Managing expectations of university

When we are going to do anything new, it is normal to imagine what it might be like and to have hopes, fears and expectations. This is true of going to university for the first time – but the way in which we frame and set our expectations can set us up for success or challenges.

The ability to imagine a future that hasn’t happened yet is an amazing skill that we have as human beings. It allows us to prepare for new situations, identify potential problems, rehearse mentally and practically and find any additional resources we might need. When used well, it can make it much more likely that we will be successful.

However, the way we use our imagination can also build difficulties for us, if our expectations are too fixed or unrealistic.

It can be more helpful if our expectations are:

Flexible rather than rigid

Anxiety or wishful thinking can lead to us setting rigid expectations of what our future will be. We might create one, detailed story of exactly what university will be like, how many friends we will make, how much we’ll enjoy our course etc. But when things don’t turn out exactly as we imagined them, we can be disappointed, upset and confused. This can lead us to doubt our whole experience and to struggle to respond to setbacks or opportunities.

It is more helpful to try to have flexible expectations. To imagine a variety of experiences, good, bad and in between and to recognise that whatever you imagine, it won’t be an exact match to what actually happens in reality – and that this is ok. Having imagined a range of possibilities, you will be well prepared for whatever does happen.


If you assume that university is going to be terrible, stressful or difficult, then this will drag down your mood before you’ve even started. As a result, you will already be feeling tired, down and less equipped to manage.

You are also doing something called priming – you are preparing your brain to pay attention to negative things and to ignore positive things. So, during your first few weeks at university you only notice the things you don’t like and miss those things that are fun, exciting or interesting.

If you assume everything at university will be brilliant, you will also be more likely to notice the good things and to take advantage of them. But, when you come up against challenges this may unsettle you more than usual and make you doubt yourself or your experience.

In general, it can help to recognise that university will be made up of good, bad and neutral experiences – but to have a slight optimism, so you are more likely to notice the good things.

"University will be the best years of your life" is probably a phrase you’ll have heard over and over again since you received confirmation that you’re going to uni. Whilst this can feel very encouraging, it can also feel incredibly daunting as it creates expectations and pressures that you may end up finding difficult to meet.

#DearFresherMe: First years expectations vs reality - Lucy

Open to new information

The most helpful expectations are those that can change in response to new information. Being open means that we are more likely to have realistic expectations and to be able to accept the unexpected.

To help you set helpful expectations, you may want to do some research. Gathering information from a range of sources will help you to understand different perspectives and prepare for different possibilities. You may find it helpful to

  • Talk to current students – siblings, friends, students in online forums can all be sources of advice. But do remember their experience won’t be exactly like yours, however certain they are of their own opinions

  • Read information provided by your university – they will probably send you a lot of information and guidance before you begin university. Reading through it can help you to prepare.

  • Your Students’ Union, Guild or Association – they may have their own website or may send you information. Online forums may give you a chance to gather more information

  • Visit, open days or ice breakers - some universities or courses host in person or online events before university starts. This can give you a real opportunity to answer questions and refine your expectations

  • Your tutors -some tutors may contact you in advance but if you have questions before term starts, contacting them may help

Try not to let the pressures and expectations cloud your vision or make you feel bad about the experiences you do have; your university experience is going to be completely personal to you.

#DearFresherMe: First years expectations vs reality - Lucy
Page last reviewed: September 2022