What to expect when going to college

Former college newspaper editor considers what you should look out for

Starting college for the first time might seem like a challenge. Even some of the smaller colleges will have thousands more students than your secondary school. However, it’s important to remember that you are not on your own and there are plenty of other first-year students who will feel the exact same way when they start on their third-level journey.

As a prospective student you should do your research in advance to ensure you have all the necessary information needed to help make a success of your choice and there is no harm in familiarising yourself with what college life and all it entails.

Classes themselves will be very different, but most courses will have one or two lectures a week, followed by a lab or tutorial. As a general rule of thumb, it’s okay to miss your lectures once in a while, but less okay to miss a tutorial.

Every campus will have lots of societies and sports clubs, which you can usually join at any time in the year. However, most colleges will have a fair at the start of the year for freshers to join whatever societies appeal to them.


The cost of joining for a year is usually between €2 and €10, depending on what you’re joining (sports clubs tend to be more expensive because of higher insurance costs and more expensive equipment).

This is the time to try everything you've ever had an interest in. If you feel like learning how to play chess or talking about your favourite book, there will probably be a society for you. For those of you who really just like going out, DIT has a Bantersoc that mainly just organises nights out, while Harry Potter societies are well established on most campuses.

If you feel like getting really involved, you can become a rep for your students' union (SU). Every college in the country will have a students' union, and most of them are also members of the national Union of Students in Ireland. You'll automatically become a member of your college's union when you become a student and your membership cost will be included in your annual registration fee.

The union offers support on lots of issues, including academic problems and issues surrounding accommodation. Your SU will also arrange different events, like the annual Trinity Ball, and will participate in national campaigns on everything from consent to housing. While college will seem like a big leap, support is available – from your lecturers to your union to the health service.

Don’t be afraid of putting yourself out there.

University College Dublin

UCD has the largest student population in the country, which means it also has a reputation for being overwhelming large and it often takes students some time to settle in. There is an orientation programme, as in most other universities. However, you will probably meet most of your friends through societies and sports clubs. To join, you can head along to freshers’ week, which takes place in the second week of term.

UCD is semesterised, like the majority of other colleges, which means you’ll have Christmas and summer exams as well as plenty of assignments in between. The college does however have high repeat fees compared to other colleges and does not hold summer repeat exams, meaning you would have to retake the class.

President of UCD Students' Union Katie Ascough explains: "The first things to think about as an incoming student to UCD are where you're going to live, whether you'll need a job, and if you can get books cheaply. There are group pages on Facebook where students post up listings for each of the above, but you can also contact the people in your students' union for advice."

Ascough advises: “Right now, just remember that if you want a job on campus, look up the big UCD retail outlets line and apply before term starts,” but remember that “older students will target early September as a key selling point for their old books; keep an eye out for their paper notices and don’t buy your entire reading list before starting your course.”

There are ways to cut costs on campus, according to Ascough: "There is free breakfast during your first week, there are €3 sandwiches in the SU shops, and there are subsidised lunches the size of dinners in RTÉ across the way if you're brave enough to pretend to be an extra."

Trinity College Dublin

Ireland's oldest university and the most centrally located, the campus is relatively small, but according to SU president Kevin Keane, has the best selection of burritos. "For most of the country, the fall-back conversation topic is the weather. In Trinity, it's burritos. Try them all – Mama's Revenge is my personal favourite, but go to them all."

The college is expanding, with a second campus to be built in Dublin over the next five years, but is currently home to the Pav bar, where you will no doubt end up on multiple occasions even if you don’t attend Trinity.

The college is one of the few remaining non-semesterised colleges in Ireland, which means you will have no exams at Christmas. However, you will have to sit all of your exams for the year in summer. This is changing though, with semesterised exams coming in for the 2018/2019 academic year. Similar to UCD, renting on campus and in the surrounding area is quite high.

Keane explains: “College, and Trinity particularly, is about so much more than lectures and exams. If you decide to come here, jump into the life of college. Try new things, go to debates, join that random society that would never even occur to you usually.”

However, when college does get stressful, Keane says there are plenty of supports available, with free counselling and medical care available for all students in Trinity College.

NUI Galway

Galway is well-known for its notorious “Raise and Give” week in the second semester but there’s plenty more going on around campus, particularly at the start of the semester. SU president Lorcán Ó Maoileannaigh says there are plenty of opportunities to “join societies, sports teams and attend social events throughout the first two weeks in particular”. The Freshers’ Fair and Outdoor Cinema are run by the students’ union while the college hosts Socs and Clubs day.

During the year, there’s also a Volunteering Fair held, if you’re looking to get more involved with an interesting cause or have a chance to “speak to various local and national volunteering groups and give back to the local community with other students”.

Ó Maoileannaigh does note that like Cork and Dublin, rents have increased in Galway over the past few years, as well as more 12-month leases and shortages in suitable accommodation. He suggests that if you are moving out for the first time, it’s a good idea to head to the city a week or two before classes and find accommodation. A good choice in a new place is finding digs, so you get used to the surroundings, while not having to worry about your bills. If you do have any problems, contact your students’ union for more information about the local market.

