It’s actually been a really long time since I started university, and even longer since I was tearing my hair out deciding what A Levels to take and if I even wanted to go to uni at all. It sounds silly, but when I was 17 I was working in Costa Coffee and briefly considered sacking off further education altogether in favour of being a barista forever. Looking back 7 (!) years later, funnily enough, I’m about to defend 17-year-old me’s seemingly crazy, hasty decision.
After being ushered off to uni at 18 (having not been given any other option by my school), studying for 4 years, travelling for a while and ultimately realising that so far, my 120 Hour Online TEFL course has been more useful than my actual degree, I’ve got a few things to say about university. First of all, don’t get me wrong: university gave me a lot of great opportunities, I met some people who changed my life for the better, and I’m pretty happy with the outcome of having studied my degree. However, I also have a lot of regrets. At the time, 18-22-year-old me thought I was doing everything right, the best I could. In hindsight, I would like to grab that mini-adult and shake her, and tell her everything I’m about to write in this post.
I’d tell her to slow down. It wouldn’t have been the worst idea in the world to stay working at Costa for another year. That way, I would have actually had the time to think about the decision that would land me in £30k+ of debt, realise what I truly wanted to study, and just give me that little bit more maturity that would have benefitted me so much when I arrived at university. A lot of 18-year-olds already do know what they really want to do as a career and are already motivated and ready to do their very best at uni, which is great! But a lot of people, like me, are very much forced down the university route and choose a degree based on a very vague idea of something they might want to end up doing. I’d tell 17-year-old me to investigate other options, to take a gap year, to work and travel and take the time to make a more informed decision.
Okay, 18-year-old me, you went down the uni route. Now start making contacts. This isn’t new advice, but this is something I did horribly wrong because I just didn’t get it until it was too late. I was too lazy to join the societies I should have joined, which would have given me more of an idea of the things I enjoy as well as a better social life. I should have made more of an effort right from the start to take advantage of all the opportunities that university offers; I just didn’t know at the time how useful it is to make as many connections as possible. You will meet thousands of people at uni, and they all know thousands more people, and one of those friends or friends-of-friends might hold the key to your dream job. You’re not that tired, go out and do something, for god’s sake.
You’re doing well in your classes, great! But you’ll do better if you get to know your lecturers. Ask questions. Take part in seminars without being scared of looking daft (having been a teacher, I’ve learnt that there’s nothing worse than trying to start a discussion and being met with a sea of blank faces.) For lack of a better word, be a swot. Volunteer to do presentations (a uni moment I will never forget: being in a seminar with my favourite, most scary lecturer. He had asked the week before for people to email him if they would like to do a presentation; only one person had, and she got a shout-out that I’m jealous of to this day.) Also, the strictest, scariest teachers are probably the best. Their lessons will be the most memorable, they will push you to do your best, and just being liked by them is a reward in itself. Your lecturers are literally some of the most knowledgeable people in the world in the subject you’re studying, so don’t take them for granted; make the most of the time you spend with them.
FINALLY, you’re doing something right! Studying abroad!!! Obviously, studying a language meant spending time abroad wasn’t just an opportunity, but an expectation. However, lots of courses now offer students the chance to spend at least one term studying or completing work placement abroad. This is seriously one of the most valuable things you can do when you’re at uni; you might never get another chance to move abroad with so much support during the process. The year I spent as an exchange student in Mexico has been one of my defining moments; it marked a before and after in my life, taught me a new way of thinking and living, and introduced me to people and places I never would have even dreamed of. I think I learnt more about myself and about life during that year than in all the rest of my adult life put together. (Okay, white girl ‘finding herself’ speech over.)
Alright, mini-adult, you’re 21 now and in your final year. Think long and hard about your dissertation. Is writing a dissertation really going to benefit you in the future? Yes? Then do a damn good job of it. Choose a title that will impress future employers, something innovative and interesting and that you will actually enjoy writing. I made the mistake of not even proposing the title I wanted to write because I assumed it wouldn’t be accepted and that would be the end of the world (probably the stupidest decision I made in all 4 years of my course.) The dissertation I wrote was okay, but I didn’t enjoy it at all and I would probably never talk about it in a job interview unless I suddenly decide I want to be a historian. Again, I didn’t think of my dissertation as something that could help me in the future; it was just something I had to do to get a good grade. PSA: Everything you do at university can somehow benefit you in the future. Everything you do now is something you can potentially show off to employers. DO. NOT. CRUISE.
You’ve got 3 very, very long summer breaks, the likes of which you will never have again. Get an internship. Even if you didn’t know exactly what you wanted to do at the beginning of uni, by year 2, 3 or 4 you ought to have a vague idea (although you might not; I’m only just realising over a year after graduating.) Use that free time wisely. Apply early on for internships that you are interested in; they could even lead to a job after graduating. Continue with that networking (that you should have started in first year.) At the very least, go interrailing or work abroad; just don’t spend the entire 3 months sleeping until noon and watching Netflix.
Well, this post is turning out to be much longer than I planned…and I haven’t talked about even half of the uninformed decisions I made at university. What do you think about a part 2? There is still a lot of important stuff to say about keeping healthy, saving money, balancing your social life and finding your niche. I hope this post has been helpful to anyone who is currently in the process of filling out UCAS applications, and also that this post hasn’t painted university in a negative light. If uni is the right decision for you, I just want everyone to make the most of it. For me, it was a great experience, but had I done my research and actually listened to people’s advice, it could have been so much greater.
Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to leave a comment letting me know 1) if I should write a second part, and 2) what advice would you give to prospective uni students?