Undergraduate Uni Round-up
I asked a little while back on Twitter whether you guys would like to have me talk a little more generally about my experience as an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, and the response was a resounding yes. I did briefly consider filming it but thought maybe it would be easier for me to get a little reflective and express myself better by writing about it instead. For those of you who are interested in the more practical side of things (organisation and motivation tips, finding friends, moving away), I have two Uni Q&As here and here. As I move onto my Master’s degree there may very well be more of that kind of thing coming to you guys soon.
For those of you who don’t know, I did an English Literature degree. Scottish undergraduate degrees often take place over four years (where the majority of English ones are three), and at the end you receive a Scottish MA, though that isn’t equivalent to a normal Masters. I chose Edinburgh for a number of reasons, the first one being that I quite liked the idea of being somewhere completely different from London, but that was still a lively city. It is also a university with an excellent academic reputation, and I had visited a couple times before and it had made a big impression on me, mostly for being incredibly beautiful. I ultimately wanted to assert my independence a bit more, and I was glad to get exploring a different part of the UK, 400 miles away from home.
My first year in Edinburgh was a total mixed bag, but probably a bit more bad than good. I think a lot of people feel this way about their first year; there were enormous highs and enormous lows, too. I came to uni having just taken a gap year, for five months of which I was backpacking in Latin America, and so I wasn’t really expecting to have too much trouble being away from home for long periods of time. By the end of my four years, I still only tended to get homesick if I was completely and utterly run down, fed up with my surroundings (wanting to have a clean room with clean – and ironed! – bedsheets), or needed some decent food. Otherwise I have developed a deathly fear of having to pack a toiletry bag so anything which allows me to avoid that I will embrace, i.e. staying put.
If you’re really struggling with homesickness in your first year, I would recommend not giving into it too much. Definitely book trips home (you don’t want your mental health to suffer), but just try not to make that every weekend. The best way to conquer homesickness ultimately is to make a life for yourself wherever you are, and you won’t be able to make good friends and a new support system if you’re always back at home. If you know you’re prone to homesickness, I’d recommend choosing a uni that is both not too far from home, but also not too close. You want to be able to afford trips home if you need them, but don’t want to make it too easy for yourself. All this, of course, is only really applicable if you’re a domestic student; I know lots of international students won’t be able to just pop on a plane home whenever they want. If that’s you, then the best advice I can give is simply to throw yourself into life in your new home, make friends and join societies, go to all your lectures and keep yourself as busy as you can.
Probably the worst decision I made in First Year was my accommodation. I chose Beaverbank because it was self-catered and the flats looked modern and clean, plus you had your own (extremely small) bathroom. Unfortunately, I paid almost no attention to where it was, which was completely out of the way. The area we were in felt very quiet and residential, and although it is a really lovely area to live in generally, as students we were a forty-minute bus ride away from campus, and most of the places to go out. Being extremely lazy, this meant that I didn’t go to most of my lectures or even tutorials if I could avoid them, which left me somewhat isolated and cut off from the main student body. It is super important to figure out what your expectations are for your First Year of university, and then choose a suitable accomodation. Whilst I could go on for pages about this, it would only be relevant to those of you guys wanting specifically to go to UoE, so I’ll just say that you should scour The Student Room forums and find out from past students what each accommodation is like because it could save you a lot of heartache.
One of the best bits about going to UoE (and all Scottish universities), is that for the first two years you are required to take two other subjects (unless you’re doing a joint honours degree in which case you will take one extra subject). I took History and Philosophy for both of those years - though you could mix it up a little more than that - and I really enjoyed that freedom to explore other subjects. Some of the stuff I learned in those two years became handy in the rest of my English degree, and finding complementary subjects is a great idea. For the first two years, you need to pass your exams in order to progress to the Honours years, which are third and fourth, but they do not count towards your degree. For me, this sadly translated as not having to make too much effort. Now, this is definitely ridiculously ungrateful of me because who could pass up education (which I was paying for!), and if I could go back I would make more of an effort to prepare myself for the following Honours years, and make the most of what they were offering. Although I am disappointed in my younger self, I would say that you shouldn’t worry or stress too much. If you have pre-Honours years, whilst you should definitely make an effort to practise for what is to come and most importantly pass your exams, you should also put an emphasis on having fun, creating a life for yourself, and making friends. In that way at least, I got it right, and I didn’t pressure myself when I didn’t need to.
