Welcome to our shiny new list of first term uni tips. The first few weeks of university are a big challenge for parents and teens alike. The funny thing about your children starting university is that you know that big change is coming down the track, but it still seems to take you by surprise.
I have a theory that the two years before starting university are SO packed with things to do, that you almost can’t think about the big departure. They’re handling A-Levels and revising for mocks and applications and there are summer schools and super curriculars and campus visits and … it’s a lot.
In our case, Flea finished her exams and we went off on our summer road trip. We came back in time for A-Level results and – bam! – there were just three weeks before she needed to be on campus for Freshers’ Week.
As a single Mum with one child, Flea leaving home has been a huge change. And not just because I only run the washing machine once a week, and a box of Diet Coke lasts a month. It’s new routines and more free time for me. And for Flea, starting university has been amazing and exciting but really difficult in some ways. We’ve chatted a lot about what’s changed and how we’re handling it. Between us, we’ve come up with ten First Term Uni Tips for your teen’s first few weeks at university:
10 First Term Uni Tips from Me and My Teen
1. Don’t Pack Everything
Storage in most university halls is a bit crap. You’ll probably have a single wardrobe, two or three small wall shelves and if you’re lucky, space under the bed.
Our first, first term uni tip then is don’t take suitcases, they’re hard to store in your room. Take Ikea bags or other bags you can squash flat and pop into a drawer or under the bed. Invest in things like over-door hanging storage, to maximise the space. When it comes to clothes and shoes, think about streamlining your packing to what’s likely to fit into a single wardrobe. Unless you’re Flea, in which case you take everything you own and then stuff it into the wardrobe and ignore concepts like ‘folding’ and ‘hanging’.
2. Flatmates aren’t always your new besties
These days, many freshers are put into halls that are divided into flats that might house anywhere from four to ten people. Universities like to say that they assign people based on age, gender, course and interests but I strongly suspect they throw all the accommodation application forms in the air and pick at random. You might end up with people you LOVE but equally you might end up with people you really don’t like that much. It’s the luck of the draw.
Flea is in a flat of four students, and she started uni thinking she’d be spending nights out with her new flatmates, and having a set of new friends right out of the gate, but that never happened. Flatmates might be shy, they might arrive at university already knowing people, or they could just have entirely different interests to you.
At first Flea was disappointed not to have more in common with her flatmates, who all have existing friends at uni and don’t even study in the same faculty. They’re friendly but didn’t seem interested in being friends with Flea.
But I think as time has gone on, she’s realised that having relatively quiet flatmates who are relatively friendly and relatively clean is a big win, compared to some of the challenges her friends have had.
3. Build in Contingency Plans
One of the things I’ve struggled with most since Flea started uni isn’t actually missing her at home. It’s worrying about how she’s doing at uni. Is she safe? If she goes out drinking, can she get a cab home? Will someone notice if she doesn’t show up? What happens if she loses her phone?
If you’re a parent, one of the biggest First Term Uni Tips I can share is try to make agreements upfront about how much checking in you and your teen feel comfortable with. Negotiate so you’re both happy with those boundaries!
What’s helped me is having a contingency plan that helps me to know that Flea is safe and well. Or at least, helps me feel a bit more confident about that! A few things we’ve done – not all of which will work for everyone – are:
- Letting her use my PayPal business account so she can always buy a train ticket, if she needs to.
- I helped Flea sign up for a local GP during her first week at uni, so she knows how to access healthcare if the need arises. I also sent her with a comprehensive first aid kit for her room.
- Sharing my Uber account with her so she’s always able to get a cab home if she’s stuck. I must confess, this failed when she got very drunk one night and lost her phone, which meant she was stuck, because Gen Z doesn’t do cash.
- I put Life 360 on her phone so that I can make sure she gets home safely – it also meant I was able to tell her where her phone was when she lost it. Note, I am forbidden from using Life360 to stalk her and check she goes to class, because that’s her business.
4. Freshers Week is a big fat lie
I reckon Freshers’ Week is the most over-hyped event in the history of the world. For every teen who lands at uni and spends every night partying with their new besties, there are 20 teens who are awkwardly forcing themselves to talk to strangers until it’s 9pm and they can go back home and watch Netflix in their room.
If you find hanging out with strangers and endlessly telling people your course and your home town incredibly awkward and depressing, that’s normal. Remind your teens that they aren’t failing. They’re building a whole new life, and that doesn’t happen in a week, or two, or four. Even those kids who are out every night in a big group are probably still struggling to feel like they fit in, and have proper friends.
I encouraged Flea to try and do one thing every day that involved leaving her room. Sometimes she went to the club nights and parties but sometimes it’s a win just to go and have a coffee, join the library, or study in a coffee shop for an hour.
5. Pen and Paper is Over Rated at Uni
Here’s one of the First Term Uni Tips that surprised me. Don’t bother sending them off with loads of pens and A4 notebooks because from what I can see, an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil is the only stationery that Flea has used over the last six weeks.
