Adjusting to University

Kristen Lovric, Linda Clark, Anbarasu Thangavelu, and Sarah Irvine

Woman wearing red coat, holding book and coffee as she walsk through university grounds
Figure 2.1 You will experience academic, cultural, emotional, financial, intellectual, and social adjustments at university. Image by Andrea Piacquadio used under CC0 license.

Introduction

University will not only expand your mind, but it may also make you a little uncomfortable, challenge your identity, and at times, make you doubt your abilities. This is what education does: it transforms us. For that to happen, however, it means that we will need to be open to the transformation and allow the changes to occur. This chapter will provide you with  an understanding about types of adjustments in the first year, and what to expect of university culture and expectations. Next, your learning responsibilities as a university student and some information about what to expect in your first year will be explained. Finally, a summary of practical study experiences you may need, the challenges that you may encounter and hints about scholarship opportunities will give you the information you need to adjust to your new life as a university student.

Adjustments in the First Year

Flexibility, transition, and change are all words that describe what you will experience.  Hazard and Carter (2018) describe six adjustment areas that first-year university students experience: academic, cultural, emotional, financial, intellectual, and social. Of course, you won’t go through these adjustments all at once or even in just the first year. Some will take time, while others may not even feel like much of a transition. Let’s look briefly at them to prepare for the road ahead:

  • Academic adjustment. There are no surprises here. You will most likely—depending on your own academic background—be faced with the increased demands of learning at university. This could mean that you need to spend more time learning to learn and using those strategies to master the material.
  • Cultural adjustment. You will likely experience a cultural adjustment just by being at university because most campuses have their own language (modules, lectures, and tutorials, for example) and customs. You may also experience a cultural adjustment because of the diverse and multicultural environment that you will encounter.
  • Emotional adjustment. Knowing that you may have good and bad days, and that you can still bounce back from the more stressful days, will help you find healthy ways of adjusting emotionally.
  • Financial adjustment. Most students understand the investment they are making in their future by going to university. Even if you have most of your expenses covered, there is still an adjustment to a new way of thinking about university and living costs and how to pay for it. You may find that you think twice about spending money on entertainment or that you have improved your skills in finding discounted textbooks.
  • Intellectual adjustment. Having an intellectual “a-ha!” moment is one of the most rewarding experiences of being a university student, right up there with moving across the graduation stage with a degree in hand. Prepare to be surprised when you stumble across a fascinating subject or find that a class discussion changes your life. At the very least, through your academic work, you will likely learn to think differently about the world around you and your place in it.
  • Social adjustment. A new place often equals new people. At university, those new relationships can have even more meaning. Getting to know your lecturers can not only can help you learn more in your classes, but it can also help you figure out what career pathway you might want to take and how to get desired internships and jobs. Learning to reduce conflicts during group work or when living with others helps build essential workplace and life skills.

Think about what you have done so far to navigate these transitions in addition to other things you can do to make your university experience a successful one.

University Culture and Expectations

Going to university—even if you are not far from home—is a cultural experience. It comes with its own language and customs, some of which can be confusing or confounding at first. Let’s start with the language you may encounter. In most cases, there will be words that you have heard before, but they may have different meanings in a university setting. Table 2.1 has a brief list of other words that you will want to know when you hear them on campus.

Table 2.1 Common university terms, what they mean, and why you need to know.

Term What it means Why you need to know
Attendance policy A policy that describes the attendance and absence expectations for a class. Lecturers will have different
attendance expectations. Read your course specifications to determine which ones penalise you if you miss too many classes.
Final exam A comprehensive assessment that is given at the end of a term. If your class has a final exam, you will want to prepare for it well in advance by reading assigned material, taking good notes, reviewing previous tests and assignments, and studying.
Learning The process of acquiring knowledge. In university, most learning
happens outside the classroom. Your lecturer will only cover the main ideas or the most challenging material in class. The rest of the learning will happen on your own.
Plagiarism Using someone’s words, images, or ideas as your own, without proper attribution. Plagiarism carries much more serious consequences in university, so it is best to speak to your lecturer about how to avoid it and review your student handbook’s policy.
Study The process of using learning strategies to understand and recall information. Studying in university may look different than studying in high school in that it may take more effort and more time to learn more complex material.
Course specifications The contract of a course that provides information about course expectations and policies. The course specifications will provide valuable information that your lecturer will assume you have read and understood. Refer to it first when you have a question about the course.

