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University 101: A Complete Guide to Preparing for College Life

by College Life
Updated on June 15, 2023

Are you a recent high school graduate? Have you decided to take the next step in your academic career for a new life at university? If so, there are several aspects that you should look out for.

What do you need to do to prepare for university? When should you start preparing? Where can you apply for universities? What are the differences in universities between the UK, US & EU?

These are only some of the many questions that this guide will answer for you. Preparing for a brand new life at university has never been more exciting!

You’ve probably heard plenty of stories about the advantages of a university education. Fortunately, these stories are all true. Starting a new life at university or any other higher education institution allows you to open yourself up to plenty of possibilities. 

University Fundamentals


  1. Economic advantage: Research continuously shows that university graduates have a lower probability of unemployment.
  2. Healthy life: The money you make as a result from being employed may not always buy happiness. But financial security certainly saves you from stress and anxiety. Without the worry of paying the bills, you can lead a happier and healthier life.
  3. Personal development: You get to lead a more structured life. You are more likely to be responsible, organized, and independent. 
  4. Communication: You are more equipped with communication skills, both in written and verbal form, which will benefit your future career prospects.
  5. Realization of passions: You get to discover what you are most passionate about. You will explore your strengths further, and find ways to align your passions with your career path. 
  6. Sense of Discipline: All the deadlines and stress that you deal with throughout your college years prepare you better for the demands of the future marketplace
  7. Sense of achievement: Your degree is proof of your talent and hard work.


Are you excited yet? Time to start getting ready!

How prepared you'll be for life at university is mostly up to you.

You may want to rush and get through the application process as soon as possible — ideally, it would be during your final year of high school (or the year before depending on where you are in the world). 

Alternatively, you might need some time to breathe, take a gap year after school and dedicate your time to deciding exactly when and where you wish to enrol. And that’s okay. 

No matter when you begin preparing, your decision is determined by the deadlines you set for yourself. 

Would you like to prepare yourself better? Check out the video below about 10 things that many international students wish they had known while living abroad:

We will break down and compare the various types of colleges and universities, as well as the differences between them. Then we will establish what criteria are the best to look for at any potential institution.

Ultimately, the final choice will be yours, but with College Life, we hope to help you make an informed choice for preparing for university or college. 

Researching Institutions

When you start to research colleges and universities, you’ll soon come to realise that there’s an entire world of opportunities waiting for you. Making the right choices can be difficult, but don’t worry - you’re not alone. College Life is to help simplify the complexities, and make this part of your university story a little easier.

We will break down and compare the various types of colleges and universities, as well as the differences between them. Then we will establish what criteria are the best to look for at any potential institution.

Ultimately, the final choice will be yours, but with College Life, we hope to help you make an informed choice for preparing for university or college. 


Universities are relatively larger in size than colleges. That is because they offer a fairly comprehensive list of faculties. Most universities accommodate several smaller colleges that specialise in numerous academic fields. For instance, there could be a Department of Liberal Arts, of Engineering, Health Sciences, all of which belong to the university itself. Most of these comprehensive universities offer the following programmes:

  • Undergraduate: Requires around four years of university education, and awards a Bachelor's degree (B.S., B.A., etc).
  • Graduate or Postgraduate: A Bachelor's is the prerequisite to applying for such an advanced programme. In the end, you obtain a Master’s or a Doctoral degree (M.S., M.A., M.F.A., M.B.A, Ph.D., etc.). Many advanced degrees also provide professional training in areas such as law and medicine.


Colleges are relatively smaller institutions that offer less variety in degrees due to their specialization. Most colleges offer the same programmes (undergraduate and postgraduate) as universities. There are various types of colleges, many of which include:

  • Liberal Arts & Science Colleges: Offer general knowledge on majors such as literature, history, languages, mathematics, and life sciences. These majors are general in nature as opposed to vocational ones such as accounting or nursing. Students graduate with a major that indicates a combination of a general core of knowledge as well as specialized knowledge in a particular field (i.e. Amsterdam University College in the Netherlands). 
  • Specialised Colleges or Schools: Offer majors in only one area. These are perfect for students who already know what field they are interested in and want to commit to (examples: European Business Schools). 
  • Single-Sex Colleges: Offer academic development to women or men only. Many provide opportunities for leadership and independence. Over the years, many of these colleges have become co-educational (mixed). Currently, there are three remaining all-women colleges in Europe.

General Criteria

By European standards, the ideal university or college for you is the one that can provide you with the necessary tools to succeed. What defines success is entirely up to you, and your own goals.

