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Op-Ed: 10 things all new university students should know

09 Sep

It’s almost September, which means students are starting to prepare for heading back to school. For those starting university, the experience can be daunting. Here are essential tips for any new post-secondary student.

A June 2013 survey found 89 percent of Canadian post-secondary students said they were overwhelmed by all they had to do. It’s a reality every student has to realize: high school homework is nothing like the demands a college or university will place on freshman students. Adding to the stress of academia are the social pressures, such as fostering friendships in a new environment, earning an income to pay for school and bar nights, and even making sure you show up to class on time.

To help first-year students navigate the perilous path of the academic jungle, below are the top 10 pieces of advice I learned from my four years at Toronto’s Ryerson University.

1. Your due dates will sneak up on you faster than you know.

In a typical university situation, you’ll be given your syllabus before or on your first day of class. You’ll see due dates for all your assignments, many of which seem decades away. They’re way closer than you think. Remember that you’ll be taking several other courses; your assignments will pile up. Suddenly four weeks won’t seem like much time at all.

2. Don’t confine yourself the university bookstore when buying books.

The stark reality is that books, especially textbooks, are very expensive, but the good news is that there are many ways to avoid paying full price. If the textbook hasn’t spawned a new edition, consider buying used, especially because you’ll only be using that book for one semester, most likely. Also check out mainstream book stores or ordering online if you have time; Google Play Books has even recently started a renting service for online textbooks.

3. Make an effort to speak in classes where discussion is warranted.

Many university courses will feature various pages of weekly reading, sometimes so much so that students will just want to sit in their chairs and do nothing while professors lecture on what you just read. When you begin engaging with the content, though, by asking questions and answering them, you’ll probably find yourself understanding way more than you initially thought.

4. Try and make a few good friends while you’re there.

University life is a complete 180 compared to high school. People from potentially all over the world have gathered in one place, and it can be terrifying to walk into a classroom and not know a single face. But if you strike up a conversation every once in a while, you’ll make a few good friends who can keep you caught up on homework (or, of course, the latest social happenings).

A few students studying together in Ryerson University s engineering building

A few students studying together in Ryerson University’s engineering building

5. Get to class on time.

This may sound like stern lecturing from a teacher, but really, no one benefits if you walk in late. You’ll miss parts of lectures and struggle to catch up, you’ll disrupt whoever is trying to listen to or participate in lectures, and you’ll annoy your professors. Speaking from personal experience, some professors will even stop what they’re doing until a latecomer has settled down.

6. Don’t work a part-time job too much while in school.

In many countries, tuition for post-secondary education is a huge expense. Of course, students will want to try and earn some money while they’re in school. While that’s fine, it’s not recommended to work more than 15 hours a week — studies have shown that working more than that amount correlates to poorer academic performance.

7. Grades don’t matter as much as you think they do.

Many people probably view university as a step-ladder to a well-paying job, and such views erase the fact you might actually learn something along the way. Grades are ever the obsession of students, but in university you should keep in mind that while you need to achieve a certain academic standard, the learning experience should always be first and foremost in mind. It’s a hard concept to wrap your head around, but if you do, university will be that much more enjoyable.

8. Don’t rely on “rate my professor” sites to tell you how good he or she will be.

It’s always tempting to want to get a sneak peak of how amazing or awful your future professor will be, but the portrait you’ll get from sites that rate them will probably be distorted. You are most likely to get “worst professor I’ve ever had” or “best I’ve ever had” comments with little in-between. You may find that your own opinion varies wildly from what your peers have written.

9. Sleep is important.

Don’t think of the all-nighter as a post-secondary rite of passage. Plan your time so that you can maximize sleep time, because if you don’t sleep you will barely be able to function in classes and with friends. If you have free time in between classes, considering the power of napping. Research shows that adding a 20- to 30-minute nap between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. can enhance academic performance. Just don’t sleep too long, which can be unhealthy.

You might also be tempted to sleep more if you indulge in a few (or several) drinks after class, so the only real advice to give here is to know your limits and try not to binge when you know you have to be presentable the next day. Should you wake up with a hangover the next day, however, science has proven that there is, in fact, a cure — a bacon sandwich.

10. Don’t continue in a program you’re unhappy with.

Once again, tuition can often be a huge expense, so it might seem like a waste of money to quit a program before finishing a degree. But if you’re truly not enjoying any aspect of your program, consider taking time off to work or to reconsider your options. You should always look after your well-being first of all. Again speaking from personal experience, a girl spent two years in a time-consuming, unrealistically demanding mechanical engineering program before realizing it was too much. She switched to a program that fit her better and she’s happier than ever.

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