Without much to motivate me or to do, it was extremely easy to lock myself up in my room and wallow, and I did watch an awful lot of Netflix. Luckily, the saving grace of first year was finding two of my best friends, Rachael and April. I went to the first welcome meeting at Beaverbank, which was cheesy and awkward and generally awful, but I found Rach and April and will be eternally glad I forced myself to go. Unlike most other people, I didn’t even go with any of my flatmates, who wouldn’t come with me, so I had to walk into the room alone, walk up to groups of people and introduce myself. If you know me in real life, you’ll probably snort with disbelief at this moment. We made it on nights out as often as we could be bothered (when you’re far away from everywhere and everything is quiet it can be a little difficult to get motivated to do so), but to just have them there to watch movies with and piss about with was the best bit of my first year experience.
Slight side note, my flatmates and I never really clicked, and it was probably one of my greatest disappointments in my first few weeks that I hadn’t been put with people that I was instantly going to become best friends with, which is what I expected. My other best friends at uni who I met later on did have that kind of relationship with their first year flatmates, so this one really is potluck. However, the way Beaverbank was set up (particularly in the block I was in, some of the others had more luck), there wasn’t even much opportunity to get to know your neighbours very well, so it can help to choose good accommodation on this one as well.
The pressure for first year to be the best and most fun-filled year of your life is immense; if I hadn’t been so worried about what it was supposed to be like, perhaps I would have relaxed and enjoyed it a little bit more. But you learn these things and you grow, and more than anything else, I’m so glad I went to Beaverbank, met Rach and April, and at the end of the year also met Zak. Although it wasn’t a great year objectively, it established so much that was important to me in my following years; mostly my burning desire to live close to everything, a lesson that is scorched into my brain forever.
This year was a lot, lot better than first year, though looking back I still think I was very much finding my feet. I moved into a flat with four other girls, and we were a mere four-minute walk from campus. Suddenly we were in a proper flat with proper bills and internet and rent to sort out between the five of us, and whilst it was a bit scary, it also felt much more natural than the more manufactured atmosphere of halls. I don’t know how many of you guys won’t be familiar with this, but in the UK it is common to move out of halls after first year and live off campus for the remainder of your time at university, though lots of people do go in and out just depending on accommodation availability.
Being closer to uni this year didn’t really help my motivation to get to class. I was out of the habit of being academically motivated at this point (after the gap year and the non-attendance of first year) and my second year was still not an Honours year. One of the problems that I think I had with my English course over first and second year was that it was essentially a start-to-finish English literature and theory 101; the majority of both years was taken up by going through from Medieval literature to the Contemporary, much of which didn’t appeal to me. I think this kind of thing is absolutely necessary to an English literature degree, especially for people that don’t exactly know what it is they enjoy the most, and to bring everyone up to the same level of knowledge. However, it just wasn’t grabbing my interest, and I much prefer doing courses which are more focussed (more on that in later years), and that I can really get my teeth into. Again, I am disappointed that I didn’t make more of this time to explore literatures I hadn’t done before, and indeed I think the sheer lack of something gritty to actually do (beyond the essays that I had) really contributed to any sense of dissatisfaction I felt in both first and second years. If I wasn’t going to be academically involved, I feel I should have chosen a society or hobby (outside YouTube, which is very much a solitary job) that could have given me a little more focus.
I did have a lot more fun in my second year however, and living with some of my best friends was much better than having to traipse across to their block to go and see them, or having to get ready to go out by ourselves. We had great nights out and in, complained about how freezing we were, debated when to turn the heating on, did stupid stuff and enjoyed ourselves. It was this year that I started to fall in love with Edinburgh itself. Living in the middle of things in a gorgeous high-ceilinged flat on the meadows made a huge difference to how I felt living in the city. Once I had started to establish my roots in second year I started to feel out the places I liked best and felt a bit more at home. One of the benefits of doing a four-year course is that for most courses you can do a third year abroad (not just for those doing modern languages), and though I had been strongly considering this in first year, by the time I had lived in my flat for a few weeks I was set on staying. I was only going to have these four years in Edinburgh as a student with my friends, and I suddenly didn’t want to spend one of those years away from it. Before we knew it, though, the year had flown by and we were moving out of our first flat.
