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University in Film: Expectations vs Reality

Although representations of university in film and television don’t necessarily portray the most accurate experience to those wanting to go, there are many similarities embedded within them which you can relate to during your uni years.

Courtesy of IMDb

By Lucy Hillier, Second Year, History

From Pitch Perfect to Goodwill Hunting to Monsters University to Normal People, the media landscape is inundated with depictions of university and college life. How similar these are to the real deal is up for debate, but there are elements of reality in them reminiscent of universal experiences. However, there’s a notable absence of representations of the British experience. Fresh Meat does an excellent job at capturing the messy and awkward realities of life at a British university, offering relatable parallels to real life. Yet, we still need more modern and diverse portrayals.

Like many, my introduction to university life was through the masterpiece Pitch Perfect (2012). Whilst a cappella hasn’t in any way shape or form defined my university experience, there are some elements of the film that I see some similarities in. One such similarity was the freshers fair. Like in Pitch Perfect, Bristol puts on a fair at which the multitude of societies pitch themselves in order to get you to join (albeit without the sounds of Treblemakers which was particularly upsetting). I signed up to all sorts of newsletters and taster sessions during freshers, the most rogue being rugby. I ended up at a rugby training session as a scrawny 5”4 blonde girl who has never played a sport properly in her life. Needless to say, my rugby career was short-lived.

// Courtesy of IMDb //

Another similarity is the abundance of DJs at university. Like Beca, most people at Bristol have tried their hand on the decks which was something that hadn’t crossed my mind pre-uni. In fact, when I saw it in Pitch Perfect, I thought it was something I would never encounter, but DJs are impossible to escape. Whilst they tend to trade Titanium mixes for DnB or Garage, it’s rare to go to a house party and there be an absence of a DJ.

However, it was Normal People (2020) that truly reshaped my expectations of university life. For most people that have seen it, it has altered their brain in one way or another and upon watching it again during university, I can confirm that it offers a raw and relatable narrative that echoes the complexities of navigating life in academia. Unlike the glamorous depictions of college romance, this series delved into the nuances of social dynamics, loneliness, and relationships with yourself. I love that it doesn’t try and glorify the university experience and portrays struggles of mental health which so many students deal with. Personally, I have struggled with depression and anxiety at university, but having talked to friends and sought help from wellbeing services, I have realised how normal this experience is. Having that so beautifully presented in Normal People highlights the fact that it isn’t all fun and parties and instant connections; it can be challenging, complex and isolating, but once you realise that you aren’t the only one that feels this way it is so much easier to cope with.

// Courtesy of IMDb //

From navigating seminars to encountering a diverse array of personalities, the show depicted the unfiltered reality of university life, where friendships are forged over coffee after lectures and enemies are made through debates in seminars. Whilst I haven’t been to a villa in Tuscany, I have met numerous people with second homes and whilst I haven’t met my Connell, I have met a plethora of emotionally unavailable men. Normal People doesn’t sugarcoat the university experience; instead, it offers an accurate representation of the highs and lows, highlighting the mistakes made in your 20s and the connections we make that shape our university years.

And then there’s Fresh Meat (2011-2016). It offers a refreshingly authentic portrayal of university life, blending exaggerated characters with relatable stereotypes. Initially, I brushed off the series as I found it be boring. However, upon giving it a second chance, I was pleasantly surprised by how I could now relate to it. I saw people I knew reflected in the characters and in the common experiences so many of us go through, like having an existential crises and the uncertainties that accompany higher education, from questioning the purpose of pursuing a degree to pondering post-university plans.

// Courtesy of IMDb //

The main similarity I saw was the friendships and relationships made as you are thrown together with a bunch of strangers. The awkwardness experienced as you meet each other for the first time and make small talk about what you’re cooking for dinner, is mirrored in the show along with the realisation that you have to live with these people for at least a year. I was so lucky to be in a flat of 10 who instantaneously became my family. That’s not to say I didn’t experience my fair share of awkward moments and fear that we would never be friends - especially after getting far too drunk most days during freshers, waking up with insane 'hangxiety' and not leaving my room all day.

Despite this, those 9 strangers became my best friends, without whom my university experience wouldn’t have been half as enjoyable. Like in Fresh Meat we were a dysfunctional family who had so much fun doing all sorts of things like football in the hallway, stealing kitchen appliances, Harry Potter marathons, flat roasts, BBQs, endless cups of tea, and very unwholesome nights out. Fresh Meat doesn't glamorise academic perfection but celebrates the simplicity of university life – the shared moments, the petty squabbles, and the collective embrace of imperfection. It's a reminder that university isn't just about getting top grades, but also about the messy, beautiful journey of finding your feet.

Although representations of university in film and television don’t necessarily portray the most accurate experience to those wanting to go, there are many similarities embedded within them which you can relate to during your university years. From the friends made, to the ups and downs, to the DJs, to the messy nights and hangovers, these pieces cover it all and watching them will make you never want to leave.

How does your experience of University compare to what you expected?