10 things I wish I’d known in my first year of university

Secrets to success from the editor of Maclean’s On Campus

by Josh Dehaas

Photo courtesy of poptech on Flickr

This was first published in August 2011.

This probably isn’t the advice your mother would give you. She’s going to tell you to get involved as much as possible, to do all of your readings and to stick with whatever degree you’ve chosen. But as someone who graduated with a master’s degree in 2010, I think I know better than mom about what works and what doesn’t. Here are the Top 10 things that I wish I’d known in first year.

1. Meet your professors in person.

Guess how many e-mails a professor who teaches your 600-student course receives each week? It’s a lot of e-mails. That’s why it’s important to make personal connections by visiting them during office hours or by asking them questions after a lecture that particularly grabbed your interest.

Knowing professors personally is important. They can provide career advice, write reference letters for graduate school and will be more willing to supervise your honours thesis or special project. Plus, if they know you, they may go easier on you should you ask to hand in an essay late.

2. If you don’t like your program, change it.

After a few months of my Bachelor of Commerce degree, I realized that endless group projects with people who are only interested in making a lot of money wasn’t the right education for me.

Thankfully, I had a teacher in a history course who showed me the value of learning for the sake of learning and who was able to articulate the many ways that history majors can make money — including writing — a career that I hadn’t considered. It wasn’t difficult to switch to the Bachelor of Arts. I simply took an extra summer course to catch up. Now, I’m much happier for having switched.

3. Test drive your professors.

It’s tempting to pick the professors who have the highest ratings on RateMyProfessors.com. But often, the best ratings are awarded to professors who give everyone As. That’s fine if all you’re looking for is easy marks. But if you’re there to be inspired, you need to find professors who sound like they’re speaking to you personally in lectures. You can only find that out by attending a class.

That said, you can avoid getting stuck with a bad lecturer by going to the first class and then asking yourself whether you learned anything. If you were bored by lecture one, drop the course and find a new one. You can switch courses in the first few weeks of any semester without any penalty. If there aren’t other courses available, you can always enroll in a distance education class.

4. Learn to use the library in semester one.

There’s nothing more boring than journal search strategies and citation rules, so I’ll get to the point. Learning how research is painful, but taking the initiative early on will pay off. Every library offers an orientation to research. For some reason, these sessions are often during Frosh Week when students are least motivated to attend. Still, drag yourself out of bed one morning, shower, and go.

5. Don’t even try to do all your readings.

The rule most professors follow when assigning readings is to give two hours of preparation for every hour of class. Considering that each class is three hours per week, that would mean a full-time student who did all of her work would spend 45 hours on class and prep alone. That’s before essays, labs, exams, extracurricular activities and a modest social life. There just isn’t the time.

That’s why it’s important to triage. Decide which readings, assignments and courses require the most attention and attend to those first. If you try to do all the readings for psychology, for example, you might never get started on your English essay or biology homework, which may be worth more.

Sure, you can try to do as much reading as possible. But when you inevitably run out of time, just read the chapter summary. You can usually glean enough understanding from that to make your impending lecture worthwhile. Just don’t make a habit of reading chapter summaries alone.

6. If you get a bad professor, fire them. Then hire a tutor.

University math classes are generally taught by some math genius who can think of nothing more tedious than having to teach first-year students derivation. He shows up at class each week and clicks through pages and pages of proofs that are interspersed with yawns and the word ‘therefore’. This method is ineffective for the 95 per cent of students whose brains aren’t wired for math.

I learned this after nearly failing first-year calculus and then nearly failing second-year calculus. But I hired an Austrian taskmaster tutor partway through the second semester and she taught me everything that I needed to know, all in a five hour-long boot camp. It only cost $125. I got a 74 in the course. Sadly, the University of Guelph never refunded the $1,400 I paid for those two useless courses.

7. Work part-time to reduce your debt load.

Working during school can reduce your debt upon graduation, which makes the first few oh-so-precarious years of your working life far less stressful. Trust me, even with scholarships, money from my summer jobs and donations from my parents, I still needed to take on student loans.

Now, I’m paying back those loans a the painful rate of $600 each month for the next seven years — all because I thought I couldn’t handle a part-time job during school. Research shows that jobs don’t impact your studies, so long as you work 10 hours or less per week. I wish I’d known.