Third year was probably my best year at university, though my final year was also great. The two were split evenly in terms of credits, so third year counted towards my degree just as much as fourth, but without the pressure of my dissertation, impending goodbyes and final ever exams, third year felt like a nice balance between work and play. It was this year that I properly began to feel at home in Edinburgh, and fell in love with it even more. I moved into a flat with four girls that I was extremely close with and we had the most hilarious time, whilst seriously buckling down and getting some work done. My flat for third year was actually just two floors above the one we’d rented in second – we moved because of various logistical reasons, people going on years abroad etc – so I basically had the same room, just slightly higher. This allowed me to still feel familiar with the area and space, but also make some unique memories there, too. We moved in with some of Rach’s friends that she had met through her English language course; we had gone on a few nights out with them in the previous years and had loads of fun, but with third year we all became best friends and formed the final group that I left uni with. Zak ended up leaving Edinburgh to go and work in Manchester at the beginning of third year, so I was now also in a long distance relationship, and we made this work as best we could.
I had been saying for the past couple of years that when everything started to count towards my degree, I’d go into turbo mode and work a hell of a lot harder. The girls were rather sceptical of this throughout first and second year as they eyed me starting to read for my latest essay the day before it was due. However, as soon as third year hit I went full force at my work and didn’t look back. I read everything, attended everything and worked hard. Whilst in fourth year I think I probably piled far too much pressure on myself, in third year myself and all my flatmates would spend a good portion of the day in the library doing work, but made a lot more time to come home, eat dinner together, watch shitty TV or maybe go out. Although we took our work seriously, we also gave ourselves that evening time off to have fun together. At this point I was extremely lucky to be surrounded by similarly hard-working and motivated friends, and we all kept each other going during those dreaded essay weeks. When you’re feeling particularly lazy, having someone tell you to get up and get in the library can stop you from getting into a slump.
Not only did everything suddenly count towards my final degree, but I was also given the freedom to choose my modules, and focus more on things I liked to read and study. Being interested in what I was doing made a huge difference, and I was enjoying my degree a lot more. In both third and fourth year, we had two courses per semester – with two semesters per year – one of these courses would be a ‘core’ course and one an ‘option’ course. There were fewer core courses to choose from, and they broadly covered the time periods that are essential for English literature students, so in third year there were medieval and renaissance courses to choose from, and by the end of fourth year the core courses were looking more at modernist and contemporary literature. However, because we were only choosing two of them per year, I was getting quite a wide-ranging selection of courses that covered lots of time periods, but also not doing those bits I definitely didn’t like. There were a lot more option courses to choose from, and they were often led more by topic than by time period (though not exclusively). For example, in third year I did ‘American Innocence’ which covered coming-of-age novels from Huck Finn through to Lolita, or ‘The Body in Literature’ which looked at novels from many different genres and periods to explore the way in which the human body is presented. In both years, the option courses were usually where I had most fun. Now all of this is quite specific to UoE, but I would say that for lots of universities, you can look not just at the prospectus or short description for your degree, but actually delve quite deep into what modules you might be able to take in what year, and what the reading lists might look like. I didn’t really do any of this research because I’m useless, but I think this kind of knowledge is invaluable when choosing a degree. I’ve always found that if I want to do well in something, I need to be enjoying it, and so more than anything else if you want to come out of university with a good degree, pick a course that will suit you the best. For me this slow-burning four-year course that finished with two years of flexible and interesting modules was perfect in the end, but I got lucky. I’ll link up Edinburgh’s English Lit resources here; all you need to do is click on ‘Current Students’ rather than ‘Prospective’, and you can look at all the modules and everything for the coming years.
It finally clicked into place then that I actually enjoyed academic work, a fact which I had forgotten in the previous three years, and it brought me a daily satisfaction that I hadn’t felt at uni so far. I was being productive, I was motivated and I was having fun, and despite the occasional stress about essays or exams, I was happy. At the end of semester one, I had made some friends in one of my seminars (now everyone was turning up to them, it was much easier to make friends), and so I had a wider group as well as my core support system. It was nice to have other people who do your same degree to complain to and go out with after deadlines.
Do I ever wish I’d done a bit less library time in third and fourth year and gone out a bit more? Not really, because much of my enjoyment was actually coming from my academic work, and I was basically with my friends 24/7 anyway, even if a lot of that time was silent work time. We made our own fun, in the library, at home and on nights out.
