Advice for first-year students from Justin Trudeau (and 27 other people)

We asked students, academics and business leaders—as well as a stray Prime Minister—for advice to help undergrads navigate their first year at university. Here’s what they told us.

university advice: Justin Trudeau in North Vancouver hiking the Grouse Grind trail. (Photo, Adam Scotti/Prime Minister's Office)

Justin Trudeau in North Vancouver hiking the Grouse Grind trail. (Photo, Adam Scotti/Prime Minister’s Office)

Set your alarm clock

Many students would probably disagree with me, but my one piece of advice for those starting university for the first time would be to choose morning classes as much as possible! Forcing yourself to wake up early for class means you’ll be more disciplined and won’t waste the day sleeping in. Whether it’s giving yourself more time to study, hang out with friends, or discover what you’re interested in outside of the classroom, you’re truly going to want to take advantage of those great university moments.

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

Don’t be afraid to change directions

When I left high school in the ’70s, I had a dream of being a rock star. I attended the music program at Humber College before taking to the road in a band with a few friends. It was quickly apparent to me that I lacked the talent necessary to be successful as a musician. After several months of performing, I went home to Sault Ste. Marie and took a few courses at Algoma University while I “figured things out.” Just a few years later, I was on Michigan I-75 heading to Windsor, Ontario. I had followed my girlfriend, who was attending Mohawk College. I figured that perhaps I could go to the university and use my music background to become a music teacher. Standing in line to register for classes—yep, standing in line—I had second thoughts and decided to take a few psychology courses until I “got things figured out.” I finished that undergraduate degree and followed it with an MSc at McMaster, a PhD at Auburn and a post-doc at Purdue. Clearly the path one starts on can take many twists and turns. My message here is simple: it’s okay if you are not sure about your path. Explore your options and don’t be afraid to change directions. Everything you do adds to your experience. Nothing is ever lost.

Daniel J. Weeks, president and vice-chancellor at the University of Northern British Columbia

Get into the habit of trying new things

Do things beyond your classes and don’t hesitate to fail. That may seem trite, but it can’t be stressed enough. Universities and colleges are wonderful places where you get to surround yourself with all sorts of different people who are all trying new things—so you should too. It’s the place and time where you will have the easiest access to a host of different experiences and tools. Want to get on the radio? Campus radio stations provide that opportunity. Have a vision for the world? Start a club or run for student government. Want to combine economics and poetry? Show us all how it can be done—this is your chance. Getting in the habit of trying things is invaluable, engaging and fun. You never know: you might just make a life out of what you come up with.

Michael McDonald, executive director, Canadian Alliance of Student Associations

Give feedback to your professors

Talk to your profs! They are invested in your success, and care about your learning. So go and see them, not just for help on homework or essays, but for advice and guidance. Most profs love to talk about their own work, so stop by in office hours and ask what they do and why they do it. In your lecture classes, especially large ones, your profs can’t tell whether your blank face means you are bored, scared, so lost you don’t know what to ask, or recovering from a big party the night before; give them feedback and ask for what you need!

Dr. S. L. Wismath, professor, department of mathematics and computer science, and liberal education program, at the University of Lethbridge; 2017 3M National Teaching Fellow

Make your writing better

Use your four years of courses, and especially of essay writing, to make your writing better: more clean, clear and concise. It takes time, but it’s so worth it.

Say you have a 2,000-word essay. Do the reading, work out your basic ideas, and then write a first draft. Don’t worry if it’s 2,500 words or even more (if it’s only 2,000, you probably don’t have enough to say). Now cut the essay down. Go through, read each sentence and ask of it: Are there words here that don’t add anything but are just padding? Delete them. Doing this can easily shorten the essay by 10 to 15%. Now look at each paragraph and ask: Are there sentences here that just repeat what I’ve said before? Delete them too. Now look at the whole essay and ask: Is the space given a discussion proportional to its importance, either to the topic in general or to your specific argument about it? If not, shorten the paragraphs on what’s peripheral and, if necessary, beef up the ones on what’s central. On your main points, some repetition is okay.

