Life vs lore: the truth about first-year uni

As I prepared – with equal parts anxiousness, excitement and confusion – for the big move from Perth to Canberra, plenty of people had plenty to say about university. I knew it was a great opportunity, I knew I wanted to do it, but was I the right type of person? Was I ready?

Lore of a kind surrounds every life stage. It’s almost a pact between people recounting an experience that some thoughts, some feelings, some moments will be preferenced over others. These seemingly millions of well-meaning instructors constructed lore around moving to university – but reality often shows up the flaws in this mythologising.

The number one thing I was told was that you make lots of friends more or less instantly, especially in a residential college (Fenner, for those wondering). So many people I spoke to had met their best friends at university. College sounded like a place where everyone on a floor would dip in and out of each other’s rooms at random – where you cooked together and studied together, and where all property was more or less communal. I had readied myself for this experience. And of course, like all legends, this idea contained more than a grain of truth. But reality wasn’t quite what I expected.

Most people at college are friendly, of course, and you will meet some amazing personalities. But you might not make lots of friends instantly, and that’s okay. While stress, sleep deprivation and homesickness might make you feel like everyone has a tight-knit group of close friends except for you, I can assure you this is not the case. It also might take you a little while to get back into the swing of making close friends. Since starting high school, personally, I’d had no need to turn the sort of friend you might talk to when you have a break from class into the sort of friend you can talk to about your feelings. Rest assured that you will work out how to do this again, and your closest friendships will probably be forged unexpectedly. Try not to pressure yourself. I promise it will be okay.

Something no one will tell you is that uni – and particularly college – can get very isolating. You will probably find yourself spending long periods semi-voluntarily alone in your room, unable to just walk next door and talk to a parent or sibling about what’s going on in your life. If you’re used to relying on family, rather than friends, to be your core support system, this can be particularly difficult. You might have doubts and periods of homesickness well past the first few weeks of the year. This doesn’t mean you’re not ready to be here. It does mean that you’re reflecting on your experience quite intensely, which can sometimes take the enjoyment out of it. My biggest tips are to not put too much pressure on yourself to feel happy all the time, and to make use of the support available. When I have flashes of homesickness I’ll often spend time at our college café or in the common areas, because chatting to people makes me feel better. ANU Counselling is another wonderful resource, not only for people with existing mental health issues, but also for those who just need to talk to somebody without feeling guilty of burdening people with their problems.

Something else I heard repeated like Chinese whispers was that nobody worked in first year. First year was a time to party and make lots of friends before you actually started putting some effort in. It’s worth getting this out of your head right now, because you will need to work in first year, and it’s worth starting early. I know plenty of people who nearly failed first year because they spent too much time socialising and too little revising, or didn’t watch their lectures until the day before the exam. If you sat exams to get into university, you can probably already tell me that you get better grades if you don’t leave things until the last minute. You don’t need to spend anywhere near all your time on work, but a few hours every day outside classes will be bucket-loads of help when exam period comes around.

If you’re anything like me, you might also have internalised the thought that uni is a chance to reinvent yourself. Many of the adults I spoke to had goth or hippie phases during university, revealing little of their past to even their closest friends. This idea of reinvention weighed heavy on me as I started to introduce myself to new people. I wondered if I had changed too little since high school – whether the t-shirts and JayJays denim skirt I liked to wear were too twelvie to be me now. Writing this article, I’m wearing one of those same T-shirts and the same skirt. It’s not tucked in, the way I wore it at 17. My hair is also longer, and I’m wearing cuffs on my ears and makeup I couldn’t have imagined doing when I first got here. The moral of the story is you don’t need to forcibly ‘reinvent’ yourself. It will happen naturally, and you need not do anything major to speed up the process. You won’t struggle to make ‘cool’ friends just because you haven’t erased every trace of your high school self. It’s okay.

In short, I think this article can be summarised with one principle: don’t put too much pressure on yourself. A million people will tell you that “uni is what you make of it”, but if you think and worry too much about whether you’re making the most of everything you’ll never pause long enough to have a good time. Let yourself be. The good times and bad times will come and go, so take them as they come and allow yourself to feel them in the moment. You’ll blink and the year will be nearly over.