Five REALISTIC Advice for Students Entering University

CONGRATULATIONS on accepting your offer into university! Oh, aren’t you excited for orientation week and meeting new friends, partying and and ….BAMMM one month in, you suddenly realize university life ain’t so fun. You were totally unprepared for the realities outside of high school.

I realize many advice on the internet are very general and unrealistic. There is nothing wrong with telling readers to “Don’t be shy” or “Enjoy first year” and why, but it would be a lot more helpful if they included how to do so.

I am no one in particular, just a recent graduate who wished I was given the following (realistic) advice. I will include my own anecdotes as well. Please leave a comment if there is anything you want to be clarified! Other readers may want to know too.

1. Do Not Screw Up Your First Year.

Is your aspiration to become a Pharmacist, Optometrist, or Dentist? Maybe even a DOCTOR? Then please DO NOT SCREW UP YOUR FIRST YEAR. Many professional schools look at your cumulative GPA (yes, cGPA includes your first year grades). Each year, the applicant pool is getting stronger. The applicant pool includes the applicants who did not make it the year before and the new applicants like yourself. That 0.01 GPA difference is what separates you from other applicants in getting into professional school or not.

My Personal Experience: During Fall term of my fourth and final year, myself along with my peers did not know what we want to do. We realized that our degree in Science may not be sufficient enough to land us a career after graduation. Many of my friends chose further education (doing a Masters or entering Professional School). However, the struggle is real…especially for those who did poorly in their first year. Their excuse was, “First year was all about having fun”. Learn from their mistake!

Choose your courses wisely. I have friends who have taken many “interesting” courses BUT the course itself was hard to get a good mark in! My advice is to choose courses that have a big reputation for being a bird course (ask upper year students). A bird course is not where you can do nothing and get a 90% in the course. A bird course is a course where you can study using decent amount of effort and can still achieve a 90%. Too many people go into a bird course with the mentality that they can skip class and still get a good mark. What ended happening was their bird course being their lowest mark.

I would also recommend doing a feedback search on the professor teaching the course you are taking. Every professor have different styles of teaching and you can ask upper year students who have taken a course with this professor if he or she was good or not. A good professor is someone who takes the time to make lecture understandable and enjoyable for their students. In many cases, these are the courses you will do well in as well.

Important points to take note of:

  • Aim for a 3.9 GPA as a final mark for all your courses, unless you can get a 4.0, which is even better. At UW, this corresponds to marks between 85-89%. Getting an 84% = 3.7 GPA. That 1% makes you 0.2 grade points behind from your peers.
  • For your electives, choose bird courses OVER interesting courses. Your final mark is more important than struggling in an interesting class.
  • Search your professor on RateMyProf.com to see if you want to take a course with this professor. Most of the time, it is the professor who makes the course enjoyable. If the course is enjoyable, you will in turn do well in the course.
  • Do not underestimate your midterms. University ain’t highschool. No one is going to take their time outside of lecture to help you understand everything for the test. For some courses, your final mark is calculated only from 2 midterms and 1 final exam. You may be able to pull off cramming for a test the night before in highschool, but that is not the case in university (unless you have really good memory and your test is based on recall eg. multiple choice).
  • Do not let peer pressure take over you. You can drink all the alcohol you want AFTER the midterm. And if your friends shun you because you value your marks/future over temporary excitement/popularity, maybe these are not the right friends for you.

2. Do Not Buy Your Textbooks Before First Day of Class

  • WHY: Lord knows that our education is expensive. And do you know what else is expensive? Textbooks. Some textbooks:
    • Are not needed (opposed to what is written on your university website)
    • Can be bought used
    • Can be borrowed from the library.

If you are a new first year student, please DO NOT buy your textbooks before the first day of class. I know the struggle is real when it comes to wanting to be prepared for university but I have spent enough money on textbooks to know that most of them are not required for the course! You are NOT going to fall behind just because you do not have a textbook by the first day of lecture! If anything, it will be sitting by the corner of your room, still in its pristine plastic wrap.

In your first lecture, your professor will tell you if the textbook for this course is recommended or required (Do not trust what your school bookstore website tells you).

  • Recommended means you can do just as well with or without the textbook.
  • Required means “I will be teaching from this book and the only way you can pass is if you follow this book” (so buy that).

Sometimes the prof will say that you can use the old edition. In that case, buy one from the used bookstore or from a student who took the course before (they will be forever thankful to you for taking that textbook off their hands). There are textbook exchange groups for each university on Facebook. Libraries usually have course reserves you can take out for a few hours. I am sure you will make friends who have the money to buy the recommended textbook as well.

Your worst textbook nightmare…the textbook edition changes/the professor changes the textbook the next year, meaning you cannot resell it.

