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Going to Uni?

Written August 2015 by Judith Apps of The Eden Practice for Happy Space Charity ( with excerpts used by Esther Harris for Standard Issue Magazine (see News Article)

Whoever you are, you are likely to have some thoughts about going to university.

For many it is a hugely rewarding and enjoyable experience and certainly often reported as such after the event. New students may find a range of issues and situations present themselves that give rise for anxiety and concern. Individuals may not choose to express this, may not know who to talk to or may think they are unusual in feeling a bit lost or worried or not happy. Feelings can be intermittent – moments of highs and lows until the new life beds down.

Whatever the background a new student will have a range of expectations about university – what it “should” be like. Stories of fun, friendship groups and good times abound, but other areas are left unreported.


Transition & Structure

It is a time of change. The move from school or college to an often larger freer environment with less structure and less control mechanisms can be bewildering. Some courses have few hours of planned seminars and tutorials in the week, others may have a fuller schedule. For many students it may be the first time they have woken up on a Monday morning and wondered how to spend the day.

It can be very lonely to know that you are part of a vast machine and yet isolated in a small room in halls with perhaps “nothing” planned. Fresher’s week is over, there are no formal lectures/university requirements: a totally free day can be quite daunting at the beginning, before the new life has taken shape.

Depending on the environment that you came from this can feel scary. Freedom and choice are really available for the first time: no teachers, no parents, nor work managers/bosses, no one checking up on you.

Maybe you felt fed up with being told what to do, or by being in a system where there were fixed expectations, be it school or work. In those early weeks at university the idea that no one knows what you are doing and no one is checking in:  “are you ok, how is it going” might feel like you are invisible or abandoned. Who are the people who should be caring for me? This might pass quickly as they immerse
themselves into all the elements of university life, but for some this feeling of “not existing” can go on for a while.

For some students gap year travel provides experience of self-determination: how to spend their days, where to go, how to budget, which people they like - making the transition to university easier. For everyone it seems that finding the friendship group
is a high priority and can provoke anxiety.

Friendships and social ok-ness

Initially friends might come from contacts: knowledge of someone who is also going to your university, family friends or friends of friends. Acquaintances might start with the people on your floor in halls, the people in the next door rooms, those that you meet at the first meal times (if you are in catered halls) or those that you party with at fresher’s week. But it can be confusing to come across many new people and p have a passing sense of connection but no real bond.

These new people cannot replace those friendships of longevity from school and college. People with whom you have a shared sense of history, people that can predict your behaviour and know your moods, who have lived and tolerated all of you (good times and not so good times) perhaps for most of your school life.

And if school was an uncomfortable place for you and not an experience of good relationships perhaps there is a sense of fear and worry that you might not find people to bond with at university either. It takes a while to find those people that do become close friends, the whole of the first year may pass still exploring different friendship groups: many students have reported not finding the people they want to spend time with until terms 2 or 3. This can provoke issues over house sharing choices in the 2nd year (I wouldn’t have chosen these people had I known who I was later going to meet) but living with people and socialising do not always have to be overlapping.

This process of finding the friendship group can be unsettling, may be the first time that you are thrown into a situation of self-awareness or self-examination in a conscious way:

  •  who am I?

  •  what do people like about me,?

  •  what do I look for in others?

  •  why do some people feel comfortable to be with?

  •  why do I just not like that person?

  •  what is it makes that makes me “click” with someone?


The clubs and societies that you join allows you to meet people with whom there will be the common shared interest. Living with ambiguity – will I like these people or those – is part of the early stages of integration. Finding how you want to be in the world - who you like to hang out with, who makes you feel safe and who makes you laugh - takes time.

Practical Aspects

There may be other things on your mind of a practical nature. 
a) What will happen about food? Catered halls is one option or you might find yourself cooking for the first time. And it isn’t just about the cooking but also the shopping for food and the quantities and the eating alone. If meal times have been social or happy occasions in your life prior to uni, it might feel lonely to start with. Or perhaps having communal meals in halls feels daunting, who will you sit with, what happens if you feel left out of a group or don’t see anyone you know there. A whole range of emotions can be brought up by something as necessary and regular as eating.
b) What about finances/budgeting? Perhaps this is the first time you will have money of your own, or if you have been working this will be a decrease in income. Maybe you have not had to budget before and a weekly allowance is hard to determine: “How much can I spend on going out, or on clubs and societies?” What happens if everyone in your friendship group seems to live on a different budget to you? Part of the process of managing yourself, of fitting into the lifestyle you want and can


What to do?


Adjusting to life at university may cause anxiety to differing degrees but can also be part of the excitement and novelty. For some the insecurities experienced in going through change, and being challenged with so many new things, will be harder to live with. It might be difficult to talk to your previous friends – they may not be available or you might not want to say that actually so far it isn’t all great. Your
family might not be close (emotionally or physically) and therefore not available to offer support and advice.

Universities offer counselling services and speaking to someone independent who isn’t part of your family can help. Talking out loud about things that are worrying you, that makes you feel insecure, that might be new and puzzling, emotions that perhaps you haven’t experienced before can help. (They are confidential services, so will not affect your progress at university) Becoming more self-aware means that you may be able to make the right choices more easily. Finding and listening to your own intuition can be a great guide to experiencing satisfaction and a feeling that things are “ok” and a sense that you can manage whatever it is that next arises.


Being at university at all might be “the” issue: am I doing the right thing? did I want to be here? am I cut out for studying, I don’t like studying on my own, this is boring we did all this at school already, this is hard – not sure I can keep up. Academic staff may well be able to help with these dilemmas, and counselling again can help. Counsellors can be found on line and via websites (as well as the university

This article is less about the academic side of university. More about the new aspects of living alone that can make you question yourself as a human being and can for some prove to be a difficult time initially – lonely, depressing, uncertain and isolating. It can seem as if everyone else is having a good time, that they have just landed on their feet and that there is something wrong with you, “Why can’t I just
get on with it? Why don’t I just fit in? Why do I feel as if I am not included?” But of course none of us ever know the internal mental world of the “other” – the old friend from school doing so well at a distant university.

In Conclusion:

As someone said to me recently “I am fri-cited”. They were experiencing a combination of fear and excitement. It could also be “ex-frighted” – a combination of excitement and fear and probably for most new students there will be a spectrum of both emotions as they bravely go into the world and find their feet.

Judith C Apps

Coach, Counsellor & Psychotherapist

UKCP, MBACP, MSc, MBA, BA Hons   00 44 7775 696361

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