The third year final exam period – for whatever administrative reasons – was an absolute nightmare. All of our exams and essays were cramped into a very short space of time at the beginning of exam season, and so my Emily, Catherine and I (Em doing English Literature with me and Cath doing History) were suddenly in the library for much longer hours for a few weeks. It was a strangely painful and hilarious time, we spent many hours deliriously laughing at the breakfasts, lunches and dinners that we had in the library, and it generally set the tone for fourth year. We came back to Edinburgh in September with the normality of 12-14 hour library days starkly in our heads, and this is a pattern we took up more or less for the whole year. This was probably not the best idea, and led to a lot of burn outs and breakdowns, but ultimately I was still enjoying my courses and having fun. I actually went out a lot at the beginning of semesters one and two, probably more regularly than I had done for a long while (I think the idea of leaving soon and making the most of it were beginning to sink in), and so for some time I was burning the candle at both ends. But then, if you can’t do it at twenty-two, when can you?
I had to move again because now we had friends returning from years abroad, and unfortunately we couldn’t fit our whole group into one big flat, and had to split down the middle. I missed living with all my friends, but because we were always in the library together or at each other’s flats, it wasn’t a huge deal. We moved back a little further away from uni (the walk was now more like 10-15 minutes), into a really beautiful area with lots of students. Although I missed living right on the meadows, there is something lovely about Marchmont/Bruntsfield, and it was a nice change for our final year.
Whilst in third year I had chosen a mixture of novel-based courses and also some drama and poetry thrown in there to lighten my reading load, by fourth year I had decided that novels were just my thing. Poetry and drama are just as challenging as novels, but I found they were quite literally less time-consuming to read (though re-reading always helps with both of them). I’m glad I chose courses that I knew I could fully get behind, and the ones which I had the most chance of enjoying (you never quite know!), but my workload basically doubled, on top of which we now had a dissertation to worry about. The credits that had composed four lecture courses that we had in third year (two in each term) which variously covered Poetry/Prose/Drama/Theory, were now taken up by this huge and scary piece of work, longer than anything I’d written before and completely led by my own interests. I’ve written separately about my dissertation here, but along with the weight of all the novels, I found myself with a lot more work than I was expecting, even though the credit weighting for the two years was the same. In order to get everything done – the novels read, the outside reading done, the essays written, the dissertation deadlines hit – long days in the library were a must. For the most part it worked, but it was tough, and required serious motivation. Certainly there were plenty of people in my seminars who were not reading the books for every week, or contributing as much as they should have in our group work, and I imagine this is actually a much healthier way of approaching fourth year (and to be honest you can still do very well in essays and exams), but my perfectionist self couldn’t allow for it. Luckily, my friends really pulled me through at each stage, we got each other in the library, and on those days when we were close to breaking, we sent each other home. We settled into our routines, we found our local bar that we liked to go to, we went on spontaneous nights out when we wanted, and we worked super hard.
At this point I was confident and comfortable in Edinburgh. I had arrived at the tender age of nineteen, thinking I knew it all because I had been on a big and scary gap yah and travelled halfway across the world, but really I was still just a baby. I did a lot of growing up and learning in Edinburgh, and I became the current iteration of my adult self, turning 23 two days before I graduated. I grew up in London, and went to school there, and skulked about on weekends shopping and drinking in parks and going through all the angst-ridden teenage stuff, but my grown-up self only really knows Edinburgh. After I left for my gap year I mostly spent my time out of London (I have been extremely lucky to spend lots of my summers away), so now I am easing myself back into being a Londoner, remembering my city and finding my way, my places and my home here like I did with Edinburgh. London now seems even bigger than it used to now I’m accustomed to Edinburgh, and so it feels a bit of an overwhelming task (which is why I admire any undergrads who study in London!), but I’m excited to be home. My university city will always be close to my heart, and though I am extremely sad to have left a place where I was so happy, I recognise that I’m generally a person that needs to keep moving, and I’m glad I left when I didn’t want to, rather than eking it out too long. By the end of my fourth year I was definitely outgrowing the course a little bit, and keen to spend a little more time on my own work and less on exams, and this is something I’m very much looking forward to in my Master’s.
Everyone’s university experience will be completely different, and please do tell me about yours down below and share your experiences. Some people don’t enjoy their course as much, or don’t make extremely close friends, and that’s okay. Some people will have an absolutely amazing time from start to finish, but I feel like most people will have an extremely varied experience, partially because most people pursue an undergraduate degree when they’re making the transition from teenager to adult. For lots of people I know, it would have been beneficial to wait a little while before going to university, to think about what course will actually be best for them, if any. For this reason, I think it’s very important not to go unless you’re sure you’d like to pursue further education. It’s expensive and can be quite traumatic if you’re not ready to tackle a degree just yet, and that’s totally okay. I don’t know how helpful my musings on my four years in Edinburgh are, but in general I had a really incredible time, and I would be completely different had I gone somewhere else or done something else.