8. Be obsessed with the requirements to graduate.

Meet with a program counsellor at least once per year to make sure you’re on track to satisfy all of the requirements for graduation. Many people end up taking a costly fifth year of school because they misunderstood what counted as a science elective or a fourth-year history seminar.

Other students get stuck because they don’t realize that the courses required for graduation may be there one semester but *poof* are gone the next. Sure, they’ll be offered again, but sometimes not in time to fit in with your master plan for life. So, if a prerequisite is available now, take it now.

If a course you need is full, go to the first lecture anyway. In most cases, someone will drop out by the second lecture. If no one drops, ask the professor to “sign you in” above the limit. Most will.

9. Start planning your international getaway!

University presents the best excuse you’ll ever get to travel overseas through exchanges, semesters abroad and volunteer programs. Once you start working, you can forget about extensive travel as you’ll probably only get a few weeks of vacation per year from whatever corporation hires you.

In most cases, tuition won’t cost more, cost of living will be similar or lower to that in Canada and the main extra expense is the flights. You could see Paris in Spring, spend the winter surfing in Australia or study ancient Indian history while floating down the Ganges — all while earning credits.

I took a semester in London and it was one of the best periods of my life. In a foreign city, just walking outside is a learning experience. London also served as a base for jaunts to other European locales.

10. Don’t get too involved.

You’re going to meet someone who is not only trying out for the volleyball team, but is also running for student council, volunteering for Meal Exchange and collecting signatures to start a new club.

Don’t let his enthusiasm get you down. Not only is this person unlikely to have many friends, he’s also too busy scurrying from one activity to the next to absorb much from of any of them. The truth is, he’s highly involved because he thinks that more extracurriculars will get him into law school.

Luckily for you, admissions committees know about such busy bodies. And they much prefer that you find one or two things that you enjoy and that you’ve dedicated yourself to deeply. They want proof that you’ve benefited an organization, learned new skills, and developed real relationships, which can’t be done if you’re a member of every club. And remember, a good reference letter is better than a three-page resume.

For more advice on life as a student, how to choose a home for second year, how to manage your finances — and more — pick up a copy of the Maclean’s Guide to Canadian Universities 2011.
It’s available at your local bookstore, or you can order online here.




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10 things I wish I’d known in my first year of university

  1. Overall a good article. I do have to disagree with the was you presented point 6 using mathematics as an outline. The way that you present a typical math class is quite terrible.

    I wonder how using only 2-3 calculus courses as a basis how you can generalize to the whole gamut of math courses available. Personally I wasn’t too thrilled by my calculus courses, but there’s a whole lot of math beyond calculus. Actually some of it isn’t “beyond” calculus at all in the sense that you need calculus to make sense of it. Take introductory logic and/or set theory (usually packaged in some discrete math course); it’s very different than calculus and in my opinion (4th year math student) much more representative of mathematics as a whole.

    If calculus isn’t your thing try another type of math before you decide that you’re brain isn’t wired for math. Perhaps statistics would be a good choice, at least then you would learn not to make broad generalizations based upon a small, unrepresentative data set.

  2. Generally good advice, but I would modify rule number ten. Rather than “Don’t get too involved”, I’d say “Only get involved in things you are passionate about”.

    There are many “C.V. builders” out there, and yes graduate schools can cut the wheat from the chaff. With that said, there is nothing wrong with involving yourself deeply in things you care about, even if they may be disparate. If you genuinely love your volleyball team, care about student advocacy and politics, want to work towards social justice and also found a club that represents an important area of interest for you, then do it. Graduate schools want to see commitment to extracurriculars, your impact, and the skils that you developed, rather than just activities that you think might be relevent to the program.

    Follow your passions in extracurriculars, don’t do what you think will look good on your C.V. You will feel good about it, you’ll make more impact, you’ll learn more and develop more as a person. Do not be dissuaded by others saying “that is too much”. It may be too much for them. Only you know if it is too much for you.

    • Dear Albertan, I agree with your recommendation.. Great one!!
      An Albertan too who lives in Nicaragua and has a son in Guelph, Ontario.

    • Ditto this! Thanks for the advice.
      I’ll be going to U of A soon!

  3. I’m surprised you had such a poor experience with Calculus at Guelph. I guess you were never fortunate enough to have the one calculus prof at Guelph who has won numerous teaching awards, because he IS so good at teaching undergraduates. That’s too bad.

