College Spotlight – the University of Edinburgh

Freshman Update

by Solveig Lee
February, 2022

College Expert Counselor: Ryan Luse

When I imagined going to college, I pictured dining halls, roommates, shared bathrooms, and a campus with a big green field in the middle for students to picnic and play frisbee. I did not imagine five hundred year old architecture, rowdy nightlife heard from my window, or bagpipes playing as I walked to class. Going to the University of Edinburgh has made me question all my expectations for university. But some things do hold true.

Dean’s Village - view of a village on a hill with brook in the foreground and buildings made from centuries-old stone masonry.
Dean’s Village

Instead of dining halls I’ve chosen to live in self-catered accommodation, where I live in a flat (not an apartment, a flat) with four other people and make my own meals. Surprisingly grocery shopping has become one of my favorite activities. That is when the shop nearby is stocked up with everything on my list. Rather than roommates I have my flatmates, an international mix of Spanish, English, Scottish, and American (me!) students. Not only are we quite international but we’re also studying a huge variety of things; veterinary, film, ancient history, business, and sociology. And while I may not get along with all of them, it’s been a huge lesson in maturity and adult life to navigate living with and sharing a couple bathrooms with people I had never met before. 

My last expectation of the ‘student green’ was shattered when I came across Bristo Square, the main campus, which is entirely covered in gray flagstones. While the buildings around it are impressive, the square is dominated by speed walking students and skaters rather than picnickers – it’s too cold to picnic in February anyways. However, my dreams were restored when I walked a bit farther into George square to see a gated green space surrounded by the library and different degree buildings. It was small and a bit patchy, but good enough for a picnic. It’ll do, I thought, but I was in for a surprise. Walking past George square, my mind was entirely blown. There lay the meadows. Aptly named, the meadows are situated right past the main university campus and are essentially a public green space with loads of walking paths and places to sit (as long as it’s not windy or freezing – the weather can be dramatic). There is almost always a pickup football (or soccer) match going on in some part of it. Trees line the paths and apparently in the spring they blossom – I’m waiting patiently for this moment.

One view of Bristo Square - modern buildings juxtaposed with centuries-old domed structure in the distance
One view of Bristo Square
The Meadows - open green park with modern buildings in the background
The Meadows

Besides this park there is a lot of undomesticated wilderness within arm’s reach. I can walk fifteen minutes to Holyrood Park, a massive area where Arthur’s Seat, an inactive volcano and active hiking spot, is located. There’s also a pond full to the brim with swans (very pretty) and pigeons (kind of annoying), rolling hills, and some random ruins. Speaking of ruins,  Edinburgh has a massive amount of history in every single one of its buildings. I won’t go into it all here but there’s a decent amount of royal drama and also some poop throwing. My favorite part of the old architecture are the closes, alleyways that span across major streets and allow you to dart between buildings and feel really cool. 

Holyrood Park - view from grassy hills and a city and sea beyond
Holyrood Park

However, I would not recommend utilizing these closes at night – when it’s dark I like to stick to the main streets. The nightlife in Edinburgh is, like I mentioned, pretty rowdy. I live right near some clubs and pubs, and I often hear people singing (or yelling) Scottish drinking songs at night. A lot of the University’s societies (what they call clubs – which makes it seem a lot cooler in my opinion) have socials in bars or pubs, and the University itself hosts a club night where throwback music and flashing lights hold center stage. Besides ‘Big Cheese’ – the University’s club night – there are also a couple bars and many uni-owned cafes spread throughout the city. While my campus is near the meadows, other degrees have classes in any number of locations throughout Edinburgh. 

The spread of the university throughout the city is one of the things I love. Even my friends’ accommodations range from two to twenty minute walks from my flat. The integration of the university with the city makes it feel safer and more accessible, and while there are many non-students walking around Edinburgh, I can assume most people I see on the street are in some way connected to one of the three large universities here. Moving to a city made me worried I would be overwhelmed or scared to walk at night, but Edinburgh is, in my opinion, the perfect size for some exploration and comfort – it’s small enough to see people I know on the street and large enough to hold a variety of cafes, restaurants, and places I still haven’t seen. As for walking at night, the quickly reducing daylight made me realize that walking in the dark here is completely fine. I still have places to be at 3:30 pm (which is the earliest the sun set – kind of horrible I know), and the top crime in Edinburgh is bike theft. I don’t have a bike and so I figure I don’t need to worry so much. 

Princes Street - busy street with modern bus and centuries-old buildings with spires and clock,
Princes Street

I think navigating the Scottish school system has been the biggest adjustment so far. When I got my first score of 68 back on an essay, it took me a second to readjust to the grading system here. In reality, essentially no undergraduate gets over a 75 – a 68 is considered pretty good – and a failing grade would be a 40 rather than an ‘F’. Additionally, while I really enjoy the content of my classes, it’s not an option to be undecided here; you apply for a degree program rather than the university itself. The university provides a lot of opportunities through societies and its support system, but it’s definitely not something they hand to you on a silver platter. I had to seek out societies I wanted to join, take the initiative to attend events, and ask for help if I needed it. 

Finally, I love the opportunity to be in such an international space. The friends I’ve made here are from around the world, and while it took me a while to understand a couple professors’ thick Scottish accents, I’ve had lecturers from a variety of countries as well. The potential to learn from people whose experiences are so different from my own both in and out of the classroom is priceless and I’m so grateful to be presented with learning opportunities in every area of my life here. 

Author with three friends at sunset
Me (far left) with friends from around the world

While university is what you make it and everyone has their own expectations and ideas of what will make it great, I would definitely recommend looking into the University of Edinburgh or even any university abroad. Studying internationally provides so many unique and wonderful opportunities, and in a way opens up the whole world for you. And I’m going to stop you before you say it’s too expensive – compared to private American universities, the University of Edinburgh is an absolute bargain. No matter what path you take for university though, I trust that you’ll find any number of different and amazing experiences. Some of those could just be at the University of Edinburgh!