Starting University: What to Expect

Starting University: What to Expect

QS Staff Writer

Updated January 16, 2020 Updated January 16

The transition from high school to university is one of the biggest you'll ever make. What should you expect from your first year at university?

While the freedoms that come with leaving home for the first time will occupy most students' thoughts when it comes to their first year of university, the reality of studying at the undergraduate level quickly dawn on many for whom the experience will be quite often a shock from the confines of the school classroom.

The first few weeks at university are amongst the busiest of a young adult’s life anyway, but the challenge of new learning styles and independent study can add to what is already a very full plate of activities for most.

Put simply, university is very different from school in terms of what is expected either in the classroom or the laboratory.

Independent learning

While high school instructors both teach and ensure that work is completed with the intention of achieving a basic level of education, the role of university lecturers and professors is largely to provide students with a framework and the skills from which they can explore their academic subject.

For the uninitiated, this leads to one major difference between the two – no one tells you what to do at university.

Mr Randy Vener, Deputy Director of Admissions at The American University of Paris, reflects on how some first year students react to the challenge of being responsible for their own study programs and workload.

“There’s a look in the eyes of many first year students as they adjust to so many changes in their first few weeks with us. Many can’t believe their luck that there’s no one saying, ‘do this paper by tomorrow,’ or ‘read chapter three tonight.’

"This kind of freedom can go to a student’s head, but the good students recognise that they need to set their own targets and work consistently and steadily to ensure that they keep up with the pace of university studies. It’s all about maintaining a balance between studying and living.”

Perhaps a further difference between school and university is the way in which students are actually taught and expected to learn.

New teaching styles

Dr David Brown, Reader of American History at the University of Manchester and an experienced teacher of first year undergraduate students believes that many of the most obvious pitfalls in adjusting to studying at university can be avoided.

“All universities now offer study skills support, helping students adjust from how they studied at school to what we expect in the classroom as a first year. The key is to understand that lectures offer only a basis from which to understand a particular subject – the tip of the iceberg if you like and the real heart of a topic comes in the form of independent study and the opportunity to discuss your views in either lectures or a tutorial.”

Another major difference between university and the school classroom is the amount of time receiving face-to-face tuition. First year students enrolled in an arts or humanities degree typically spend a maximum of 12 hours a week in class, while engineering or science students can expect no more than 20 hours a week, leaving more than enough time for life outside of the classroom.

But successful students will very quickly recognize that such “down time” should be at least partially invested in preparation, research and work in labs, to make the most of the academic part of their university experience.

Spend your time wisely

Like many university teachers, Dr Brown has great sympathy with students new to the university environment. “I remember my first term at university very vividly – seven hours of lectures and tutorials a week, one essay for each course each term and nothing was compulsory.

"I thought I was in heaven after two years of high school. But then it dawned on me that the free time was what university was actually all about. It allowed me to get to grips with the subjects lecturers were introducing me to.

"I could explore what interested me and what I enjoyed. I learned to develop my own opinion and my own view and once I had done that, there was time to do everything else as well.”

There is no doubt that the first term or semester at university is full of distractions, but being aware of what is expected of you as a student and how subjects are taught can make a big difference to making the most of all opportunities and settling down to a successful university career.

There will still be challenges but knowing what lies ahead can make a significant difference to those first few weeks.

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This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in January 2020