How to get the most out of college

You’re not in school any more – this is the start of your independent adult life and on the way you’ll find out who you are but also make countless mistakes. How can you maximise your time at third level?

Work, rest or play? There’s a lot to get your head around in the first few months of college, not all of it academic: NCAD students Aoife Irwin Moore and Eimear Walshe at a preview of the 2014 NCAD Graduate Show. Photograph: Naoise Culhane

Work, rest or play? There’s a lot to get your head around in the first few months of college, not all of it academic: NCAD students Aoife Irwin Moore and Eimear Walshe at a preview of the 2014 NCAD Graduate Show. Photograph: Naoise Culhane


Starting college is a momentous change, marking the first real years of adult life and independence. It is a daunting and exciting time in which, if all goes well, you should learn a lot about who you are and what you want, adopt political positions that profoundly embarrass you in later years, get drunk and learn to cook an egg.

This guide to college life has notions. It is not just intended to get you through the first year, but to an end goal decades down the line. Here, you’ll be a well-rounded, copped on, smart and happy person on a good career path.

Well, that’s the idea anyway. On the way to this place, you’ll make countless mistakes. Maybe you’ll drink too much or take the wrong drugs; break up with the right person in order to go out with the wrong person; fail an exam or two; deeply regret both your brief flirtation with the individualist philosophies of Ayn Rand and that time you said that North Korea is a socialist state with fine ideals.

Maybe you hated your school because it was a narrow and petty environment based on tiny notions of conformity and not being yourself. If so, welcome to third level: here, you can be anyone you want and if some people don’t like you for that, you can be damned sure there’s another bunch of people who will think you’re great. It’s a good time to explore your identity and play with different interests and personas.

Excruciating as they are, those mistakes will make you a better and more interesting person. However, you don’t want to be cleaning up a mess every day throughout college. Let us ease your passage.


How will you make it through college? It is a big financial drain, you’ve got to figure out a place to live and you might have to do your own washing and cooking for the first time.

The college years are tight, but students have made frugality an art form. Evan Healy of the Student Budgeting Advice Service at University College Cork estimates that students living away from home will need about €1,000 a month to cover the cost of accommodation, bills, food, academic costs, travel, social life and other costs – and that’s before the student registration charge is factored in.

Last month, a survey by the Higher Education Authority found that one in six students who started a college course in 2010 had dropped out by the following academic year, often for financial reasons.

Students whose parents have a combined parental income of less than €54,240 may be entitled to some financial support, ranging from partial payment of the registration fee right through to a full maintenance grant, a field trip contribution and full payment of tuition or registration fees.

In Dublin, the price of rents is continuing to skyrocket, prompting many students in the greater Dublin and Leinster area to stay at home and commute to college. The costs of rents is even higher in Dublin city while, nationwide, on-campus accommodation costs have risen by 13 per cent.

Paying bills and learning to budget is another skill. Banks will throw all sorts of incentives at students to entice them to open an account with them. Don’t just go for who is offering the most free mobile phone credit, but look at their overall service, interest rates and internet banking services.

Avoid signing up to a credit card only to learn the lesson that everyone who has ever had a credit card learns: interest repayments are exorbitant and you’ll never pay off that bill. Instead, consider opening an account with the credit union, especially if you think you’ll be looking for loans during your time in college. If you’re in the lucky position to put aside as little as €20 a month, you can borrow up to three times your savings from the credit union at good interest rates.

It’s a good idea to build up your CV and skills, including getting involved in college life, to work towards a career after college.

Right now, though, you might need a job. Luckily, the jobs market has improved. Don’t just rely on jobs websites, but follow IrishJobFairy on Twitter and keep an eye on Activelink, which often posts jobs in the community and NGO sector that might be suitable for students.

Ask family and friends if they know anyone who’s hiring. During the summer, consider heading abroad for work. Clean up your online profile: employers do check your Twitter and Facebook accounts and if, for example, it’s full of sexist nonsense or pictures of you drinking, you’ll be off the list.

Whether you stay at home or move into a new place, it is also time to learn some life skills. If your parents haven’t already given you some chores, learn to use the washing machine and cook dinner for your family at least once a week. These are valuable life skills. It is not as complex as you might think: colours go in one wash, whites in another. Ironing is the most devious and cunning trick ever played: unless you have a job interview or wear particularly crisp linen, the chances are you don’t need to iron. Those creases will fall out.

