Transitioning to university: a sea change (Part 1)

In this post, Ana shares some of her experiences of transitioning from school to university. 

The best word to define my transition to university is Change. The biggest one we are warned of is managing our brand-new independence (doing laundry, cooking, budgeting…) however, international students also face cultural and academic change.  

Culture shock is defined by the UK Council for International Students affairs as ‘the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes’ [1]. I was warned that I may experience it, but I thought moving from one European country to another would not involve a big cultural change.  

I was wrong. Mediterranean and British cultures are really differentI never had meals at the same time as my friendshad no idea of how to dress for Scottish weather  four seasons in one day describes it well – and I even didn’t know how to introduce myself – two kisses? a handshake? half a hug? 

The difference in traffic directions put my physical safety at risk a few times but it was the way people interacted that shocked me the most: everyone apologized by default, said please and thank you all the time and asked me “Are you all right?”. It took a while to realise it was a way to say hello, and it is still a challenge to adapt to different interaction styles in the global community that is our university! 

Getting to know the city, asking a lot of questions, and getting involved in societies with students from all around the world helped a lot, we are all, in some way, adapting! 

The academic change was also shocking 

To begin with, I was learning in a new language. I had to adapt to many accentsthere were some words I did not understand, reading took longer  I had a constant headache for a month  and I did not know how to make my essays be formal and cohesive pieces. There is no magic trick to overcome this; I would say patience, effort, and willingness to improve make the perfect recipe for progress. 

Resources, support and advice, and workshops: Institute for Academic Development

On top of that, I was facing a new teaching style that forced me to change the way I learntGoing from 35 to 11 contact hours per week, I had to gain knowledge through independent reading and the lecturers would only help me systematize and critically assess it. It is easy to think that lectures are enough, but that work behind the scenes is what allows you to make the most of the few contact hours there arelectures are intended to round up your understandingGo to the library, cafes or meet with friends to go through your independent working time together so that it does not become an isolating task. 

The assessment method was really different as well: I was used to memory-based exams, not essays, so the first time I was encouraged to give my opinion in a piece of academic work, I was a bit daunted. It is important to know what is expected of you, so carefully read the assignment instructions and don’t be scared to ask for clarification to your course tutor or lecturer, they will be happy to help! 

Lastly, the UK marking scheme is peculiar in that it is a positive marking scheme; you start at zero and gain marks for the work you do. As opposed to others (e.g. negative marking where you start with 100 and lose marks for mistakes), it is almost impossible to get over 80%, at least in the social sciences. Understanding this way of marking will help you avoid disappointment when getting feedback. 

Transitioning to university may seem intimidating, but it is worth it, I found university the perfect place to develop myself personally and academically and adapting to change is a useful skill for the world we live in! 


Ana moved from València (Spain) to Edinburgh to study Sustainable Development. She is now in 3rd year. She is a committee member for the Sustainable Development Association and Women in Politics and IR as well as a leader for the Sustainable Development Pals scheme. She is interested in economics and sustainability and iher free time, and she likes running around Edinburgh, attending potlucks and reading. 


Reference List

[1] UKCISA (2018) ‘Facing Culture Shock.’ 
Available at: https://www.ukcisa.org.uk/Information–Advice/Preparation-and-Arrival/Facing-culture-shock#layer-3199 [Accessed on 29th June, 2020]

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