When it comes to university, I will never write anyone off. Even those who are the least academic people around can find a perfect course for them, perhaps with more practical work, and can find it a fantastic experience. The big question is whether it is in fact a truly valuable experience for the individual, and while I think the life experience you gain is immeasurable, often the money and time involved can mean the experience is worth somewhat less in the long run. For me, university was something I had been set on from a young age. Not because of my education, family or upbringing, but because I wanted to study, I loved to learn and I needed a degree in order to achieve my life goals. Plus I really wanted the experience, I wanted to get away from my town, I wanted to move out and look after myself, to gain independence. This was the perfect opportunity and I know that many who are currently looking, researching and making final choices will feel the same.
What I want to do is to make you aware that university is not a doddle, it is hard work for a minimum of three years of living away from home, working while studying and surviving on meagre loans and it can be lonely at times. But at the same time, you will meet the best friends, have the most bizarre experiences and finally have a chance to follow and indulge your true passions. So many people I know are preparing to sit their exams and are trying to make huge decisions about the next three years of their life and where they want to spend it. For me, I was lucky and this was easy - I walked on the campus and instantly fell in love with it. When I read about the courses and met the professors it only further cemented my decision and I am so glad I stuck with it despite my university asking for the lowest number of UCAS points out of each of my offers.
There is a lot to think about when making your decision and it is easy to be blinded by the thought of parties, living in a city, and studying with or following your friends. By writing this, I hope to give prospective university students into the slightly less exciting and fun sides of university just to try and balance out all the amazing fun you will be hearing about. Don't by any means take this as a negative view of university because it really was the best three years of my life so far and I would encourage anyone to take the opportunity, I just think it is important to make an informed decision. Here's what happens when things aren't all sunshine and roses at university:
- Sometimes things don't go right. You might not get the place at the university of your choice, you might not get on to the course you wanted or you might not get into the good accommodation. So what happens then? Well, I have a friend who was forced into a hotel for the first few months of university after an accommodation cock-up and she ended up struggling to meet people or make friends. She hated her time at university and found it difficult later on to find housemates for second and third year.
- Your course might not be the one you wanted. I know a lot of people who switched courses during the first few months because they decided it wasn't for them. There are always options available - my course allowed us to take on modules from any course in the Humanities sector, it was my choice to focus on English.
- You might end up in the good accommodation, but with the smelliest and dirtiest people around. We had a particularly smelly individual living in ours who refused to clean his room or wash his plates in the kitchen even when they grew mould in three colours. It was gross, but we found ways around it, piled his stuff outside his room until he got the hint and locked it in one cupboard.
- You are going to be poor. Being a student in first year I was living in my overdraft from the first week and I had friends who had more than one overdraft as well as their loans. Accept it from the start and be realistic about what you spend your money on. When you get your loan, work out what you have to spend each week and decide whether you can live off this. If you can't - you need to think about getting a part-time job. This is easy, work in retail, at a bar, in the student union, with the marketing team or even in a supermarket. There's loads of options available and around universities work is always flexible to suit university students.
- Sometimes, you and your "friends" will not get on. I was incredibly lucky and the girls I met in my first week in my own flat turned out to be some of the best friends I have ever had. I lived with them throughout university and still see them all regularly after finishing. But if you don't get on with them, things can often turn nasty in such close living and study quarters and university can become a very lonely place. Do yourself a favour and get out, join clubs or work on the newspaper, meet people on nights out and make the most of every second. Sitting at home alone will only make things worse.
- The workload could be a shock. After putting in a lot of extra work at A Level, I found I was very prepared for the workload at university, but I know many that weren't. If you are not one for independent study and reading, you might find it a bit of a culture shock to be expected to do so much on your own. You need to adapt and fast or you will end up behind. Stay organised and keep on top of things because you can quickly feel like you are drowning. Study with friends on your course and talk about difficult bits with them, they may be able to offer help. Don't be afraid to speak to your tutor and to ask for advice - they certainly get paid enough to help you!
- You might not be great at taking care of yourself. Whether we are talking personal safety and not walking home alone at night or we're talking about doing the washing up, cooking and washing your clothes. For those pampered by mum at home, it can be a real surprise to see how much is involved and it can seem crazy to those who have never cooked or cleaned. But this is an amazing opportunity to learn and become capable. I was lucky and knew how to look after myself, but one of my flatmates was scared to cook, another had been pampered by mummy who still sent pack-ups, and another had never used a washing machine. Learn from each other, get your friends to teach you and realise that you will live a hell of a lot better and save a lot more money if you have these vital skills.
Don't let this put you off - university is amazing. It is so much fun and really does help set you up for life if you make the most of it and grab every opportunity. Just be prepared and aware that it isn't sunshine and smiles 24/7, and that sometimes you might be homesick and lonely but that is okay. It isn't right for everyone, but it could also be the best thing you ever do, and it certainly whizzes by in no time at all. I have a friend who studied abroad for a year, left behind her university friends and made a whole load of new ones. She is now travelling the world and staying with all of her international friends along the way. If that doesn't inspire you, I don't know what will! Of course, I would never argue that university is the only option and I know that for many it isn't, but having the opportunity is amazing and making that decision over what is the right choice for you, is one of the biggest decisions of your life at 18.
What was your best university experience? Planning to go, what are you most worried about?