Worried about returning to university

Gareth Hughes is the Clinical Lead for Student Space and is a psychotherapist, researcher and writer on student wellbeing, including the book Be Well, Learn Well

If you’re concerned about returning to university after a challenging year, this article can help you think through some of those worries.

As a result of their experiences last year, many returning students are concerned about their return to university this year.

These concerns are completely understandable given the impact of the pandemic on student life in the last 18 months. They may be compounded by the ongoing uncertainty about what the next academic year will be like. You may be wondering whether the experience will be different and better.

Understanding these concerns, and making a plan to act on them, can help you to take more control of your experiences. This will give you the best opportunity to have a good, enjoyable and successful year.

Things that might be worrying you

Students have specifically identified a number of areas about which they are concerned and these areas may also be a concern for you.

1. Social life

Many students have identified that they didn’t have a good time socially last year. Like many of them, you may feel that you haven’t managed to find your friendship group yet. You may have spent more time alone than was ideal, or within a small social bubble.

The important thing to remember is that so many other students have had the same experience. That means they too will be seeking out new friends and social groups. You can feel confident about reaching out and taking an active approach to meeting new people and making friends.

You may find it helpful to read our article on taking a structured approach to making friends.

2. Gaps in your learning

Online learning has not worked for everyone. Lots of students are reporting concerns that they are missing learning that they would have acquired in a previous year. Some are worried that this will affect their grades and their future.

Again, it’s important to remember that this is something that has impacted on the entire student population. Universities and lecturers know and understand this and are planning their teaching accordingly.

You can also help yourself by using the support around you, such as the study skills support at your uni, your tutor and any online resources on your university's learning platform. Focus on building your learning and understanding and try not to focus on grades for now. Given time, support and study gaps will be filled in.

You can also take confidence from what you’ve managed to do so far. If you’ve managed to stay engaged with your studies despite all the disruption, then you must be a good student with lots of resolve and skill to fall back on.

3. Uncertainty

Having made it through an entire year of studying during a pandemic, everyone wants to hear that we can go back to normal. Unfortunately, we don’t know when that will be possible, so you may worry that this year will be a repeat of last.

However, we are not in the same place and while we can’t predict how his year will unfold, there are more reasons for optimism and hope, as vaccines roll out. Even if the start of the year still has some restrictions in place, we can hopefully look forward to these being eased at some point in the academic year.

It may also help to remember that you have already shown that you can adapt to uncertainty and huge, unexpected changes just by getting this far. The fact that you are here, studying at university and still creating your future, is a testament to your strength and skills. Whatever happens now, you can draw upon these skills and experiences to help you respond.

Focus on what is certain and plan to make the most of the opportunities that come along, when they do.

4. Campus is still unfamiliar

Many first year students will never have had the normal experience of being on a busy campus. When things are new to us, it isn’t usual to feel a few nerves. But once the new thing becomes familiar, those nerves soon settle and we become comfortable with our new surroundings.

You can help this by taking whatever opportunities you’re allowed to get to know your campus a bit more and become more familiar with it. It may help if you can identify a quieter time to explore campus - it may feel a little easier to manage when there are fewer people around and less stimulation to absorb.

Finally remember, having made it through last year you have shown that you have the strength, resource and ability to manage whatever this year brings you. Trust yourself and your ability and take positive steps forward to take as much control as you can. That way you will give yourself the best chance of having a better year this year.