Now do the whole thing again; that can take out another 10% or more. If you get good at this, your ideas will come through more powerfully, with fewer words as a filter between them and your readers. Your professors will appreciate this and reward you for it. You’ll also be prepared for any career that requires communications skills, which is a whole lot of really good careers.

Thomas Hurka, Jackman Distinguished Chair in Philosophical Studies at the University of Toronto

Take opportunities to travel through your university

Universities offer great opportunities to go abroad. An important part of your university experience is to learn across difference and understand perspectives other than your own. International experiences can give students a leg up in an increasingly global economy. In many cases, there are more exchange or study-abroad opportunities than get filled by students, so it’s very likely that a spot is available. The trick is not to wait until it’s too late. Many students don’t even consider going abroad until their third or fourth year, but it’s never too early to start. Look into options in your first year, so you can go abroad in your second or third year.

David Newman, senior director of student experience at the University of Toronto

Pick up a pen and learn to take good notes

Learn to take good notes during lectures. This may sound like a small matter, but it’s not. This practical, if mundane, skill has proven over the years to be invaluable. It never occurred to me while sitting through my three-hour introductory courses on English literature, or the dreaded “Calculus for the Social Sciences” (I passed, but barely), that the most important thing I was learning wasn’t how to use a derivative or the core themes from War and Peace. No, the most important thing I was learning was how to sit for an extended period of time and focus.

Note-taking should not be confused with copying. Note-taking is not stenography. Neither should it be confused with audio recording. Good notes are not a verbatim record of everything the professor says. They can’t even be reduced to a distillation of the lecture’s key points. PowerPoint slides aren’t notes. Note-taking, when done properly, demands the full participation of the student. Good note-takers are thinking, comparing and questioning.

Good note-taking is hard work. With the hindsight of years, and two careers under my belt—news reporter, and now professor—I’m in a better position to say that the hand-written notes I scratched out during my undergraduate years were invaluable. They helped prepare me for both the high-minded pursuit of graduate studies, and the adrenaline-infused challenge of turning a 45-minute news conference with a bloviating politician into a short radio story on a 15-minute deadline. So, my advice? Put away the laptop and cellphone and pick up your pad of paper and pen. If it feels like that is a lot more work, you’re right. But you’ll be happy you did it.

James Compton, associate professor, faculty of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario, and president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers

university advice: Simone Paget. (Photo, Kassandra Poleshuk)

Simone Paget. (Photo, Kassandra Poleshuk)

When it comes to dating, always put yourself first

A favourite quote of mine is by Maya Angelou: “never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.” University is a time when you should date and have experiences with different people. With that said, it’s so easy to get caught up in people who aren’t, for whatever reason, available. If someone really wants to be with you, they will make it happen. No excuses. Centre yourself in your dating life and honour your own needs. Ask yourself: Does this person or situation make me feel safe and respected? If the answer is no, have the courage to walk away.

Simone Paget, B.C.-based author, nationally syndicated sex and relationship columnist, and writer of blog She has a B.A. in anthropology and English from the University of Toronto.

Explore your school

Finding the right study space on campus can be a bit of a challenge. Some like sitting in bustling cafeterias, some prefer the silence of a library, or many just have a favourite table in their faculty’s building. Finding a spot with everything you like can feel like hitting the jackpot. Once located, it can be hard to justify moving. It is easy to default to there and hunker down in that one location. However, I would urge you to not get too comfortable. Looking back, I realized that every semester I would find my favourite spot and always sit there—but every four months I would change to a new building or area. And I am so glad I did. Physically sitting in different locations on campus exposes you to students from other areas, you’ll overhear different study groups and debates about a variety of subjects, and will challenge the way you interpret your surroundings. Writing a paper surrounded by globes in a science library put me in a very different mindset than writing with a community piano being played nearby. My advice is to not tuck yourself into a corner of campus and live there: physically explore different areas of campus and, in turn, broaden your mind.

Marina Banister is completing a degree in political science in the faculty of arts at the University of Alberta. She is president of the University of Alberta Students’ Union.

