Psychologist logo
Education, Teaching and learning

The Psychologist Guide to University Life

Ella Rhodes brings us evidence-based tips for new students of any subject, kindly sponsored by Routledge Psychology.

14 September 2017

By Ella Rhodes

1. Early days

Dr Julie Hulme (Keele University) tells us that many students find the transition to university challenging at first. She suggests throwing yourself into university life as soon as possible, and building new relationships. 'Don't go home every weekend, and spend time getting to know other students. Studies have shown that joining a student society can really help to improve your sense of belonging at university, and your psychological wellbeing. If you like sport, even better, as the physical activity will help to boost your mood and keep you fit, while helping to build a social network.' If you're a little shy and nervous at first, have a look at the Students' Union Societies on the website, and find an activity that you already know you enjoy, for an opportunity to meet like-minded peers.

Tip: Throw yourself into new activities, but for a smooth transition also keep doing what you love

2. Don't just read – learn

While reading is central to education it's important to learn how to read well, and deeply. Dr Paul Hutchins (University of Wales Trinity Saint David) says learning does not necessarily follow reading: 'It is very easy to read something without taking the information in and learning from it. Research suggests we need to be motivated and pay attention to really take information in; so, find somewhere without distractions where you can pay attention to what you are reading, remind yourself why you are reading it, and stop frequently to ask yourself if you have understood it, and how you can link what you have read to the things that interest you.'

Tip: Engage with what you're reading, on as many levels as possible

3.  Money in mind

Keep on top of your money while at university, and stick to a budget. Dr Thomas Richardson (University of Southamptom) recommends using apps and online tools to help keep on top of finances. 'If you are really worrying about money get help with both finances and mental health at the same time. It can be a vicious cycle and you can't tackle one without tackling the other. If you have previously struggled with your drinking, poor mental health or an eating disorder be wary that this might make it harder to manage your finances at university, so get help before you start to struggle.'

Tip: Your wallet and wellbeing can go hand in hand: keep track of both

4.  Make your goals small and digestible  

Dr Rebecca Sharp (Bangor University) says it is a good idea to set goals that are based on tasks rather than time. 'Goals are more easily met when you break up a task into smaller pieces and decide how much you will do that day rather than how long you will spend doing it. For example, it is better to read two book chapters than sit for two hours trying to read. Once you have done what you planned to do, take a break and do something enjoyable.' For a particularly challenging task make the pieces very small to begin with, and gradually increase them. That way, you are always making progress, no matter how small, and the task will seem less daunting.

Tip: Focus on tasks not time

5.  Don't suffer in silence

Dr Alana James (Royal Holloway, University of London), whose research looks into peer support and mentoring, says that while independent learning at university is important, it does not mean support isn't available for students. 'If you get stuck with something try to find out the answer for yourself, try different resources, and try asking your student peers, but if you can't figure it out then do ask a member of staff. Most academic staff run office drop-in hours, times when their students can drop by with queries – do make use of these! Some of the most interesting conversations I've had with students have been when they've dropped by my office hour.'

Tip: Use your initiative but don't hesitate to seek help when you need it

6.  Make the most of lectures

Although you can remotely access online lecture slides and video-captured lectures, always attend face-to-face lectures to fully engage with material and get the best value from your fees! Jacqui Taylor, Associate Professor in Psychology Education (Bournemouth University), highlights the many benefits of attending lectures. 'The format of lectures has changed radically since the days of "sage on the stage" to better engage students and lead to improved learning. Now lecturers employ technology, such as voting on mobiles to check understanding and live Twitter feeds to ask questions. With "flipped learning" students are given tasks to complete on a new topic and then the lecture reflects on these tasks and raises further issues, rather than the lecture being the first introduction to a topic.'

Tip: Preparing for and being active during lectures can lead to increased enjoyment and learning more deeply.

7.  How much do your friends really drink?

We tend to overestimate the amount that other people are drinking, and can be tempted to drink more ourselves in order to fit in. It can seem like everyone else wants to drink heavily in Freshers' week, but when Dr Emma Davies (Oxford Brookes University) asked second and third year students, they all said they wished they'd spoken up and not gone out drinking so much. 'When they got to know their friends a bit better later in the year, they realised that most people didn't actually want to drink quite as much as they did… they just thought that everyone else wanted to, and matched their behaviour to that expectation.'

Tip: Don't assume other people will want to get drunk… only do what you're comfortable with

8.  Put FoMO to bed

Social media platforms can offer benefits for wellbeing, such as combatting loneliness and strengthening peer networks, which are particularly important when embarking on a new venture such as university. However, there is growing concern from parents, teachers and health professionals over their possible impact on sleep. Dr Heather Cleland Woods (University of Glasgow) said a fear of missing out (also known as FoMO) was to blame for social media interrupting our sleep. 'Try putting the device down a little bit earlier at night so you can allow yourself time to wind down, start to feel sleepy and drift off to sleep. Some people say they find it difficult to leave a conversation as they feel its rude or people will take offence. But lots of  people we have worked with have said this, which suggests they would be quite happy if someone asked to pick up a conversation in the morning as they need to get some sleep!'

Tip: Prioritise getting a good night's sleep over chatting online

9.  Try not to think of it as a consumer experience

It's easy to see why students want value for money from their annual £9,000 tuition fees. But seeing yourself as a consumer at university is unlikely to be a path to fulfilment, or indeed a decent degree. In research published last year, Dr Louise Bunce (University of Winchester) and colleagues surveyed more than 600 undergraduate students on their consumerism attitudes and behaviours in relation to their learning. Being more consumer-oriented – for example seeing the degree as a product which was being purchased – was associated with lower academic performance.

Tip: University is expensive, but do try to see yourself as a student of your subject rather than a shopper

10. A memorable time

 Your university years are likely to be some of the most memorable times you'll have, Dr Catherine Loveday, University of Westminster, says: 'Your time will fly by, but research suggests that in years to come you will look back on it regularly and nostalgically, in what psychologists call a reminiscence bump. So fill your university life with memorable things: relax, have fun and make the most of it however you can!'

Tip: If, one day, you'd like to have a rich and positive recollection of your university life, grasp every opportunity to do memorable things!


- This Guide was sent out with all copies of the October 2017 edition of The Psychologist.

You can also watch an animated version!

Download and print a PDF for your copy.

We are very grateful to Routledge Psychology for sponsoring its production. To suggest or sponsor a future guide, contact the editor [email protected]

Seek out our other Guides – on 'You and your baby', 'Leadership', and 'Healthy living'.

Student membership is open to everyone studying on a Society accredited undergraduate degree or conversion course. Join online for just £26.

See also the 2020 covid-19 inspired 'guide to [new] university life' update...

Join the discussion on Twitter @psychmag

Download The Psychologist app, free on iOS and Android.