When you take tours of a campus, you ask the typical questions: what are the dorms like? Can I switch majors? How often are the dining halls open? But college life is a lot more nuanced than a half-hour tour can provide. So if you're considering joining me at the University of Texas, or are already decided, here's a huge compilation of all the things I wish I'd known for my first semester at UT Austin.
1. Housing and Dorms
APPLY NOW. I'm not joking, if you haven't applied for housing yet, you'll likely get something called "supplementary housing," where UT converts a study lounge into a makeshift bedroom for you and two or three others to live in. When a real dorm opens up, you'll get the chance to switch, but in the meantime, you haven't gotten your first choice of housing or custom-picked a roommate. Apply now.
All UT dorms come with a microwave, mini-fridge, bed (bunk, lofted, pull-out or single varies by dorm), closet, desk and mirror. You have a metal room key, and you use your student ID to enter the dormitory itself. If you lose your ID, you can get a temporary one. If you lose your room key, the fine is $75 to re-key your room. When applying for housing, UT now has a system where you can select specific rooms in addition to listing dorm preferences. Additionally, you can request someone as your roommate by entering their ID number into the roommate finder on the housing website. Even if you don't care who you live with, picking a custom roommate may be your key to getting the dorm you want: for instance, if your roommate is an honors student and you aren't, you both still get to live in the honors quad.
On that note, the honors part of the honors quad is comprised of three dorms: Carothers, Blanton and Andrews. All three of these dorms are very close to most classes, but Blanton is objectively "the worst" of the three. It has no sinks in the rooms and no water fountains. However, Blanton or not, I highly recommend living in the honors quad if all your honors friends live there, because the lounges are hot spots. I can't count how many fun evenings I've had or problems I've solved just by choosing to do my homework in one of the lounges in an honors dorm. You WILL be able to hear the tower bell ringing at all hours of the day, but most students agree that you very quickly learn to ignore the sound, and have no trouble sleeping. But you will get instant access to the carillon's songs, which vary by day and season (the carillon is the club that goes up and plays the tower bells).
There are two all-girls dorms: Littlefield and Kinsolving. Littlefield is technically non-honors, but it's the fourth building in the honors quad, making it close to class. Littlefield is for freshman girls only, unless you're an RA, and sports a small, but expensive, cafe next door — this is often where quad kids go for dinner. It's the oldest and, in my opinion, prettiest dorm on campus. Kinsolving is home to one of the three dining halls. Kinsolving dining hall is my favorite dining hall. Why? A couple of reasons: there are more vegetarian options, it's cheaper than the other two dining halls and it is far LESS CROWDED than the other dining halls. Kinsolving also has an exercise room for residents only, as well as a public coffee shop and convenience store on its ground floor.
Whitis Court (shown above) is where I live. It's relatively removed from classes, but it's right across the street from Kinsolving and Guadalupe Street (a popular shopping strip on the west side of campus also known as "the Drag"). The honors kids complained about Blanton? Well, Whitis Court rooms likewise do not have sinks or water fountains. Our rooms additionally do not have thermostats like other dorms on campus, so there's one temperature for all the rooms (it's normally freezing). But many people still love Whitis for its massive closet space, lofted beds (allowing for more storage beneath) and close-knit community. Whitis Court is a collection of six buildings, each of which houses only 30 or so students, often from the International Community. I share a bathroom with only five other girls!
You have a very high chance of living on the opposite side of campus, in Jester East or Jester West. When applying, you'll be asked if you're willing to pay more money to live in newly-renovated dorms like Jester East or Duren. Yes, these renovated rooms are indeed actually a lot nicer, and likely worth the price. Duren is the farthest dorm from any of my classes, but it's very fancy, has an exercise room and is also close to Kinsolving dining hall. But we're here to talk about Jester! Jester East and West are possibly the two largest dorms on campus. If I recall correctly, Jester West alone is 13 stories tall. And it shows. Two of the three dining halls on campus are in the Jester complex, and they are both ALWAYS super crowded. On the plus side, Jester is very close to Gregory Gym, most classes, the Perry-Castaneda Library, Speedway and food — the Jester complex sports several restaurants, including Starbucks and Wendy's.