    For your point #10, I agree that it is important not to get involved in too many activities, but it is important to be involved. Choose one or two activities or organizations that you are passionate about, and become involved in them. Don’t spend all your time studying and partying.

    As for working part-time, that totally depends on your program. For someone in engineering, like I was, there was absolutely no way to hold down a part-time job and maintain the kind of average required to ensure I continued receiving my scholarships. Instead, co-op was an excellent way to earn money AND gain valuable job experience. I graduate debt-free myself, between my scholarships and my co-op jobs.

  4. I would modify learning to use the library with learning to use school resources in general. You pay for them, so get the most out of the free gyms, shuttles, writing seminars, career centres, etc.

  5. 20 years out from my first year of university, I’m surprised that this is so focused on academics; aside from a couple of memorable classes and professors it becomes a blur. Some of the biggest benefits people can get from university are personal, not academic: enduring friendships and interpersonal experiences that can help you mature rapidly.

    Worth mentioning are other trends in education that can make your experience more meaningful: co-op, undergrad research, multi-disciplinary programs. These kinds of programs also expose you to profs who care about the content they are teaching and effective, innovative methods of learning.

  6. I certainly would emphasize point #2 d # 3.
    I sure believe some HS graduated youngsters do not have a clear idea as for what they would want in the first semester, but it is better to “give it a try” for a short period of a semester that wasting a whole year being aware that you do not want that for your pursuing career.
    Students ought to evaluate the performance and the academic-social reliability of the professors. no wonder a lot of surveys have to be done.
    I do not agree with # 7… the first year has a lot of emotional and human development changes, so I would recommend parents to economically support their kids on this period. These youngster need to develop certain virtues as university students, and this time is so valuable.
    It has ben a year since my son is at the University of Guelph and I know that he will be working on his second year, because it is also important to pursue some independence and experience. I do not expect it, but I know he has already gained more confidence and he is more mature.

  7. Helpful article! Thank you.

    My oldest son enrolled to the University of Guelph last year and I remember now some many recommendations about “the university life”, most of them came from his father, friends and relatives.
    I personally didn’t have the privilege to study university when I was a teenager; so reading these advices makes eager to share some of my opinions with you.

    Point # 1
    No doubt a personal contact will have some significant benefits, to know the ones in charge of the academic development is fundamental. I strongly believe that approaching professors will be helpful and they will be willing to lend a hand.

    Point # 2
    There is no harm on switching the program. University will give students a career, a job field to perform at their best. Knowing what they really want is fundamental.

    Point # 5
    Learning strategies for studying is fundamental. Trying to read everything could be overwhelming. There are some handy links in the Internet on taking notes and summarizing. Reading is not an easy task for some students because it requires a lot of concentration, so planning what is “the most important of it” will soothe the excitement.

  8. Point #6 looks like it was written after watching a scene from A Beautiful Mind, rather than being based in reality. Teaching in math departments around the country is generally very good. Specifically I know the math department at Guelph well, and they have an outstanding national reputation for their teaching – in fact one that has been recognized by Maclean’s magazine ;)

  9. As someone who just finished a first year in an arts program centered around the performing arts I’ll give my little opinion.

    1. Yes meet them, but the better way is to have a drink with them downtown at a bar, I am living proof it is possible.
    2. Most liberal arts programs allow for a flexibility if you want to change courses, so fill education requirements from courses you also would like to major in (I’d hope this is a given).
    3. Take rate my prof submissions with a grain of salt, I was warned that one was a horrible and mean prof, but she was fantastic. Sadly many only submit ratings out of spite.
    4. As said already find everything, if you don’t live on campus finding a quiet place to study, eat or hang-out are completely necessary.
    5. Ha don’t expect to do all your readings, I was backstage for one class every day and night for a week as a stagehand for our show as part of my course, and I still managed to get all my work done. It’s called planning and studying backstage with a spare lamp.
    6. I’m not taking a math related course so go ahead.
    7. So work part-time, but don’t expect to do all your readings? Mixed messages here, although the study shown is true, and in some cases improves grades because the student has to time manage. The other idea is to not waste your money on a new gadget every three months, bring a lunch to school to save money, and get monthly bus passes if possible. These things add up.
    8. This is also true do your required courses as soon as possible, especially the general ones.
    9. No opinion.
    10. Try to get into at least one group and stick to it.

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