How to deal with university not matching your expectations
Lizzie Mitchell blogs about what she expected university to be like compared to the reality, as well as dealing with the idea of ‘doing university right’.
One thing I wish I knew when I started university is that there’s no right or wrong way to do university!
I had in my head it was going to be three years of having the best time of my life. Freshers’ week would be a total blast – going to parties and meeting super cool people who I’d instantly be best mates with, being in fun and enjoyable lectures all day, passing every assignment, getting on with my flatmates and cooking dinner together every night, joining all these societies and being super busy. I pictured the life I’d always wanted to have, built upon movie-based American sororities and the highlights my friends had posted on Instagram. I thought by packing up and moving city, it would be my ticket to a fresh start and I could leave my mental health problems behind.
Safe to say, this ideal did not materialise! Sadly my mental health problems came with me. In fact, moving to a completely new city where I didn’t know anyone completely magnified all my struggles. I struggled socially, mentally, emotionally, physically. I felt isolated, lost, confused, like a misfit, and my self-esteem evaporated as I became an anxious wreck.
I was trapped by this idea of needing to do university ‘the right way’.
I couldn’t admit to this though. I wanted to cling onto my hopes of the ‘university dream’. I struggled on, trying to pretend I was okay. I was trapped by this idea of needing to do university ‘the right way’. If family from home called and asked how university was going, I’d tell them it was going great, I was loving it, everything was going to plan, I was really happy. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Deep down, I was an anxious mess. I was having daily panic attacks, suffering an incredibly low mood, self-harming and contemplating suicide. I was convinced I was doing university wrong, that I’d messed up, that I was a failure for not enjoying it and not having the best time of my life. I thought there was something wrong with me.
But this ‘right way’ only existed in my head. What I wish I’d known sooner is how adaptable university is. There is no right or wrong way to do it – because everyone is different. Part of my initial struggle was because I was forcing myself to try and do university in the way that everyone else was, and that was just way too much for me. You have to do what works for you.
If you don’t want to go to that party, don’t go. If you don’t want to move into halls and would prefer private accommodation, don’t. If you don’t want to move away from home, don’t. If it comes to the middle of term and you’re so anxious you can’t go to lectures, don’t. If you’re struggling with depression and it all gets too much and you need to take a break, then take one. If you need more help and support, ask for it. If you need to take a week, two weeks, a month, two months, a whole semester out, then take it. If you need adjustments to your exams because you can’t face sitting in an exam hall with hundreds of other students, then reach out and ask for them. At university, there are always options. You can always email your tutor to catch up on the seminar you missed, you may be able to retake that exam if you don’t do as well as you hoped, or go home if you need to have a break, but most importantly, there is ALWAYS someone you can talk too.
You won’t be the first person, and you definitely won’t be the last to talk to your university about your struggles.
What I didn’t realise is how normal it is to find university hard, and how many other students struggle. I was so scared of breaking the silence that I wasn't okay, but universities have mental health teams because they know students struggle. You won’t be the first person, and you definitely won’t be the last to talk to your university about your struggles. Struggling at university isn’t a moral or personal failure, you are only human, and you are allowed to struggle.
I was so worried that taking time out would affect my grades. But your mental health at university is just as much of a priority as your grades. In fact, it should be even more of priority because without your mental health, you may struggle to get the grades you want.
It wasn’t the conventional, normal, or ‘right’ way of doing university that I had imagined, but it was an alternative, adapted, manageable way… it was my way of doing university.
I’ve learnt the hard way that you can do university in any way you like. I went when I was 22, not 18. I don’t drink alcohol, so I didn’t go to any raves or clubs. I didn’t really get on with my first year flatmates. I couldn’t go to all my lectures. I needed adjustments to my exams. I had to register with a GP and get referred to local mental health services. I missed several lectures because I was too anxious to leave my room. I had to take the 3 hour journey home every weekend because I couldn’t bear to be on my own. I took weeks off when things were too much. I took a semester out and worked from home because I was struggling to manage on my own. But I coped, and I survived. I coped because I made these changes. It wasn’t the conventional, normal, or ‘right’ way of doing university that I had imagined, but it was an alternative, adapted, manageable way… it was my way of doing university.
At one point, I didn’t even think I’d be alive at the end of second year, let alone getting decent grades and feeling mentally strong. Struggling at university has made me stronger, more resilient, and shown that actually, I can cope with a lot more than I think I can if I speak up and adapt my circumstances to make them more manageable. I’ve learnt that you make your own ‘right way’ – and the only way that is ‘right’ will be what is best for you and your health. University is an experience, but you need to be mentally well in order to enjoy it. University lasts three years, but your mental health will last a lifetime. Look after it.
Resources and support
Should you need support after reading this blog, you can find support from your university on our student resource hub.