There’s no such thing as a dumb question

There are no right or wrong questions to ask in class. All questions have merit, including yours. Imagine how much knowledge would now be at my fingertips had I been less shy to engage or question the status quo. And the skills and interpersonal relationships you build while working with professors and departmental staff are just as important as your grades in preparing you for a post-graduate career. These are the individuals who will write your reference letters and speak to your work ethic, passion and brainpower. Treat these relationships with care.

Tahnee Prior, Ph.D. candidate and doctoral fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo; 2015 Trudeau Scholar and Vanier Canada Graduate Scholar

The library is your friend

When I reflect back on my undergraduate experience, I realize that I kept pretty much to myself. As an Indigenous student, I always felt out of place. Knowing what I know now, I would certainly encourage Indigenous learners to get involved with campus life. There is so much to learn outside the classroom that is vital to one’s overall sense of well-being. Most universities have robust Indigenous Student Affairs, where you can find a place of nurturing and support, as well as cultural activities that can support your learning journey.

Another piece of advice is to get connected to the library! Whether online or in person, the library is your friend. Although it took me a while to get this, once I realized how valuable the library was to my own learning, I spent quite a lot of time there. Take a short course to help you navigate the system; it’s well worth the effort. And don’t be shy about asking for specific resources that you need.

Sheila Cote-Meek, associate vice-president, academic and Indigenous programs, at Laurentian University

Read your syllabi and map out your semester

You should get a syllabus from your instructor for each of your classes early in the semester. Read it carefully, especially that section that tells you when assignments are due and quizzes, exams or tests are scheduled. Mark these dates in a calendar so you can see when you’ll have a heavy workload and when you won’t. Use that to map out a strategy to take advantage of less busy times and to know when to expect higher levels of work and stress (and when you’ll have more time to take it easy). You can normally anticipate lots of work around midterms and the end of the semester. If you take a few moments to make a plan, you won’t get caught off-guard or forget an assignment, and can use your time wisely for both work and fun.

Tim O’Connell, professor of recreation and leisure studies at Brock University; 2017 3M National Teaching Fellow

Stress is okay sometimes

There is a rhythm to university life. Semester 1—first day, get course syllabus, expectations are outlined. This is your road map. Plan around each course, chart tests, exams, papers, presentations. Before you know it, it’s final exam time. DONE. Semester 2—start again. Persevere!

Don’t give up, show up! Feel all the feelings, good and bad, but stay in the game. It’s okay to be stressed. It’s good preparation for real-world anxiety. Everyone needs to find coping mechanisms. Find a reason to meet the registrar, and director of student affairs, even if it’s just to say hello. These senior staff have experienced it all and are there to help you. No surprises here but good solid advice if you need it.

Know your rights! If you don’t know, ask questions before you make assumptions. You are your own best advocate in an appeal process. Always appear in person to have your case heard. You have more say in the outcome than you might think. Keep good notes and document your experiences.

Don’t leave money on the table. Apply for every scholarship or award possible, provide detail on your paid and/or volunteer experiences, and address every criteria listed. It’s your job to make the connections so you stand out as the most deserving candidate for an award.

Kathleen Kielly, registrar, University of Prince Edward Island, 2008—2017

university advice: Sarika Cullis-Suzuki. (Photo, Shea Pollard and Ola Cholewa)

Sarika Cullis-Suzuki. (Photo, Shea Pollard and Ola Cholewa)

What we learn outside class is just as formative as our academics

I was lucky to attend a university that was strong scholarly, but also happened to have a highly dynamic and liberal philosophy. Each day on my way to class I’d pass a protest, a naked party, or a political speech (it was hard not to be late). The university, far from being its own island, was the centre of the city: it wasn’t just students and faculty on campus but the whole neighbourhood. There was always a politician, musician, author or artist on campus giving talks, playing concerts or signing books. Homeless people would show up and participate in my classes. Everyone’s viewpoint was welcomed, honoured and considered, which strengthened our discussions profoundly and broadened our understanding of the world.

