So, picture this: you've just about finished unpacking your clothes, cutlery, and crockery. Maybe you've even found time to put up the posters and photos that make your new student digs feel like home – or at least you've bought the blu-tack that you'll use to stick them up. You’re starting to feel like you've got all this handled. And then… you walk onto campus for the first time. BAM.

Freshers' Week at many universities and colleges – especially the larger ones – can be an overload for both your senses and your brain. Somehow you've got to wade through the module handbooks, the flyers for club nights with eye-poppingly cheap drinks, the endless "one week only" deals and the hundreds of club and society pitches, with enough gas in the tank to get through enrolment and maybe, you know, even start studying for your degree in a week or so's time. And if you could do it with enough money left in your pocket to last you ‘til November, well… that would be the icing on the cake.

There's no getting away from it: Freshers' Week is overwhelming. But if you can arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible beforehand, you'll be in the best position to handle the stress-inducing stuff with ease and focus on enjoying yourself. We'd bet there are at least a few Freshers' Week formalities you weren't aware of. And that's where this guide comes in. Read on for helpful guidance, as well as tips on surviving your first weekend… and thriving beyond it.

Socialising

Let's get the obvious bit out of the way first. It's your first week living away from home, you've got lots of new people to meet, and the drinks are the cheapest you've ever seen in your life. There's only one logical response to all this: go nuts. Live a little. Lose your inhibitions and talk to as many people as you possibly can. But…

Pace yourself, just a very little. Get some sleep every now and then. Stay hydrated. Eat something green (like a vegetable, not an apple vodka jelly shot) at least once in your first week. Make sure you're still able to be in the places you need to be when you need to be there. Put a big circle around the social events you're really looking forward to, and make sure you're in decent shape to go to them.

Have the time of your life, and look after yourself just enough to do the same again next week as well as, you know, studying a bit.

Registration and choosing modules

At some point in Freshers' Week you'll be allotted a day and time to register for your student ID and sign up for your first-year modules. We'd be lying if we said registration was the most fun you'll have in Freshers' Week – in fact, it will most likely involve a lot of lining up at various different desks to get things signed, being herded into various rooms, and fretting about that ID photo they just took before you were ready.

Registration will most likely take place in a large gym or sports hall that's been repurposed into a temporary hive of bureaucracy. To ensure things go as smoothly as possible, and that you don't have to spend any more time in the registration hall than you need to, it's useful to remember a few things:

  • Show up when you're supposed to.
    Some universities just set aside a few days when all registration takes place, and allow you to show up whenever you want in that time period. Others will allocate a particular day and time to your course to ensure that everything goes as smoothly as possible. Because of the sheer number of students they have to register, universities can get quite grumpy if you don't turn up during the timeslot that's been allocated to your course, and they may send you away if you arrive at a different time. This can result in delays getting your student ID, and an extra visit to the registration hall. There aren't all that many places you absolutely need to be in Freshers' Week, but this is one you don't want to miss.
  • Make sure you've got all the paperwork you need.
    You may well be given your key registration documents during orientation sessions for your degree programme, or you might have to go pick them up from an office. You'll also most likely be given some sort of checklist that tells you exactly what you need to take and when. Make sure you have this to hand and follow it to the letter.
  • Make sure you get all the signatures/stamps you need.
    You'll almost certainly need to have someone from your department sign off on your registration papers after you've chosen all your modules and before you can register. Don't forget this step! You don't want to get to the head of a very long line only to be told you need to stand in another one (and then come back and queue again)!
  • Make sure you know what modules you want to take before registration day.
    In many cases, your home department won't have made all your module choices for you. Most likely, you'll have options to pick within or even outside your department (see our section on electives below). There may very well be an electives fair in the registration hall advertising some of the modules you can sign up for if you're not already fully committed. And while these displays are a great advert for the richness of university life, we don't especially recommend impulse enrolment. Spend some time reading the module handbook you're given or pointed to online (more on this below) and make sure you already know what modules you want to take – or at least those you think are worth taking a closer look at – before you arrive to register. That way you're less likely to spend October cursing yourself for the fact that you've got to be in at 9am every Wednesday to learn about volcanoes.

Electives

Chances are that somewhere among the deluge of paperwork you've been given there's a thick book with the unappealing title of "Module Handbook", or something similar. Depending on your university this may be online-only, so it's an idea to check the university website for something with a similar name.

It's easy to overlook this book – or this area of the website – and assume it's for reference only and you won't need it until you start studying. But here's where you'll find details of all the modules your university is offering, not just in your subject area but across the entire first-year curriculum.

Why is this important? On most degree courses, at least in the first year, you'll get to pick electives, modules outside of your department that you may choose to take for a number of reasons.

What's an elective?

An elective is a module that is suitable for students with an interest in a subject area but who aren't necessarily taking a degree in that area. Be aware, though, that most electives also form part of the core programme for students who are taking a degree in the subject, so electives won't necessarily consist of simple overview material. For this reason, you may well find them more challenging than the modules in your own subject area.

How do electives work?

Most universities measure student progress in credits. One year of undergraduate study amounts to 120 credits, with modules generally worth either 10, or more commonly, 20 credits (more rarely, you might see 40-credit modules that run over two semesters, or even 5-credit modules).

In most degree courses (though not all – science degrees especially may insist you take a full module load from your core discipline) you're not required to take a full 120 credits in your home department. In fact, you may not even be allowed to do so depending on the programme. Typically your department will require you to take 80 credits in your main subject(s), leaving 40 free for you to fill as you see fit. This normally works out at one 20-credit module per term.

How do I choose an elective?

