Things I wish I’d known in my first few weeks in the UK

Blog for students
01 September 2016
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Before arriving in London for my postgraduate studies from New Delhi, I had done a lot of homework on aspects such as cheapest ways to travel from Heathrow Airport to King’s Cross, most economical UK telecom network for international calling, restaurants and supermarkets around my student accommodation, to name a few. Connecting with my friends who had studied in the UK helped me get a good insight into all of these aspects.

I’d already joined social media networks of my student halls to get to know people beforehand and ensure that my arrival in London is hassle-free, as this was my first international travel. To my surprise, I stumbled upon a post from a fellow student who was arriving at Heathrow around the same time as my flight and we decided to pool a cab to our destination. Voila! I’d made my first friend and also saved a lot of money; two of the many important aspects of the UK student life. However, as I look back, regardless of the hours I spent on the internet to absorb as much information I could about the UK, here is a list of things I wish I’d known in the first few weeks:

1. Get to know your university: In many universities, the first week before the lectures begin is an ice-breaker. Do not take the freshers’ week lightly; it is indeed a hub of all that’s happening in your university, be it the different student-led societies, or activities and events by the students’ union. Freshers’ week is the welcome week for students; the activities vary depending on colleges but the week is aimed at introducing students to their programme, the college life and getting used to living in the UK. Usually, before the academic session begins, students have to enrol in their degree programmes in their colleges, which is where one gets to know about the different activities happening around. Make sure you collect as many leaflets about the events in your college. Do not forget to carry a pen and notepad to take down the important bits. In case you’re lost, approach the students’ union officers and student ambassadors, they are there to help!

The Freshers’ week is also the time when you can check for any campus tours available in your uni, to get to know where what’s located on campus. You will regret not having done the campus tour when you have to figure out the venue for a 9 AM lecture on a winter morning! Make sure you also know your library as this will indeed be your second home for your academic year(s). Many universities have offices for career services, academic counselling, learning disabilities, among others. Do go there and collect information booklets on the services offered. They can be helpful for academic support, workshops and also for building your professional profile. Additionally, join as many student groups relevant to your course at your uni on Facebook, googlegroups. This will help you connect better with fellow students, get to know them and stay updated about socials and study meetings.

2. Have your documents ready for setting up a bank account: Do not take too long to pick a bank that you want to set up your student account with. Some of the factors that I considered while picking a suitable bank were its location from my residence and the ease of money transfer.

As soon as you are enrolled in your programme, make sure you receive a student letter with proof of residence from your college. Your college may give you the letter during enrolment, if not, the registry office is where you need to inquire. Have your passport, its copies, Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) and other documents required by your bank (talk to your bank for this), ready to book an appointment slot at the earliest. Remember, at this time of the year, many international students arrive in the UK and considering the number of bank account applications, your appointment may be a month away. Make sure to be quick! In the meanwhile, do carry adequate amount of money but not lots of cash all the time. Pre-paid bank accounts, traveller’s cheques can be helpful here. Managing your money throughout your time in the UK is important and it requires smart budgeting and knowing where you can save money.

3. Student travel cards: For students living in London, the underground, DLR and buses are economical modes of travel. As students, you are eligible for the 18+ student oyster card. Go through this section on the Transport for London (TfL) website thoroughly to check its benefits for you. Do not rush into buying a student oyster if you live close to your university and do not take the public transport often. Do read where the discounts are applicable.Rail fares to travel in the UK can often be expensive but young persons aged 16-25 years and full-time students are eligible for 16-25 Railcard which offers discounted rail tickets. For National Express coaches, you can apply for Young Persons coach card to be eligible for 1/3 discount on the adult standard fares. These cards can also be purchased by full-time mature students in the UK.

4. Other student cards: Smart and economical living makes the UK life more enjoyable. There are plenty of student cards such as NUS, NUS extra card, UNiDAYS you can apply for to get discounts on groceries, retail shopping, mobile apps, National Express coaches, among others. Make sure to apply for one if you this works for you.

5. Explore study spaces: There may be times when you have to work on your essays and exams but cannot quite concentrate. This is when you need to know that your college library or your home are not the only places you have for work. Explore the public libraries and reading spaces such as bookshops, cafes, parks around you. This provides you with a change of space and may help you concentrate better. For those in London, you can register at the British Library, The Senate House Library and libraries of other colleges by going over their membership requirements. Visiting other libraries is also helpful when you require books for your research which may not either be available in your library or copies of it may have been borrowed. Also, take a walk around your college and explore the nearby cafes; many often provide you with relatively quiet study spaces, opportunity for group study, discussions and coffee/tea!

6. Set up your body clock: Merely reading that the weather in the UK is cold and wet doesn’t tell you much especially if it is your first time here. In the fall semester, it rains most days, skies are grey, it’s chilly and the sun sets really early. You may experience culture shock.

Always carry an umbrella or a raincoat after you check a weather app every morning. Buy adequate warm clothing, footwear and duvets to make yourself comfortable. There will be days when the sun sets at around 4pm and you might feel like switching off especially if you come from countries with plenty of sun. So make sure you get the required vitamins. To maintain your study routine, light up your room adequately! 

Talking about her experience during winter months in London, Anisha, a Development Studies student at SOAS, says, “The day ended too soon and it took me a while to get used to. Initially, I felt very unproductive but would remind myself that this was only for a few weeks. Vitamin D supplements were very important to cope because there’s never enough sunlight!”

7. Manage a healthy diet: Many international students may take a while to get used to British food and miss home food. But cooking for yourself, as a lot of international students end up getting spices and other food ingredients from home, is a good break from studies and you end up saving a lot of money. Ask your flatmates if you wish to cook together, this way you can divide your work and enjoy good company!

While these are some of the aspects that will help you settle in your student life in the UK, exploring a new city with your friends is fun and entails a lot of learning. Take adequate study breaks, go for walks! It is surprising how much there is to see and grasp.

Niharika Pandit, comms intern for UKCISA, studying MA Gender Studies at SOAS, University of London. 

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