Some of the most general criteria for choosing the right institution include the following:

  • Internationality: You may look for an institution that is welcoming to students from all over the globe. This can be recognized by English-taught programmes and the diversity of the student body. 
  • Class size: You may be interested in smaller classes, instead of lecture rooms filled with hundreds of people - or, potentially, the opposite. Universities tend to have large classes, while colleges with specialised fields accommodate a smaller number of students. Recent studies about small classes equalling student success are still debated. Decide on what you think is best for you rather than what everyone else claims is best for you.   
  • Experiential learning: Practical learning is absolutely necessary for specialised degrees such as business, law, and medicine. In most cases, specialised colleges tend to be a better fit for this. 
  • Safety: Campuses ought to place a high priority on safety, and so should you. Look up information on campus crime for your university choices. 
  • Ranking: Prestige does not go overlooked. You may be interested in the institution’s reputation compared to others based on university rankings. Keep in mind, however, the practice of university rankings can be dubious - they are often criticized for their simplicity. 

Personal Factors

Other factors that define the best choice for you include more personal reasons based on your financial stability, personality, taste, etc. These factors include:

  • Cost: Your financial situation could be your most determining factor. This is especially true for students that are fresh out of high school and still dependent on their parents or their low to non-existent income. Make sure that what you are paying for is not only something that you can afford but something that is worth your money. 
  • Resources: Your needs are met when there are good support systems that cater to your personal and academic endeavours. Does the institution equip you with enough tools, programmes, projects and workshops? Does it offer accessibility for the disabled? 
  • Location & Climate: Decide how far you wish to be from home. If you cannot be separated from your family consider alternative options such as remote classes and online education. If you are willing to take the next step and move abroad, there are a few more questions to ask yourself about the location. For instance, Europe specifically, has a mixture of landlocked and coastal countries. What do you prefer the most? Do you like big cities or do you prefer small towns? What type of climate do you see yourself adapting to?
    • Marine West Coast (Northwestern and Central Europe): mild temperatures, long growing seasons, and a lot of rain. 
    • Humid Continental (East and North Europe): cool winds, cool summers and cold winters.
    • Subarctic and Tundra in Norway, Sweden, and Finland: extremely cold.
    • Mediterranean (South Europe). hot and dry summers, mild and wet winters, no snow, little rain.
  • Lifestyle: If you are moving to another city, country, or continent, do some research on the lifestyle of the place you are moving to. What’s the food like? What are the most common means of transport? How is the nightlife? What outdoor activities are there?  

As already mentioned, there could be other factors that apply to you at an even more personal level. When applying for college or university, consider your own needs first. 

Comparing Universities Across the World

Are you still unsure about where in the world you want to end up studying? The following table lays out some of the main differences between universities across the UK, the US and the EU to help you paint a clearer picture of what to expect.

Application process Need a clear idea of what you need to study Require a clear idea of who you are as a person through your extracurriculars, personal statement, and your passions. Must be aware of specific university requirements due to applying directly to the university and not through a portal
How you learn Exams & projects, tutorials & supervisions Exams or finals, office hours Projects & group work, smaller classes lessons & informal relationships with professors
Financial aid & scholarships Less expensive than US, scholarships depend on university Grant instead of loan based on need-blind admission, scholarships to elite athletes Dependent on university, free or almost free for EU citizens & 1/10 of cost of UK or US education for non-EU citizens
World university rankings Many universities rank at Top 20 globally Majority of universities rank at top 20 globally
Rank above and beyond US and UK in small university rankings

Below you can find a list of resources for comparing universities across the world:

Admission Process

Patience is a virtue during the admission process. With everything that needs to be done, it’s easy to miss something! Don’t worry. This chapter gives you an overview of everything that you need to keep in mind. Also, be sure to download the personal checklist that will prepare you for your university found at the end of this guide!

Note that depending on the region (UK, US, EU, etc.) as well as the institution itself can vary greatly. This list lays out most of the requirements for universities all over the world. Keep in mind that not every university will ask for everything that is noted down here. 

Test Scores

Test scores are overemphasized because they are the primary acceptance factor for European universities. Meanwhile, this does not apply to US education. SATs or ACTs are one important factor, but so are grades and the strength of coursework. Overall, scores are most likely more important than admission officers say, but less important than you might think. This is due to the fact that they are not the only factor for the admission decision. 

Admission tests that you might need to take include:

  • PSAT/NMSQT (US & Canada): Mostly a practice version of the SAT. The highest performers are eligible for scholarships. 
  • SAT or ACT (US & Canada): Multiple-choice test that is required by most US and Canadian colleges. For more information, check out the guide to the SAT and ACT Exams for US Universities
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (non-English native speakers): Test designed to focus on integrating language skills. When applying for an English-taught programme in any country, you must take a TOEFL or IELTS test if English is not your native language. Your test score is only valid for two years, so don’t take it too early. If you are applying to the UK, you must take the IELTS instead of the TOEFL.