2. Food, Bevo Bucks and Dining Dollars
Since we're now talking about food: where do you find food? You can get food at the three dining halls, which have a nice diversity and are (mostly) very cheap: Kinsolving, J2 and Jester City Limits (JCL). JCL is the only non-buffet dining hall, and paying for individual items really adds to your expenses. The price of a dining hall visit increases throughout the day, with breakfast being dirt cheap and dinner being roughly equivalent to eating out. The dining halls aren't always open. On the weekends, they're normally only open for brunch in order to "encourage students to eat off campus." But I've found that on Sundays hardly any stores or restaurants are open (except for 7/11 on Guadalupe), so be sure to stock up on food each weekend.
Additionally, there are several restaurants on campus, mostly in Jester, the Union, the Student Activity Center and scattered throughout various other buildings. There's a Starbucks in each of the three major food providers above, which also have options like Chick-fil-a, Panda Express, Taco Cabana and more. There's even a popular app on campus called Tapingo, which allows you to order your food ahead of time so you don't have to wait in line. Finally, there's Guadalupe Street (aka "the Drag"), which stretches across the west side of campus. Guadalupe is just a regular street which hosts mostly many student-friendly restaurants and clothing stores. What do I mean by student-friendly? I mean they take Bevo Bucks as payment.
What are Bevo Bucks? Bevo the Longhorn is UT's mascot, and every Bevo Buck (stored on your ID like a debit card) is exactly equivalent to $1 USD. If you live on-campus, your housing plan automatically comes with a few hundred dollars in Bevo Bucks, but you can add more to your account at any time. Not all stores take Bevo Bucks, even on campus, but where they're accepted, they can be used for almost anything: laundry, food, merchandise at the school store, food, medicine, food, games at the Union, food... Why would you use something exactly equivalent to real money? Because YOU GET A DISCOUNT FOR USING BEVO BUCKS. That means that if you pay $5 for 5 Bevo Bucks and then buy something, you still save money automatically.
Dining Dollars, which also come with a UT housing contract, are a little more restrictive. They can be used only for food and normally only at the dining halls. But you get an even bigger discount for using them, and, like Bevo Bucks, they're stored entirely on your student ID. You've probably realized by now that your ID card will very quickly become your life-line...
What is Speedway? Another Guadalupe? Not quite. Speedway is a street that runs straight from South campus past Jester, PCL, Gregory Gym, the Student Activity Center, the South Mall and several classroom buildings before it reaches Dean Keaton Street at North campus. Speedway is famous for several reasons. First of all, it cuts a straight line through campus, and I can't possibly imagine going a single week without setting foot on it. Second, it's been under major construction the entire time I've been here (even orientation last June). The construction keeps steadily migrating along Speedway, swallowing up shoddy roads that barely count as anything more than slabs of bumpy asphalt and spitting out a glorious, yellow-brick pathway behind it (shown above). The reconstructed part of Speedway, since it's so pretty and close to everything, has become a hot spot for club fundraisers. Nearly every weekday there will be several clubs gathered along the yellow-brick road in front of Gregory Plaza (next to Gregory Gym) selling baked goods or succlents (a popular house plant that people here go crazy for). It's very pleasant to walk along and browse, even though the relative lack of tree cover makes it blazing hot for a couple hundred feet. And currently the road is closed to traffic due to the construction further down the road, so it's a free-for-all with pedestrians, golf-carts, bikes, hover-boards, unicycles (you'd be surprised) and skateboards. The end of the construction isn't in sight, so you'd better keep an eye on its movements!
I'm writing this around registration time, so I'm right on top of this stuff. The number and quality of academic advisers available to you vary by major, program and college, but at the very least you'll be able to make appointments with an adviser prior to registration. Every semester, UT releases a Course Catalog. This catalog tells you which classes are offered next semester, who teaches them, what time(s) they're slotted for and a short description of each class. If your class isn't in the catalog, it's not offered that particular semester (some classes are only offered in the spring, etc). Here's the Spring 2017 catalog as an example. You can search for a class by professor, department, division, etc. (shown below). As a freshman, you'll likely be taking lower division courses in several different departments.