Our classes were compelling. But what ignited our excitement and stoked our thirst for knowledge was the swirling energy of purpose that surrounded us every day, on our walk to campus, in the hallways of dorms, over lunch at the dining hall. It was the university’s spirit that allowed and bred this energy, propelling us to engage, think critically, and challenge the status quo. That was my real education.

Sarika Cullis-Suzuki, marine biologist, board member of the David Suzuki Foundation and Centre for the Salish Sea. She has a degree in marine biology from the University of California Berkeley, an M.Sc. from the University of British Columbia and a Ph.D. from the University of York.

Visit your professor and get a summer job

I wish that I had known that no one usually goes to office hours and this is a great way to meet professors. This can help you excel in your classes and open up new opportunities, such as summer jobs, that you might not expect.

I joined the women’s soccer team when I was an undergraduate. This gave me an opportunity to see another part of campus life. Whether it is an intramural or school team, athletics are a fun part of campus life. Mostly, I encourage students to get out and explore—there are so many opportunities in university. With an open mind, you will be exposed to new ways of thinking that will enrich your university experience, and you never know where one of these experiences will lead.

Molly S. Shoichet, Canada Research Chair, Tissue Engineering; university professor, chemical engineering & applied chemistry at the University of Toronto; 2017 Killam Prize winner

Read your email

It has been a few decades since my first year of university and, although I know that students have some similar experiences, I recognize they also have some very different challenges than when I went to university. To the students beginning in 2017, my biggest piece of advice would be to pay attention to the communications your university administration and professors send to you. I know you are bombarded by email and social media, but the majority of institutions today are proactively providing you with the information you need to be successful. Open up that web link and know how to easily connect with your university’s services and supports. Read your course outlines and instantaneously know what material to focus on and how you will be graded. Open your email and you will stress less!

Alison Pickrell, director of enrolment and student affairs at the University of Saskatchewan

Learn about available services and student clubs

Undergraduate students would be much more equipped [for success] if they knew the services available from places like Memorial University of Newfoundland Students’ Union (MUNSU) or the Career Development Office. It can feel so isolating leaving high school and going to university. I also wish I had known about all of the clubs and societies that exist, as they can feel like a second family. The resource centers are also amazing, as those who run them are so supportive and offer you supports you never knew you needed! Getting involved even when you don’t have much time can create a support system for times of great stress.

Adele Power is in their second year of a degree in psychology at Memorial University, and is the LGBTQ students’ rep at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Students’ Union

This is the time to be curious

When you’re young, you want to be older. And when you’re old, you want to be younger. As an undergraduate student, you’re neither young nor old. But that doesn’t mean your time at university is without consequence. Your time there is a period of transition. The decisions you make will have a far-reaching impact on your life, something that will become increasingly apparent as the years go by.

I have two messages, derived from my own experiences.

First: get involved in your new community. Spend as much time as you can on campus. Go to orientation week and visit the clubs fair; sign up for the ones you like. Join a music group or try out for a sport. In the middle of exam season, you will relish these escapes from academic life. More importantly, these opportunities to interact with others will teach you about life and about yourself.

Secondly: this is the time to be curious. University is more than just acquiring the skills needed to land a good job. You are building the foundation for a lifetime of continuous learning. Ask questions in class. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Know that it is okay to change your mind. Ask an older student or a professor you like to be your mentor, and let them give you advice on how to put the skills you have learned into practice. Explore the world around you.

The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, former university professor and past executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme and under-secretary-general of the United Nations

Develop the habit of thoroughness

[When I taught,] students felt entitled to challenge grades. These were students that liked the courses and liked me and I liked them, but I would have to sit down and say, ‘This isn’t a bad mark; you got a B+.” And they would look so heartbroken and say, ‘I worked so hard on it.” “But your footnoting is wrong and you use the wrong date for the publication of this book.” Professor Graham Murray at Dalhousie Law School used to slam his cane on the desk and say “Develop the habit of thoroughness,” and [that] is what made me a good student. I double-checked things and I double-checked my footnotes. Students who did well with me were the ones who could write well and do an adequate job putting together a decent theory, but who actually paid attention to details and made sure they weren’t making grammatical errors or forgetting to properly footnote a source.