In addition to its own language, higher education has its own way of doing things. For example, you may be familiar with what a teacher did when you were in high school, but do you know what an academic does? It certainly seems like they fulfill a similar role as teachers in high school, but in university academics’ roles are often more diverse. In addition to teaching, they may also conduct research, mentor graduate students, write and review research articles, serve on and lead campus committees, serve in regional and national organisations in their disciplines, apply for and administer grants, advise students in their major, and serve as sponsors for student organisations. If your most recent experience has been the world of work, you may find that there are more noticeable differences between those experiences and university.

Learning Is Your Responsibility

As you may now realise by reviewing the differences between high school and university, learning in university is your responsibility. Being able to stay self-motivated while studying and balancing all you have to do in your classes will be important. Taking ownership of learning will also hinge on the effort that you put into the work. Because most learning in university will take place outside of the classroom, you will need determination to get the work done. You will need to develop the ability to control your calendar to block out the time to study. You will learn more about strategies for managing your time and the tasks of university in a later chapter. Finally, a commitment to learning must include monitoring your learning, knowing not only what you have completed, but also the quality of the work you have done. Taking responsibility for your learning will take some time if you are not used to being in the driver’s seat. However, if you have any difficulty making this adjustment, you can and should reach out for help along the way.

What to Expect During the First Year

While you may not experience every transition within your first year, there are rhythms to each semester of the first year and each year you are in university. Knowing what to expect each month or week can better prepare you to take advantage of the times that you have more confidence, and weather through the times that seem challenging. Review the table on First-Year University Student Milestones (see Table 2.2). There will be milestones each semester you are in university, but these will serve as an introduction to what you should expect in terms of the rhythms of the semester.

Table 2.2 Example overview of a semester and what you may be doing/experiencing in your first semester.

Table 1.2 Example overview of a semester and what you may be doing/experiencing in your first semester.

Practical Study Experiences

Some universities may also require all students to participate in additional experiences beyond their regular coursework. Ask your university about details specific to your major or institution. One common practical study experience universities arrange for students is a placement. Placements are a type of fieldwork specifically required of students from courses such as engineering, nursing, human services, paramedicine and education. Placements may take place in hospitals, nursing homes, mental health facilities, schools or in the field. They provide students with the opportunity to practice skills that cannot be learnt in a regular classroom. During placements, students will interact with real staff, students and/or patients. Because they are new to the discipline, students participating in placements are more closely supervised by experienced professionals than those in other types of work experience. Thus, placements function very much like a real-world classroom and progress to more independent work through the degree. Before undertaking placements, students will need to complete certain coursework and background checks.

Student teacher in classroom
Figure 2.2 Student teaching is an extremely important aspect of becoming a K-12 educator. The experience helps future teachers practice their skills and understand the complexity of working in the classroom. Image by seansinnit used under CC-BY license. 

Placement for education students is a specific type of fieldwork undertaken by students who plan to teach in early childhood, primary or high school levels. Education students are often required to complete student teaching placements to obtain a teaching registration in their state. Students must often complete core education coursework prior to placement and must complete a background check prior to placement in a school setting. During their placement experience, students are usually paired one-on-one with an experienced teacher and have the opportunity to observe that teacher, get to know the students, understand the classroom culture, and participate in lessons as a teaching assistant as needed or appropriate. All of this additional workload and need to plan for the next semester can seem overwhelming, but if you plan ahead and use what you learn from this chapter and the rest of the book, you will be able to get through it more easily. Your university or faculty will likely have a dedicated team or staff member who can help you with placement and can be someone you can contact if you have any questions.

