Transitioning to university: a sea change (Part 2)

In this post, Fraser shares some of his experiences of transitioning from school to university.  

For me, the transition from school to university was a leap, in a social and academic sense. 

In the social sense, I’ve seen marked differences between school and university.  

I went to an ordinary state school in Fife. It was relatively homogenous: we mostly had similar backgrounds, and the overwhelming majority of us were Scots. When I came to Edinburgh, in 2017/18, only 30% of students were Scots [1]. This difference was quite overwhelming in the beginning. How was I to interact with all these new international students with different cultures and attitudes? But this diversity, as you’ll hopefully find/have found, is a great thing: it offers opportunities to learn about different parts of the world and different perspectives on the issues you’re discussing in class.  

When I first came to university, I also suffered from some sort of inferiority complex. I felt intimidated coming to such a prestigious institution from an ordinary Scottish school. It felt as though everybody was going to be more intelligent than me and judge me as a result of it. This led to some anxiety when it came to participating in tutorials. But, as my degree has progressed, I’ve learnt that this isn’t the case. University is a safe place to experiment with newcreative ideas and not one where you’ll be ridiculed for doing so. So, I now feel more confident about fully participating in the university experience. 

If you’re suffering from anxiety, see the Student Counselling Service’s self-help resources.   

In the academic sense, the change has also been immense.  

I was used to having classes from 9am to 3.30pm every day at school. And, in general, there were between 20 and 30 people in each class. In my first year at university, I had only 11 hours of class each week, and the class size varied enormously: from tutorials of around 10 people to lectures of around 300.   

With less contact time came a greater amount of independent work, though. At school, I was never expected to do any outside reading: my teachers gave me all the information in class, and it was simply a case of revising it and then regurgitating it in exams. So, I initially struggled to adjust to doing a few intense readings for each lecture and tutorial in my own time. And I also had to work at learning to challenge the arguments I was reading about in the literature: I had to question the work of academics, rather than simply repeat it, which is what I had been used to at school. 

But becoming a more independent learner has been an enjoyable experience: it’s helped me to become an effective time manager and a critical thinker.  

If you’re struggling to manage the transition to independent learning, take a look at the Study Hub Learning Resources webpages 

Another academic difference I’ve noticed between school and university is method of assessment. At school, for each subject, my exam played by far the largest role in determining my overall grade. At university, however, there’s been significant variation: some of my courses have had exams worth 75% of the course, while I’ve not even had exams for others! This has given me opportunities to demonstrate my knowledge and analysis in new ways through writing reports, policy briefs, research papers and so on. 

Overall, my transition from school to university has been tough, in a social and academic sense. However, it’s been worth it: university has given me the opportunity to become more independent, disciplined and critical; qualities which I’ll benefit from in the future.  


Fraser is a student of Economics and Politics at Edinburgh University. He is in the final year of his degree. He commutes to university from Kirkcaldy, Fife. In his free time, he enjoys walking, cycling, playing badminton, debating and playing bagpipes 


Reference List

[1] The University of Edinburgh (2019) ‘Annual Review 2017/18: Student numbers 2017/18.’ Available at: https://www.ed.ac.uk/about/annual-review/student-numbers [Accessed on 3rd July, 2020] 

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