What to do if you are unhappy at university

Nov 27, 2020

University is, for a lot of people, the first milestone in their adult life. University life provides a unique opportunity to leave the safety of your parents’ house.

You are expected to make new friends, study a topic of your choice in depth, learn new skills, join clubs and societies and grow as an individual, in order to become ready to join the adult world. 

What coming-of-age films and television shows such as “Fresh Meat” rarely show are those who are unhappy at university. The expectation of the university experience is that it should all fall into place. You should be enjoying your course.

During what are often described as the “best years of your life”, you might feel that every day should bring new friendships, unforgettable memories and glowing happiness.

However, the workload, the environment and stress, among other things, can burst this bubble.

Despite great expectations, anyone can become unhappy at university. You might be finding uni life tougher than you imagined. Don’t worry because you’re not alone. Here are our top tips for bouncing back! 

#1: Work out why you’re unhappy at university

The first thing to do is to work out what aspects of university are making you unhappy. Stop feeling guilty or turning your negative feelings in on yourself. Instead, try to be objective and work out why you’re unhappy at university.

This is your life and your university experience. This might not feel helpful right now, but it’s important to remember that some things do take a bit of time.

Once you’ve worked out what it is that’s bothering you, wait a little while to see if it improves naturally on its own.

If you are struggling to make friends and feel grounded in the first few weeks of starting, don’t worry! These things take time. If after a few more weeks you have the same problem it may be worth joining some societies so that you can make a new group of friends with similar interests.

It’s also worth remembering that some things can be time sensitive and are best done at different times of the academic year.

If you have just begun your course and already hate it, universities often let new students change their degrees within the first few weeks of starting.

#2: Be true to yourself

One “hangover” (no pun intended) from school life that can carry over into university is peer pressure.

While the bulk of reporting on university life can portray it as day-in day-out partying, the truth is that there are many people who aren’t very interested in late nights and stumbling into a 9am lecture still reeling from the night before.

Everyone’s different and constantly going out drinking (or taking part in other activities which you don’t really enjoy) may contribute to your unhappiness, not least due to a lack of sleep.

Instead, browse the university societies page or local newspaper for groups and activities that seem more up your street, relax, and don’t give in to outside pressure.

Be open to new experiences but if you know yourself well enough to know that something has to change, go with your gut and make that happen.

If you have to pretend to be someone else to fit in with a particular clique, they’re not going to make for the best group of friends for you anyway.

#3: Talk to other people

Unite Students

Whether at university or anywhere else, the best way to look after your own mental health and wellbeing is to talk to others around you rather than bottling it up.

Members of your family will hopefully want to help you in any way that they can.

You can also try to speak to your friends. A trip to see you or a long phone call where you can talk about how you feel could work wonders.

It’s likely that they can help you to find a way to move forward. Family members may remember what it was like to be at university and thus listen to and empathise with you.

School friends who are also at university may well be feeling similarly to you. Above all, it’s important to realise that you are not alone. Those closest to you could hold the key to getting yourself out of an emotional rut.

Universities offer their own confidential support services too. These range from counselling to academic support and career advice services.

Most universities are also affiliated with a GP surgery or have a health centre on site. Perhaps the best people to talk to within the university itself however are your own lecturers or your personal tutor.

As academic professionals, they will likely have seen all manner of students and have a good idea of how to help.

Personal tutors are often assigned to students in their first year of university specifically as a port of call for those who need help.

If you need someone external to talk to, universities often offer a nightline service. You can also talk to mental health charities such as the Samaritans or Student Minds.

#4: Consider changing courses/universities or take a year out

If you do decide that your specific university or course isn’t for you, your university will be able to help you to make the change. Remember that changing your mind isn’t a bad thing.

In fact, working out early that this isn’t the right place for you to be is a blessing as it is likely to help you out in the long run.

There is no shame in transferring nor is it particularly difficult, especially if you choose to stay on at the same university in the same halls of residence or house. For the sake of the admin involved it is definitely a worthwhile move.

Another option you might want to consider is taking a year out. University life can be full on and stressful and sometimes you might feel that it gets in the way of the other things that you want to achieve in life.

Some university courses already come with a built-in year out but for those that don’t creating your own (with the university’s approval of course) can be a godsend. After a socially exhausting first year, a year out could be a good option before the real assessed part of university begins, or similarly taking a break between second and third years to get some headspace could also be a beneficial move. Travel, volunteering, work experiences and internships could all help to bolster your CV in the future and set you apart from the crowd.

If you feel that you’re suffering from overwork and academic burnout, check out our handy guide on how to recover from it here.

#5: What to do if you’re worried about your future

The end goal of university is to get a good graduate-level job and to join the adult world, having picked up some life skills and independence along the way. The majority of university courses do not train students for one specific career in the way that a degree in, say, medicine does.

While feeling that the world is your oyster can be very liberating, especially when you’ve just left school, it can also become a burden when university begins to draw to a close.

Higher education institutions are very good at getting graduates a degree, but often woefully poor at helping them to find a job afterwards, despite the existence of careers services and alumni organisations. Because of this, many graduates today are leaving university without a graduate job or even an idea of what they really want to do.

The unfortunate truth is that 48% of graduates never manage to land a graduate level job. It’s not too early to start thinking about the next stage or getting guidance, especially in your final year. Graduate Coach founder Chris Davies has written two books, one of which is specifically designed for students.

If you’re unhappy at university because the looming question of “What next?” is fogging up your brain, don’t worry.

This is where Graduate Coach is here to help. Despite a tumultuous year in many respects, last month proved to be the company’s most successful in getting recent graduates into top-level jobs. This is all due to the tried and tested formula of our coaching programmes, which helps dozens of graduates to find roles every year. Details can be found here.

It doesn’t matter what subject you did your degree in or at which university. The Graduate Coach blog has articles for students, jobseekers looking for work after university, and those who are interviewing for jobs.

Whether you’re looking to get the right nutrition to excel in exams, look after your mental health at university, or get a first class degree, we’ve got you covered. Read about stories of others who’ve worked with Graduate Coach to succeed after leaving university, including an English Literature graduate who got a job in SEO, a History graduate who landed a job in Shipbroking and an Economics graduate who went on to work in PPC.

Written by Ben Clarke
Featured photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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