Stepping up to university – advice to undergraduates starting this year.

The difference

It doesn’t matter if you are coming to university from school, college or after a break,  there is quite a step change in the way it works to your experience to date. In this blog I will briefly point out the key differences. Understanding these will save you time and make the transition smoother. I am constantly surprised that more isn’t made of these differences as I see first year undergraduates dazed and confused by the new world they find themselves in. It is different – but it doesn’t have to be frightening or set your progress back.

I think it’s best to summarise the differences in a diagram:

College vs Uni


At 6th form college or school, you tend to cover a number of subjects which may not be all that closely linked. Obviously this changes when you go to study a degree which is usually focussed on one or two subjects. This has a benefit in that you will see links between the different modules you study and, if you have chosen your course well, these will be largely things you are interested in. We all still find we are better at some subjects than others – I’m still hopeless on the anatomy of the brain for example despite being a psychologist! But overall, the modules you take should be more focussed.


You may have experienced some coursework so far in your studies but you will probably find there are more different types of assessment at uni. Students tell me how they prefer one sort or another but most commonly I hear that students hate exams – I know I do! Exams are stressful, revision difficult to get right and there is always uncertainty about what you will be asked. There are challenges attached to coursework too – mostly to do with scheduling. It is a very small percentage of students who finish their coursework early with most rushing to finish on time. This is understandable but I do recommend you do your best to finish ahead of time so you don’t have the last minute problem with your files being corrupted or a printer not working. Increasingly universities are using group assessments. This introduces a new difficulty into the mix – other people! I have separate advice on groupwork in the blog which I recommend you read.


At school, you will have experienced the shift from GCSE which is heavily structured to A level or equivalent which is somewhat freer. The shift up to university is very much more significant. Whilst universities have become better at spotting when students are struggling, essentially your learning is left up to you. Nobody will chase you to see how you are progressing with coursework or whether you are revising properly. Indeed it takes some time for most universities to notice you aren’t attending lectures! So you will need to become self-motivated. These days in the UK with the level of tuition fees I suppose some students might think that there should be more direction and there is more than there used to be. But still the whole point of university education is that you come out of it as a self-contained learner. You can get on with things yourself. We help you along the way but the onus is 100% on you the student. You HAVE to do the work. We will help (more of this in another blog) but it is even up to you to ask for help. And when you do, often we won’t give you the answer to your question but help you find the answer yourself. Frustrating sometimes but something you will find stays with you for ever and will serve you well.


Finally the shift is towards critical thinking. The first step in a university level essay is to summarise the evidence. But that is not enough to pass. You need to then use the evidence to argue – often in answer to a set question. I have many many more tips on essay writing but here I just raise the core idea of critical thinking. You will learn that you need to justify EVERYTHING you write in terms of peer reviewed evidence (having first found out what that means). And then and only then make a case. We are interested in what you think but only in terms of how you make an evidenced argument. For example, I am writing this piece on a train. I could say “I like travelling by train”. This is perhaps true but not justifiable. If I were to add that a study by Smith and Jones (1989) showed train travel was 73.1% less stressful than driving, or Neville and Thatcher (2014) found a 23% increase in well being when …. As I say, more in blogs about essays!


So keep these differences in mind amongst all the other amazing things that happen as you start university. My advice always comes back to this one thing – balance. Yes work hard but enjoy yourself with the vast array of activities on offer too. Not too much of either but frankly a lot more work than play!

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