First year students, anxiety and making a positive transition to university life
I'll avoid the usual clichés of university life and get down to basics.
Wherever you lack confidence before starting university, work on the assumption that this will remain roughly the same at the start of your university career. In other words manage your expectations. If you have found making new friends a slow process then don’t set yourself up for a fall by expecting 50 new friends by the end of your first week. If gaining academic confidence has similarly been a gradual process then try to resist the need to get a first for your very first assignment.
Such expectations are both very common and entirely understandable for new students. Any prior worries about university are instantly banished when those 50 friends turn up at your room or when your tutor congratulates you on a ‘profound’ piece of academic work by stamping it with a first. Social and academic fantasies like these are very seductive, but they are often illusory.This doesn’t mean being too pessimistic about your capacity to change, adapt and overcome any confidence issues, however, be kind to yourself and appreciate that some areas might need to be worked on.
Even if you don’t have any serious weaknesses (lucky you) try to be OK with not knowing a great deal in the early days. Just because the student next to you in a tutorial appears to know more than the tutor, avoid seeing them as typical. Be honest with yourself, your fellow students and tutors about gaps in your subject knowledge while letting them know that you are keen to close them. You are a new student: closing large gaps in your knowledge is what you are there to do. It's OK not to know.
Try if you can to link the amount of socialising you do to your academic timetable. Some courses can often resemble full-time jobs and this can come as quite a shock to those students expecting to focus their energies on non-academic pursuits! Even if your timetable is relatively light in terms of hours, this doesn’t mean there is nothing for you to do. A course with only two days of tutorials and lectures is a course with three days of ‘self-directed’ study. Once a student falls behind with assignments and deadlines it can often be difficult to get back on track. Anxiety can build when a student starts to realise that they can’t catch up with old assignments while being set new ones. There are practical measures such as extensions that can be granted, but these can be a double-edged sword as they sometimes represent more time to struggle.
The second term
Many students often assume that their second term, typically starting in January, will be a repeat of their first. This goes for both positive and negative first-term experiences. Be open to the possibility that it won’t happen this way. Some students who experience a really positive first term sometimes struggle in their second because first-term excitement masks worries and difficulties. These students are often unable to make sense of their anxiety because their only experiences so far have been positive. Conversely, those who struggle in their first-term (even if they would deny it) often build up their capacities as a student during it. However, if they do not acknowledge this development then they will continue to feel the anxiety associated with the first term.
Attention turns to sorting second year accommodation very early in the first year, often well before the Christmas break. If you plan to live by yourself, even in accommodation like halls of residence, then the process is usually a simple one. However, if you wish to move out of your first year accommodation and live with others, matters can be more complicated. The early need to arrange shared accommodation catches many students by surprise and can be a significant source of anxiety, especially when it impacts on new relationships. Keep your options open and flexible e.g. it’s great if you get to live with first year friends, but try to have two or three housing ‘conversations’ just in case one option doesn’t work out. The same goes for properties i.e. be flexible.
Get to know your tutors whenever and wherever you can. They are, ultimately, the most important people to you. At the end of your first year when you go to wish them an enjoyable summer break, make sure that they know who you are. After you graduate you might look back and conclude that the best decision you made at university was the one to befriend your tutors. When you struggle they will either be the ones to help you or if they aren’t the ones who know who you need to see. Many students don’t get to know their tutors and because of this feel anxious when they need their help, sometimes to the extent that they are too afraid to see them at all.
Get to know your personal tutor, especially. Different universities have different models of personal tutoring, but as a general rule knowing who your personal tutor is can make a big difference, especially when the inevitable crisis hits.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of things to look out for in your first year, but I hope it helps you or someone else make a positive transition to university life.
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About Mark Evans
I work as a therapist and coach in higher education and have over 12 years experience supporting students to make a successful transition to university.