Freshers in a knot over nothing

Student guides on starting university suggest deep-breathing exercises and making lists of your problems. They should say: chill out

William Davis

Topics Politics

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According to the UK Independent’s Student Survival Guide for 2004-5 (in association with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, or UCAS), arriving at university can be ‘a bit alarming. What if you don’t have the time of your life there? What if you don’t make friends? What if lectures go right over your head? What if you don’t like booze or baked beans? Then of course you feel alarmed that you feel alarmed: you’re supposed to be having fun!’.

I sympathise with this: when I arrived at university a year ago, I got frustrated and stressed too. Here I was, being presented with great opportunities – to make friends, to learn about a subject I am interested in, to do fun stuff. Yet I worried that I wasn’t taking advantage of these opportunities, and then worried about the fact that I was getting worried. But there was no real reason to be stressed. I could just have been happy to be there, and made the most of things.

It could perhaps be helpful for student guides to tell students that going to university will be tough. The Ancient stoic philosopher Seneca would agree here: ‘If you wish to put off all worry, assume what you fear may happen and is certainly going to happen.’ (1)

Yet this student guide is wrong to suggest that all students will be worried in this manner: ‘if you are afraid, everyone else probably is too.’ It appears to be almost expected that students will be worried. Maybe students who genuinely are having a carefree time in freshers’ week will think that there is something wrong with them.

The Daily Telegraph ran a series of articles on student issues that gave a similar impression, reporting that ‘Research consistently shows that students suffer high levels of stress and anxiety’ (2). Meanwhile, the National Union of Students (NUS) online guide for freshers warns about homesickness and loneliness: ‘You will be away from home, family and friends and are no longer supported by familiar surroundings. For this reason, many first year students suffer from loneliness.’ (3)

Students are being prodded from all directions about their anxiety, but nobody is suggesting any real solutions. The only recommendation the Daily Telegraph made was for students’ parents, to ‘Discuss concerns before your child leaves home’ (4). For some students, earnest pre-university talks from parents may make them more likely to worry.

The Independent’s guide does make some suggestions, but these seem to try to manage the problem of student anxiety, rather than avoid it altogether. For example: ‘Take a deep breath, put on some music, have a cup of tea’ (though that had better be caffeine-free tea, and no listening to metal). Other suggestions aim to lower unrealistic expectations: ‘…[you don’t] have to like everyone you meet…[you don’t] have to drink a lot…[you don’t] have to watch Countdown’.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph advises: ‘Join clubs and societies…establish a routine…eat properly…[don’t] get exhausted… exercise…prioritise your tasks…don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure…if you do have a problem, face up to it.’ And Student Health gives a four-point recommendation: 1. Write the problem down focusing on the facts not your feelings; 2. List possible ways that you could tackle the problem; 3. Decide what action it would be best to take; 4. Take action (5). Many of these techniques sound more appropriate for business or military strategy, or dealing with crisis situations, than getting over personal problems.

If some students have a worry-free time when they arrive at university, this suggests that there is something about their outlook on life that enables them to avoid anxiety. Students who do get anxious might be able to learn something from the life philosophy of those who do not.

These guides neglect to remind students that there is not that much to be worried about. Why should students have to find freshers’ week stressful? After all, going to university means new friends, independence, studying a subject you are interested in, and doing the things you like doing.

Some student guides seem to be more level-headed. The NUS has practical recommendations for adapting to the new way of working at university, suggesting to students that they do have the power to control their own working habits: ‘Unsupervised by teachers and parents, it is important to prescribe yourself with a sensible dose of self-discipline.’ (6) One would hope that students also have the power to prepare themselves for the emotional side of university life too.

William Davis studies politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, and has worked as an intern at spiked.

(1) Seneca’s reply to a letter in February 63 from Lucillus, a civil servant working in Sicily, in The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton, p97

(2) ‘A survival guide for students’, Daily Telegraph, 5 Septmenber 2005

(3) Combatting loneliness and homesickness, on the National Union of Students website

(4) ‘‘A survival guide for students’, Daily Telegraph, 5 Septmenber 2005

(5) Coping with university work, on the National Union of Students website

(6) Managing anxiety, on the website

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Topics Politics


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