Everything Flea does is online. Course books are published online. Her timetable is online, as is class enrolment, seminar assignments, direct debits for the university, even the gym timetable. Flea uses apps on her iPad to take notes in lectures, which makes it easier to organise them into classes and topics.
The advantage of doing notes in an app is that they are cloud-based, so Flea can access those notes on her laptop when it comes to writing essays. Assignments are generally created in Word, and uploaded electronically to her department. Paper is not a big part of the modern uni experience for arts students, I don’t think.
6. Enrolling for University Classes is a nightmare
I’m not sure this applies to everyone but lots of degree courses will have optional classes, or let students select their preferred seminar groups and lecture groups.
At Flea’s university she’s required to take three subjects each semester. While she is guaranteed a spot in the subject she applied to the university for, her other 2 classes are optional. And getting a spot in a class that you actually want to do can be a bunfight.
For Flea, getting a spot in an optional class was a slow, complicated process using a website that felt like it was built in 1984 with a workflow designed specifically to enrage people. Select a class. Select a degree. Select enrolment. Select a class. Select a lecture. Add to timetable. Confirm. Sorry, it’s full! Try again.
Our advice? If you need to enrol for classes, do it early because it’s laborious and the best classes get filled up.
7. Book the Study Sessions for Freshers
The leap from A-Level to university classes is huge, and it can be challenging for even the brightest students. There’s a lot of independent study and the way that universities pose questions and expect answers to be structured is different to A-Levels. So one of my personal First Term Uni Tips is to seek out and attend the classes that most universities will run called something like ‘study skills’ or ‘essay writing classes’.
Most universities will run additional seminars and lectures specifically looking at study skills. At Flea’s university there is a series of 12 lectures in seminar one covering things like note taking, using citations correctly, how to understand learning outcomes, and tackling essay questions. These days they also explain about how to use (and not use) AI tools, and what counts as plagiarism. It’s important stuff. Spots were limited but the classes are available to watch online later.
These sessions are free, and we really encourage teens to sign up for them to help them hit the ground running when the assignments start being handed out.
8. Join the Club
“You will find your people at clubs and societies.” This one tops the First Term Uni Tips list and has become a cliche because it’s true.
Societies and clubs are where many teens meet their people. Compared to Freshers Week, it’s easier to make friends at clubs, simply because you’re seeing the same people, week in, week out, and you all have something in common.
I think being a part of a regular activity also gives young people a routine during first year. At a time when they’re adjusting to lots of new things, a little structured routine can be really helpful for their mental health. Some kids will be confident enough to go to a dozen different events, clubs and societies but if teens aren’t naturally extrovert there’s a lot to be said for choosing one thing that you know you’ll enjoy, and go from there.
9. But Skip the Initiations
You might hear lots of stories about university sports clubs and the ‘initiations’ for first years. Lots of downing drinks, eating gross concoctions, running around in public wearing baby clothes, jumping into the North Sea… you get the idea.
Sometimes initiations are just daft, but they can leave young people feeling vulnerable, embarrassed or unsafe. In which case it’s important to remind them that one of the key First Term Uni Tips is that you don’t have to do anything you don’t feel comfortable doing. Whether thats drinking, playing games, or going along with conversations that make you uncomfortable.
Remind your teen that they don’t have to do all the stupid things. Flea is a member of the hockey club and the initiations are RIDICULOUS as is the level of drinking. That said, the older girls do make a point of letting the Freshers know it’s all optional and when there are big events like pub crawls and quizzes there will be a ‘sober team’ for young people who don’t want to drink.
Actually there are quite firm guidelines now that should mean initiations stay fun and safe for everyone involved. If initiations seem dangerous or veer into bullying, BUCS has an anonymous reporting page where you can let the uni authorities know what’s going on.
10. Come home when you need to
I think it’s a myth that it’s a bad idea to let kids come home ‘too soon’. Some people will tell you that coming home too soon means that kids won’t want to go back to uni at all, if they’re struggling.
But it’s 2023, and we’re a lot more thoughtful about mental health these days. For our Covid-teens, starting university can be incredibly tough. They’ve missed out on a few years of social skills, and it’s exhausting spending weeks on end trying to get to know people, from scratch, in a new city.
I know that after two weeks, Flea was feeling exhausted and burned out and frustrated that the version of uni that she saw on social media was not her reality AT ALL. An early weekend at home was a chance to connect with her college friends, remember that she’s an AWESOME person with good friends, and it is all going to be fine. I’ve also been up to Scotland to take Flea her PS5, and we had a night out, and I took her shopping. Whatever works for you, is the right thing to do. Maybe that’s the most important of our First Term Uni Tips.
So there you have it – ten hard learned First Term Uni Tips from Flea’s first six weeks at university – I hope they help you feel more prepared if your teen is just setting out on their journey. Thanks go to Flea for sharing these tips with me 🙂