A day in the life of a university student
(Last updated: 10 May 2021)
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Following a comment from ‘Girlinthehaze’ on our recent ‘Top 10 UK Universities’ article, we have delved into the experiences of university students across the country to bring you this report from the academic frontline!
Of course every university students experience is different and varies according to the subject you are studying and the specific institution you attend, but we hope our ‘day in the life’ will give a helpful idea of the sort of day-to-day experience you can expect from a UK university. Hopefully, this will be helpful to all our readers who are contemplating the next step to higher education and finding it difficult to imagine just exactly what it might entail.
8.30am (or later if you are an arts student!!) Breakfast in the cafeteria.
The rising times of university students are notoriously erratic and varied! From those crazy rowers who are up before dawn breaking the ice on the river ready to practise before breakfast, to the medics who are up every day in time for their lecture to the English students who have nothing they need to get up for until the afternoon.
The thing this really shows you is how much independence and control over your own schedule you will have at university. Unlike school where lessons are scheduled throughout the day, at uni you are more likely to have a few lectures, supervisions and tutorial sessions scattered through the week. What you do with the time in between is up to you.
However don’t let this fool you into thinking it’s all fun and games – you need to manage your time and use those extra hours for the much greater amount of personal study that will, of you at university. (This includes reading, research and essay writing, all of which you will have to find the time for in between lectures).
9-12 Lectures in the lecture hall
Lectures can be quite a novel experience when you first arrive at university – usually faculty-organised and attended by the whole year group of students in any given subject, are often held in old-fashioned amphitheatre-like halls. You will often find yourself sitting on a wooden bench peering down at a professor standing behind a lectern, and frantically scribbling in the notepad on your knee.
Some students report that every lecture was essential to their course (if you’re a medic, you can’t exactly skip over the day they talk about the knee), others that they were more optional and worth attending only when relevant to your current area of study. Here are our top lecture tips:
- If choosing which lectures to attend, make sure you ask advice from students in the year above you – lecture series are often repeated annually and they will have the best info on who are the most exciting and interesting speakers and which lectures are most helpful for your course.
- Take notes! It can be very easy to daydream your way through your first few lectures, but you will find yourself stuck at exam time when you realise you can’t remember a thing! It is important not only to take notes, but also to keep a well organised filing system to keep them sorted by topic – trust me, you’ll be glad you did when it comes to revision!
- Team up. If there are two useful lectures on at the same time (which seems to happen fairly often) then get together with a friend and decide to go to one lecture each, then meet up to swap notes and ideas.
1-2 Lunch in the cafeteria or back at student accommodation
University food can be notoriously hit-and-miss, with some students giving rave reviews of their café or formal hall fare and others reporting inedible and unidentifiable gloop! One big piece of advice seems to be that vegetarians are often better off going for the self-catering option, as almost all reports suggest a distinct lack of variety and quality to university-provided veggie options.
If you do decide to self-cater, you might find yourself sharing a kitchen with others on your corridor or staircase: if so, you might find it helpful to glance at these ideas:
- Buy a padlock! It sounds anti-social and dramatic, but after the third or fourth time your food cupboard is cleaned out by drunken third years on their way back from a night on the town you’ll wish you’d secured your supplies.
- Start a kitty. Grouping together with a bunch of friends in a shared kitchen and all chipping in for basics like milk and bread means it turns out much cheaper in the long run.
- Make a washing up rota. Mouldy fridges, scummy sinks, piles of encrusted dishes…it simply isn’t worth the hassle of trusting everyone to do their own washing up (especially if you’re sharing your kitchen with boys).
2-6 Seminars, supervisions and labs
There are different levels and sizes of group-organised academic sessions at university and you will be likely to experience a variety of them. Seminars are like a stepping-stone between lectures and tutorials – they typically involve around 30-50 students and are professor-led, but can also include some rich and diverse student involvement and debate. Speaking up in a seminar can be good practice for your supervision sessions, where the spotlight will be much more on you. They are also a great place to pick up on the wide range of possible ideas and theories around an academic subject, as you get the chance to discuss with so many other students.
Labs are a different type of seminar experienced by medics and science students, often focussing on a particular experiment or (gulp) dissection. We are told it is not unusual at all to feel a little queasy on your first dissection experience, and not at all frowned upon to take a break and get some fresh air, so don’t be embarrassed – that formaldehyde smell takes a little getting used to!
Supervisions or tutorials typically involve between one and five students with a single supervisor and are more like a classroom setting, though much more student involvement is typical than you will have been used to at school. Often students are required to prepare an essay in advance of the supervision, which is then read aloud and discussed in the session. Here are our top tutorial tips:
- Always be prepared. In a supervision or tutorial there is nowhere to hide if you don’t know the answer to the question – unlike in a lecture or seminar where you can keep your hand down and just listen, you will be required to speak up and you will be expected to have prepared. If there is a set text, make sure you have read it; if there is an essay required, make sure you have written it. Otherwise you risk not only wasting your own time but also that of your supervisors and fellow students.
- Be brave. A supervisor might sound like they are criticising your work quite fiercely, but this is often simply a tactic on their part to force you to defend your ideas and really back them up with evidence and collaboration. They aren’t trying to make you look stupid, they are trying to widen your academic thought and bring out your capacity for intelligent debate, so don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and fight your corner (politely, of course!)
- Listen. Some students aren’t used to this form of teaching and find it difficult at first not to stick to their own ideas alone. The richest and most exciting teaching sessions happen when you share ideas with your peers and allow their theories to shape and inform your own.
6-9 Sports, clubs, rehearsals, debates, hobbies…
The sheer spectrum of extra-curricular activities available at university can seem completely overwhelming when you first arrive. From teams for every sport under the sun to language clubs, debating, music and drama and pretty much anything else you can think of, if you are interested in it, there will be a society for it.
Make sure you spend time at the freshers’ fair in your first week where every society will have a stand explaining what they’re about and what they offer. There are usually friendly reps on hand to offer advice and information so don’t be afraid to ask all the questions you need to work out what really takes your fancy. You can usually sign up to as many mailing lists as you like to keep you in the loop about events, meetings auditions and try-outs.
It is quite normal to try a whole raft of hobbies in your first few weeks before narrowing it down to the ones you really want to pursue (and can manage to fit in to your schedule!) It is generally very acceptable to try a few sessions of anything before deciding whether or not to commit to it. Just remember that as time goes on your academic commitments are likely to become more time-consuming, so make sure you leave yourself enough time to get all your work done!
10 Staying in, going out
Most university towns are packed with nightspots and the clubs and bars will usually have various university student nights on offer. Make sure you take full advantage of the special offers you can usually get with your various student cards. Freshers’ week tends to be a whirl of bar crawls, theme nights and ‘bops’ or ‘ents’, but don’t feel under pressure to go to them all – everyone needs the odd night in to actually get some reading done!