Student life is a transitional period. You do a course because you think it will enable you to do or have something that you want, such as increased job opportunities or enhanced enjoyment of life. Studying is part of a process of change and, sometimes, change can cause a lot of anxiety.
If you go to university straight from school, you are facing the challenge of leaving home, separating from your parents and beginning the process of finding your identity, as an adult, and your place in the world. This is a big psychological upheaval. It also involves many challenges at a practical level. You will need to practise housekeeping, manage a budget and find your way around a strange place. This all demands energy, just as you are beginning to take on the work requirements of your course and build a new social life.
If you are a mature student you may already have left home, but will still have many changes to deal with. You may have less money to spend, less free time, and experience a change in your social status, for better or worse. You may have a partner and children; your new life will have an impact on them, and your relationship with them will be affected.
When you become a student you may feel differently about yourself, and other people may react to you differently. You will be making new friends, and have a chance to make a fresh start. You may be working with peers who are your intellectual equals, for the first time in your life. You may find you are cleverer than you thought – or not so clever! It takes time to adjust to this new sense of who you are.
There may be sports, social and political activities open to you now, which you've never tried before. This has two aspects: it can be very exciting, but it can also be terrifying. It can be easy to take on too many things, because you don't want to miss out on any new opportunities. But it would be unwise to go on your first pot-holing expedition, for example, on the same weekend that you are moving into new lodgings and handing in your first essay. Recognise how much you are dealing with at once, and go at your own pace. Be prepared to feel terrified sometimes.
Relationships with your family will change too. This can be especially difficult if you are the first one ever to go to college, or the first of your gender. Other family members can have complicated feelings about this. They may secretly envy you, or be afraid that your new experience will change you too much and make you no longer 'one of us'. Their reactions
may cause you to feel insecure, lacking in confidence or guilty about having this opportunity.
But there can also be problems if everyone in the family has been to college. Can you live up to their standards? Do you have to work in the same field as them, or do they feel threatened by your choice of subject? Could they be concerned that you could, in fact, be too successful?
The most important thing with family situations of this kind is that these feelings need to be acknowledged, by being talked about. Only then can everyone involved move towards creating a more supportive environment.
Accommodation, finance, food, and travel can all present daunting problems in your first weeks. Ask for help from older students, from other first-years, or from your teachers. Don't be proud - you are not alone in your difficulties.
Most places of education should have sources of advice and information: an accommodation office, to help you find somewhere to live; a financial advice service; and a student advisory service to give other kinds of information. There should also be a students' union. The students' union will often publish a handbook or a welfare manual outlining sources of help.
It’s very important to eat properly, and not to exist on snacks, beer and coffee: the right foods can help your concentration for studying and help you feel well generally. However, if youare anxious, preparing your own food may feel like too much trouble. Use the canteens, if any, if the food is bearable, especially at the beginning. As well as being fed, it will give you the opportunity to meet people and make friends.
Seek out other newcomers. Loneliness can make the challenges of your new life seem much worse. Yet when you start, everyone is alone. Colleges recognise this and often organise 'getting to know you' social events, 'freshers' fairs'. Take advantage of these and any other social opportunities. The very beginning of your first term, when you first arrive, is a key time for making friends. Use strategies like propping your door open, if you are in a hall of residence, to encourage people to drop in and get to know you.
If you are shy and find it very difficult to join in, remember other students will be feeling nervous too, and trying to hide it. If there is something that especially interests you, such as music or a sport, find out if there’s a college society that focuses on this. Meeting people with similar interests and outlooks makes life seem more manageable.
If you have moved to a new town, live with others to start with, if at all possible. If you can't get a place in a hall of residence or student flat, try and find a flatshare. Avoid being isolated in a bedsit, where there are no other students. That way you avoid loneliness, and share housework and meals.
In the last ten or fifteen years, since student loans were introduced, there has been an increase in students taking on paid employment alongside their studying. Also, many mature students are already in full-time employment and may only be studying part time. Studying is now more expensive than ever and there is often concern about the debt that will be waiting at the end of a course of study.
