The chances are pretty high that you spent a fairly significant part of your time at senior school dreaming about just how freeing university would be. Gone would be the days of constantly being reminded to tuck your shirt in, or being told what shoes you can and cannot wear and being forced to study subjects that you are undeniably terrible at (being asked specifically not to take GCSE Geography in order to save the school’s average was a real low point). Sixth form arrives and, especially if your time at school hasn’t all been plain sailing, there’s a huge tendency to glorify university — without really knowing what to expect. The student lifestyle and everything it promises (freedom from overbearing parents, going out whenever you want, living in a beautiful house with all your beautiful friends and whatever else you may have envisaged) become the light at the end of a very long, tedious and frustrating tunnel. And so, you tell yourself that if you can just make it to university, everything will have been worth it in the end. So, you submit your UCAS despite a crippling fear of rejection and sit and wait for an email from your dream institution welcoming you with opening arms — preferably one that states you are the best candidate they’ve ever seen and as such, there’s no need for you to worry about taking your A-Levels.
Decisions are made by the illusive admissions offices, exams come and go, the famed post A-Level summer is over before you know it, and you’re suddenly faced with the prospect of moving to uni. It’s at this point that everyone in your life who has been to university starts to give you “advice”, which for most people, especially parents, entails reminiscing about how their time at university was in fact one long non-stop party, without a doubt the best few years of their lives, and it’ll be exactly the same for you.
This is all well and good until, fast forward a few months, you find yourself on a rainy Thursday, alone in your room feeling homesick, left out and thoroughly underwhelmed. Though what you’ve had so far hasn’t been totally awful, it just hasn’t wowed you in the way that a seventeen-year-old you was pretty confident it would. It doesn’t help of course, that all your old school friends are having an absolute whale of a time, that is, if their private stories are anything to go by. Perhaps, you think to yourself, the problem is that you haven’t “found your people” (whatever that is actually supposed to mean), or that your course isn’t going quite as well as you’d hoped, or you just chose the wrong university and none of this would have happened if you’d gone to the same place as everyone else from school. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with you at all and everyone secretly feels that way but simply refuses to talk about it.
Here’s the thing. Universities sell their prospective students an experience that doesn’t actually exist. Though the websites, prospectuses and various other leaflets you are plied with might suggest otherwise, there is no right or wrong way to have a university experience. No one matriculates and magically becomes a beautifully well-dressed, extremely intelligent, worldly-wise human being with their life perfectly in order and a five-year plan on hand at all times, ready to be consulted at any given moment. The term “university experience” is far too nebulous to actually mean anything at all. Of course, it doesn’t help that everyone who has gone before you only remembers the good parts — the bits where they were going out, making friends, seeing people seemingly 24/7. They’re never telling you about that one essay that went really badly, or the terrible argument they had with their flatmate, or that one particularly bad hangover they had which made them question all their life decisions thus far.
There’s a bizarre compulsion we all seem to have to make everything look absolutely effortless, irrespective of the fact that the transition from school to university is undeniably a big one. You spend your time at school in an environment where a lot of things are taken care of for you. Academic expectations are rigorously and explicitly set out by a government-mandated curriculum, each and every hour of your time, during the school day at least, is accounted for, with sport, free time, extra-curricular activities and time spent with friends all given their own slot. Perhaps most significantly, there is usually a well-placed figure of authority to check in with you if you start to drift off course a little and pick you back up again. And then, you find yourself at university where not only there is a greater emphasis on truly independent learning but you are also absolutely in control of every minute of your time. Though it’s so often one of the most fun parts, suddenly balancing doing enough work and meeting your deadlines with socialising, taking part in societies, feeding yourself three times a day, budgeting, going out and taking care of your mental health is undeniably exhausting. No matter how well prepared you think you might be, it’ll always be a shock to the system and you might start to feel like this wasn’t what you signed up for at all. And that’s completely and utterly normal.
And then, of course, at the risk of sounding like my mother, there’s the issue of social media. No one wants to be the first one to admit that they aren’t having the time they quite expected and everyone wants to justify the extortionate amounts of money they’re spending to be there. Cue photo dump after photo dump, countless stories detailing every second of every night out, and Facebook albums filled with snippets of people having what looks like the best time ever. Which, if you’re already feeling like you are the only student in the world not having the time of their life, is even more isolating.
So we’ve established that, at best, your time at uni might sometimes be a little bit underwhelming. It’s worth saying, for the record, that just because it’s not exactly how you thought it would be, doesn’t mean the time you are having is not just as, if not more, enjoyable. That is, after all, what uninformed expectations are — purely aspirational. And either way, chances are you’ve changed enough as a person since you applied to university for your wants and needs to have changed too, if only slightly. And I can guarantee that everyone feels that way occasionally, but those parts are what make the times you genuinely are having fun all the more enjoyable.
And as for the people who are very regularly very vocal about how they are having the absolute best four years of their life, don’t you think they might be overcompensating a little? Aiming to have a perfectly lovely, very enjoyable, if sometimes a bit average, time is a very different thing to aspiring to spend the absolute best four years of your life in a small coastal town in North East Fife. Especially if that peak involves night after night spent at pres, followed by yet another 20s themed birthday party before heading home, drunk eating half the contents of your fridge and waking up just in time to roll over, turn on your laptop and make it to your 10am (camera off, naturally). Call me crazy, but I’d be a little disappointed if that was the absolute pinnacle of my existence. It seems a little futile, not least depressing and unrealistic, to aim to peak before you graduate, so can we just stop with the whole “you’ll have the time of your life” thing and let everyone enjoy uni for what it is?
Illustration: Sarah Knight