What is university life really like?

The prospect of university life may be exciting, but also daunting, especially if you have not lived away from home before. It’s difficult to imagine what university life will be like until you get there and we hope the Autism&Uni Toolkit will help you prepare the best you can. There are many things to consider and it is totally natural to feel apprehensive.

So what is university life really like?



Studying at university is a new experience and every university is different. You will be expected to have a greater level of independence compared to school and college – both in the areas of academic work but also managing more practical day to day tasks. This prospect may be daunting especially when there are many other things to get used to. A good way to feel more prepared for this change is consider what things you may need to manage and make a plan of how to approach these.

Typical challenges that you might experience include:

  • Organising your time, especially in the first year when everything is new
  • Making friends and feeling confidence in new environments and social situations
  • Being expected to complete various life skills that you may not have done previously (for example, arrange bank matters, planning shopping, registering with a GP)
  • Finding your way around college, campus and a new city – this takes time and practice (everyone gets lost at some point!)
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of reading and course material

How could this affect me?

“Towards the end of the long summer after college, I was eager to start university. The excitement of going far away to study my favourite subject while getting to know new people felt good. It was only a couple of days prior to leaving home, was when I worried about the possibility of not meeting like minded people and failing to properly organise my work and social life. Fortunately, the worry didn’t linger after I met some nice people at the Autism Induction Programme.”

Current undergraduate student

Like the student above, you may feel mixed emotions about starting university. Every person is different but possibly the best way to think of it is that it will be different and there will be changes to your your routine and what is expected day-to-day. Try and think about how you feel about change. For example, what helps and what can you do now to best prepare.

What to do next?

Think about what you might need to manage at university and come up with a plan over the summer to help you prepare

Practical tips

  • Get to know your college – Durham University has the benefit of a collegiate system. You are allocated a college and for most students this is your accommodation, where you will eat and where you socialise. It can be a considerable support system. It may be a good idea to spend a bit of time researching your college before arriving so that you feel more prepared and know who to ask if you need help. Each college has a staff lead student support team who are there to offer confidential support and guidance. Find out more about your college here
  • Life Skills – think about what you might need to do at university that you haven’t had too much experience of in the past. The summer break leading up to starting university is a good time to practice these skills so it doesn’t feel as daunting once you arrive. This could be how to pay in a cheque, plan your weekly shop (if you are in a self-catered college) or load the washing machine. It’s quite usual for many students not to have had much practice at these things and giving it a try at home may help
  • Think about how you will manage your time – Once you get to university you will be expected to manage your time independently – both academic and social time. Having a system to make a note of all your lectures/tutorials, appointments and plans is likely to really help. Your Durham University Outlook account will have a calendar that you can use. Alternatively you could research what Apps are available and test them out before you arrive in Durham. Once you decide on a system, try and make sure you note events down as soon they arise to ensure nothing is missed!
  • Routine– Having set times in your day to work can really help. Once you receive your timetable why not identify blocks of time where you can study or go to the library, for example, if you have a gap between lectures. Try and get into a weekly routine of studying at these times and working on any assignments bit by bit, even if the deadline seems far in advance. Equally it is important to set time aside for you to relax and unwind. Think about when you would like this to be. For example, you may dedicate 9am to 4pm to study, but then have the rest of the evening to do other things
  • Organise your workspace– try and use a fixed workplace to study, or go to the library. Find a place where you are distracted as little as possible. Make sure that there is only items on the desk or table that you need for studying – no distractions!
  • Make time for yourself – It is important to make time to do things you enjoy. Make sure you look after your wellbeing, such as eating and drinking healthily, get some exercise (even if it is just a short walk), shower regularly and get enough sleep
  • It’s ok not to be part of everything– at university it is easy to feel a pressure to be part of everything. It’s ok to get as involved as possible and many students do. However, it’s also ok to be selective in what you want to do to avoid being overwhelmed. Think about what teams or societies (if any) you would like to join before arriving at Durham. This way you can take some time to actively pursue information about these when you arrive, rather than feeling overwhelmed when sifting through the very many leaflets you receive in the first few weeks. Fresher’s Week is likely to be very busy and you may find yourself going to various events. It won’t be like this for the rest of your time at university, although the first term can generally be busier

About the author

Rebecca Horsfall, Disability Adviser at Disability Support, Durham University