Make sure you find out about all of the financial help you are entitled to. Nearly all universities now have a special finance service that can help you find out if you are receiving the right type and amount of loans or funding for your personal situation. If you are a mature student, already in work, find out if your employer will sponsor your studies – they may have a funded ‘personal development scheme’ or they may be willing
to pay for studies that give you skills that will help you to work
better for them.
However, you are funding your studies, don’t wait until any money problems get out of control. Seek advice as early as possible, so that you can continue your studies without worrying whether you can pay your rent or buy food.
Inevitably, you will feel anxious about this to start with. Will I be good enough? Can I keep up? This is the major challenge, and you will be facing it without the close guidance you may have previously enjoyed from a teacher or parent.
Get the right information from the start. How many lectures, seminars or laboratory sessions are you supposed to be attending? With assignments, what exactly are you being asked to do? How many words are you expected to write? What is the deadline for handing it in? If your tutors don't make themselves clear, ask questions and be persistent.
What resources are available? Is there a library; what hours is it open, and how many other students are going to be wanting to read the same book, at the same time?
Is there a photocopying machine or scanner, and do you have to pay to use them? How many computers are available to use? Or do you have your own with internet facilities set up? Make yourself a realistic timetable. When you are assigned a task, estimate how long you think it will take you. Then add on a bit more time, as you have probably been over-optimistic in the first place. Then set a time each day, or each week, to do it.
Thinking ahead also involves taking into account any resources you will need to complete the task. It may turn out that the library has only one copy of an essential book or paper, and someone else has just borrowed it. It’s better to allow too much time, and then find the bonus of a couple of hours off, than to stay up all night, drinking black coffee, in a panic.
Set clear priorities
You need to make hard choices. You may want to go to that meeting, film, or match tonight, but the essay has to be handed in tomorrow. Or you'd like to spend every waking minute with a new partner, but you haven't done enough revision.
Part of the art of survival is to make realistic assessments of consequences. If you are late handing in the essay, can your tutor be appeased or negotiated with? Try to negotiate with your tutor before a deadline and ask for an extension, if necessary. What will happen if you do badly in a test or exam? If your final results depend more on how well you do in exams, rather than the quality of your course work, you may decide to put less effort into writing perfect essays and more into revising for exams.
Beginning to take responsibility for your own learning needs some support. Some institutions have systems to provide for this, ensuring that each student has a tutor or mentor, who can act like a sort of academic parent to them, advising them on their work and helping them plan realistically.
Many, however, do not. Even when this is the case, it’s possible to form a support group of fellow students, formally or informally, to help each other. Be prepared to ask for support and help.
If you feel things are getting on top of you, it’s important to acknowledge this at an early stage, before you fall too far behind. The first thing to do is to seek objective advice from someone who knows your work and the standards required. Such a person could be your tutor or another teacher.
It may be that your work is fine, but your personal standards are too high – you think your work is not good enough, but others are satisfied with it. On the other hand, it may be that you have not yet learned to organise your work realistically, or that you have a problem with deadlines. Your personal tutor should be able to advise and help you if the problem is to do with worries about work.
Your workload may seem overwhelming because you’re experiencing emotional problems, which are affecting your ability to concentrate and work effectively. These may be to do with unresolved difficulties from your past, or to do with current relationship problems. It’s important to seek help and support, if you are distressed. You should be able to get access to counselling through college counselling services.
If there is a long waiting list for the counselling service, talk to family or friends, or your GP. It’s best to get any help you can, as early as you can. Note: if you are in an emotional crisis, due to pressure or a personal event (e.g. bereavement, divorce), time off from your studies can often be negotiated. This may mean a delay in taking exams or even taking a year out before starting to study again. The key is to inform the college or university so that they can advise you of your options. If you just leave or stop attending classes, it’s harder for them to be sympathetic or to provide appropriate help. It may also mean loss of funding, which you may be otherwise be able to keep if you’ve explained your situation and negotiated a return at a later date.
Sometimes the problem is more fundamental – the course you are doing is not right for you. It can be difficult to work out what exactly is wrong. Here are some pointers that you may find useful when considering this.
