Lest we forget, going to university actually includes doing some homework. And as Todd Pettigrew pointed out, high school doesn’t always leave you prepared for what awaits when the mid-terms start popping up in October.
The work will be more difficult, generally, but first and foremost it will be different. The way classes are structured, the papers you are expected to turn in, and the marking schemes probably won’t be what you’re used to. And in order to avoid that reality-check (slash soul crushing) grade on the first assignment, there are a few basics tips I think can help you get prepared.
Now, these won’t ensure you pass your exams, nor will they even tell you how to write one. They’re just tips to cover your basics in the first couple weeks (particularly if you’re in arts), and they will seem like common sense – but it’s the kind of common sense I wish had occurred to me a bit earlier in my first year!
Step 1: Learn to use the library.
Unless your parents are librarians and you were reared on the Dewey decimal system, you will probably take a little while to get used to your school library. The trick is to do this early, not the day before your first paper is due.
You can get an upper-year student to show you how the library works, or you can ask a librarian (but be wary, the kindliness of university librarians is never a guarantee!) However, in many cases, you will just have to wander around for a while becoming steadily more impatient, frustrated and possibly sweaty, until the little numbers on the books mean something to you.
This means practice. Pick some books you actually want to read, and go find them. (Trust me, this will save you much first paper anguish.)
Step 2: Learn to use online journal databases.
This is just as important as the library these days. If your professor or the library holds an information session on how to find journals, or provides hand outs, pay attention. If you’re on your own, it’s time to ask around and do some digging on the library’s website (usually links are well marked or under FAQs.)
Unfortunately, if you go to say, Guelph, I can’t tell you where to look. I can just tell you it’s important that you find out.
Once you’re in to the journal database, try sites like JSTOR to help you find articles in multiple journals at once.
Step 3: Learn how to source your research.
This is a big one in university, and not only do you have to keep meticulous records of where ALL your research comes from you have to be able to reference them properly.
The two sourcing methods are APA and MLA. Before you ever write a paper, buy a basic book on essay writing, or print guides off the internet. For each essay, find out which one your prof prefers, and stick to it!
Here’s one to know before your prof tells you: never, ever use Wikipedia as a source!
Step 4: Go to every class. Sit near the front.
Technically, your professors are not taking a record of your attendance. That’s because you are the only one who will suffer if you don’t go. You may be tired, sick, or hung-over – but you’ll learn more just being there, even if you’re half asleep and drooling, then you will from the power point slides or some other kid’s notes. Because most of the time these won’t be legible, or will be full of unexplained graphs.
You’ll want to sit near the front because trying to learn, in a lecture hall with a few hundred squirming people in it, is an exercise in concentration. The more boring the class is, the closer to the front you should sit (I learned this during Intro to Law.) Also, if you’re confused, it is much less intimidating to ask a question when you can’t see two hundred people all turn around and look at you.
Step 4: Go to every tutorial.
If your TA is horrible, and the other students are apathetic and miserable, just remember – in most classes, you get marks for just showing up. Often, you’ll get another crop of marks for participating in the discussion (not that hard when at least half of the class will probably sit silently, looking bored).
It’s a bonus if your TA is good – then you have a great resource, because TAs are usually younger and more accessible than professors.
Step 5: Get a day planner.
Whether it’s on your laptop, or one of those free coil-bound ones from the Student Union (remember, as a student, free stuff’s good stuff), it can save you a lot of hassle to consolidate the reading lists/exam dates from all of your classes. Some people even colour code them by class, with coordinating highlighters. Although this might be for the more artistically inclined.
This step isn’t hard because it’s a good way to put off doing something more challenging . . . like actually studying. I handed a paper in late one year because I kept losing my syllabus – don’t let it happen to you!
Step 6: Meet your professors.
Go to their office hours. If you don’t have any questions yet, make some up. This kind of prof binding time can be seen as ass-kissing, or it can be an insurance policy for when you really need someone to answer your questions. Plus, with some professors, this means that you can win some flexibility when assignments come up – and pursue topics that are more personal and interesting to you, rather than the ones on the syllabus.
Step 7: Find a good place to study.
Finding a place to study in a big, crowded university can be an art in itself – but if you have an annoying roommate, it can be absolutely essential. The list of possible study spots can include the study lounge, the library, and your room – but it can also be in an obscure stair well, the engineering cafeteria, or the viewing gallery at the pool.
My ideal study spot has the right combination of noise level, crowd, comfort, and access to snacks, coffee, and wi fi.
The best way to find these is to explore the campus. A lot!
Step 8: Try to do your readings.
I say “try” because I never did my readings for Intro to Law, didn’t understand them when I did, and still did fine in the course. But this is an exception to the rule.
Yes, some readings will be inappropriately long, and the perfect thing to put you to sleep at any hour of the day. Arm yourself with a highlighter and learn how to skim like a mad man. The sad truth of readings is, usually – you will have to do them at some point. Better to do them on time than the night before your exam, when you’re sleep deprived.
Plus, in a good course, the readings will be relevant, interesting, and if you haven’t read them – you’ll look like an idiot during tutorial.
Step 9: Get the help you need.
This is one of the biggest things to learn in university. Everyone needs help at some point, but there is no guarantee anyone will ask you if you need it. Academic help is only one area where you might need assistance – but there are a lot of resources, if you seek them out.
Professors and TAs are logical choices, but so are mentors, counsellors, undergraduate administrators for your program, and library and peer tutorial services. At Carleton, I used the writing tutorial service, just for someone to talk to about my paper. I talked over my ideas for my papers with my TAs (they often came up with good ideas for me to use.) In a pinch, I poked my head into a random journalism professor’s door and asked where I should go. Virtually always, they were talkative and full of good advice.
If you have a learning disability, or think you might have one, find out what services or accommodations are available. At Carleton, we have the Paul Menton Centre. They’re enormously supportive of students with learning disabilities, and if you ask around, you’ll find lots of students who work with them.
Step 10: Find out what works best for you.
I can’t tell you how, or where, you learn best. If it’s something you’re unsure about, devote some time to thinking about where you feel the most successful, and then replicate that environment as best you can. The good thing about university is that the flexibility is available – you just have to be prepared to do the work.
I also can’t tell you what else in your life is important for you to function well academically. But, cliché as it, getting the balance of school and life right is pretty important.
Some students forget that they’re at school to, er, go to school. The above tips, simple as they are, do require time and effort.
For other students, the pressure to do well academically can be overwhelming, and they may struggle to feel comfortable socially.
Both can become extreme, and both make life at university stressful. As you get caught up in the university lifestyle – eating, drinking and sleeping when you want – it can be easy to forget the routines you need to keep functioning well.
Think of it as important – just as important as studying – to be perceptive of how you’re managing. University means you’re going to learn a lot about yourself, whether you want to or not, so keep asking if you’re doing okay – do you need help, do you need focus, do you need to relax?
When I started second semester of my first year, after spending a semester stressed and lonely, I made a list of what I needed to do to feel better, and then did one of those things every day. A leisurely lunch. A walk. Reading a book that wasn’t assigned for class. It doesn’t sound like much, but that was the biggest and best change I made all year. Doing well academically is not just limited to how much you’re studying. And like anything in school, getting that balance right takes a lot of time and practice.
But after all, you’ve got four years.
(P.S. If you have any other tips, please pipe in.)