Students with disabilities, including mobility issues, visual or hearing impairments, dyspraxia, dyslexia and Asperger’s face greater challenges. Be sure to make contact with your college’s disability support service, which will provide crucial supports. When you are picking your modules, look out for courses which use a variety of teaching methods. As well as being more accessible to students with disabilities, these courses tend to be the best and most innovative.


Over the past two years, study and careers have dominated the agenda, but college life isn’t just about qualifications: it is also about the friends you make, the life lessons learned, and the experiences you have.

Employers looking at a pile of CVs from recent graduates need something to distinguish one 2:1 degree from another. What they will look at is who got involved in college life and developed critical communication, organisational and team-building skills in the process. Career adviser after career adviser will tell you this. However joining a club or society solely to tick some boxes on your CV is a cynical exercise, because ultimately this part of college life should be about making new friends, learning new skills and, above all, having fun.

Clubs and societies offer a chance to grow and become a more rounded person, says Ríona Hughes, societies officer at NUI Galway and chairwoman of the Board of Irish College Societies. “College can be lonely and isolating and you can feel overwhelmed. You will meet people in your class, but clubs and societies give you a chance to find people who have the same interests as you. Then there are academic societies, often linked into departments, and they will often organise guest speakers or seminars and tutorials, which can be helpful.”

Although the universities and larger institutes of technology generally have the biggest selection of clubs and societies, even smaller colleges have a reasonable choice.

Trampolining, soccer, rugby, tennis, caving and potholing, swimming and ultimate frisbee are among the many sports on offer. On the society side, debating, volunteering, student media, religion, politics and current affairs, drama, chess, gaming, comedy and music are just some of the things students can get involved in.

Whatever you’re into, there’s probably a club or society for it.

Last year in NUIG, almost 9,000 students joined clubs and societies, with 10 per cent getting involved in committees. Each student joined an average of four societies.

With so much choice, how can students find the club or society that’s right for them? Most colleges organise Freshers Weeks where clubs and societies entice new members with all sorts of incentives and outrageous promises. Do go along to these events and see what’s on offer. If you’re not quite sure what you’d like to get involved in, it’s no harm to join a number of different clubs and societies and figure out what appeals to you.

If you’re lucky, extracurricular activities will lead you to discover what it is you want to do after college: there’s many a journalist who cut their teeth in college papers, barristers who discovered a love of argument in the debating society or actors who fell in love with the stage in the college drama society. Many well-known national politicians, including Ruairí Quinn (Labour) and Charlie McConalogue (Fianna Fáil) were heavily involved in student politics.

Starting in college is arguably a lot more daunting than your first day in secondary school, but there is an increasing emphasis on ensuring that first years are properly integrated into the social side of college through specially organised orientation days.

“In a global context, we are hugely privileged to go to third level,” says Hughes. “Take this opportunity and get involved in society. What you learn and who you become will make your life easier, help you cope with difficulties, and learn what works and what doesn’t. You may not get a chance like this again, so be creative, push the boundaries, and come up with great ideas. Be fearless.”


What do Madonna, Mary Robinson and JFK have in common?

The most successful people in showbusiness, politics and business were, most likely, working on their meteoric ascent long before they finished college.

So you’ve got your college offer, and now you’re figuring out how to pay your way, make friends, negotiate a romantic life, and adjust to a college course after years at secondary school being spoon-fed everything you needed to know.

Is it too early to think long term? If you’re already thinking of making contacts, getting work experience, developing a career path and exploring further study, isn’t this just a little obsessive and highly strung?

Not quite, says Fergal Scully, an independent guidance counsellor and employer liaison officer with Dundalk IT.

“When I’m talking to college first years, I tell them that their CV-building starts now. I’m conscious that they are under pressure as it is, particularly economic pressure, and that they shouldn’t neglect the social side of the college experience either. But if someone coming out the other side of college approaches me in their final year and they have really gotten involved in something apart from their studies, they are much more employable.”

Scully says that students should find something that they really enjoy in college and get stuck in. “You learn transferable skills, such as organisation and communication, that can be used in any job and are valued by employers. Students could also learn these skills in voluntary work. I’m wary of advising students that they must get involved, but it is helpful.”

College graduates are, increasingly, entering a workforce where they are expected to undertake expensive postgraduate studies and are quite frequently required to work as unpaid or badly paid interns for up to a year to gain “experience”.

This development unfairly tends to work in favour of better-off students or those whose parents can afford to fund them for another year. For many, working for a year as an unpaid intern is just not an option. Is there any way to avoid it?

“Work experience on a CV is always great and employers do value this,” says Scully. “Some college courses include it as a component, but don’t worry too much if they don’t, because you can get it from a lot of different places.

“Getting involved in an election campaign or charity fundraising drive, or running a college society is as good as work experience, because while employers want to see what you can do and what your strengths are, they don’t care whether or not you got paid for it. Students should also consider documenting their college experience, using an online CV or a Tumblr blog, which shows employers what they can do and what they are interested in.”

Increasingly, colleges are moving away from very specialised degrees and encouraging students to pick courses that take a broader sweep. Should students be worried about developing a career path early?

Last year, a Gradireland survey found that about 40 per cent of companies were looking for graduates with a degree qualification and they were not particularly concerned what discipline it was in – they just wanted candidates to be up to a certain standard. Sometimes it’s not as important for students on general degrees, including arts, science, law and commerce, to have a clear idea of where they are going.

“People often go through their degree, even if it’s a relatively specialised course, and find that it’s not what really interests them,” Scully says. “They have lots of options, including master’s and conversion courses.”

He stresses that while students should have some focus on the future during their first year of college, they shouldn’t be overly worried. “If they use that focus to get more involved in college life and develop as a person, they will become more employable and they’ll have more fun.”


The trouble most students face when they start college is the enormous difference between the way we worked at school and the way we need to work at third level. Coming up to the Leaving Certificate, everything is broken into bite-sized pieces. We have it drilled into us by teachers that if we can learn four reasons for the breakout of the second World War, or three examples of coastal erosion, we will get those 15 marks that will push us from a C1 to a B2.

The Leaving Cert is so prescriptive that we go home each night knowing what chapters we have to learn and if we’re not meeting our goals we find out in Christmas tests and pre-exams and all manner of ongoing assessment. If the Leaving Cert is spoonfeeding, college is hunting for food on the vast African plains. If you don’t chase it, you’ll starve.

The start of college begins the process of trying to forget everything our kindly teachers ever did for us to ensure we made it to third level. Learning is hard, unlearning can be even harder.

It starts like this. In your first week, or perhaps even sooner, you’ll get a book list. In fact, you might not be given one at all, you might have to go and look for it on the department website. So there’s the first difference. Your mum’s not going to head into Easons, drop €500 and hand you a pile of beautifully covered books that contain all you need to know for the year.

Your college book list contains core texts, suggested texts and further reading. Some you will buy, others you will have to hunt down in the library. What many students will do is buy the books they can afford off the core list, pile them up on the desk at home and forget about them for months. As for the suggested reading, well, thanks for the suggestion but there’s a free wine reception at the Film Soc. And so it goes.

After several weeks of avoiding the library and ignoring your reading material, you will make a number of discoveries.

1. You have assignments due in at the end of the term and they require having read quite a lot of material already. You now have to catch up fast.

2. All the books you need to reference in the library are already checked out by other students.

3. In a blind panic, you take your entire month’s allowance and sink it into buying the books you can’t get in the library, swearing to yourself that you will never let this happen again

4. As you pull all-nighters trying to read a semester’s worth of material in three days, you will discover that this stuff is actually really interesting and you wish you had more time to do it properly.

The last point is the most heartbreaking and it is the one you should perhaps have tattooed on the back on your hand. You chose this subject, presumably because you have an interest in it. The people who put the book lists together are very smart and have picked out the best stuff for you. You are almost guaranteed to find it engaging at some level, unless you have picked entirely the wrong subject (in which case wouldn’t it be good to find that out early?). So, little and often and early is a good motto when it comes to studying in college. Begin a love affair with your subject instead of relying on a couple of one-night stands.


It’s complicated. Love and sex go hand in hand, but let’s break them up for the purposes of this guide and start with love.