UT's class naming system is fairly straightforward. Take this class name for example: CH 301-H. The letter(s) out front indicate the department, in this case chemistry (CH). The first number of the course represents how many credit hours it offers: 3, which is the most common. The next two numbers normally won't mean anything to you, but they occasionally say something about the level of the course. For instance, this class is 301, and the class I took after it was 302. This is unusual, since most of your classes won't span two semesters like that. The last letter says additional information about the course. The H, in this case, indicates that it's an honors course. Just as a quick note: honors programs and courses at UT are 100 percent worth it. Honors programs vary, especially from college to college, but you normally get free stuff, extra advising, smaller classes and access to other various resources. Some honors programs are pretty exclusive, but I'll tell you a little secret about taking honors courses as a non-honors major: just keep calling up the instructor and honors office asking to let you in, and they'll give way pretty easily.
You register for classes entirely online. Since it would kill UT's wifi to have everyone logging into the system simultaneously, you are assigned registration times, during which you're able to log into the system to add/drop classes. Your time is based on how much of your degree plan you've completed: seniors register first and rising freshmen register last. If you've received AP, IB or transfer credit hours, your registration time comes before those with fewer hours. UT normally assigns two or three windows of time to register per semester, generally a few hours each. But once the new semester comes around, you'll have an additional couple of hours to add or drop classes, in case you've changed your mind over winter or summer break.
During the first 12 days of class, you can add or drop as many classes as you want. However, beyond this point, you have to pay a price: Q dropping. Q dropping allows you to drop a class after the 12th day (typically just before or after the first midterm) without any negative effects on your GPA. But you're only allowed six Q-drops during your entire time at UT, so drop wisely.
The grading system at UT varies entirely from professor to professor. Some curve, some bell curve, some use a +/- system, some only use whole letters and still others have really weird point systems. Liberal arts classes typically have essays and projects count for huge portions of your final grade, whereas science courses tend to use midterm exams instead — the number of midterms varies from professor to professor, even if the course number is the same. But no matter what, your final grade will be translated into the following GPA chart:
A — 4.0
A- — 3.67
B+ — 3.33
B — 3.0
B- — 2.67
C+ — 2.33
C — 2.02
C- — 1.67
D+ — 1.33
D — 1.0
D- — 0.67
F — 0.0
The grade points you get from the grades above are multiplied together based on how many hours your class is worth. For instance, I got an A- in my 4-hour calculus class, which gave me 4 x 3.67 = 14.68 grade points from that class. My 3-hour chemistry class, in which I got an A, gave me 12 grade points.
5. Recreation Around Campus
This is Austin, and you get free access to Austin's bus system with your ID. But there are still plenty of places within walking or biking distance of campus! Particularly, make sure you sign up for the UT Events Calendar emails, which come out every day and give you a list of clubs, presentations, studies and other events are taking place the next day. UT never has a lack of sporting events, club meetings, free trials or activism. The Texas Union shows free movies every Thursday (for example, Moana and X-Men) and hosts the Union Underground (pictured above), the place on campus for pool and bowling.
Within walking or biking distance of campus are Graffiti Park and the State Capitol. Graffiti Park (shown above) is an abandoned construction site painted over entirely with ever-shifting graffiti, and it's super fun to pick around the place! There are several parks and wooded areas within biking distance of campus. If you're unsure about whether or not to bring your bike, don't bring it. Why? Because bike rentals from UT are $20 per semester. That is dirt cheap. Bike theft is really common on campus (always lock your bike), so there's no point in putting your $150 bike at risk if you aren't sure you're going to use it. Bikers have a pretty nice time riding around Austin, since most streets have bike lanes and relatively nice drivers. Not only that, but UT has started a little workshop where you can take your bike to get checked for completely free unless you need a part replaced.