Has some major event just happened, such as the end of a relationship, an illness or death in the family, or a redundency? How is your general health? Are you feeling tired and rundown? All these things can make us less enthusiastic about work and therefore less able to do it. Your competence will return with your general physical and emotional wellbeing. (See Useful organisations and Further reading for more information on how to look after yourself.)
How did you come to a decision about doing this course in the first place? Did you decide for you, or to please someone else, such as a teacher or a parent? For your own sense of wellbeing now and in the future, you have to lead your own life and set your own goals.
What are your long-term goals? How will your course of study affect your ability to achieve them? Have they changed since you decided on your course? You may suddenly realise that you are more interested in town planning or politics than the architecture or modern languages you are supposed to be studying. You may even feel that you would rather be working at something else altogether, and not be at college at all.
How do you feel at the beginning of a new term, when given a list of lectures or assignments? Generally, you shouldn’t be tired at this point. Does your heart lift with excitement at the prospect of at least some of the work, or does it sink? Is the sinking feeling, 'I can't do this, it's too difficult' or, 'I'm really just not that interested in this subject'?
What do I do if I decide to change courses?
When the realisation hits you that you are on the wrong course, it’s a crisis and can feel devastating. The consequences can be very serious. For example, your finances, as well as your place at college, may be tied to a particular course. Your family may have made all kinds of investments in you, on that course, and may be upset at your wish to change. The college authorities may be very unsympathetic. There is therefore a strong temptation to ignore your feelings and get on with the course. Sometimes, this is the best decision, especially if you are nearing the end of the course, have a clear idea of what it is you really want to do afterwards, and a plan for doing it.
For most people, however, it is helpful to acknowledge these feelings if they make themselves strongly felt. You need to find someone to talk them over with. A crisis like this is both academic, because it affects your course work and professional future, and emotional, in that it will have an impact on your relationships with your family, your self-image and your future wellbeing. Therefore, you will probably need both academic advice and personal counselling. You may also need some kind of support in negotiating with your parents (if appropriate), the college authorities and your funding body (if any) if you do make the decision to change your course.
If you decide that your course really is wrong for you, it’s important to seek help as early on as you can. Think very carefully, during your first term, about whether you really do wish to study this particular subject for the next few years. Examine the alternatives. It may be possible, at an early stage, to switch to another course, without your funding being
affected. College authorities vary in how they deal with a student who wishes to leave or change courses, but you may be surprised at how supportive some tutors can be. It’s also worth talking to a college welfare officer, if there is one.
We all have a deep need to belong, to fit in, especially when everything around us is new and pressured. It can be very hard to feel different. We often feel we have to be like others in order for others to like us.
When there is something about you – your accent, gender, skin colour, wheelchair, religious symbol prominently worn – that marks you out as different from the majority, straight away, this can cause anxiety all round. You may feel, 'Will they like me, even though I’m different? Do they accept that I have a right to be here?'. Those you meet, on the other hand, may worry, 'I've never met anyone like her before. What will she be like? Will she like me, even though she’s different? Will she hate me, or envy me, because I'm one of the majority?'.
When difference leads to hostility, and you are subjected to prejudice, it can be devastating. You feel alone, powerless and invisible as a person. It feels as if everyone is relating to your accent, skin colour, disability or whatever, and not to you.
It isn’t your problem
Remember that they are expressing something about them, not about you. Other people will put on to the person who is different, all their anxieties about their own lives. For example, the only woman on an engineering course could be seen by male fellow students as challenging their sense of masculinity. They show hostility to her because of their own anxiety and insecurity. People who are clear and secure about their own identity, whether it’s around race, gender, sexuality, or anything else, have no need to persecute others.
Seek out others in the same position. You may feel alone if you are the only single mother in your department. But there will be others in other departments, or other colleges in the same university, or in other universities. Test out if you really are the only one in the country or world like you. The chances are that, somewhere, there are others in your position to whom you can look for support, comfort and encouragement. You may have to look further afield to find individuals or organisations
who share your concerns or situation. The internet is probably the best place, but you could also try special interest magazines (for example, a parenting magazine) and letter pages of local and national student magazines. With friends, it’s easier to face the world.