My brother started university a few weeks ago. His first week of school was not stressful at all. He only had to navigate through the campus, attend lectures to hear professors read syllabi, and get used to his commute. But now he just finished his first set of midterms and he’s studying for the next. More reading and more writing.
This is such a familiar scene for myself and my parents since I was like him four years ago. I relaxed in the first few weeks. I told myself, “how bad can it be?” Unlike my brother, I started university without much warning or advice from university students. When I started university, I only had pessimistic advice from older students after I bought their textbooks.
“This course is hard but the past tests helped me,” said one student.
“I couldn’t finish calculus so I dropped out of school and changed my program,” said another.
But at the time, I didn’t take their comments seriously. After all, they didn’t know my work ethic. So I began my first year, wanting to show them that they were wrong. I would be able to succeed. And I did. But it was challenging. I was the girl who cried at home because she was overwhelmed. I was the girl who decided to see a counsellor because I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I was the girl who was embarrassed to tell her parents that school is hard. I was the girl who was embarrassed to admit that school was hard.
And my brother saw all of this. The nights when I would go straight to my room and study. The nights when I couldn’t eat dinner with my family because I didn’t have the time. He also saw the days when I was temporarily freed from school work in the summer. He saw the ups and downs. He witnessed me finish university in four years.
Now it’s his turn. At least now he has seen that university is hard and he knows it’s ok to struggle.
If you don’t have an older sibling to give you advice, don’t worry college freshman. Here are five things you need to know for your undergrad. (At least, I wish someone told me these things.)
#1 – Don’t compare yourself to others.
In university, it’s hard to find another student who is working at the same pace as you. Some will be ahead while some are behind. Everyone works at their own pace. One person might learn from textbooks alone. Another might enjoy to make study notes (aka me). Everyone wants to succeed but the way you get there is all dependent on you. It depends on your own (realistic) goals and your study style so don’t compare your success to others.
#2 – It’s ok to ask for help
You will have questions. You will be worried. Make sure you’re ready to humble yourself and ask for help. Whether it’s from your profs, TAs, classmates, friends, or family members – ask for help when you need it. I’m not just talking about help for projects or assignments. Maybe you need help with finishing chores, finding your career goal, or you just need to vent out your emotions. Don’t be afraid to ask help from those who care about you. It may be hard to explain yourself sometimes, but sometimes asking for help is the best thing to do.
#3 – It’s ok to take a break
There is a lot of work in university. The homework and readings was it’s own mountain to trek. I also filled up my schedule with volunteering at research labs or working on-campus. I had to accept early on that there wouldn’t be times like high school. In high school, there were days where “there was no homework”. In university, I always knew there was a reading I still had to do or a practice question I can answer.
But when my mind is tired and my brain needs a rest, I give it a rest. I allowed myself to go out with friends. I allowed myself to attend events that weren’t affiliated with school. I allowed myself to go to yoga for an hour. Take a break – you deserve it. Your GPA is not as important as your physical, mental, and emotional health.
#4 – Don’t just study, develop your skills
There are lot of opportunities around you. While university is a place to learn, volunteering or working can teach you skills you need for your future career. Develop your communication, teamwork, or interpersonal skills. My part-time job taught me how to work with people of different personalities and backgrounds. Volunteering taught me professionalism and networking. Undo the self-inflicted social isolation caused by studying to actually interact with others.
Another way to learn is through your electives. Choose electives that give you skills. For example, I took an Intro course to Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. That course changed my life because I realized it was what I loved to do. Electives can be a breath of fresh air to inspire you after your brain has been bombarded with tons of boring facts and theories. Go on, be creative and explore something new!
#5 – Go to your Career Centre
Yes, I am biased. I worked for my Career Centre for 3 years. But thanks to them, I know how to write a resume and a cover letter. Thanks to them, I learned how to network. Thanks to them, I learned how to look for jobs. Even if you don’t go to the Career Centre often, please promise me that you’ll write a new resume. Never use that high school resume again ok?
I have tons more advice/thoughts about university. While university was hard, I did learn a lot from it. My knowledge expanded. But I also learned a lot of things about myself. I know my limits and I know my strengths. University is not a bad place after all.
Feel free to reach out to me if you have questions. I’d love to listen and hear your thoughts.