I came from a smaller high school and was ecstatic about coming to UT Knoxville last fall. I can say within the first few weeks and coming back to campus to start my sophomore year, I am quite disappointed.
Dorm Life: I lived in the presidential courtyard my freshman year which was really convenient at the time. The gym/tennis courts were across the street (if you ever felt like working out - but there were smaller workout facilities in the dorm basements), and there was a grocery store/Subway/IHOP and cafeteria in the Presidential Court Building. After a while the food in PCB (the most common name for the cafeteria) got disgusting and definitely caused some weight gain. If all else failed, there was always the pizza bar and cereal. After last year I never want to eat Subway ever again. The price for food/toiletries in the market/grocery is a HUGE waste of money. ($7 for a box of cereal, $6 for a pint of Ben & Jerry's, ridiculous ) The quality of the dorms were mediocre, but they were much better than the community style dorms like Clement or Massey. They were pretty clean except we had a major roach/bedbug problem the first few weeks of school which was not pleasant. Also, some geniuses decide to throw random concerts in Presidential which last until the early morning hours and are a pain for those of us who actually want to get some sleep. During the first few weeks of school though it's a pretty popular place to snag some free stuff besides the pedestrian walkway!
Safety: I don't feel very safe at UT. I couldn't tell you how many times I received emails and texts last year and over the summer about random acts of violence. They ranged from a girl getting assaulted in broad daylight, to someone attacking people with baseball bats and airsoft guns (in a clown mask I might add) to someone getting robbed outside of the Hess dorm (literally right by the library and a well lit area) to someone getting assaulted in their community dorm shower at 6 am. One of UT's residence halls is in "The Fort" which is notorious for all sorts of shootings and attacks in the wee hours of the morning.
Campus: Let's be honest, UT (for the most part) does not have a gorgeous campus. It's very hilly and therefore walking to class is definitely somewhat of a challenge, especially if you're used to living in a flat area (hello calves!) When we left in May after exams they were starting construction, and now it's almost September and the campus looks like a wreck. They tore down a parking garage and the money wall (HUGE inconvenience - as if parking didn't suck anyways, and now we have to go off campus to access our bank) UT always seems to be under construction. Some of the buildings on campus are beautiful though! (Ayres Hall on "The Hill" and The new Haslam Business Building by the library) Other than that, most of UT's buildings are looking a bit rough. Might I also add, with the new construction they tore down the pedestrian bridge and stairs that led up to the hill - beware, as this is the most miserable workout getting up to a class that is on The Hill.
Academics: This was a huge adjustment for me - as I was so used to smaller class sizes. I feel like the quality of the professors are either hit or miss and really depends on the time and effort you put into the class and getting to know them. That being said - it's all about what you put in. If you're struggling, I wouldn't advise you to sit around and not do anything about it. You'd be so surprised at how much the professors are willing to help you - even in Gen. Ed. classes with 300 students. With that being said, not every professor I have encountered has been so accommodating. But it IS possible! I didn't find any of my general education classes to be very challenging at all. The library is always packed during exams and it's quite stunning to see the final exam room packed with students who didn't even bother to show up during the semester. Don't be one of those.
Social Life: Greek life here is pretty dominant - although maybe not as much as other SEC schools. It can be quite intimidating for some people as all of the Greeks seem to flock together with other Greeks. I would describe the campus as fratty. Girls typically wear Nike shorts with huge t-shirts/tanks and running shoes or chacos in the warmer weather. During the colder months it's leggings, boots, pullovers or sweaters. It's amazing to see every girl dressed the same. It's normal to see guys in khakis and Sperrys while going to class. Some people think this is weird but so many people dress like this that I am used to this. I don't play sports, so I don't know much about the intramural teams. It seems like the majority of activities on the weekend revolve around drinking and going out to clubs on the strip or some frat party. I've definitely seen and heard of hospital trips and witnessed a girl pass out in the lobby of her dorm. Be careful when it comes to this stuff, but I'm sure this happens on more campuses than UT obviously. Students for the most part are pretty friendly and the student body is somewhat diverse. I see all sorts of races here, but the majority of people seem to be from the white upper middle class family. Tons of students from Knoxville. It can be somewhat intimidating with so many students but for the most part they are pretty approachable. However, with that being said there are the select few who are pretty tight knit with their group of friends and who aren't as likely to branch out.
Knoxville: Honestly, I think Knoxville as a city is pretty decent but definitely lacks the charm of a big city. You can essentially see downtown on the edge of campus and that in itself is pretty small. Market Square is a cute little area filled with good food and cute little boutiques. West Towne is also a great shopping mall. Anything you could ever need can be found on Kingston Pike. I wish the city was a little bigger as I feel it's got a very suburban feel to it.
Parking: One of the biggest peeves I have about UT. For one, parking went up this year to $285 - which would be great except for there is virtually no parking anywhere. UT police ticket people like crazy. There is an abundance of staff parking and hardly any for students. It was a rare event to find any parking behind Humes/Reese/The Carricks, and very annoying and scary to have to go all the way to the parking garage and walk back to Presidential Court by yourself - especially returning to campus at night after a weekend at home or running errands with groceries.
The Big Orange Screw: UT is notorious for screwing students out of their money and classes, which keeps them here much longer than they should be. Noticing the recent renovations on campus makes me question where our money from the tuition increase goes (besides Jimmy Cheeks salary that is) The old gross Humanities and Social Sciences building got a trendy makeover with fuchsia accent walls and neon swivel desk chairs. It makes you wonder what on earth your money is being used for, as I can't say I've noticed any beneficial changes to the faculty/buildings/academics. Also, books are another huge issue. As a freshman probably the worst mistake I made was getting sucked into the textbook reservation. $492 later for one semester of books/access codes (the majority of which are UT "special editions" and can't be purchased anywhere else) I realized the books were useless as the majority of my professors didn't even use them. Of course at the end of the semester the bookstore will give you pennies back for them. It's probably more helpful to find the UT facebook group/talk amongst friends and sell your old books to other students that actually need them for a decent price.
Sports: I'm not really a huge sports fan so my opinion probably won't be of any value on this topic. The football team isn't fantastic but the games aren't for everyone. Depending on where you sit, it's basically an overcrowded stadium filled with drunk students everywhere. I will admit it is kind of cool to be surrounded by 100,000+ others all in orange and cheering so loudly, but that's about it. Campus gets annoyingly crowded on game days and I can only imagine how much chaos there will be with all of the construction being right by the football stadium. The basketball games are free and I'm sure more entertaining than the football games.
With all of this being said, I hope I was able to shed some light on some things about UT that one might not see from the campus tour, which is filled with tons of UT "traditions" that make UT "so special" Some people take these seriously, but I don't feel like UT is all about traditions. Yes there are orange tulips on the hill and yes there is an actual dog named Smokey that is our mascot, but honestly students aren't that crazy about them as the tour guides make them out to be. You see students "walking across the seal" almost daily.
Overall, UT is not an awful school. It's just not for everyone. It's a huge hilly campus filled with concrete and mediocre buildings. The student body does lack a bit in diversity but it is there. I wouldn't call the administration spectacular but there are some gems as far as professors and academic advisors go. The sports are there if you're into them but no one is forcing you to go. The undergraduate population is huge and you do often get the feeling of being just a number. I do wish I chose a smaller school with more of a focus on academics and preparing students for the real world.