Starting university - what to expect

young male student
© Edyta Pawlowska |

Regardless of whether you’re 18 and going to university straight from high school or you’re 29 and wanting to gain a qualification, starting uni for the first time can be tough. Wandering around an unknown campus, adjusting to lectures and tutorials, making new friends, learning new things, juggling your finances, all whilst trying to get a degree to advance your career – it can get a little overwhelming. It’s a lot to take in, but most people do it wonderfully and come out of it having had one of the best experiences of their lives.

Here is some advice on how to minimise your pre-uni jitters by being prepared, feeling confident and knowing what to expect.

Orientation week

Orientation week, or ‘O-week’, is a great way to begin your uni life. It’s held a week before classes start (sometimes two weeks) and involves a number of social activities and events designed to welcome and orient new students to uni life. It’s not compulsory to attend but it’s a good way to meet people, receive information about the uni, get a feel for the campus and just have some fun.

At O-week you can expect anything from sporting events, tours of the campus, markets, games, workshops, lectures and often large-scale events with famous bands. Oh, and not to mention lots of drinking and partying!

Look on O-week as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not only will it help you familiarise yourself with the campus that you will be spending most of your time at for the next few years, it will also be lots of fun and leave you with many fab memories. Just don’t party too hard and wreck yourself for the first day of classes!

Making new friends

Uni is not like high school. Nor is it like your hometown community, or even like your workplace. At uni, you will mix with people from all walks of life. There will be young and old, people from different countries and cultures. You will meet students from different socio-economic backgrounds, different academic levels, people with disabilities, or that can’t speak much English. Everyone is there to learn and grow. Be ready to accept people and branch out of your comfort zone.

It’s a good idea to try to make a friend in each class you have. This way, you will always have someone to discuss study with and someone to take notes for you if you happen to miss class! You will most likely have to do a group project at some point in your uni career and this is also a good time to make a few mates, as well as practise working in a team.

Likewise, societies, clubs and sport teams are a great way to build some friendships and develop your teamwork skills. Pick something you like or something you’re interested in, and just go for it. Societies and clubs are a voluntary thing so if you don’t like it, you can always drop out.

Lectures and tutorials

Depending on your course at university, classes are usually made up of lectures and tutorials. Lectures are generally in a huge theatre and may have hundreds of people attending them. Because of this, there is not much interaction in lectures themselves – you are just one student in a sea of bodies. It is basically just a lecturer doing exactly that – lecturing, for a couple of hours. It’s important to attend as most of the work gets covered here.

Tutorials, on the other hand, will be more face-to-face learning and will give you a chance to ask questions, do some activities and group work, and go over everything you covered in the lecture. There are generally around 20 to 30 students in a tutorial. Each class will probably have one lecture and one tutorial per week; however, learning at uni can come in a variety of different forms, such as online learning or laboratory work, depending on your course.

Teachers and learning

At uni, you’re in charge of your own learning. If you miss a lecture or don’t turn up to your tutorial, no one will care. Sounds great, right? It won’t look great when you receive your marks at the end of semester!

For the teachers at uni, teaching is only a very small part of their job. They have plenty of more important things to do, such as administration and research, publishing articles and books, supervising students doing their PhD, and sitting on various committees and boards. Teachers at uni won’t be chasing you to do your homework like they did at high school – it’s up to you to show interest and they will impart you with their knowledge. You are responsible for everything from enrolling in classes before the cut-off date, to knowing when you have tests or assessments due. This is about taking responsibility for yourself, without anyone to hold your hand.

Elle, a student at Southern Cross University, recently found out how different uni and high school really are: ‘In high school you are pretty much spoon-fed the information, at uni they make you do the research and extract the information yourself,’ says Elle. ‘It took me a while to adjust to it – finding my way around, developing a new study pattern that would be appropriate to the amount of work I had to keep up with. It helped to have a good set of friends that I could meet up with for study dates and share ideas about assessment tasks.’

There is a great table outlining the main differences between high school and university – check it out here.

The key is to be prepared and manage your studies and time wisely. Record everything in your diary at the start of semester and always refer back to it. Friends also come in handy at this time as you can remind each other of when things are due. Learning independently can take some time to get used to, but once you do, the lessons will see you through the rest of your life.

For more information and some practical tips on how to survive the first week of uni see Starting university – some practical tips.

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