What I did wrong - Macleans.ca

What I did wrong

Don’t make the mistakes I did.


By any objective measure, I was a very successful undergraduate student. I earned A’s in nearly all my courses, won awards and scholarships, and was accepted to all the graduate programs I applied to.

Still,  over twenty years after I first enrolled in university, I am painfully aware of things I could have done better. Since some of you are preparing even now to begin university in the fall, I thought I would share a few thoughts on what I would do differently if I had it to do over again.

1. Take advantage of language instruction. As an undergraduate, I made two half-hearted attempts at French courses (the second of which landed me with the only C I ever got), partly because I thought that’s what smart English Canadians did, and partly because I needed a second language to get my honours degree in English. But like many of my own students do today, I endured the courses; I did not embrace them. Looking back, I shudder to think how much French I could have learned over those two years if I had really worked at it. And if I wasn’t prepared to work at French, I should have tried something else. Today, working as a scholar of the Renaissance, I could sure use more than my high school Latin.

2. Read everything. In my undergraduate years especially, I took pride in getting good grades without reading everything on the syllabus. I knew exams gave you your choice of questions, and I was naturally clever, so I could dodge and weave around what I didn’t know. But I now realize that every book unread is a whole series of missed opportunities, partly for what is in the book, and partly for developing the open-minded discipline that comes with reading what needs to be read.

3. Have more humility. In my first-year English course I was assigned a book about essay writing, which I bought, but promptly tossed aside. After all, essay writing had always been my thing in high school. Surely that book was for other people who had done worse than me in schools easier than mine.  And then the B papers started to come back. Gradually, I came to learn what a university A-level paper was like and I wrote plenty of them, but I could have saved myself a lot of anguish if I had been less cocky.

Coming soon: What I did right.

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What I did wrong

  1. I would hope the next article includes some social aspect of your undergrad years, otherwise you are missing a key part of what it means to be a student!

  2. Well said! Can I add some advice based on my own mistakes?

    (a) Don’t be discouraged if a grade is not what you hoped for, or by surprising and maybe searing feedback. They’re paid to give it; you’re there to get it. If you fall down on a few assignments that you worked hard on, it doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you’re not cut out for the discipline.

    (b) Write, as early and as often as you can. Summarize what you think an instructor was saying during a class; scratch out a few trial paragraphs of the essay due three weeks from now, even if you know you need to do more research. The exercise usually helps you focus on what you need to do next. Take with a grain of salt those who boast of term papers written in a few hours. Ignore those who suggest, ‘Think about what you’re going to write, and then pull an all-nighter.’

    (c) Where possible, write as though a ‘layman’, someone not acquainted with your discipline, could understand you. If simple words work, use them. I read my old undergraduate papers and wince: my verbiage must have been torture for my instructors. Returning to school much later in life, I am still verbose but easier to follow — partly because I imagine a non-professor reading my drafts.

    (d) As the previous post emphasizes, socialize. I don’t just mean regular beer parties with the same friends (though that’s important…); seek out enriching, respectful contact with different people, including those whom you wouldn’t have talked to much in high school. It can be a partial antidote for the self-centredness that overcomes many people in certain courses, which require mostly independent work and endless reading.

    All of the above may seem obvious, but it wasn’t to me at first, and seems to be overlooked by others as well.

  3. I would like to add that all undergrads should take the courses that really, truly interest them, instead of just sticking to the course requirements of what they think they want to major in. I know far too many students who majored in computer science because they thought it would be a good way to get a job, but who secretly wanted to take courses in philosophy, history, and english. These people are now miserable with their chosen careers but feel stuck because they’re trained to do only one thing. Of the dozen or so computer science majors I went to school with, only one of them is actually happy with his chosen career. The first few years of university should be for experimentation, both social and intellectual. People shouldn’t decide what they want to do before they arrive – they should decide what they want to do after trying a bunch of stuff and figuring out what they like.