Elizabeth May, federal leader, Green Party of Canada, past teacher at Dalhousie University and Queen’s University

Join your student newspaper

Possibly the only intelligent decision I made in my first year of university was to accept an assignment from the photo editor of U of T’s newspaper, The Varsity, instructing me to take portraits of students on St. George campus. I had been seeking, with little success, some form of community on an otherwise isolating campus, and here an opportunity appeared to present itself.

The student newspaper is, without much of a doubt, one of the most exciting places to be on campus. And I don’t say that as a plug, or as a shameless attempt at recruitment of cheap labour. The most useful advice, the most invigorating conversations, and often the most necessary experiences are conceived and distributed in the dingy, asbestos-tinged newsrooms of campus newspapers. They’re moulded, most often, by students with a shared sense of purpose, driven by a multitude of ambitions and goals.

If there’s a piece of advice here beyond getting involved with the student newspaper, it is to know how easy it is to do so. Find the office, find the editor, ask for an assignment. The rest will follow.

Jacob Lorinc, editor-in-chief of The Varsity

university advice: Rovert Herjavec. (Photo, Lesley Bryce)

Rovert Herjavec. (Photo, Lesley Bryce)

Experience failure now and then

If your high school years were free of any kind of agony, good for you. Mine certainly weren’t. I couldn’t wait to start my undergrad! High school was the time when I learned how to handle the rainy days we all encounter. But it was in university when I realized life can be wonderful and fulfilling but it’s never perfect, and there’s not as much to learn from success as there is from failure.

If you go into your first year accepting that you won’t win every competition you enter, ace every class or have an ideal relationship with every friend and every member of your family, it’s okay! When you experience failure now and then, try to remember that there is no better way to learn about yourself and about getting the most out of life than stumbling now and then. Be resilient. Believe it will get better. Listen and be true to yourself—this is really where your path starts.

Robert Herjavec, CEO of global IT security firm Herjavec Group and cast member of ABC’s Shark Tank. He has a double degree in political science and English from the University of Toronto.

Become a peer mentor

My first couple of years as a university student were lonely ones. I had moved to Saskatoon to attend the University of Saskatchewan after 18 years of living on a farm and attending a K-12 school of about 130 people in rural Saskatchewan. I recall my first-year biology class being about as big as my small town, and feeling very isolated and without a sense of community.

Getting involved as a peer mentor in a co-curricular program called Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) was, for me, the turning point in my undergraduate experience. It was through this program that I met like-minded people and realized there are all kinds of people on campus who really care about making the student experience a positive one. This opportunity provided me with a sense of community and a “home away from home” during the third and fourth years of my degree. It also led to my first post-degree job and a career in higher education.

My involvement in the PAL program speaks to a larger realization that came to me later in my university years: there’s so much more to this exciting (and sometimes stressful) time of life than just going to class and getting a degree. University environments are ripe with opportunity to explore new ideas, meet new people, acquire new experiences and, most importantly, learn about yourself and the world around you.

My biggest piece of advice is to view the university years as an incubation period—a time to challenge yourself, build relationships, and test drive your interests and strengths through both on- and off-campus activities. Investing in this way will help you establish yourself not only as a successful student, but also as a competent young professional and citizen. Grades matter, but they are only one part of a much larger and holistic experience.

Megan Marcoux, BEd, MA in leadership, Jeanne Sauvé Foundation Public Leadership Program Fellow 2017—2019; currently on leave from the University of Saskatchewan Student and Employment Career Centre.

Now is not the time to be cautious or reserved

It is nearly impossible to offer advice to students entering college and university without resorting to clichés. To a very great extent, this is because the best advice is often the simplest advice.

I would encourage everyone to be open to new ideas and new experiences. Embrace change.

Join in. Now is not the time to be cautious or reserved. Take advantage of every opportunity. Remember, nearly everyone else is in the same position.

Participate fully in classes, take advantage of office hours, go see your professors (they are there for you), join clubs, engage in every bit of campus life.

Remember, at the same time, to be respectful of others. Be independent and responsible for your own actions, but not solitary. Find yourself a mentor, revel in the joy of new friendships.

