• Starting university can be a daunting and intimating experience

  • Dr Terri Apter explores why it can be so difficult and addresses the challenges faced by young people at university for the first time

  • If you feel you could benefit from talking to someone, you can find a therapist here

In Beck Varley-Winter’s excellent piece Surviving University, I was struck by what she says about Freshers Week: “Freshers Week suits extroverts. If you are not one, you will find socialising in massive groups can be stressful”.

Many of the students I address each October would find resonance in Becky’s words. Indeed, some would find the term “stressful” far too moderate a word to describe their experiences of a new environment, glamoured by history, by hope and by parental pride.

As young people leave their families, they face a transition period in which they may feel their identity dissolve. 

As young people leave their families, their long-term friends, and the teachers who supported them, they face a transition period in which they may feel their identity dissolve. Yesterday, they were smart and funny and loveable; today, amid strangers who shine with a magical polish, who flaunt talents and knowledge that seem beyond one’s ken, and who threaten with impossible comparators, Freshers Week is torture.

It's particularly difficult, at this stage in their lives, for young people to hear the easy truths we grown-ups speak: “The first days may be daunting, but soon you will feel at home”. To receive such reassurance, Freshers would require different brains: their active, eager, critical minds may have reached intellectual heights, but remain stuck and stunted in areas such as forward thinking and impulse control.

Neurologically speaking, the brains of nineteen-year-olds are bulkier than the adult brain, but that larger mass results in signal inefficiencies. Over the next five or six years the grey matter will undergo pruning, thereby improving the ability to think ahead and to moderate feelings. For now, the present is all there is, emotionally speaking, and those emotions can all too easily flood mind and body.

While most people believe that these young adults are all grown up – far savvier, it's thought, than in previous generations – there are areas in which they may be less mature. The current cohorts of University entrants have had a highly regulated and scheduled adolescence, with long school hours, and periodic exams, as well as all the organised extra-curricular stuff that counts as “enrichment”. Managing their own time and monitoring their own progress, as they have the freedom to do at University, may come slowly, perhaps after humiliating setbacks in which they discover that keeping ahead of others is far more difficult than it was in school.

The discovery that academic excellence does not come naturally can be huge jolt to a young person’s self-concept.

The discovery that academic excellence does not come naturally can be huge jolt to a young person’s self-concept. Unfortunately, parents and teachers who encourage and reassure by praising them for their intelligence, may make matters worse.

The assumption that intelligence and talents are fixed personal possessions is counterproductive. According to this model, if you struggle with maths problems, then you’re no good at maths; if your essays are awkward and patchy, then you “can’t write”. But such difficulties simply mean that you're facing new challenges.

A key message in praise and encouragement should be that neither intelligence nor talent is fixed; they are both highly malleable. What matters is not whether you can do something today, but whether you are willing to work at it today, to face criticism of your efforts, and persist, so that you can do better tomorrow.

All too often this willingness to expose yourself to failure is described, glibly, as confidence; and all too often confidence’s guiding thought is seen as: “I can succeed because I am smart”. But to be effective, confidence has to be pragmatic; the only confidence that matters is the guiding thought: “It would be interesting to try this”.

Accepting vulnerability is particularly difficult when you are highly self-conscious.

Of course such a mindset does expose you to possible failure, and accepting vulnerability is particularly difficult when you are highly self-conscious. Though we tend to think that the most cruel phase of self-consciousness is earlier in adolescence, at 14 or 15, when the identity you've developed within your family may be resented, and when old intimacies arouse intense annoyance; but there is a resurgence of that awful self-consciousness during the early days at Uni. Suddenly you are being seen and assessed by an entirely new group of people; you lose the familiar gauges for who might be your friend and who might freeze you out. Though you are in many ways competent and grown-up, your day may echo with primitive terrors of isolation and exclusion.

But this exquisite sensitivity to your new environment also has many advantages. There is a new urgency in interactions with your world that results in a high degree of focus and a special vividness. New experiences are packed with rich meanings that facilitate development, and will probably, in days to come, be recalled with exquisite nostalgia. Before long, the terror will be transformed to eagerness and excitement.

Terri Apter is the author of The Myth of Maturity: What Teenagers Need from Parents to Become Adults

Further reading

5 tips if you are starting university this year

Why do university students see counsellors?

Student mental health: can mindfulness reduce stress?

Who am I and why does it matter? A therapist's view on identity