So many choices, so few credits to play with. As with almost everything else in Freshers' Week, the range of choices can be overwhelming. So here are a few reasons you might want to add some variety into your first year:

  • To indulge a passion.
    You may have done three A Levels in the sciences, but you love music. Or painting. Or photography. And a couple of hours of the arts might just be what your week needs to balance out all that grappling with quantum mechanics. Some elective modules may specify certain prerequisites, but if you meet them – or if there are none whatsoever, as is often the case with electives – go ahead and have fun.
  • Because university is cool and so is this module.
    Every electives catalogue has its share of eye-catching modules that sound like nothing you've ever studied in school, and provoke the reaction, "You mean you can actually study that?!" These modules can significantly increase the fun factor of your degree, but do bear in mind that these modules require study that's as rigorous and in-depth as any other university module. If you've signed up for sitcom studies because you like sitcoms, that's great – you’re probably going to watch a lot of sitcoms this term. On the other hand, you're going to have to get to grips with the formal vocabulary of TV and film criticism as well, and that's going to involve just as much time in the library as that quantum mechanics module. Well, not quite. But almost.
  • To keep your options open.
    There's a good reason why we recommend that you already have a good idea of the modules you want to take before you turn up at registration. With a bit of forward planning you can use electives in your first year to keep your options open about the degree you eventually want to graduate with.

    – Although single-honours programmes normally require you to take 80 credits in your home subject during your first year, lots of students sign up to "joint honours" courses, which allow you to have two named subjects (e.g. "English and Politics") on your degree certificate. While some joint honours courses require that you take 60 credits of each of your named subjects in your first year (hence leaving no room for electives), others require a minimum of 40 credits for each subject, with another 40 free for a third. If you enrolled in a joint honours programme because you have a broad range of interests and couldn't decide which one you wanted to major in, electives can help broaden your horizons still further: by using your elective allocation to take core modules in a third subject, you could place yourself in a position to replace one of your named subjects with that third subject, because you'll have the necessary 40 credits to study that subject in a joint honours degree the following year!

    – Even if you're enrolled in a single-honours programme, you may still want to approach electives as a way of keeping your options open. As above, if you use your elective allocation to pursue core modules in a second subject, you may be able to switch to a joint honours programme or at the very least adopt the second subject as a "minor", which will allow you to take 40 credits in it in your second and third years.

What are the risks, and what should I check before I sign up for an elective?

On the one hand, most universities calculate final degree classifications based on your performance in your second and third years. To a large extent, therefore, electives can be considered "freebies”: you can take a course that interests you and, provided you're capable of securing a pass mark at the end of the term, you shouldn't worry too much about the consequences.

There are a few questions you need to ask yourself before you commit to an elective, though:

  • Are there prerequisites and do I fulfil them?
    You should be prevented from signing up for an elective if it requires, say, an AS Level in History and you don't have one. But in practice prerequisites might be worded only as strong recommendations. If you're considering signing up for an elective that isn't recommended for someone with your experience or skillset, make sure you know what you're taking on and are prepared to do any extra work that entails.
  • Does the elective fit with my existing timetable?
    Again, you should be prevented from signing up if the answer to this is "no" – your core modules aren't negotiable. But do consider whether an elective is worth your time if it requires a frantic dash across campus directly after another of your classes, or it's at noon on an otherwise free day.
  • Is the elective going to take up more of my time than my core modules?
    You might feel you have the ability to do well in your elective, but you should ask whether it’s going to eat up significantly more time than your other subjects, whether that's because you're passionate about the subject and are likely to enjoy it far more than your other modules, or because you'll need to work harder to get through it. You don't want to over-commit your time to electives, especially if you’re not taking them to keep your options open about a potential change in career path.

Freshers' Fair

One of the biggest sources of information overload you're likely to come upon in Freshers' Week is the Freshers' Fair, a huge collection of stalls and displays all seeking to attract your attention and business. Depending on the way your university/Students' Union has set things up, commercial vendors may be entirely separate from the clubs and societies hoping you'll join them, or they may all be arranged together in separate sections of a giant hall.

Either way, you'll want to spend a good bit of time browsing the clubs and societies, and it's advisable to treat the commercial vendors with a degree of caution. Our advice for dealing with both has a theme in common, though: don't sign up for everything, just because you can!

Clubs and societies

A lot of people you talk to in Freshers' Week will ask you what clubs and societies you've signed up for, and anything you've received from your Student's Union will probably spend a great deal of time talking about the merits of clubs and societies too. And it's true that clubs and societies are the single best way to meet new, like-minded people – if you're discerning about which ones you join. Remember that societies run throughout the year, and you won't "miss the boat" if you don't sign up during the first week. But do sign up for anything that really excites you, and ask yourself the following:

  • Is this a CV builder?
    Absolutely not everything you do at university should be fit for your CV. But if a society offers participation in a sport, volunteer opportunity, or physical challenge that you feel reflects who you are and the person you'd like to present to employers in the future, you should definitely sign up!
  • Is this a good way to meet people like me?
    Niche interests shared in common are one of the surest ways to strike up an immediate rapport with new people, and turn strangers into friends. If a specific subculture is your thing – whether it's punk, metal, hip-hop, street art or Dungeons & Dragons – make sure you make a beeline for the society that most closely matches your interest. And, whatever else you do in Freshers' Week, make sure you attend their opening social event.
  • Am I really into this?
    It can be tempting to sign up for every society that reflects something you enjoy doing. But the majority of clubs and societies are for people who are really into that thing. If you've occasionally enjoyed a game of snooker over a few drinks with friends, that doesn't necessarily mean you want to spend your evenings getting beaten soundly by a world amateur billiards champion. Prioritise your interests, and if you end up with a "maybe" pile that's fine – you can always go along to an event and join later if it's your thing.