Read everything . . . especially things that are longer than 140 characters, and do not appear in chart form! Be reflective. And, above all else, enjoy this time. It is a very special moment in your life.

Dr. Michael K. Hawes, chief executive officer, Fulbright Canada

Don’t be afraid to stray from your path

A gap year altered my course. I travelled to Thailand, where I volunteered in Bangkok’s only free hospice for AIDS patients. I held people’s hands as they took their final breaths, emotionally exhausted and angered at the thousands of deaths ignored by a government still in denial. Upon my return, I decided to study international development. My time overseas led to co-founding ME to WE, an innovative social enterprise, as well as a charitable organization, called WE Charity. My advice is this: don’t be afraid to stray from your strict path. Take a gap year. Find your passion. If your calling changes, follow it; then pursue it until you’re living it every day.

Marc Kielburger, co-founder of WE. He has a degree in international relations from Harvard and a law degree from Oxford University, and was a Rhodes Scholar

Use all the available resources to prosper as a student athlete

One of the biggest things is using resources. I didn’t use many resources, but things have changed quite a bit. [Through the athletics department], we have nutrition help, sports psychology help, mental health [resources], and a health and wellness centre. And the resources we have are at a national team level. Using [available resources] is the key to success.

We seem to be pretty successful academically with our women hockey players. There’s so much hockey, they miss so much school, but it’s about using time wisely. At the University of Toronto, your academics are so demanding and important. I need to recruit people that are going to put the time in and prioritize accordingly: just using time effectively and not wasting it.

Vicky Sunohara, head coach, University of Toronto Varsity Blues Women’s Hockey Team; seven-time World Ice Hockey Championship gold medallist and two-time Olympic gold medallist

You get out of it what you put in

As I think back on the lessons, the first one is that you get out of it what you put in. At Bishop’s [University], I played on three different varsity teams, I took calculus classes that I had no business being in, and I started my first company selling T-shirts and sweatshirts. I feel like I went all in, and as a result the experience I had was incredibly memorable and formative. Lots of students are probably tentative going in. At Bishop’s, because it was a smaller school, you could participate in all these things. It was the right fit for me. As I look back, that was good fortune, but finding that right fit is so important. What are your priorities? Finding that right fit in terms of size and scale and then the community. For me, that intimate setting was so important.

Roger Hardy, CEO of Canadian merchant bank Hardy Capital, founder of Clearly Contacts, and two-time winner of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year

Challenge your professors

It’s not just about learning in whatever program you are in; it’s enthusiasm and passion for life, and the desire to not only absorb learning [and] take on new things, but to be asking the tough questions. How do you do something better? Why do you have to do something this way? Challenging professors, fellow students and yourself. Why? Professor McLellan just said this is why this has to be this way. Well, that’s what they said, but why couldn’t it be different? Why did they do that and not something else? That’s exactly what people in that classroom should be doing. They shouldn’t be sitting there nodding their heads, saying, “Yeah, that’s okay.” They should be saying, “You know, what you just said, I don’t think I agree with that. There’s something wrong with what you said, and let me tell you why.”

Anne McLellan, chancellor, Dalhousie University and former deputy prime minister of Canada, past teacher at both the University of New Brunswick and University of Alberta law schools

university advice: Abdullah Snobar. (Photo, Paul Steward)

Abdullah Snobar. (Photo, Paul Steward)

Don’t wait until the end of the day to start organizing yourself

I wouldn’t wait until the end [of the day] to start organizing—I would take four or five breaks throughout the day and make sure I could jam everything in—and then every night before going to sleep, I would see what’s going on for the next day and prepare myself, read up on things. Before every meeting I would look at exactly what I wanted to go in there with and it was constant reminders. I was one of those people who would constantly look at my notes or my phone and be on top of my game.

I had a lot of people around in my life that helped me figure things out, helped me take a step back, breathe a little and come back at it ten times better. So having good people around me all the time was part of the magic formula. You want to find people who are mentors to you.

Abdullah Snobar, executive director of the DMZ, Ryerson University’s technology incubator