If you have spent six years in a convent school surrounded by other girls dressed in navy blue, the diversity of college is likely to explode your head. You never cared about how you looked, now it’s a THING. There’s a fair chance you’ll have your first serious relationship in college.

Four out of five third-level students are sexually active, according to this year’s survey. You may need a game plan, heartless as that may sound. In the heady early days of college, it is easy to make a cluster of mistakes in the love department. Here are the three main tripwires to step over in the first semester:

1. Committing too soon. If you couple up with the first guy who gives you the eye, it could set you well back on your romantic journey through college. Why? Because if he likes you and you discover you’re not so keen, you’re stuck with an early break-up if you’re brave, or an extended period of trying to make him break up with you if you’re not. Either way, you’re now associated with him and it may take months to get that box fresh feeling back again.

2. Carrying baggage. If you’re pretty sure that the girl from your housing estate that you’ve been snogging since you were 14 is not actually Ms Right, then you might as well start college with a clean slate. Don’t waste first year guiltily cheating on your childhood sweetheart and waiting for the day when she turns up in the student bar and slaps you in the face.

3. Revealing too much. New place, new you. Don’t put your relationship status on Facebook, don’t go around telling everyone that you’re in love with 50 per cent of the freshman population, don’t cop off with four people in the first week. It’s like your mother tells you – a bit of mystique is very alluring, whether you’re male or female. Some love rules don’t change.


The oldest sport in the world is a bit more complicated than it used to be.’s Áine O’Connell sums it up.

“Not only do young people have to worry about STIs and contraception, but we’re also faced with the (sometimes uncomfortable) reality of Snapchat screenshots, texts sent to the wrong person and a whole host of other issues. For young people, the sexual revolution is here and it’s been digitised.”

However, these new problems can be handled using an old solution: respect. For yourself, to begin with. If you have sex with someone you just met for the sake of it rather than because you actually like this person, you run the risk that he or she may turn out to be a nutjob who stalks you for the rest of your time in college; or a devil- may-care who is single-handedly doubling the STI figures in your college; or trigger- happy with the smartphone and your exploits could end up on YouTube.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t usually take that long to get a handle on someone’s propensity to stalk, infect or secretly document, but you probably won’t have it figured out after one evening, so don’t let the pressure get to you.

On a more serious note, you do need to keep an eye on the health side of things. Every college in the country has a welfare office and if you have questions or concerns about contraception, STIs, pregnancy or consent, go and ask. It’s not on the reading list, but it will be on the test.

There’s also plenty of good information to be found on


You will learn a lot about yourself at college. The conversations you have, the books you read, the people you get to know will shape and colour the rest of your life.

It’s tempting, if you’re a bit of a wallflower, to stick with a small group of friends from school and to go to the same nightclub every Friday night. It’s a waste, though. The more people you meet and the more experiences you have at college, the better. You never know what that weekend away with the surf club or that month building sets for the drama society might kick off.

Many people build careers from experiences they had at college that had little to do with what they studied. So, if somebody asks you to help them fund raise, set up a band, make a movie, start a society – go for it. College is a time to try things out and to fail without repercussion.

Another critical growth promoter in college is reading and talking about pretentious subjects. You simply must try out a whole range of ideological positions and defend them with zeal from somebody’s couch at 4am. These discussions, preferably conducted with a range of students from different disciplines, will get you familiar with the spectrum of off-the-peg positions people pluck from their readings on economics, politics and philosophy.

In these years you can assemble your own wardrobe of opinions on everything from the US justice system to palm oil. Be aware that the ideological outfits you wear most frequently in college will probably hang in your attic for the rest of your life. It won’t be obvious that you’re a Marxist by your job with a law firm, your golf club membership and your magnolia-petal strewn front lawn. However, rolled up in your back pocket is that red cap, which can be coaxed out of your pocket and onto your head by any half-decent bottle of Beaujolais.

Many people don’t grow much more after college; life stunts them with its Neighbourhood Watch committees and health insurance comparison sites. Make sure you live your college years in the throes of a rampant growth spurt, sucking all the nutrients out of the soil around you and sprouting wild new branches in every direction.

Take note, though – if a student from the film studies department asks you to be in a movie that involves nudity, that does not come under the personal growth heading. Feel free to say No to that one.

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