Common Challenges in the First Year

It seems fitting to follow up the expectations for the first year and practical study experiences with a list of common challenges that university students encounter along the way to a degree. If you experience any—or even all—of these, the important point here is that you are not alone and that you can overcome them by using your resources. Many university students have felt like this before, and they have survived and even thrived despite them because they were able to identify a strategy or resource that they could use to help themselves. At some point in your academic career, you may do one or more of the following:

  • Feel like an imposter. Students who experience imposter syndrome are worried that they don’t belong, and that someone will “expose them for being a fake.” This feeling is common but trust the professionals. You do have what it takes to succeed.
  • Worry about making a mistake. While students who worry about making a mistake tend to avoid situations where they may fail, students should instead embrace the process of learning, which includes—is even dependent on—making mistakes. The more you practice courage in these situations and focus on what you are going to learn from failing, the more confident you become about your abilities.
  • Try to manage everything yourself. There will be times when you are overwhelmed by everything. This is when you will need to ask for and allow others to help you.
  • Ignore your mental and physical health needs. If you feel you are on an emotional rollercoaster and you cannot find time to take care of yourself, then you have most likely ignored some part of your mental and physical wellbeing. What you need to do to stay healthy should be non-negotiable. Your sleep, eating habits, exercise, and stress-reducing activities should be your highest priorities.
  • Forget to enjoy the experience. Whether you are 18 years old and living on campus or 48 years old starting back to university after taking a break to work and raise a family, be sure to take the time to remind yourself of the joy that learning can bring.

Grants and Scholarships

Woman in medical scrubs
Figure 2.3 Employers in certain fields, such as healthcare, may offer their own grants and scholarships. Image by Janne Ranta used under CC0 license.

 Grants and scholarships are some things that can assist students with some of the financial challenges faced at university. Grants and scholarships are free money you can use to pay for university. Unlike loans, you never have to pay back a grant or a scholarship. While some grants and scholarships are based on a student’s academic record, many are given to average students based on their major, ethnic background, gender, religion, or other factors. There are likely dozens or hundreds of scholarships and grants available to you personally if you look for them.

Private organisation grants and scholarships

A wide variety of grants and scholarships and are awarded by foundations, civic groups, companies, religious groups, professional organisations, and charities. Your university scholarships office can help you find these opportunities.

Employer grants and scholarships

Many employers also offer free money to help employees go to school. A common work benefit is a tuition reimbursement program, where employers will pay students extra money to cover the cost of tuition once they’ve earned a passing grade in a university class. Check to see whether your employer offers any kind of educational support.

Conclusion

While university will expand your mind, adjusting to university may also make you a little uncomfortable, challenge your identity, and at times, make you doubt your abilities. This chapter has provided you with an overview about the types of adjustments you may need to make as you transition to university life. Some of the tips outlined may also assist you with a few of the challenges faced at university.

Key points

  • There are six adjustment areas that first-year university students experience: academic, cultural, emotional, financial, intellectual, and social.
  • Going to university is a cultural experience, even if you are not far from home.
  • Learning in university is your responsibility. You will need to develop the ability to control your calendar to block out the time to study.
  • Knowing what to expect each month or week can better prepare you to take advantage of the times that you have more confidence and weather through the times that seem challenging.
  • Some universities may require all students to participate in additional experiences beyond their regular coursework.
  • Common challenges that university students encounter include feeling like an imposter, worrying about making a mistake, trying to manage everything yourself, ignoring mental and physical health needs, and forgetting to enjoy the experience.
  • Grants and scholarships are some things that can assist students with some of the financial challenges faced at university.

References

Hazard, L., & Carter, S. (2018). A framework for helping families understand the college transition. E-Source for College Transitions, 16(1), 13-15.

License

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Academic Success by Kristen Lovric, Linda Clark, Anbarasu Thangavelu, and Sarah Irvine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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