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Preparing to start university

Preparing to start University

Moving to university is a big step for a student and also their parents. 

For students, the move to university is an exciting, fresh start which will bring friends, freedom, and fun. For parents, proud as they are of their child’s achievements, they will certainly have concerns about how their offspring will survive this exciting new challenge.

An education at an international school is, in many ways, an excellent preparation for students starting university.  For those transitioning from an English medium school, they will be presenting with globally recognized qualifications, they will have been encouraged to work both independently and collaboratively and they will be used to challenging and rigorously debating ideas.   However, whilst the US or UK culture may seem familiar from their school days, these experiences can create a false impression that the world is ‘international’ and arriving at their new university they can be overwhelmed by the huge proportion of home students who speak the same language but are coming from a very different cultural context. They may be unfamiliar with the host culture’s expectations for acceptable conduct and, of equal relevance, they may have limited cultural competency in such matters. It can be an unexpected struggle to enculturate into their new environment, to pick up on different social nuances and to make new friends.

There are ways that students and parents can help to prepare for the transition some of which are purely practical, whilst others are more concerned with balancing the excitement of a new challenge and dealing with some of the inevitable anxieties associated with moving to an unfamiliar environment.

A study by Unite Students found that parents thought domestic skills such as cooking, washing their clothes and budgeting would be the most difficult challenges but the 16 to 19 year olds questioned were far more worried about getting advice on mental health, relationships, alcohol and drugs, and where to get practical help on these issues

The domestic skills are a relatively straight forward anxiety to iron out.  Parents – teach your children how to cook three simple dishes and what to keep in a store cupboard for a quick and satisfying meal.  Show your child how to use a washing machine and talk them through the laundry labels.  Also make sure they know how to change their bedding! These are all practical life skills they will far beyond university. To send your child off to the unknown ill equipped to deal with such practicalities will make their settling in phase much harder.

Managing money is one of the greatest sources of stress for many students, second only to dealing with academic pressures.  It is vital to sit down with the soon to be student and have a grown up conversation about budgeting, working out what financial support will be coming in and getting them to estimate how much it will cost them to live on a daily basis.  This is also the time to explain if the outgoings exceed the income that is a problem that can be solved by looking for a part time job to earn some additional income. 

Students need to be aware that once they arrive on campus they will be treated as adults.  All communication will be directly with them and not through the medium of their parents.  Suddenly the student will be responsible for setting up their own health care arrangements, making decisions about where to live, and how to manage their workload.  Parents also find this stressful, having been used to being fully informed of their child’s progress, suddenly they are out of the loop with no third party feedback on their child’s progress and well being. 

To address the student’s anxieties, it can be helpful to run sessions in school highlighting some of the challenges they can expect to face and giving them pointers on how to deal with them.  Carfax Education have just run a very successful webinar addressing this and we are regularly asked to come in and talk to school leavers about the transition they are about to make.  Talking through some of the challenges they may encounter and giving them pointers on what to expect and how to deal with situations as they arise, can arm them with the tools they need to make sensible decisions and give them some resilience when the going gets tough.

Schools can also help by reminding students that in the midst of all the excitement of new friends and new found independence, their number one goal at University is to get the best degree they can.  Studying at University level they will be treated as an ‘academic” and expected to take their studies seriously. Explain that for every hour of contact time, they will be expected to be doing at least 4 hours of independent studying.  Academic pressure is one of the biggest causes of stress at University so be preparing them for studying in more depth and being expected to look at a subject from multiple angles can help them deal with the new level of expectation.

There is huge pressure on new students for the University years to be amazing, but talk to any first year student and they will tell you that it is a roller coaster and there  will be ups and downs.  As long students know, that when they are feeling snowed under there will be people to turn to, friends, family and, always to hand, student support services and that it is much better to ask for help before it becomes a crisis.

Schools and parents have a joint responsibility to make sure that these fledgling students are well prepared for university. This way, the student will find the first few weeks fun, sociable, and stress free and parents can relax knowing they have done all they can to prepare their child for independent living.


Author: Fiona McKenzie, Head of Carfax Education, UAE

As Head of Carfax Education in the UAE, Fiona McKenzie is an expert in the Middle East and international education sectors. Fiona works closely with families guiding them to make the best educational choices for their children from school to university. Fiona has worked in independent education across the UK, Australia and the UAE and her roles have encompassed consultancy, teaching, marketing, recruiting, as well as running alumni relations.

About Carfax Education

Carfax Education is a leading global education group. We provide expert consultancy, bespoke training and operational support across all areas of education. We work with families, schools, investors, governments and NGOs to secure exceptional opportunities. Carfax Education group offers specialist support through Carfax Consultants, Carfax Tutors, Carfax Projects and Carfax College.

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