The best advice I have (is a bit depressing)

Treat your high school years like a failed relationship — forget about it and move on


At this time of year, people frequently turn to me and ask what a student just entering university should know. Actually, they don’t ask, and I’m glad they don’t because the answer is probably not what they want to hear. What one thing should you, the new student, know if you are just starting university? With a high degree of certainty, I can say the following:

Your high school betrayed you.

If you are like most, and as far as preparing you for university goes, about half of what you learned in high school was probably useless. The rest was probably wrong.

Take my discipline, English, for instance. In a typical first year class of forty-five students or so, there is maybe one — maybe one — who actually knows how to write an essay. Many of the rest have done no formal writing at all, and those that have done papers might have called them “essays,” but they were really just reports or personal commentaries. This last group has a particularly tough time, because no matter how much I explain it to them, they assume that what passed muster in high school will pass in my course. It doesn’t.

And it’s not just English. A colleague of mine in biology once told me that she prefers it if her students haven’t taken high school biology at all because then she doesn’t have to spend time at the beginning of the year unwinding the misconceptions and falsehoods with which previous teachers have tangled her students’ brains.

This is not entirely the fault of high school teachers. Little was probably expected of them in the first place, and from the young teachers I know, most attempts at holding high school students to tougher standards are doomed to failure. Principals won’t allow it. Parents won’t stand for it.

Which brings me back to the advice. Your university professors don’t have a principal telling them they can’t fail you. And we don’t care how special or misunderstood your mother thinks you are. So forget about what you think you learned in high school. If you’re lucky, you had some great teachers who actually taught you something valuable, and if you did, you’ll be that much further ahead. But, in general, anytime your professor says something that seems to contradict what they told you in high school, believe your professor. Especially if the sentence begins with “You will not receive a passing grade if…”.


The best advice I have (is a bit depressing)

  1. If what you’re saying is true–that everything a high school student learns is not worth remembering–I imagine people would take note and attempt to change things.

    While what you say has a grain of truth in it, you are missing the bigger picture, and have, in characteristic op-ed, all-or-nothing fashion, distorted your own position.

    • Michael, thanks for your comment. In fact, what I said was that, in terms of university preparation, most students probably don’t learn much that helps (I recently updated the post to clarify that point). And, as I said, some get lucky and learn a lot.

      Why doesn’t it change? Because the culture of public education (i.e. high schools) is very different from that of universities. High school teachers move students along, either out of concern for their self-esteem, or because they don’t want to deal with them anymore, or because they are simply not allowed to fail their students in any significant number. I’m not making this up: this is what teachers tell us.

      Students tell us this too. In fact, the most common complaint I hear from students is that they had no idea that so much was going to be expected of them. “Why didn’t they teach us any of this in high school?” they ask. I tell them to write a letter to their old principal, but I don’t know if any of them do.

      For now, at least, most university professors believe that students must demonstrate a reasonable command of the material before they earn a passing grade. High school teachers believe their students must have “success,” however modest that success may be. As long as those basic assumptions continue, high schools and universities will continue to be very different places as far as students are concerned.

  2. I agree—for the most part—with this article. As a former high school teacher (now pursuing PhD studies), I have witnessed firsthand the progressive laxity (if not complete erosion) of academic standards. One only need consider the new KICA format imposed during the last few years to see just how shoddy the public education system has become. First, the new system of categorization (1 to 4) does not allow for a failing grade, as the lowest grade a teacher can assign is a 1, which falls into the 50-59% range. Second: late penalties have been completely abolished. Students can technically hand in every single assignment on the last day of class if they wish. Some teachers who still have a backbone will stand up to these policies, but in the end a principal can go over the teacher’s head and rubber-stamp a grade based on the ministry guidelines. I believe that this whole culture of self-congratulatory hand-holding fostered in the public school system is setting students up for an emotional thrashing—the moment when they first find out that what they have been taught in high school about everybody’s opinion having equal value (etc. etc.) was a poor substitute for the honest criticism that would have prepared them for the post-secondary world.

  3. Would you be able to recommend any resources that would be beneficial in learning how to write a proper university level essay?

  4. The University of Toronto has a pretty decent web site maintained by its writing centre:

    Most universities have a writing centre of some kind that offers one-on-one help, so ask around about it and check it out.

    But bear in mind, your best resource for any course is always your instructor (or TA depending on the course). If he/she covers writing in class, ask the questions you need to ask (“Could you say more about how to introduce the thesis statement?” or “Could you go over what to include in the Works Cited list again?”). All universities require their teaching faculty to hold office hours, so get in there with a draft of your paper and ask, flat out, “Does this look like I’m on the right track?” If not, ask what you need to do to improve it — and take that advice.

  5. Any first year English courses should cover the basic university essay, I know mine did at least. You could always pick up a guide in the university book store.

