Transitioning Into University

Although you may anticipate that transitioning into university to be a joyous occasion, this transition can present many challenges for students. These challenges require different skills to cope with them, many of which are found lacking in our students.
Student well-being plays a key role ensuring student persistence during the transition to college. The process of transition from secondary school to university is both challenging for students and important for completing their university degrees, as student perceptions of the transition experience and the coping strategies they employ can predict future adjustment and academic success (Perera, McIlveen, & Oliver, 2015).


The initial period of entry is the most difficult time in university and can lead to high levels of anxiety (Abouserie, 1994). Jones and Frydenberg (1999) showed that the levels of anxiety are even higher at the beginning of the first year in university than during the examinations. Indeed, the transition to higher education is a time of many life changes, during which students face new environments, different frames of reference, and, for many, moving away from friends and families (Vollrath, 2000). The move to university requires many adjustments, including adapting to increased personal responsibility for academic work and self-care and increased freedom (Blair, 2017). These changes in freedom and responsibility impact student well-being and achievement (Burke, Ruppel, & Dinsmore, 2016).


The transition into university has been described as an ‘acute stressor’, due to the initial intense strain on well-being at the start of university, as students may struggle to adjust to university life at first (Gall, Evans, & Bellerose, 2000). In a longitudinal study of students in the USA, Conley et al. (2020) measured psychological well-being at three timepoints during the first year. Participants showed heightened psychological distress and reduced psychological well-being at the midpoint of first year compared to the week before starting university, with little improvement by the end of the academic year. Indeed, research has shown that distress levels never return to those recorded before university (Berwick et al. 2010) suggesting the transition to university presents significant challenges for students, which may not be rebounded from (Conley et al. 2020).


What exacerbates matters and is something that boggle the mind of the researcher, is the sheer enormity of the challenge bestowed upon post-primary students in the years preceding the transition into university. These students are asked in their final years of school, while they are still quite young and under pressure to do well in exams, to choose their university course. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a young person in their late teens to know for certain which university course or career is best suited to them – especially when many have been focused on completing high-pressure state exams. Inevitably, many students find themselves in the wrong course, and “this can lead to periods of great stress and anxiety.” (Barry, 2021, p. 57). It’s hard enough to cope with the huge changes associated with leaving home or school to enter the large landscape of university, without having to face the truth that the course chosen may be the wrong one. Once settled in their courses and throughout university students experience further changes (Tett, Cree & Christie 2017), and further consequential stressors which will be discussed in the next section.

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