If you're more in the line of learning new things in your spare time, there's always the Foundry, Maker Studio and Woodshop. The woodshop is, well, the woodshop. You do need to sign up for classes, but after that you can come in whenever you'd like. The Maker Studio is exclusively for engineering students (but that never stopped me), and is a great place for, well, making things: free laser cutting, 3D printing and other fun toys. The Foundry is essentially a Maker Studio for other majors, and is so new that it's currently transitioning itself into public use. It also has 3D printing, high-def poster printing, sewing machines, a sound booth and (rumor has it) a room for testing interactive videogames. All free.
Along Guadalupe (shown above), there are several clothing stores, restaurants, book stores, tattoo parlors, bars and food trucks. Most food trucks come and go, but one you'll likely hear about is Don's food truck. It's roughly as popular as Torchy's Tacos (another hot spot a little north of campus, within walking distance), and a visit will often involve a 15-minute wait in line. The food is great, but get there early! Another spot you won't stop hearing about is Moojo's ice cream. Their thing is heating up cookies and putting a scoop of ice cream between them. I personally don't like it, but everyone else loves it.
If sports are your thing, you'll likely want to sign up for the Big Ticket. The Big Ticket is a system where UT students can pay for ONE TICKET that gets you access to any and all UT sporting events for the entire year. Yeah, that pays for itself pretty quickly.
At some point, you'll likely want to go Bat Watching. One of the older bridges in Austin, South Congress Bridge, is home to hundreds of bats, which all simultaneously take flight every night around sunset. I've also seen bats take off from beneath the Blanton attic and swoop around the tower at night.
UT also has yearly events such as RoundUp (a weekend full of Greek life parties) and Day of Service (a Saturday abundant with various volunteering events). Your freshman year begins with a huge party near the tower called Gone to Texas, where they try their best to make you ecstatic to be here. Just this past weekend, we had our yearly Holi festival, so be sure to bring some clothes you don't mind getting splattered with paint!
Just tired and looking for somewhere to relax? Well, we've informally dedicated our South Mall's lawn to sleeping — in some circles, it's referred to as the Napping Lawn. There's also the Napping Stairs in the Student Activity Center, a staircase that's been converted into a lounge full of warm sunshine, cushions, outlets and the smell of food.
6. All Things Littlefield
I've already discussed Littlefield dorm (and Littlefield Cafe right next to it), but I haven't mentioned Littlefield Fountain or Littlefield House. George Littlefield was a big patron and regent of UT Austin back in the day, so you'll see his name a lot. Littlefield dorm is named after him, as well as the only functioning fountain (yes, they keep the others shut off most of the time), which can be found in front of the South Mall (shown above). Littlefield House is sort of a little museum along Whitis Avenue. It's George Littlefield's beautiful little victorian home, which sits directly in front of the high-tech communications building and across from the busy Guadalupe traffic. Since he was super rich, he also bought a tropical tree, which sits in his front yard and has to have special soil imported every year to keep it alive. You'll know it when you see it — it's quite different from the oak and beech trees all over campus.
7. The Library System, Canvas and Quest
UT has a pretty impressive library system. There are libraries all over campus, but you'll likely hear about two in particular: the Life Sciences Library in the UT Tower and the Perry-Castaneda Library (PCL). The Life Sciences library is famous for being Hogwarts-level pretty (the entrance hall is shown above) and for being, well, in the giant friggin tower. But the real hot-spot is the PCL, which is a (nearly) 24-hour, six-story book maze, complete with coffee shop, computer lab and solar-powered charging station. It's actually pretty ugly, but you'll likely pull a few all-nighters there. My favorite spot in the PCL is the STEM room, which is a cute lounge with a bunch of white boards, followed closely by the Collaborative Commons on the 5th floor. Nearly every library on campus has study rooms you can book, complete with whiteboards and screens you can hook HDMI cables up to. Most libraries have a specialty (Chemistry, Physics, Life Sciences, etc.), but online you can actually order any book to pick up at any library at your convenience. When returning a book, you can drop it off at any library on campus, as well.
Canvas (shown above) is the school's online classroom portal. It's where most of your teachers will post assignments, lecture notes, grades, syllabi, announcements and online quizzes. It's very convenient to have a one-stop shop for all online homework (and the vast majority of your homework is online) that will even email you whenever a new assignment is posted. It has a calendar that automatically tracks all your assignments, and, as I mentioned before, it's a great place to quickly check your syllabi.
