What is university really like?

It’s hard to know what university is like until you get there, and all universities are different.  In some ways it’s easier to describe what university isn’t! Well, everyone says that it is not like school or college, or work, or home. So, what IS university really like? This activity aims to give you a realistic view, based on things students told us they wish they had known.


“I am terrified of going to university, particularly in a city far away from home because I strongly dislike change to my routine.” (student considering applying for university)

“I had a really good experience at university. I had more control over my environment so I was much happier there than at school. There was a strict timetable at school but during breaks there was no schedule at all – I didn’t know how to deal with that. But at university I could control my own time much more.” (Michael, former student)

Typical challenges students who took part in our survey told us about are:

  • Time management which is one of the biggest problems, especially during the first year when everything is still new.
  • Coping with large amounts of learning material, with lots of variation, that needs dealing with quickly and efficiently.
  • The new social environment – new tutors, other students, the people you live with, etc…
  • Life skills – laundry, cooking simple meals, budgeting, keeping up with uni info (social media channels and your university email once set up – don’t ignore it as it’s the only way the uni will get in touch when you start), sorting out a student bank account, getting a doctor close to uni, managing technology (back everything up!).
  • Finding your way around campus – campus maps exist, but sometimes it’s a good idea to use spare time allowing yourself to familiarise yourself with the buildings you need to visit, and getting lost is OK.

How could this affect me?

“I have problems managing my life and I struggle to plan. Anyway, the great responsibility of independent work seems difficult. I make time for school, but I’m at home.” (student considering applying for university)

“The standard reply is that figuring things out for yourself is a crucial part of the university experience. For people with autism it’s simply a giant waste of time and extremely inefficient. There is no safety net in place to check in on students and their progress. Even something as simple as a check to see whether or not they have shown their faces at lectures or the campus in general for some time would be a big help.” (current student)

One of the best (and in some ways scariest!) things at uni is that nobody checks up on you or tells you what to do. You are given coursework, obviously, but often with long deadlines, and while lectures and tutorials have sign-in sheets, nobody calls home if you don’t turn up.  Your calendar is your friend, and if you use an online one (and often universities use Google Calendar so you can put everything in that) then you can get reminders on your phone/computer.

What does “independent learner” actually mean?

Studying at university involves a lot more independent (self) study than in secondary school. While subjects involving a lot of practical sessions can lead to very busy timetables, for many courses there is relatively little contact (teaching) time and a lot of reading and note-taking to do outside of lectures.

The amount of learning material is much larger, it has to be mastered in a shorter period of time and it is not repeated as frequently as it was in school or college. Outside of tests, assignments and exams, nobody will be checking whether or not you understand what you are learning.  That’s both interesting and challenging – sometimes school can feel like you’re just doing what you’re told and ticking boxes of doing all the work so you can pass exams. At university, you’re in control of what work you do and when.

You have to learn how to quickly and effectively extract the most important elements from what you read and hear and to make a distinction between types of source (librarians can help you with this, and often run sessions on how to become information literate). While your course will have a reading list, you’ll also need to a) work out which are the most important items on the list and b) read beyond that. A lot.

On top of that, you have to manage your time – when you get up, when you eat, leave for teaching sessions, do all the other work, go to any appointments you have booked, have a life outside study, go to bed…

“Modules are moving too fast, and I do not have time to learn all the things I would like to. I am slow at reading and hearing and my memory is bad. The speed of completing assignments and note-taking is also slow, as I tend to be a very neat and precise writer. There is no time to properly read books on the subject .” (current student)

Now, this student obviously felt quite stressed out when they told us that, but if you know in advance that’s what it’s like, you can structure your time to take it into account and ask for support from the disability team in managing your time if you think you need it.

What to do next?

Think about how you will manage your time and put everything in a calendar

Practical tips

  • Organise your workspace – 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 stuff on the desk or table that you need for studying – no distractions!
  • Manage your time – try to figure out on what activities you are using your time ineffectively and minimise this time. Plan your day so that e.g. chatting on social media and web browsing does not take up more than 1 hour, get up and start studying earlier in the morning if you are planning to go out in the evening, etc..
  • Cope with bad days – there are days when nothing works, e.g. you cannot find the solution to a problem in the assignment, you cannot focus on the task, etc.. STOP! Go out and get some fresh air, go to the gym or the cinema or something else you enjoy. Sometimes you simply need a distraction.
  • Routine – devote regular time periods to your work. It stops things getting too last minute and panicky.
  • Look after yourself – eat and drink healthily and regularly, shower regularly, wash your clothes, get some exercise and make sure you have enough sleep.
  • Get going – sometimes it’s difficult to get started with your work when you know it’s not due in for a while. “Free writing” can help – it doesn’t matter if what you’re writing is rubbish, just make yourself write for 10 minutes and you might find it easier to get on with it. There are other tricks you can employ like filling a Word document with headings, subheadings and bullet points and turning those into sentences and paragraphs.
  • Be part of uni life – Everything is social at uni, which can be tough when you’re autistic. Your life will feel connected to others outside the family much more than at school or work, and you will see fellow students everywhere, so if you live at home or like to stay in your room then try to spend time around campus outside of lectures.

Questions to think about

  1. Do you know how to use the calendar function on your phone or computer and can you synchronise it with the university system?
  2. Do you need support with time management, note-taking or reading academic material?
  3. If you have moved out of home, can you cook simple meals, do your laundry and manage your finances? Is that something you can ask people around you to help with?

Additional information and links

Which? guide to universities – find out about contact hours and more

What to expect in your first week at uni

Things you need to know about uni

Infographic from Which?
Infographic from Which?