College guide: what to expect when you enter third level

From living with other people, and seeing what your course is like, to facing sex, drink and drugs, do what is right for you

The college environment is one of the easiest places to meet new people – even if it initially starts with awkward conversations and forgetting names. Photograph: Getty

The college environment is one of the easiest places to meet new people – even if it initially starts with awkward conversations and forgetting names. Photograph: Getty


The results are in, the offer is accepted, you know where you are going and what you are doing. You know who from school is going with you and who isn’t. The first few weeks in August answer a lot of questions about your college career but many people arrive on campus in September and don’t really know what to expect.

While everyone’s college experience is different there are a number of things that feature for most of us, particularly in the first semester of first year. Here is what you can expect when you come to college.

The basics

Chances are you will not be familiar with your campus. Even if you go to college in your home town, you probably don’t know much about the place so your first couple of weeks will be filled with looking around, getting lost and being late.

First years stand out a mile and this the primary reason. Don’t worry about it, just ask for help and remember that everyone has this problem when they start.

If you moved for college you will meet a lot of new, different people and have the exact same awkward conversations with them. You will introduce yourself and immediately forget their name. This is usually followed by finding out where they come from and some semi-knowledgeable reference to how your respective counties performed in the All-Ireland.

If you met in a lecture hall the conversation involves a certain level of nervousness as to when you should stop because the lecturer may or may not be starting the class.

While it might be initially awkward, this accidental form of speed-friending is incredibly effective and nets some serious results. Remember you are in the same boat as everyone else and, if you are nervous, the chances are that the person beside you is too.

Living situation

If you moved for college then the new living situation is bound to pose a challenge. It is important to remember that living with friends is very different to living with family and so you need to be flexible.

If you are tidy prepare for the reality that one or more of your new roommates will not be. If you like to be up until 3am you should understand that some people want their sleep.

Conflict of some kind is almost guaranteed but that is both healthy and normal. Try your best to deal with it in a mature way.

Look at things from their perspective and think about how they feel. Dialogue is a great idea with new housemates; ganging up on each other is not so good.

The people who live in the house should feel comfortable there and that is so much easier when people respect each other. A good house makes for a great college experience. If you can lock that down you are golden.

Studying and changing course

At some point in the first two months you will probably feel a little overwhelmed. You may have too much work, miss a deadline or skip one too many classes. When this happens it is important not to panic. There is usually a simple solution. Take a few deep breaths and think about what you have to do. Most of the time it can be fixed by asking a friend for help, speaking to a lecturer or just putting in a solid weekend of study.

Sometimes it is a little more than that. If you find the course isn’t what you expected or you think you would be more suited to something else that is fine. Talk to your course co-ordinator about changing courses in your department or college.

If you are looking for something in a different college speak to your Students’ Union – they operate in a national network and will be able to put you in touch with the SU in your preferred college.

While changing college or course is a serious matter that deserves serious consideration it actually isn’t a big deal. Being happy is the most important thing and forcing yourself to study a course you don’t want is the worst action you can take.

College life

Once you are settled in, handling your workload and happy with your course, you can focus on what really matters, living the college life. The movies might make it look like the only thing you need to worry about is drinking and partying for four consecutive years but the reality is very different. There is a real opportunity to develop and try new things in college and you should waste no time in getting started.

College societies are groups of people interested in the same thing and there is one for everything. Whether it’s brewing beer, watching movies, playing games, Harry Potter, food and drink, chess, politics or go-karting there is a society to suit your interests and if there isn’t you can set one up for others to join.

Societies represent the creative heart of every institution and the most exciting and wonderful activities and events in your college are organised by your societies.

On top of making new friends you will learn and experience things in a way colleges only wish could be taught in a classroom. Organising events and meetings, building new members and communicating with existing ones gives you a set of skills employers are crying out for.

The clubs in your college offer a very similar experience. The focus is a little different but the benefits are often the same, with the added bonus of keeping fit.

