How To Survive Your First Year Of University Or College


Young grasshopper, if you’re a keener like I was in my first year at the University of Toronto, you will know what to do, what to bring, and how to act on your first day of class.

Knowing, however, is simply not the same thing as doing, and doesn’t help you when your palms start sweating, the sound of your blood pumping starts drowning out the noise in your ears, and your first (ever!) professor turns out to be a raging megalomaniac.

The problem with doing is that even after you read this incredibly helpful article, you’ll have to go through with all (or just some) of these tips. That will be where your courage comes in, and your brain gets a-workin’.

What you should do throughout your first year of school is be prepared. What this means is:

Don’t get the newest, fanciest laptop

Don’t assume that because everyone has one that they can afford one. You need a pen, a notebook, and ears. Don’t go into (more) debt for a fancy piece of tech. That was my mistake, and it has cost me hours of wasted lecture time spent playing Angry Birds. No, all lectures aren’t as exciting as Disneyland, but they’ll seem like it come final exams.

Sit where you’re comfortable

But if the professor looks like the “I’m going to pick on everyone who’s not raising their hands” type – haughty, self-confident, possibly abusive – I suggest to sit near the mid-back. If the prof looks like they have aged more than a good cheese, sit closer, or else buy a voice recorder and place it smack-dab on his or her lecture stand. Failing to record (and therefore hear) the exam review lecture in my Introduction to American Lit class almost made me fail my first university exam and, while this is in itself a milestone, it was one I could definitely have done without, thank-you-very-much Professor I-Smoked-My-Lungs-Out.

Don’t write everything down

A two-hour lecture can bring you up to two pages of notes – three if the content is elaborate or sequentia.  Writing down every word your professor says will give you hand cramps and brain cramps when you’re trying to compress it all onto cue cards for studying. Also, it’s unimportant.

Main point – key information – two to three sub-points – done. If you extend your notes into unnecessary information (“Jane Austen really liked flowers, but flowers gave her headaches; she had lung disease; she liked liverwurst…” etc.) you will hate yourself and your classes.

Pay attention to important themes

I’m an English major, so anytime I hear a professor mention “style” or “trope”, a cute little alarm bell starts going off in my head, even if I was half-comatose the moment before. If you’re in the math, science or engineering fields, I assume “equation,” “species” and “theory” would be good trigger words, but those are my best guesses.

You know your subject even if you don’t, so pay attention to important themes that the professors circle back to often, or else you’ll be trying to group all that unnecessary information you wrote down into cue cards the size of your face.

Exchange email addresses with the person sitting next to you

(If they seem like they’ll be the type to stick it out for the semester, or year.) You’ll thank me when you catch the flu, sleep in, or forget about class in the haze of your hangover. If the person sitting next to you falls asleep in the first class, find a plan B. Usually, this person has several pens ready on their desk (me), a coffee (common sense), and all the books stacked neatly in front of their notebook, with sticky-notes hanging off the sides to oh-so-casually emphasize their infinite love for learning (and for helping you construct your thesis statements over coffee).

Befriend your TA

Visit your TA during office hours in the first week or two, and a few weeks before your first essay. Comment on the weather, ask if they’ve seen that new Twilight movie, provide your positive opinion on the latest text/theory. Falsify camaraderie if you have to, but know that TAs are of utmost importance to you and your grades. Professors may lecture, but TAs mark – your essays, your tests and your exams. Therefore, befriend. Befriend. Befriend. If befriending the TA is a matter of public hygiene harassment, spray a little cologne in your nose before you visit – it will burn, but so will that bad grade.

Visit the writing centre

If you’re in a math-necessary field, see if there are study groups or seminars or help centers available on campus. Do this in the first week. Use them when you have trouble understanding – sometimes your workload will seem like an anchor tied around your neck and they will appear in the forms of lifeboats. Use, don’t abuse. When I was so mired in my history texts that I couldn’t tell the difference between existentialism and empiricism anymore (I still can’t), visiting the writing centre was like visiting a Buddhist retreat on a budget (i.e., for free): they straightened out my thesis, asked questions that instantly clarified the direction of my arguments and ultimately, preserved my sanity for the next soul-sucking essay. And isn’t that what university is all about?

Learn to compromise

If you’re living in residence, friends may seem paramount – after all, what is post-secondary education if not an infestation of awkward and remarkable socialization – but know when to read. You won’t have time to complete all your readings regardless, so learn how to prioritize: is the 20-page article about learning to write an essay more valuable, or the book you’re writing your essay on? While it may seem poorly planned – why would they assign these things if they know we can’t complete them? – university is all about these sorts of traumatizing decisions. My advice? Read the books you’re going to write your essays on/do your assignments on, and skim through the rest of the texts until finals. Then, read, read, read until your eyes spontaneously combust and your brain chars.

Build a support system

Whether you’re commuting or living on or near campus prepare yourself for the mental breakdown that is most likely coming, unless you’re the most well-adjusted human being on the planet. Friends, family, the neighbourhood raccoon – just find someone who will listen to your 2 a.m. rants about time-space continuums or Wordsworth’s stupid-freaking-poems! You will probably live through it, but it helps when someone spoon-feeds you ice-cream during the critical moments. In my case, this meant taking my 10-year-old sister to Tim Horton’s and gorging out on their ice-cream sundaes until our tongues started crying sweet tears.

After all these tidbits have sizzled their way into your brainwaves, don’t forget to have a little fun. Like I said: priorities. Sometimes, that means attending a crazy jam-fest with your quirky guitar-toting friends on the Sunday before a final to let off some steam, and others, that means surviving on twice-brewed coffee for 24 hours to finish your essay on time.

Keep your GPA in mind; but remember, the professors think you’re all idiots at this point anyway, so don’t work too hard to exceed their expectations. Have a little fun – fourth year will not be so easy.

Photo credit: You always take a picture on your first day of school by Alison Faith on Flickr