College is real, gut-wrenching, terrifying freedom

“What we spend time on becomes a large part of who we are, and so deciding how to spend your time is also about deciding who you want to be.”


Last week a friend of mine, an incoming fresher in Law and Politics, messaged me: “My timetable is awfully sparse”, he said. He was referring to the 15 contact hours a week – a good number, in my estimation. “Welcome to college”, I said.

If your degree ever brings you near the Arts Block, your timetable is going to look similarly “sparse”. In secondary school, hours are around 9-4 every day – 35 contact hours – together with homework and study that mean that academics take up the vast majority of anyone’s time.

The workload in college is far lower, and the hours far more irregular. You could be in at 9AM one day, 1PM the next. In a whole year at Trinity last year I never felt like I really developed a routine; every day was, at least in its rhythm, awfully different.

Your time is yours

This shouldn’t worry you: this is, in its way, a lot of what college is about. In secondary education, your time regimented. Other people decide what you do between when you wake up and when you go to sleep – when you work, when you take breaks, when you have your piano lesson.

In college, for the first time in your life, your time is yours; you learn whatever and however you want. You don’t even have to do those 15 hours of contact if you don’t want to. In fact, you don’t really have to do anything as long as you pass your exams.

Your experience at Trinity is whatever you choose to spend time on. It is defined by the friends, lectures, and societies that you choose. It will also be defined by the ones that you don’t choose – you will have to choose not to do some things, because 8 things will be going on at once and you can’t do them all.

Learning in college works very differently: it isn’t a teacher tracking your progress and guiding you through everything; instead, you are given information in a lecture, which you discuss or build on in a tutorial, and are then expected to make sense of – and add to – by yourself at home or in the library.

It’s your job to do the actual learning. This opens up new opportunities: most assessments in college have a lot of choice in them, to give you space to read out in whichever direction you prefer, and most modules will not give you anything resembling homework, so that you get to choose what you spend your time on.

There might 15 contact hours, but how many hours you spend on your course is your decision.

And often you will skip lectures to do other things, and that’s okay. Societies can be the most important and rewarding experiences – and even the beginning of a career – for an awful lot of people. It might be that on a given day you get more out of doing a debate than going to a Sociology tutorial. You might have wanted to keep up the language you did at Leaving Cert, but the FrenchSoc meet on the same night as VTP.

Maybe you’ll decide to go and see a guest speaker in the evening, but find that by 6 you’re tired and hungry and just want to go home. Most of all, what college offers you is access: it offers you the chance to construct your day-to-day experience. There is no great authority overseeing the choices you make about what to do and where to go and not go.


Everyone in Trinity has a story like mine: I came into college from Cork, not really knowing anybody, not knowing what to expect, and coming into a course that I had switched to at the last minute in June. My first few months were a panic; I went to very few of my lectures, talked to almost no one, and shut myself up in Halls for stretches without cooking for myself or eating properly.

Gradually, I pulled it together – I realised that I loved my course, got involved with some societies and made friends.

One thing I had taken for granted in school was that I didn’t need to make any effort to see my friends, for they would always be there during and between classes. In college, you often won’t see people unless you arrange to see them, especially if you’ve only just met them since coming to college. 

Those lessons will take time to learn, and the adjustment from school is hard to make. Ultimately, if you get used to your new time and space and start to use it well, you’ll come to really love what you’re doing.

The new responsibility is scary. It’s scary to wake up at 11 and feel like you’re not doing it properly. It’s even scary to click ‘going’ on Facebook events and then not go to them, making you feel like you’re letting opportunities slip by.

No one is any good at using their time well, especially at the beginning, simply no one has any experience in doing it before. It’s like throwing shallow swimmers into the deep end for the first time. It also forces you to ask some difficult questions, because what we spend time on becomes a large part of who we are, and so deciding how to spend your time is also about deciding who you want to be.

It can be much easier some days to avoid those questions altogether and sleep in, only to  regret it, and get in at lunchtime. Or you can spend the day at the Pav and reject everything that college throws at you.

You usually won’t feel on top of things. Part of me wishes that here I could write some pieces of advice – some kind of guide for burning through the difficult bits – but that’s the point: there isn’t one.

College is freedom – real, gut-wrenching, terrifying freedom. It’s only by embracing it by taking it as it comes, and sometimes by trying new things, that you’ll come to rise to it. You’ll come to learn things about yourself that you didn’t know, and do things you didn’t think you were capable of doing.

If college is a place where people discover themselves, then that, more than anything else, is how they do.

Rory O'Sullivan

Rory O'Sullivan is a former Contributing Editor and Comment Editor of Trinity News, and an Ancient Greek graduate.