  6. Thank you for the website it was really helpful.

  7. It varies depending on teachers, I’ve found. I’m in my third year of Biology and International Development, and I remain forever grateful to some of the teachers that I had in secondary school- whom I hated with a passion because they would often assign essays and end up failing more than half the class. If I had a time machine, I would go back to those chemistry, biology and history courses and tell the class “Listen to them! Write your lab reports and essays the way they tell you to! Ask about the format if you aren’t sure, because it’s much better to make an attempt and to fail at something in secondary school than it is in university, where your failures are costing you money.

  8. Ah, lovely. I didn’t close my quotation marks. It should be “Listen to them! Write your lab reports and essays the way they tell you to! Ask about the format if you aren’t sure, because it’s much better to make an attempt and to fail at something in secondary school than it is in university, where your failures are costing you money.”

  9. I take exception to the following:

    “This is not entirely the fault of high school teachers. Little was probably expected of them in the first place”

    I have 3 university degrees – 2 undergraduate and 1 graduate degree – totally 7 years of study. Further, to get and maintain a job in my province during the 90s, when I graduated, was a feat comparable to climbing Everest with a babyspoon. Much was expected. Much is still expected.

    “most attempts at holding high school students to tougher standards are doomed to failure. Principals won’t allow it. Parents won’t stand for it.”

    This is, sadly, true, and will continue to be so until the US changes its “No Child Left Behind” policies to reflect another flavour of the month.

    We are in every way stifled. We do not get to choose excellent texts. We are floundering with too many outcomes to be delivered to too many students in too short a time period. Technology continues to elude us, as we cannot access appropriate resources to match our class sizes or their diverse needs. And we are bombarded with e-mails from parents, administrators, students, school board officials, etc. all day long. Don’t even get me started on how difficult it is to follow through with the electronica policies.

    At least the children are exceptionally pleasant, and given how little is truly offered to them, they are miracles: evidence of the brilliance of humankind.

  10. Reading this article, I realize how grateful I am for some of my high school teachers, notably my English and Physics teachers who were able to correctly teach how to write an effective essay and a proper lab report.

    As for the problem of no late assignments and no failures, which was the official position of the school. My friends and I formed a club against such academic insanity. Whether it was actually a good thing or not, we managed to sway the student body so that anyone who went to the principal to get exception from the basic expectations of the school would find themselves looked down upon by their peers. As for our group, instead of relying on the teacher to help us, we relied on each other for assignments where each student was able to contribute their subject of specialty to help others who struggled in that subject. It was both successful for all of us academically and socially because it served as a bonding experience.

    Finally, it is good to see that there are plenty of others who see the lunacy that is our public school system

  11. where can i learn proper writing methods before entering university? I’m taking a gap year.

    • S, see my comment above for a link to get you started. Since you refer to your “gap year,” I’m guessing you may be from the UK, so adjust accordingly.

      There is no shortage of good books about good writing. Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style is as good a place to start as any. No university student should be without one of the ubiquitous handbooks that all academic publishers produce and can be found at any university bookstore. For more on writing style, consider Style: the Basics of Clarity and Grace by Joseph M Williams, and for argumentation, have a look at They Say/I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein.

      But I repeat my advice from above: your best resource is your instructor.

  12. One element that you’ve neglected to reflect in this article is that many high school students do NOT go on to Post Secondary.

    If you were a high school instructor, and knew that only 30% (or less) of your class was going to go on to Post Secondary, with those numbers split unevenly between University, College, Art School, and Trade School, and the other 70% going directly out into the working world, where would YOUR priorities lay? In this situation, would you focus on teaching your students how to dissect the work of Foucault and Skinner, or would you focus on teaching them how to communicate their ideas in a way that the average (also no Post-Secondary education) employer, co-worker, or customer could understand? If High School teachers focused only on preparing students to attend and succeed at University, they would be short-changing the majority of students in their classroom who were not planning to attend university.

    High schools are not simply breeding grounds for universities. It is a high school teacher’s job to prepare their students for a wide variety of life choices after high school, not simply funnel them into your classroom.

    • May, I take your point: most students do not proceed to university, nor should they feel obligated to do so.

      That said, when I was in high school, there were different classes for students with different goals. Those who wanted to go to university took Advanced classes while others took General or Basic classes, and the courses were pitched at an appropriate level. In theory, something similar is supposed to go on in Nova Scotia schools today, but my students report that those distinctions are not taken seriously so that the advanced classes are not particularly advanced, and an opportunity is lost.

      Finally, while I agree that not everyone will benefit from a detailed knowledge of Foucault’s ideas or even Shakespeare’s sonnets, I do worry that the high school graduates I meet lack thinking skills that I would hope all citizens in a democracy would have, whether they went to university or not. Decent numeracy, the ability to evaluate an argument, the ability to marshal evidence for a controversial position — if I were a high school instructor, that’s where MY priorities would be.