Preparing sixth-formers for their first weeks of university life has long-term benefits. Dr Christine Fanthome describes how to make the most of independence.

The key purpose of freshers’ week is to enable new undergraduates to get to know their peers, to become familiar with their surroundings and to acclimatise to a new lifestyle. This process of settling in is made easier if school-leavers have an idea of what to expect and how to make the most of the opportunities on offer. For this reason, class discussion in the final weeks of the sixth-form can be invaluable, particularly as by this stage many young people may   experience feelings of apprehension.

An opportunity to voice opinions can identify shared concerns and suggest solutions. It can also help reduce the drop-out rate of first-year undergraduates, as I reported in the December 2005 issue of PSHE & Citizenship Update.

‘Everyone will be in the same boat, but the idea of being alone, albeit only for a while, is a worrying one.’ (Elizabeth, sixth-former)

‘Hopefully making friends will be easy, because there will be so many to choose from, and many will have similar interests to me. However, I do not drink, and I think drinking is a big part of student life, so I am a bit worried I won’t fit in in that area.’ (Bernadette, sixth-former)

Freshers’ week opportunities

Freshers’ week is a unique event in the university calendar and in order to take full advantage of the benefits of interaction with other students on a grand scale, it is advisable for new students to take part in as many events as possible, whether or not the activities on offer are what they would normally choose to do.  To avoid missing out, undergraduates who are living at home might consider renting a room in hall for one or two nights during this time. Travel costs can sometimes be minimised by purchasing a ‘season ticket’ for the week. Typical freshers’ events include a welcome event in each department or faculty, a ball (which is normally an all-night disco and/or live band, together with a late bar extension), and a fair.

Freshers’ fairs give student clubs and societies the opportunity to publicise their arrangements and tout for new members. They also enable local businesses to highlight the services that they offer students, together with any benefits such as discounts. There is a lot of information to absorb and students may find it helpful to read the accompanying freshers’ handbook in advance, to gain an overview of what is available and make some preliminary decisions. This document is normally available via the internet as well as in hard copy. A discussion in the sixth-form based on handbooks and the implications of being a fresher can usefully deal with issues of making the most of new opportunities, coping with social shyness and peer pressure, and making appropriate and positive choices. Considering all the options before signing up for any clubs also avoids over-committing and losing non-refundable fees.

‘The way that I have really fitted into university is by becoming involved with societies, and the social side of the students’ union. I have met my friends through productions I did with theatre societies, and enjoyed spending time with these people through rehearsals and socially. It has been an exciting way of getting involved.’ (Francesca, third-year undergraduate)

Getting organised

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some students find the gaps between events somewhat daunting. Periods of intense social activity can be followed by several hours of unscheduled time, and this may be unsettling. It is worth reminding sixth-formers that this spare time can be usefully employed to ensure that the administrative tasks associated with starting at university are dealt with before lectures and the accompanying work pressures begin.

It is also worth noting that a great deal of time during freshers’ week is spent queuing and that this may be used productively by getting to know others in the queue. Some students find it helpful to note down new acquaintances’ names and numbers methodically over the week so that they can easily get in touch again.

There is inevitably an air of artificiality about the enforced socialising associated with freshers’ week, and an acceptance of this and a willingness to answer the same questions repeatedly with good grace is an essential part of the process.

‘Everyone seemed pleasant enough, but everyone wanted to be your best friend within the first five minutes of meeting you.  This might seem quite nice for the first few days but after a while it did become quite tedious and lonely.’ (Elisa, third-year undergraduate)

‘Always go to as many social events as possible and introduce yourself to anyone. They are in the same situation as you; they don’t know anyone either! Try and mix with different groups every week as you will gain more friends.’ (Andy, first-year undergraduate)

Without pre-empting potential difficulties, it can be useful for school-leavers to be aware of common problems such as initial loneliness, homesickness or negative feelings, and to know that help is available from student support services, or from organisations such as Nightline, which is a confidential helpline run for students by students (contact details are available from student welfare services or via www.nightline.niss.ac.uk).

It may also help sixth-formers to be aware that settling in is rarely immediate. However, freshers’ week is an ideal introduction to undergraduate life, and discussions in the sixth-form about the experience can help school-leavers to gain the maximum from it and the rest of their time at university.

Tasks to accomplish during freshers’ week:

  • register with your department/faculty
  • check that your student loan arrangements are working
  • unpack and organise your working and living environment
  • register with a local GP
  • obtain a students’ union card
  • acquire a library card
  • get to grips with timetables, dates, core reading, stationery etc.
  • find your way around your new location.

Dr Christine Fanthome is a visiting lecturer at City University, London and the author of The Student Life Handbook, Palgrave Macmillan (2005).

This article first appeared in 101 Playground Games – June 2006

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