Grades & Transcript

Most institutions will take a look at your overall grades in high school as well as admission exam scores. On top of this, some might take into account the courses you have taken over the course of your high school years. This is due to the fact that the grade can be evaluated based on the course difficulty, as well. For example, if you performed relatively well on a difficult course, it might be more impactful than performing exceptionally well on a course but it is considered to be “easy”. 

Recommendation Letters

Certain universities and colleges may ask for recommendation letters from teachers and counselors. Increase your chances of gaining a positive and helpful recommendation by living up to your role as a student in school and taking it seriously.

Motivation Letter

Some universities may wish to hear from you to learn who you are outside of the classroom. This is your opportunity to showcase your interest and give voice and character to your application. Be authentic, be truthful, and show your passion for determination.

Apply Online

Most college and university applications are now submitted online. This has been exceptionally practical for students that live abroad. Be sure that when you apply online, you do it through the university’s website rather than a common portal. This way, your information gets imported directly into the university’s computer system, speeds up the process, and reduces the chances of error. You may track the process of your application through your account on the university’s website.

Decision Process

During the decision process, the institution will be reviewing your application. Note that some of the factors that contribute to the final decision may extend beyond you and your resume. 

Common factors are:

  • Your Grades & Test Scores: Remember that this is not always the determining factor. 
  • Your Extracurriculars: Not as important, but it nonetheless showcases your character, your passions, and perhaps the reason why you choose the degree that you chose. 
  • The University’s Needs: Sometimes the university wants to cater to certain statistics by eliminating one group for another. In this case, this has nothing to do with your strengths, your scores, or your passions. This is specifically for the university’s needs.  
    • Diversity of the student body (for example: admit students from different ethnic backgrounds)
    • Full-paying students
    • Undersubscribed majors
    • Appeal to specific demographics (for example: admit more women mathematicians)

Financial Preparation 

When you are preparing to start a new life at university, you must prepare yourself as well as your wallet! There are plenty of ways that you can do this. 

Apply for a Scholarship / Loan

As mentioned previously, scholarships depend greatly on the university of your choice. Apply early by researching scholarships by checking your university’s website. Check out EU Scholarships such as Erasmus+. Alternatively, use region-specific tools such as Nuffic's scholarship search tool for studying in the Netherlands. Remember that the earlier you search, the more options you can find!

Alternatively, you can apply for a loan. This loan will need to be repaid after you finish your studies, and once you start a job. 

[ Recommended Reading: Student Finance: The Complete Guide ]

Apply for a Part-time Job

Getting a part-time job is the most effective way to financially prepare yourself for your new life at university. A lot of students work while studying out of necessity. However, many others are compelled by the benefits of being a working student. Working from home or freelancing is a popular type of work among students. Moreover, in Europe, delivery jobs are also another top pick. 

Start Budgeting

Get yourself a budgeting journal and start keeping track of your expenses! The goal is to sort yourself out by sticking to a budget. Having a budget simply means you are more aware of how much you are spending and what you are spending your money on. Set monthly or weekly limits to the amount of money you spend. Delegate a certain sum to certain things.

Admission Decision 

The final and most crucial step: the decision. If you applied to several institutions and got accepted in more than one, it might be a bit more challenging for you to decide what to do. Be sure to review the criteria alongside your personal factors to eliminate the options that aren’t ideal for you. At the end of the day, the decision-making process remains the same. 

Potential Decisions

There are four paths that you can find yourself in:

  • Accept: If you get accepted right away, congratulations! Be sure to embrace your new life at university!
  • Defer: If you get a deferral, it means the university or college will wait until the regular decision cycle to make their decision. Deferrals occur when you apply as early as grade 11 (sophomore year) of high school, and the institution may still need to see your grades for the next semester first. If you are deferred, you are released from any binding commitment. You are free to apply to any other college or university.
  • Deny: If you get denied, try to recall the decision admission factors that extend beyond just you. You can do everything right, and still not get in. Never never call the admission office to vent your anger. Make sure to apply to multiple colleges, so that you can always have alternatives. 
  • Wait List: Since not all students enrol after getting accepted, all schools tend to admit more students than they have room for. Hence, only choose to remain on a waitlist if you really plan to attend in case you get admitted. Schools usually waitlist almost as many students as they admit. Therefore, the chances of being admitted off the waitlist are extremely low.  

COOL TIP! Remember to increase the number of options you have! It’s better to reject universities than to be rejected. Apply to as many colleges and universities as you can.

Final Words

Preparing for college can be a mentally draining process if you don’t do enough research or if you don’t do it on time. Be organized, be punctual, and be excited! 

Think about the new life at university that awaits you and best of luck with your preparation!

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