The basics
THE UK: Once you arrive

10 things I wish I’d known before studying in London

American student Sydney tells us about all the things she's learnt since moving to the UK's capital

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A semester in London: I’ve been planning and preparing for these four months for the past four years. I chose my university based on the quality of its study abroad programme and planned all my courses around that special semester, the spring of my third year. I’ve read every blog post, checked off every list, and practiced my “British vocab” (I see you, “trousers” and “boot”). Nevertheless, there are still a few things I wish I would have known before I got here, and now with one month left before I leave British soil for America and home, I’m going to share them with you. Here are the 10 things I wish I had known:

 

Plan to be early

If you’re like me, you’ve got your route to school or work planned down to the minute—you can hop in your car with minutes to spare and arrive right on time like clockwork. In London, transit is less dependable. If you do drive, you’ll have to cope with traffic (nightmare) and if you use public transit, like the Tube or buses, there’s always a chance of delay or even a strike. Somehow it will only happen on the day you really need to be somewhere. With that in mind, it’s much easier to just schedule in a few extra minutes to your travel time, just in case.

 

Explore

Whether it’s within London, the UK, or Europe—get out and about as often as you can. Don’t go to Big Ben and Parliament and call it quits: London has some incredible areas, from the East End to Hampstead Heath to Soho. Regent’s Park and Hyde Park are great ways to take a short break from the hectic city life, but if you’re feeling a need for a few days of fresh air, take the train to a town in the countryside. You’ll get a much better idea of what most of England is really like and you’ll get to walk around in the fresh air and see some beautiful landscapes. As for Europe: go. Just go. London is a great jumping-off place for France, Spain, Italy, Germany—the possibilities for weekend and spring break trips (learning experiences, Mom) are too many to count.

 

Make friends

By far the best thing I did while I was here was make friends. Even if you don’t know anyone on your programme going into your semester, all is not lost—there are so many ways to meet people whether it’s with other students or British natives. Making plans to travel with other students is a great way to find out who you click with, and after a few weekends of living and travelling together you’ll have made at least a few great friends you can count on. Above all else, though, make British friends—your experience of the culture will be so much better, you’ll have a lot of fun comparing cultural differences (like who’s version of Skittles is better—I still say mine), and you’ll get to do things and go places without feeling like a tourist. The best way to meet people is to get involved, so join a club or get to know the people at your work placement. You won’t regret it.

 

Talk Politics 

When you do meet British people, however, they’re going to want to talk politics—a lot. Political discussions can happen at any moment—at work, in line at Cafe Nero, or on the 3am bus back from Dublin (it happened)—so it’s best to be prepared. In my first few weeks in London I realized the average British person knows more about the current political issues in my country than I do, and if I could do it again, I would have really studied up and formed a solid opinion about candidates, parties, and key issues—on both sides of the pond.

 

Get used to the flavour of currants

Imagine my shock and disbelief when biting into a purple Skittle only to realize it was not grape-flavoured, it was blackcurrant. It’s not a common flavour in the US and there’s nothing I can really compare it to, but it’s everywhere in the UK—muffins, jam, scones, biscuits... and it will jump out of nowhere without warning.

 

There’s still a language barrier

I was so slick with my list of British words and phrases pinned to my “London” Pinterest board. Let me just say: you can say loo, boot, trousers, and biscuits all day long and still have misunderstandings. There are certain phrases in British English that are considered polite, funny, and rude—and they just don’t come naturally to a visitor. The best way to get the hang of it is to immerse yourself, just like you would if you were living in Paris or Barcelona. Join a club, get a work placement, take a class with British students, and make some friends—then pay attention to how they talk, text, and email. 

 

Tea

The only time I ever made tea in the states was when I had a cold or when I was trying to kick the coffee habit, and it was never very good. English tea is a completely different beast—have a milky tea or a builder’s brew. If it’s made right, you’ll get addicted: I can’t go a day without a cuppa, and I’m bringing a box of PG Tips home with me.

 

You’ll get homesick

Whether you’re a homebody and expect to miss home or you’re like me and thought you’d be fine (I was wrong), homesickness is something you will have to deal with. One minute you can be taking the Tube to class and the next you’ll be crying about how much you miss your car, or your dog, or your bed. Coping with the sadness is one of the hardest things about being abroad for a long period of time—but don’t worry, you will cope with it and you’ll be all the better for it.  It’s a part of the experience.

 

...and culture shock will hit you like a truck (er, lorry)

Culture shock is a whole different ball game. Unlike homesickness, it sets in slowly and unexpectedly and can make you feel really awful. Mine started in mid-February—it was too cold and windy to have any fun exploring the city, I kept seeing all my classmates and friends at home accomplishing amazing things, and I was stuck between having just settled in and realizing I’d have to pack my life back up in two months. All I wanted was to hide in bed with Netflix and a bag of Rolos. The good news is it didn’t last long. Getting up and out, even when you don’t feel like it, is the key to beating the shock—just like homesickness, it’s part of the experience.

 

You’ll miss it the minute you leave

I’m not ready to leave, and I don’t know if I ever will be. Even though I always swore I wouldn’t be that student—the one who’s every story starts with “when I was abroad...”— I can already tell I’ll be missing Digestives, the BBC, and my English friends along with the rest of them. Getting on a plane back to the States may be inevitable, but my first order of business upon landing will be to plan my next visit.

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About Author

Sydney is an American university student studying in London at UAL. She’s a writer at HotCourses and for her own blog, and when she isn’t writing she’s playing guitar, out on a run, or baking more treats than her friends can eat.

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