University College Cork

Like other colleges, UCC has more than its fair share of myths and legends, one of which SU president Martin Scally says every student should beware. "If you walk across the quad or step on the UCC crest under the archway, expect to get a few looks from horrified students."

More important than keeping up tradition however is getting involved, according to Scally. “I spent my first year in college sticking to the same friends I grew up with and didn’t really make the effort with my class. I changed all that in second year onwards and grew very close to my class.”

For new students, UCC has an orientation week before class starts, as well as a one-day Freshers’ Fest to join clubs and societies. To keep up with various events across campus keep an eye on different society and club pages.

It is important to remember why you are in college though, and Scally suggests having a copy of your timetable on your phone. “When you’re getting used to a brand-new timetable, it’s very easy to get forgetful and miss a lecture or forget where it’s on: it will make life easier if you’ve a copy of it handy.” Like other campuses, the UCC library is always full around exam time. Either head in early to make sure you get a space or study at home.

Maynooth University

Maynooth has two sides to campus, with much of the buildings used for class on the north campus. However, SU president Leon Diop says that all students should make an effort to visit the south campus, which offers plenty of scenic walks if you feel like wandering around between classes. Maynooth has its fair share of ghost stories and myths, as any first year who walks the main path in south Josephs Square and stares at the clock on the south campus, is said to fail their exams.

Diop does suggest being mindful of the deadline to drop out of your course before having to pay full fees. “Make up your mind asap. If you like the course you are in that’s great. However, if you find yourself dragging your feet and wanting out, make the decision to switch before it’s too late. Most colleges have deadlines to switch in early October, so be aware of it.”

He also suggests budgeting wisely and not going “on a spending frenzy when your first grant comes in or without the oversight from your parents/guardians. Being smart with your money can make the difference that sees you thoroughly enjoying college.”

University of Limerick

The University of Limerick campus is about 15 minutes outside the city centre by bus or taxi and 30 minutes on foot. The campus is relatively small but lively, making it easy to get involved, which SU president Jack Shelley believes is essential to being in college. "Get to know as many people as you possibly can. College is great chance to get to know people from all over the country and even all over the world. And try your very best to remember peoples' names after the first time you meet them. It will make all the difference when you meet them again."

Shelley explains that as the UL campus is “so close together it is always buzzing with activity”. Throughout the year, the UL Sport Arena is active, especially in the evening, with a swimming pool, gym, running track, pitches and fitness classes. While there’s plenty of nightlife in Limerick city, if you prefer to stay on campus, you can pay a visit to the Stables Club during the week, which also serves food during the day.

Dublin City University

The main campus of DCU is in the north Dublin suburb of Glasnevin but in the past few years, the college amalgamated with the teacher training college St Patricks and All Hallows college. This has brought new scenic areas into the DCU campus, which are open to all students. If the main library is busy in Glasnevin, you could pay a visit to the All Hallows campus to study in a more beautiful building. All campuses are close to each other, and are only 20 minutes outside of Dublin city centre by bus.

While SU president Niall Behan says all students should get as involved as they can, it's important to remember to attend class. "It can be hard to cool down when the world of college hits you hard at the start of semester. However, come week 6/7 and assignments are coming fast, you'll have wished you knew this tip a little sooner."

Behan says new students should also watch out for the new student centre, which is set to open next February on the Glasnevin campus. Students previously voted to contribute €8.5 million over the past number of years and Behan explains that it will be “state of the art and have something for everyone on campus”. The centre will be available to societies and clubs, which in DCU include kayaking and snowboarding as well as a Harry Potter society.

Dublin Institute of Technology

Currently DIT is half in the city and half out. Though it currently has buildings scattered around Dublin city, there are plans to move out to a new Grangegorman campus, about 20 minutes’ walk from the city centre. While students have already moved out of the city centre, further expansion is set to be delayed until 2019, keeping most classes in the city centre.

DIT student’s union welfare officer Róisín O’Donovan explains that as the college remains in Dublin city centre, “be aware of your personal belongings at all times, bus routes changing (or striking) and always walk with a friend if you’re coming home late at night”.

Like most colleges, there are support services such as the DIT counselling, medical centre, chaplaincy and quiet rooms, for anyone needing a bit more support. They’re all free and confidential.

Though O’Donovan does suggest going to events on your own: “Don’t depend on your friends, if you go alone you’re more inclined to break out of your shell, meet new people and you will feel so independent and empowered.” She says this can include volunteering, as the college has “amazing volunteering opportunities and you’d be surprised what you will get back from giving your own time to others”.

Waterford Institute of Technology

Waterford IT is one of the smallest colleges in the country and is based just outside the centre of Waterford city. However, WIT student union president Michael Murphy believes that it just enhances the college, with plenty of places for people to eat in around the city, such as Bistro, Gallery and Oscar's Café, as well as ones on campus. Similar to other colleges, cafés and other places around campus will offer discounts to students, so remember to carry your student card with you. Murphy also suggests that students be aware of Student Life and Learning, which is the branch of the college that offers supports to students for most things from registration to mental health.

However, Murphy believes one of the most important things students can do is “go to class and get organised from the start, for example knowing when assignments are due and organising all your notes”, which will make your life much easier.

Róisín Guyett-Nicholson is former editor of UCD’s “University Observer”