If you are so inclined you can get involved in the more political aspects of college. Aside from the youth wings that often have their own society , here is the Students’ Union and your class rep council. The SU and CRC are often the most efficient way to effect change in your institution.

There are any number of reasons to get involved in your SU. It could be about the quality of your course or college, the cost of education or a broader societal issue such as the Eighth Amendment or drug decriminalisation.

Whatever the reason, it is unlikely that you will pass through college without encountering the SU at least once. If change and campaigns are big on your agenda then this is the place for you.

Those most dedicated to the lifestyle will have a hand in all areas. That isn’t always possible between work and college commitments but the best advice is to get as involved as you can while you can.

Social life

This is often the most talked about and over-represented part of college. Your social calendar will never be as full or flexible as it is when you are in college. Mid-week drinking tends to be more popular than any weekend socialising and if you are under 25 there’s a good chance you won’t suffer from these indulgences like the rest of us.


Enjoying yourself is important and embracing the more lenient aspect of the social life is, in some ways, a rite of passage. However college is also a time in our lives when most of us learn what our limits are and how to have a great night out without doing damage to ourselves. The important thing is not to overdo it.

As a rule of thumb, if you are missing lectures and deadlines and going out three nights a week then you are definitely overdoing it.

It is also very easy to rely on alcohol to try to forget about anything that is bothering us, be it exam stress or financial concerns. If, at any time, you are worried about your own drinking or the drinking habits of others there are people you can talk to.

Your Students’ Union can point you in the right direction for services on your campus. They are also the best people to talk to if you have any questions or just need a little bit of help and advice.


At some point during college you are likely to be offered, or be in the presence of, drugs. As with everywhere else in life it plays a more prominent role for some than others.

Your safety is your responsibility. Be sensible, if it seems like a bad idea then it might just be a terrible idea. It is always safest not to take any illegal substances and never feel that you should take anything just because other people are doing it. It is critically important to maintain that independence of mind and just simply do what you feel is right for you.

If you do decide to take drugs, arm yourself with as much information as possible. As with any situation don’t go in blind. Check out the “What’s in the pill?” and “What’s in the powder?” campaigns launched by DITSU and TCDSU with

Remember that some people don’t want to take drink or drugs. Respect their right to say no and move on. Nobody likes to be pressured in that situation and it is unacceptable for anyone to embarrass or pressure someone into something which they are not comfortable with.


For many of us the first time we have sex is in college. Due to an overwhelming failure in Irish society, many students come to college with a lack of knowledge on sexual health and consent.

First of all, despite all the talk, not everyone is having sex. In fact some people don’t have sex at all and don’t want to and that is absolutely normal. You should never worry about that and only do what you are comfortable with, nobody will fault you for that.

The rule is simple: never be afraid to say no. Similarly, if you want to say yes then don’t be afraid of that either or of asking for what you really want. Communication really is the key to having a happy, healthy sex life.

Second, only one thing constitutes consent to sexual activity and that is an enthusiastic yes. Silence doesn’t mean consent, implying doesn’t mean consent. You need to ask and they need to give an enthusiastic yes.

Some colleges will give consent classes and you can find out more online or from your Students’ Union on campus.

Remember that your health is your responsibility and if you are having sex you should use protection. Condoms are available in pharmacies and supermarkets. Sometimes the Students’ Union give them out for free.

Always carry one and learn how to use them. At this stage in your life you should make a habit of getting tested regularly, especially if you are sexually active. This gives you piece of mind and is part of being a responsible, independent adult.

Embrace the future

Over the coming weeks you will meet many different people who tell you what to expect when you get to college but the reality is that everyone’s experience is different.

For those of us lucky enough to attend, it is often one of the greatest experiences of our lives but it is not the be-all and end-all of who you are.

You might get a PhD or you might decide that college isn’t for you. Whatever happens for you in the next few weeks and years, embrace it with open arms.

Finishing secondary school opens a new chapter in most people’s lives and you should be proud of having come this far.

Kevin Donoghue is former president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI)