… 'Go out and meet people' is relatively obvious advice, of course, but you also have to beware of not limiting yourself to a small group of people and cutting yourself off from others. Even if you really like your housemates or coursemates and you're happy to do everything with them, try to do something social once in a while that isn't tied to them. When you're in such a transitional period of your life, you don't want to rely on one person or group for your social life, because if you have a big falling out, or you grow apart, it'll be harder to build your social life back up again.
Dating is also part of your social life at university. If you do meet the love of your life during freshers' week, try to avoid the temptation of spending all your time with them; don't miss out on the rest of what university has to offer. You (probably) only get one undergraduate degree, so don't miss out on stuff. Plus, in the unfortunate event of a nasty breakup, you don't want to have to cut them out of all your uni photos!
6. Brush up on your cooking skills
There are other life skills that are useful to pick up during uni – knowing your way around an iron, for instance – but cooking is a particularly crucial one, as it'll reduce your spending and up your quality of life. Maybe you already fancy yourself the next Gordon Ramsay or maybe you couldn't pick a whisk out of a line-up: either way, you'll benefit from developing your cooking skills and learning how to feed yourself well.
If you don't really know how to cook, there's no one way to start, but learning how to use basic spices, how to cook meat or other protein sources properly and how long it takes to cook various common ingredients (vegetables, spaghetti/noodles, rice, beans, etc) will have you well on your way. As you're learning to cook, learn about the nutrition of your food as well: without trying to sound like your mum, you may want to ensure you eat enough fruit and vegetables, you don't rely too much on sugar and caffeine and you're eating enough protein and complex carbohydrates. Don't worry, you don't have to trade in all your takeaways for spinach salads. Just eat well most of the time; you'll have more energy and be less likely to get sick.
A minority of student accommodation has no kitchen facilities at all – usually a way of encouraging students to eat the university's subsidised food – but it's very unlikely that will be the case for your entire degree, and if it is, see if you can nip into a friend's building and use their kitchen instead.
7. Learn how to navigate the housing market
Some students will need to rent privately during their degree; if you do, it's a good way to learn the ins and outs and potential pitfalls of renting while you've still got a university housing advice service to help you out. Navigating problems with landlords and seeing how much water and electricity cost first-hand will mean you're a lot savvier when you're renting post-graduation.
If you aren't renting privately during your degree, or you at least haven't done so yet, take the opportunity now to learn about renting well in advance by doing your research and asking your friends. Know what common scams look like and what you need to check for in the contract, always visit the property before signing anything (if they don't let you, don't rent it) and have a checklist of things to look at in the flat: does the toilet work, do the taps work, are there any signs of damp or mould, is there any damage you'd need to make sure is logged before you move in?
8. Get out of your comfort zone
When you're looking back on your university years, it will be the weird, the wacky, the wonderful and the worthwhile things you did that stick in your mind. It could be going on a RAG blind date, your first student protest, working at the student paper, seeing amazing student theatre or helping to cook a whole-house Christmas dinner. Or it could be lobbying for something that you badly want fixed within the university, signing up on a whim to do an open mic comedy night, starting an amateur Come Dine with Me rotation in your student halls or going abroad for a TEFL programme.
The world really is your oyster at university and it's a relatively safe environment within which to get out of your comfort zone. If you have the chance to do something that sounds outlandish, don't be afraid to say yes.
9. Run away (not permanently)
University gives you an unprecedented amount of free time, so, occasionally, take the opportunity to run away for the day and go somewhere random – whether it be a small town a twenty-minute bike ride away or a speedy weekend in Paris on a cut-price ticket. This is well worth making time for, both in the short-term sense of taking the chance to see random cities and towns (plus, if your friends are at university, you'll have the advantage of having places to crash across the country) and a longer-term sense of trying to prevent yourself becoming too institutionalised while at university. If you're not careful, it can become difficult to imagine yourself outside of the university structure and your university's city.
Working in non-university environments in the holidays, experiencing different places and having ongoing projects that aren't academic or university-connected (this can be as simple as 'watch every film that has won the Oscar for Best Picture') will help keep you from being overly reliant on the university framework. Staying on for a postgraduate degree is, of course, an option after undergraduate, but it should be an option that you take because you want to, not because you're scared of the alternatives.