What is university really like? What to expect when you start uni

Confirmed your place at uni but not sure what to expect? Read on to find out.

University is very different from sixth form or college. So different in fact, when I was in sixth form, I couldn’t fathom how teaching could possibly work in any other way than what I knew. And what little I did know, sounded scary. So, here’s a comprehensive explanation of what university study and life is actually like.

Studying and learning at university

How you learn at university is a bit different to how you learn at sixth form or college. Instead of classes, you normally have lectures. Lectures usually last an hour, but depending on the module and your course, they can last 2, maybe even 4 hours in some cases (you will get breaks halfway if they’re this long though). In a lecture, a professor (an expert in the specific topic the lecture is about) will speak for the entire duration of the lecture about the topic. It will be supported with powerpoint slides, and will follow a structure, so it will be clear when listening to it, the ‘topics’ you’ll need to revise when it comes to exams. However, the professor, or lecturer, will rarely stop to answer questions or have a discussion during this lecture, as it will normally have everyone in your course, and anyone taking that module as a minor subject (more on that in a minute) which can often get to 300 people listening to a single lecture.

The idea is that you write notes on what’s being discussed during the lecture, and then write these up as your notes that you revise from. You then also normally have a seminar to discuss the topics you learnt about in the lectures, to ask any questions or clarify things you don’t understand (about the lecture or the reading) and to expand a bit on the topic. Seminars are usually smaller classes of between 3 and around 15 people, often run by a PhD student or the lecturer their-self. It’s a great way to get a proper, deeper understanding of the topic, or just discuss the topic. If the module has group work as part of your grade, your seminar group will often contain the people you do group work with, and you might spend the seminar working on your group project.

What all of this means, is that you’ll have a lot less ‘contact time’. In other words, you’ll have less time in classes with your lecturers and tutors. So, you’ll do more of your learning yourself, usually reading, and doing assignments. Your lecturers will normally assign a reading to do for the week. Sometimes, there will be an academic journal article, or a chapter of a book that you will need to read before the lecture, sometimes you need to read it after. The lecturer will normally make this clear. The readings, along with the content of the lectures, are normally examinable, so you’ll need to revise the key points of the readings as well as the content of the lectures when you come to revise. The readings also help you with essays and other assignments.

Types of assessments at university

Generally, more of your grade at university comes from coursework than what you might be used to at school. You will probably still have exams (although some courses don’t have any – lucky you!) in the summer, and potentially a few multiple choice tests during the rest of the year, but mostly it will be coursework.

There’s a few types of assignments you could be asked to complete.

  1. You could be asked to write an essay. Essays work a little differently at university because you need to reference all the sources you use to back up your points. If you’ve done or are doing the EPQ, you’ll have an idea what I mean. You university will teach you how to reference for an assignment properly and when to do it, so don’t worry about it too much.
  1. you might have to write a report. Again, you may need to reference things in this which you will be taught how to do, but often you’ll have to write reports that your lecturers will want you to write in a similar style to what you’d be expected to write in a graduate job for the related profession. For example, in my marketing degree, some of my assignments have included creating a marketing plan for a product, as those are the sorts of tasks I might have to do in a marketing graduate job.
  1. Presentations. You might have to make a presentation, often in a similar style to what you might have to do in a graduate role. For example, a product pitch or campaign pitch. Sometimes, this will be individual, but mostly a presentation will be a group project.

How will I be graded at uni?

This varies between universities – my uni gives me grades the same as in school (A, B, C etc) but then these are converted to a percentage and an aggregate score, to work out my grade.

When you graduate from university, you won’t graduate with an A in Economics, for example. The top grade you can graduate with is a 1st class (sometimes just called a first) where you usually need 70% to get that grade. The next grade down is a 2:1, then a 2:2, then a pass. Most graduate jobs will want either a 2:1 or a 2:2, but don’t worry – you only need about 60% overall for a 2:1, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself!

Your transcript will tell you how you’re doing, and you can also see how each module is weighted so you know how important each exam or assessment is.

You may hear a lot of people say ‘first year doesn’t count’ at uni – This is often true for a lot of people, but not every course. For me, in first year you needed a passing grade to progress into second year. After that, your grades you got in first year don’t count towards your final grade. So whilst it’s true that it doesn’t count, you still need to pass first year, so it’s not a total write-off.

University Life

Okay, so you understand how studying at university works. What about the rest of student life?

You might be aware that at university, most people choose to live in halls, so you’re probably not going to be living with your parents anymore. If you study in the same city you grew up in, then you can of course carry on living at home, if you want!

You normally share a flat with 3-12 other people, who will be studying all sorts of different things to you. It’s your first opportunity to make friends at uni, and during freshers week, they’re likely who you’ll be celebrating the week with. Most student accommodation will have everything included (rent, bills and internet) which is one less thing to worry about!

So, you’ve made friends with your housemates, how else can you make friends at uni? Well, besides people from your course (who if you don’t get to meet in freshers week, you’ll definitely get to meet them when lectures and seminars start), one of the best ways to meet new people and make friends is through student societies. Uni has all sorts of societies for all sorts of different interests. There will probably be a society just for your course subject, as well as sports societies, career based societies (eg. our uni has a Women in Business society), and societies for every hobby and interest imaginable. You’re sure to find something that takes your interest where you can meet like minded people. They’re also a great way to get work experience to add on your CV, for when you’re looking for a graduate job. As mentioned before, you’re not in classes as much at uni, which means you have a lot more free time to study yourself, take up new hobbies, and obviously, fend for yourself for the first time. Yes, you’ll have to do your own laundry, cook all your own meals, pay your own rent. Whilst you don’t need to be an expert on any of these things, it’s helpful to go to uni armed with a few meals you can cook, a basic knowledge of how to work a washing machine, and some spare cash (especially for freshers week).

So, that’s basically everything you need to know about uni. It is different from high school, but definitely in a good way. The most important thing to remember is that university is what you make of it. Put yourself forward for as many opportunities as possible, join the societies and socials, and attend your lectures, and you’ll be absolutely fine! What you can expect from university is fun, friends, and more spare time than you’ll likely ever get again in your adult life. Enjoy it!

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