Taking it to the third level - and enjoying the experience

Make sure the basics are covered first then shift your attention to settling in and enjoying college life

When summer ends and the Leaving Cert exams fade into distant memory, preparing for a new life at a third level college can be a challenge.

As excited, prepared and eager as many students are, there are those for whom the prospect of leaving home and travelling to an alien environment without a friend in sight can be daunting. But there are myriad support structures, and no end of people waiting to help.

As an American who came to college in Ireland, Cody Byrne's outlook on adapting to a new world is a good place to start.

Now a welfare officer at Dublin City University (DCU), Byrne starts by reassuring the next round of college students they are entering a very different place from school, where extracurricular activities may have been limited and course work uninspiring.


“When you come to university, you are exposed to so much more than you ever would have had in school,” he says.

“It’s absolutely normal to be nervous but [not] if you walk in with the mindset that it’s an opportunity to better yourself, even though that can be a cliche.

“You have a clean slate and a fresh start. Not that many people know you and you can be the person you want to be.”

Dr Brian Gormley is head of Campus Life, at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), which will welcome 4,500 new students, the majority of them first years, in September.

“They need to get the basic stuff sorted, like their accommodation, how they are going to get to college and how they are going to pay for college,” he says, mapping out the first careful steps.

Last year, DIT still had accommodation available by November. A lot of this was digs, but with the current housing shortages, Gormley cautions against dismissing renting a room.

“The old image that you would have had in college of the old lady looking at her watch and keeping an eye on you isn’t really there anymore,” he says.

“All of our [college] survey results this year show that the students who were in digs were more satisfied with their experience than those living in private rented accommodation. So don’t dismiss it.”

Airbnb has reshaped the prospect of digs – or living in someone else’s house – making it more acceptable to young students, he says.

“At the moment we have about 800 spaces [left] on our books. The accommodation is there, but the one thing we are saying to students is that if you have a good idea of where you are going, get the accommodation sorted.”

Then there is the matter of getting there. Gormley recommends the Transport For Ireland journey planner app and says while many students don’t realise it, they are entitled to stay on a child Leap Card until they are 19, with considerably better savings than on the student alternative.

Settling in

When the basics are covered, attention shifts to settling in and forming good habits. A key part of life in third level is making new friends and getting involved quickly – joining societies and clubs is a good idea, and students are advised to take the time to explore and experiment, to embrace everything that might help forge a future on campus.

“We are not just talking about developing social lives. It’s about building a network,” says Gormley. “The first seven weeks are crucial for settling in.”

Getting a foothold academically can be as challenging as it is socially. It is not uncommon for first years to become quickly disillusioned with their chosen courses.

“When we look at reasons why students leave, it’s [often] that the programme wasn’t what they expected it to be. Students going into computer science [for example] and realising that there is a lot more maths than they thought there would be,” Gormley says.

Sometimes courses are simply tedious in first year, focusing on basics, but broaden out later on.

“So talking to someone can really help. It can become more interesting. Certainly in DIT we have tried to bring in a lot more project work in first year, so that students can see why they need these building blocks.”

There is more to adapt to academically than simple content. David Duffy, education officer at the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) talks about the responsibility of crossing over into adult education.

“Once they enter third level it’s much more up to the student to make sure that they have the work done rather than someone saying, how is it going today? That comes as a bit of a culture shock.”

Emotionally and psychologically, college can be a major upheaval for new students. Whether it’s getting to grips with course work, the jolt of leaving home, or the isolation of knowing nobody in a strange place, some of the most important guidance is around mental health.

“Our advice would be if they do run into any difficulties, they should talk to the pastoral support that is available in the institutions,” Duffy says, adding that many colleges assign mentors, another key support.

“They need to talk to them as soon as possible if they are experiencing difficulties. If you are coming from a different type of community it can be a bit of a change and obviously there are students who are moving out of home for the first time.”

DIT has noticed an increase in the number of people registering with formal mental health diagnoses, and in those attending counselling services.


Gormley says that while Skype has gone a long way toward addressing homesickness – particularly of the international kind – it is essential to assure students help is on hand for other, possibly more serious issues.

“The key message around mental health is that there are people there who can help them and they just need to ask,” he says.

DCU has a student support and development department. There are guidance counsellors to talk to about changing course, as well as counsellors and disability services.

Cody Byrne reminds future students that feeling isolated is normal, particularly at first, but given the sizeable student populations (about 16,000 in DCU), "There is always going to be someone that you will click with."

It comes back to the importance of societies and clubs and finding the perfect fit. With everything from Harry Potter societies to those tailored to fans of drinking tea, people are more specific in college than in school. It can just take time.

“You may be a little home sick. It’s a completely different experience. You have to make your own meals and do your own laundry. It’s a huge step,” says Byrne.

“First of all, everyone is going through what you are going through. It’s normal to feel isolated at times or out of your depth.

“A) that will pass and you are going to find your footing and B) if you are having trouble, that’s when you contact the student’s union, or if you are having trouble with your course, go to your lecturer or career services.”

An expert on the practicalities of college life, Róisín Ní Mhara, welfare officer at UCD, says there is an answer to every problem.

“Sometimes it can just be as simple as not registering properly for your course,” she says, and this is why the all-important orientation period has registration clinics among the hustle of opportunities for good campus advice.


There are financial budgeting workshops on offer for those dealing with managing that side their lives for the first time.

“Most universities have a welfare assistance fund, which is a one-off payment for unforeseen circumstances,” she says. This can apply when somebody has a legitimate budgeting problem – for example if they need to travel home for an emergency but don’t have the train fare.

Societies offer discount cards for all sorts of things from services to food, entertainment and clothing, and there are ways around buying expensive textbooks.

“There are alternatives. You can buy second hand books, and university libraries are also good.

“Core texts can be really, really expensive, especially in medicine or law or nursing.”

Most universities have either free or heavily subsidised medical services; dentists and pharmacies offer discounts. There are jobs too – to be found on student forums, part-time work and even on-campus opportunities.

Adapting to college life can be daunting, but can be made easier with the right guidance and a bit of preparation.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times