This may be one of the most important posts I’ve ever put together.
I recently received an email from an offer-holder asking me what advice I had for someone in their position: what would I tell a fresher, or indeed my 18-year-old self, if I had the chance? Not, by any stretch, an easy question to answer. I do have my own pieces of advice to give, but I also turned to the many, many wonderful Oxford students and graduates in my life, some of whom I know personally, others of whom I share online spaces with, and asked them the same question. And goodness, did they deliver! Below, a collection of funny, honest, timeless advice from people who have been through the Oxford experience and are all the wiser for it. We make mistakes so you don’t have to.
If you find this post helpful, please let me know in the comments, and please share this post with the people you know who are also hoping to start university soon!
Chiara: I started writing a few tips, and realised I have a whole letter to write to my younger self, especially as I’m getting closer to leaving Oxford and am starting to reflect on that, so that will appear on the blog soon. For now, though, I will say that the book I most wish someone had told me to read at the start of my degree is Seymour Chatman’s Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. It took me a while to get to grips with the idea of an unreliable narrator, and with the difference between author and narrator, and this book explains all that and much more in a very accessible way. I’ll hand over to my wonderful friends and peers now for some more advice.
Bethany: Sign up to anything you’re even vaguely interested in at fresher’s fair or even just where the people seem reasonably friendly, because it can be quite hard to get into stuff after that original period… It can be quite daunting to go along to stuff when you feel like people will already know each other, so if you go to stuff at the beginning, at least everyone will be in the same boat! (Most societies are really friendly and open, so these feelings are fairly unfounded, but I know that they’ve still put me off.)
I don’t know if this applies to other subjects, but definitely for law I’d say don’t feel obliged to go along to lectures if that’s not a way you learn well—I don’t have great hearing and have an appalling auditory memory so there’s no point me sitting in a lecture theatre for an hour just for stuff to go in one ear and straight out the other—don’t let other people guilt trip you into going if you know it’s not right for you!
Don’t bring a kettle because having to go into the kitchen to make a cuppa is a great way to make friends at the very beginning. Similarly, bring a doorstop.
Frances: Check if your college has a kitchen though! Mine doesn’t and I’d be lost without my kettle. To make up for missed kitchen friendships though, I’d definitely recommend stocking up on a few different types of tea/other hot drinks (a mixed box of herbal teas isn’t too spenny) because being able to invite people round for tea is also fab (having a choice isn’t essential but some people don’t drink English Breakfast and also it’s a good conversation starter).
Bethany: Yeah it’s definitely worth having a couple of mugs rather than just enough for you because (a) you inevitably won’t want to do washing up every time, and (b) it’s nice to be able to offer a cup to friends.
Kamilia: Something I wish I had been warned about pre-uni is how big the drinking culture is among uni students and how alienating it can feel to not be a big drinker during freshers. But I would say there are plenty of ways to make friends that don’t involve being off-your-face-drunk at a nightclub of some sort.
Knowing how to cook is a really useful skill to learn—I never learnt properly until I flew halfway across the world from home and it became a necessity! I’ve always lived in self-catered halls and it can feel like a drag sometimes not having hall food, but honestly it’s also really nice to be able to cook what you want and not have to eat mediocre food just because it’s already been included in your weekly rent.
Jennifer: Coming from a mixed educational background (posh private and very unposh state) remember that everyone you meet no matter their background is nervous as feck for the first three weeks, no matter how well they come across! (The posh ones will look very self-assured. They aren’t.)
Also, everyone forgets a cheese grater.
Bethany: And a colander!
Malia: And a tin opener.
Bethany: And a bottle opener, if you’re feeling fancy.
Gusta: And tea towels, wooden spoons and (if you’re ridiculous like me) nice chopping boards, because chopping stuff on the counter is gross!
Emily: I’d say the thing I wish I’d known was that, academically speaking, first year is about finding the way you work best, so don’t be afraid of trying lots of different things and seeing if they work for you. I do English but I think this would apply for other degrees too: in first year I wish I’d tried more different ways of working and experimenting with how to make a healthy day-to-day life for myself—try working in your room, in cafes, in lots of libraries, study dates with other people, try being a morning person and a night owl, try reading loads of secondary reading, try doing a whole essay with just your ideas. And try to remind yourself that it’s okay to be academically confident! I was so afraid of getting anything wrong in first year (I think a lot of people, particularly girls or people who for whatever reason don’t feel they ‘have a right’ to be at Oxford can be scared to put their ideas out there), and I wish I’d been brave enough to have my own ideas and try arguing outlandish and original things.
Madeleine: This might sound really obvious, and it may be that I was a very stupid fresher, but make sure you know what you’re getting yourself in for with regards to the course format, what your prelim exams will be on and so on—and, languages-specific, read your texts in the vac! There won’t be time during term! Especially if you’ve never studied literature properly before like me! (I had a big shock in Michaelmas of first year hahaha)
Brigitte: I kind of wish I could go back and see university more like the beginning of a new project, rather than a reward for all my hard work at school. My entire time at high school I was focused on getting into a good uni, and then when I got here I was just totally lost and aimless, so lost all motivation.
Jess: My advice would be to be open to making new friends throughout you time at uni—it’s not just confined to the start of first year! I got an entirely new group of friends in second year who I get on with way better than the people I hung out with in first year, and even now as a fourth year I’m making new connections! If a friendship group is not working for you, don’t just accept it: go out and find that group who actually care about you and it will be so much better.
Maggie: Don’t do all nighters. Everyone talks about them all the time, but it is unhealthy and unnecessary and not a competition for how much you can deprive yourself of in order to do your degree. Ask your tutors if you need help and assert yourself if they are putting too much pressure on you. Make time to have extra curricular hobbies: it is so good for stress management and important to make friends and a good support network.
Eleanor: Would highly recommend finding a cultural society/PoC group to join if you’re from a BME background e.g. African and Caribbean society—Oxford is pretty white but not entirely so and it can be nice to have a network of people with similar experiences to you even if it’s just to cook the kind of food you’d get at home but never in hall.
Izzy: Whether you’re a morning person or an evening person, but pick an hour or two in the day when you probably won’t work anyway and decide never to work then. Time just to be lazy so the rest of the day is easier. And read texts in the original language—translations are quicker and easier but you miss out some important language stuff. Cheeky in-room toaster makes for easy breakfast. Not that I would have something so specifically forbidden by college…!
Charlie: Always remember that you are an autonomous adult and an individual with a unique set of strengths, interests and needs. You are investing a great deal of time, money and energy to be here but you have absolutely got in on your own merit and *deserve* to be here and to get the most out of it. Don’t feel you have to break yourself to achieve. Don’t be afraid to take up space. Don’t be afraid to make sure you are getting what you need to achieve your best. Tutors are not gods. Exams and essays do not tell all. The system is not infallible. If you know you are putting in the effort and doing your best but feel you are not learning then *please* seek out help and negotiate to find ways to accommodate your needs and learning style. It can be hard and scary to feel like you are going against the grain and like you are asking for a lot but you *are* entitled to have your genuine needs considered and respected and wherever possible met.
Also, to that end-if there is a class or a lecture or a piece of work that you genuinely feel is not helping you to learn, or is even a detriment to your learning, then you totally have the right not to do it, or to ask for a way to change it so it does help you learn.
Izzy: Do go to compulsory stuff in first year though—shows willing and gives you more wiggle room in later, more difficult years!
Ella: Find something to commit to—a society/team etc.—and make it as much as a commitment as your academic work! I have always so valued having to plan my work around choir commitments and I think it’s always helped me to keep work in perspective. The added bonus of making friends outside of college (or even just outside of a college clique) has been totally invaluable, and also having done pretty much anything on top of academic work looks great on a CV.
Faith: Constantly remind yourself that your value is not related to how well work is going. Accept that you will never be able to finish reading *every single thing*. Take charge of your welfare—if a tutor is being unreasonable, put your foot down. Give yourself at least one whole (that’s 24h!) day off a week. If you’re not from the UK, do not be ashamed if you struggle to adjust to life here. Do not be afraid to say that you are homesick. Always, always, always, ask for help if you need it.
Pauline: Definitely the “not trapping yourself in the college bubble” bit – it can get overwhelming and also I find it makes you and your friends take friendship and moments spent together for granted: of course we see each other in the corridor, in hall or in the library. But actually friendship is about being more active than that: making plans, coffee dates, actively inquiring how you’re doing rather than “how’s it going” in the queue in the dining hall.
Also getting used to having a flexibility margin: it’s Oxford – people get really busy and stressed and can’t be reliable 24/7. That’s ok, and that doesn’t reflect on how people like you, it’s just how Oxford is. On the other hand, I think it’s important to be as reliable as possible in the light of your schedule: do you absolutely HAVE to cancel lunch plans because of work? or actually can you just squeeze the extra hour of work in your pre-drinks time and actually dedicate your friend real quality time?
Final advice: working consistently. I know life at Oxford shouldn’t be all about work and you should find balance, but balance means achieving equal balance between work and fun and it’s absolutely crucial for well-being in the long term. I think it’s really important to hit that balance nail straight from the beginning so that by the time Prelims come around (and Finals later on) you don’t wish you could go back in time and shake your past self because you don’t have any notes and have read none of the books and there isn’t any time left. It will make revision/exam period much less stressful I believe!
Freya: Try and have a balance of friends in and outside college—but also recognize which of those friends are really gonna be there and support you when you’re feeling shit, and which are friends who you have fun with/who you have a pint with (both kinds are valuable).
Naomi: Extra-curriculars can be amazing but don’t feel under pressure to do *everything* which might end up doing more harm than good. There’s so much temptation to do everything unique to Oxford while you’re here (e.g. rowing, being on ball committee, getting involved in drama, etc.) and to do all of those things will end up providing more stress. Pick what you ACTUALLY want to do rather than what you feel like you SHOULD do and you’ll be far happier Also, don’t ignore stress symptoms—not sure if it’s just me that gets them… but if you are getting a twitching eye from too much tiredness and overwork or something along those lines LISTEN TO YOURSELF, give up some commitments, and rest because your degree is not supposed to make you ill!
Emily: I wish I’d read more of the reading list, and attended more lectures. But it’s so important to enjoy yourself, and I don’t regret the crazy amount of societies I’ve done in my two years. I would suggest trying all that seems interesting, but never forgetting that the main reason you’re there is to study.
Rebecca: I wish that I hadn’t constantly been thinking ‘why am I here?’ and answering that question by saying to myself ‘to work’. I felt like I had to be working all the time and so never really felt like I put together a life for myself here and would recommend getting involved in at least 2 societies right at the beginning of first year, even if it feels like your tutors are piling work on. It’s good to explore the new beautiful city you live in and make an effort to find your favourite parks/cafes/gym/maybe a local family to babysit/dogsit for early on, so you have some non-university roots in the place.
Katie: Remember that tutors are human. That can mean both that they should have the capacity to understand when something is too much, and also that they make mistakes. It is okay not to get on with your tutor. Sometimes it’s worth bearing in mind that they are (for the most part) people who enjoy and thrive in this kind of academic world. Which occasionally makes them a little less open to understanding the perspectives of students for whom this isn’t true, or who have different priorities. Learn to respectfully disagree with that, and to not view your own values as less valid simply because they don’t align with this approach to life. You have an innate value that is not dependent on how your tutors see you, how your grades wind up, how you choose to spend your time. Your first and most important responsibility is to yourself, to make sure that you are as happy and as healthy as you can be.
Izzy: Don’t feel like because you’re here you have to follow some kind of certain predestined path that’s the same as everyone else. No, you don’t have to do an internship if that’s not your thing. No, you don’t have to have your life planned out already and have huge career ambitions to be a top journalist or the Prime Minister or the best lawyer. You don’t need to know what you want to do yet, and you don’t need to be working towards that yet. And no, you don’t have to go to London after uni and become a banker. Other people can do their thing, but you just do you, and don’t let this place change you in any way that you don’t feel is for the better, or true to you.
Also, don’t be disheartened if you don’t love it the moment you get here. I hated my first year and lost all passion for my subject, but I persisted, and now here I am doing finals and I love my subject. I’ve refound all my passion and a hundred times more because I’ve found what I like. If you don’t know what you like yet, look constantly for it with an open mind until you find it: that thing that makes getting up in the morning and working okay, or passing up on a night out okay, and when you do, bend your degree as much as possible as is within your power to that. It’s your degree, after all.
Georgia: Advice I wish I’d had: Where relevant, actively engage with the disability service. If you haven’t been able to get to grips with DSA yet, they can help with that. If you need to be re-assessed (or even initially assessed), they can help with that too. Even if you haven’t had much in the way of specific support in the past, it’s worth looking into what they have available—university is a huge change from school/home/etc, and in many ways that change is amazing but it can also bring up challenges you haven’t had previously. You’ve got nothing to lose: it’s not a bad or shameful thing, and it’s okay if you aren’t instantly prepared for DSA bureaucracy or don’t instantly know what your exact needs are (that’s what the study needs assessment is for!), but it’s much easier for all concerned if you do it sooner rather than later.
Ayushi: In most cases tutors will try to help you rather than discipline/punish you for mental health issues or other struggles you may have. Most of my high school teachers were always so harsh and super pressurising (even though they were caring in their own way; I think it’s just the norm in India) that when I got to Oxford I was terrified of not getting a high 2.1 or a First on each essay and whenever I got ill, I’d work myself to exhaustion because I was scared they’d hate me or regret letting me in. But all of my tutors were super, super lovely and helpful and kind when I eventually did open up about struggling with mental illness.
Nikita: It’s so important to maintain some sort of extra-curricular activity for the duration of your degree! Not for your CV, but for your general well-being, especially in final year. Also, I’d advise trying to make friends beyond your college/course, otherwise you’ll end up feeling like you’re living in a goldfish bowl!
Anya: Don’t worry about losing yourself or finding yourself—your identity is resilient and supple so just enjoy and discover and share ❤
Contributions have been edited for clarity. Thank you to everyone who contributed, and please share with anyone who might find this useful!