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

Wed, Aug 13, 2014, 14:30

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.

Living

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.

Playing

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.

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