My Personal Experience: Being the first university student in my family, I was a total newb. My dad bought all my textbooks brand new from the bookstore. A hefty $700. By the end of the year, I barely touched three of my textbooks. I remember buying this “required” book on scientific writing for my biology lab. Minutes before the first lab was to start, I ripped open the plastic wrap. Minutes after the lab started, I was told by the Teaching Assistant (TA) the book has no use in the course…Starting in second year, I only bought used textbooks from the used bookstore or from students, making sure to do my research on the prices so I would not be scammed. I once bought a textbook from this student. He sent his mom on a cab at night to meet me. He said the textbook has no writings or highlights and because it was dark outside it looked okay to me. Back at home, I realized it was full of highlights! Thankfully, I was able to sell it to someone who does not mind the highlights for the same price that I bought it for. During my fourth year, I only bought one book (which was $20). I took advantage of course reserves at the library. Since the textbook was only available for three hours, I try to be productive during that time.

3. Learn How to Make One Dish that You Are Willing to Eat For the Rest of Your Life

  • WHY: It’s a survival skill.

For someone who does not know how to cook, this is what I would recommend you to do, regardless if you are living on campus or living at home (your mom can’t cook for you forever you know!). I know of someone who ate udon almost everyday in second year. For myself, I learned how to make a dish from ground beef with veggies. I have pretty much perfected this dish! It is simple and it saved my starving stomach for many nights.

YOU CAN FEED YOURSELF! New skill unlocked!

4. Be Actively Involved in a Club that Interests You

  • WHY: To have fun with people who share the same interest and gain practical experience.
  • If you live off-campus and have to commute a long way to school, try to commit yourself to just one club!

Ever got in a job application “Relevant experience required”? I always thought “How do I get this said experience if you don’t hire me!”. After four years, I learned that I can get this from taking on leadership positions.

In university, there are over 100 clubs (yes, there is a cheese club at UW) in which you can participate and if there is not one that aligns with your interests, make your own! Clubs Day for most universities happen during the first or second week of classes. Now, I did not mean for you to mindlessly join a gajillion clubs. So what if someone joined 20 clubs on campus? Were they just a passive club member? Just wanting something to put on their resume? Quality over quantity!

I advise you to join clubs that INTERESTS you and also be an ACTIVE member for that club. You can do so by aiming to be an executive of that club. In first year, it is a bit ambitious to become an executive member of an existing club (feel free to be an exec of your own club though!). For an existing club, be an active member by learning the goals and logistics of the club and work your way up by proposing how the club can be improved with you leading it.

The people you see on Facebook who posts endless pictures of how much fun they’re having, they are the ones who took on a leadership position, doing something they are passionate about. Taking up a leadership position will be an amazing experience. You will learn how to manage your time, how to work in a team, how to deal with difficult people, and most importantly, you’ll learn a part of you that you never knew before. Many professional schools would like to know that you have interests and activities OUTSIDE of your academics. On your professional school application or interview, you can give concrete examples about how you resolved a conflict. They will be able to hear your passion, straight from your heart. You cannot make experiences up on your application. It WILL sound fake.

Another way to get involved is in research opportunities. Research labs LOVE recruiting keen volunteers (because their labour is free!). Of course, being paid would be nice but do not underestimate the experience: this offer may not include money but it does come with an awesome reference letter and valuable research skills/technique not taught in class.

My Personal Experience: I first got involved with a leadership position in my third year of university. I was part of the Federation of Students Welcome Week Coordinating Team. It was the best week of my whole undergrad career! Working in a team, I was able to contribute to events happening all across campus. I never knew I was good at communicating instructions and planning events! I became comfortable speaking in front of an audience. It motivated me to get more involved on campus.

5. TO DO: Make a New Friend

  • WHY: It’s a whole new world in university. Treat it as such.

Yes, I understand you already have a group of friends from highschool. However, I believe that meeting people outside your circle allows you to learn from different people. Maybe you will find friends who are more compatible with you. And this does not happen if you are to stay with the same 5 people in your group of friends. That aside, in the real, cruel world after you graduate, more often than not, you will be more successful if you have a large network of friends than with your grades alone. You need to meet the right people…you need to start networking, now.

Next time you are put in a group or paired up with someone, I challenge you to make the first move. This is how:

  1. Gather some courage…YOLO
  2. Turn to face him/her
  3. Say, “HI MY NAME IS _____”.
  4. Put your hand out for a handshake (*give him/her a good handshake!)
  5. Let the good feeling of committing a bold move run through you

Do not be afraid to make the first move. More often than not, people are generally nice and will reciprocate. What is the worst case scenario? They do not like you and decides to ignore you? Well, that is 1 out of more than 3000 people on campus. Are you really going to let one minor rejection stop you from making new friends? You need to build up your courage for bigger things in the future. This is just practice. Just don’t be someone annoying or creepy. I mean, reflect on your own behaviour and see if this is something you want others to do to you. Like, don’t ask someone to massage your groin (true story).

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