It’s Okay to Say No: Having a Life at University
University is touted as a world of freedom from your parents filled with opportunities, which while being definitely true, doesn’t mean you have to go crazy with it. First year is all about getting to know people, learning how to do a degree and getting settled in to university life. It’s a great time to join societies and try new activities, but those opportunities can often throw students into debt or interfere with their ability to learn. I’m lucky that I got to take part in a variety of activities during my undergrad, but I was careful with what I committed to and how much everything cost. In this blog, I want to talk about the process of deciding how to fill your time, and how to say no without the guilt.
To start with, university study should always take priority, as that’s the reason you’re there. Workloads will vary by semester and by year, but you’ll have a combination of class time, independent work and practical elements if you take a STEM degree. Independent working time will consist of doing coursework, preparing for seminars and revising for exams, and this can be hard to schedule until you’re a few weeks into term. Once you’ve got into the swing of things, you’ll know roughly how long it takes to prepare for all your contact time, and then you’ll be able to block off time for coursework and exam revision. Some weeks you’ll be more motivated than others, so being flexible with your time is my best recommendation for avoiding stress and hitting deadlines consistently.
Aside from university work itself, there are the boring adult things you’ll need to take care of. For a rough guide, I clean my bathroom and bedroom once a week; take my bins out once a week; do washing every ten days (I use an on-site but-not-in-my-accommodation laundry); go shopping twice a month; call my parents once a week and do my washing up as I go. I tend to dedicate an afternoon each week to these things, so one week I’ll go shopping and the next week I’ll do my laundry, fitting my cleaning in-between. There are ways to make things quicker, such as using an online shopping service that delivers, but it all depends on what is most convenient for you. I also do a lot of bulk cooking, spending a few hours a month making a massive batch of meals to freeze and eat over the next month, while other people will cook fresh every night.
The next category of spending time is employment, which shouldn’t exceed 20 hours a week. I’ve written a blog about working alongside your degree which I’ll include with this one. In essence, it’s important to balance your need to work with your studying and the adult things you have to do. If anything needs to be sacrificed, it’s societies, volunteering and nights out.
Socialising is a big element of university life, but there’s no reason why it should be expensive or a massive commitment. Being friends with the people you live with (whether you live in halls in your first year or have moved out with people you know) is a massive bonus, as socialising at your place is free, and you can watch TV or just hang out in the evenings when you’re all at home. If you’re not close to the people in your flat in your first year, you’ve probably made some friends through your course or work. You’ll probably be scattered across campus, but taking it in terms to host and watch films, play games or study together usually comes at the price of a few hours in an evening and a share of a pizza. These nights were always my favourite in undergrad, as we made a lot of memories and didn’t have to dress up.
Cheap activities outside of university are cinema trips, a wander round the shops (as long as you’re not a shopaholic), a coffee date or a meal out. Student discounts are everywhere, and a meal in a restaurant can be made cheaper by using TOTUM cards, getting free vouchers from mailing lists or eating set menus. It’s an excuse to get dressed up and a great way to celebrate a birthday or milestone in your degrees.
Day trips, group holidays and nights out will be on the more expensive side, so make sure that you’re only saying yes to these if you really want to go. It can be tempting in your first year to say yes to as much as possible in order to make friends with people and prove something, but in reality that’s all fake and it never lasts long! I found a group of friends who were super chilled out and enjoyed doing the same things as I did, making socialising easier on my budget. Finding time for all these activities can come at the cost of your studying, which is up to you to decide if it’s worth it. Saying no to more expensive activities if you can’t spare the time or money is always the best strategy, and if people are annoyed or try to peer pressure you (beyond a bit of friendly banter), they aren’t worth hanging around with.
My final thing to mention about socialising is that your tastes may change as you get older. I went out a lot in my first and second year, mainly because I enjoyed the music, dancing in a club and meeting lots of people. By third year, I had taken on a lot more paid work as it had been made available to me, and I decided I wanted to concentrate on my dissertation. I still went clubbing, but favoured the nights at my Student Union as we lived on site and it had cheaper tickets, and we only tended to go for special events. As a PhD student, I favour going to the pub and having a few drinks over clubbing, as I can control what I’m drinking and avoid nasty hangovers (if I want to), as well as not having to wait in long lines in the freezing cold. I also enjoy going to the cinema with Daniel, as well as just staying in with a takeaway and playing PS4. I’m surprised at how my tastes have changed, so I’m super glad I did socialise in undergrad.
Finally, I want to talk about societies, as they often walk a fine line between university and socialising. Some are definitely more university-focused, such as groups formed on a degree subject, while others are sport-related, volunteering or skills-based. I’ve written a blog about the pros and cons of societies, but in relation to having a life at university, I’d recommend only joining a select few, and that it’s totally okay if you only stick with one (like me) or do none. Societies will incur some type of cost, but degree-based groups will have a minimal membership fee and time commitment. The history society I joined met once or twice per semester, with one event being a night out and the other a sober mixing or networking activity. I picked and chose what I got involved in depending on my time commitments elsewhere, and I didn’t feel like I was wasting money if I didn’t attend something. In my opinion, this is how societies should function, as students have changing commitments so need to have some flexibility in their schedules.
Sports are a bigger commitment, and a lot of people like the regular meetings, games and practices as it gives them structure and something to focus on outside of work. Volunteering is often a looser commitment, and skills-based societies (such as first aid) often require attendance on a course outside of university, which may be at weekends or far away, which is something to consider.
Unless something really sticks, I wouldn’t bother with more than two societies after your first year. Some sports teams can become a family, but if you don’t make any good friends or if you decide that it’s too much effort, don’t bother signing up again. You’re under no obligation to commit membership for more than a year at a time, and it’s okay if you don’t click with a group of people. Universities will run taster sessions in the first few weeks, so go to as many of them as possible to see whether a group sounds like somewhere you’d want to spend time. Otherwise you’ll be diving in at the deep end, and it can be harder to say no once you’re paid up.
My final word on saying no to things is that your time is the only thing that is truly your own, so spend it wisely and carefully. Being busy can be a great way to stay motivated, prevent homesickness and get involved in the university community, but it is perfectly okay to spend time on your own or with the same group of friends, hanging out in your PJs and laughing at Twilight. This was definitely a longer post, but I’ve been asked by many prospective students at open days how to manage your time, so use it meaningfully.