Quest, on the other hand, will be the bane of your existence if you take any class that requires math (Calculus, Chemistry, Physics, etc.). Quest (shown above) is UT's online portal for doing math problems. Why does everyone hate it so much? Because for every question you can get up to 10 points. You can also get down to -10 points, because Quest takes off points every time you incorrectly answer a problem. If you fail to answer the problem altogether, you get -10 points. Yep, you can earn a -100 percent on an assignment. Some teachers will drop all negative grades, but that's only some. Oh, Quest also costs $30 a semester. But otherwise, Quest is fine. Your professors can post Learning Modules, lecture notes, quizzes and grades there. All of your classes automatically get a Quest account (which you have to pay for).
Additionally, many teachers will want to use apps like SquareCap or Tophat to track attendance in class and take polling questions. Unfortunately, this isn't standardized, and most of these apps cost money. If every teacher used SquareCap, that would just be one subscription. But since different teachers use different apps, you get to pay for several subscriptions. If you're lucky, your professor will use an app called PollEverywhere, which is free and works better than the other apps.
8. UWC, Gregory Gym, Sangar Learning Center and the Health Clinic
UT runs several extra amenities on campus. The Health Clinic, which is located in the Student Services Building (SSB), is pretty self-explanatory. It's comprehensive enough that you can get all of your primary care taken care of in the SSB. The Sangar Learning Center is the main tutoring center at UT. You get a few free tutoring credits per semester, after which you need to pay for tutoring. The Learning Center also offers jobs to student tutors.
Gregory Gym is the single nicest gym I've ever been in. You can check out all equipment for free, after which you'll find a spot among the numerous basketball, racquetball, squash and volleyball courts. There are indoor and outdoor lap pools, as well as an outdoor recreational pool which is super gorgeous (the picture above doesn't do it justice). Gregory also has a smoothie shop, two weight rooms, several group exercise rooms, an aerobics room and a giant track that encircles the basketball courts from overhead. Oh, and did I mention it's free and unlimited for all UT students? There's another gym called Anna Hiss Gym, but don't be fooled: it used to be a gym, and is now a gutted center for the engineering kids to play with their toys.
The UWC, or University Writing Center, is a great resource. Essentially, you make an appointment with a writing counselor, often a fellow undergraduate, and they will go over your work with you in a 45-minute meeting. I've actually never experienced better feedback than with one particular counselor at the writing center, who was a junior. You can go in there to get feedback on any piece of writing (it can be as long as you want, but your appointment only lasts 45 minutes). In fact, some courses, like my UGS303 class, have representatives that work at the UWC that specialize in the class' subject area. That way if you have something like a lab report, you get an actual scientist reading it. I highly recommend it!
9. Joining Clubs
So you want to join a club? At UT, there is an official registry of clubs called Hornslink, where you can search for clubs. The problem is that no one uses it. Instead, your best bet is to go to an Org Fair (shown above), a time when many organizations get together to recruit in one spot on campus. On most weekdays, many clubs also hold fundraisers near the Union or on Speedway. One thing that I've found useful is just going onto Facebook and searching "UT ____ Club," since most clubs have a Facebook page. Keep an eye out for fliers on the bulletin boards around campus, where many groups will often post adverts. Want to start a club? All you need is 3 members and $15 to register officially.
Take a moment to consider what your life is like right now. All the paths you take, things you do, places you eat and activities you participate in every day. When you get to college, almost every single one of those aspects is going to change, intertwining and blending with what your university has to offer. Everything I've spoken about in this article will become your new nuances — from doing homework to planning which clubs to join to considering where to eat dinner. The speed with which your college will become your life is almost frightening when you think about it. But while it's happening to you? It's exciting, tiring, fun, overwhelming and inspiring all at once. Most inspiring of all, probably, is the fact that a year from now, you'll have internalized all the information above, and more, as you begin your college journey.
Lead Image Credit: Elizabeth Robinson