With the school year already underway, new and returning students may feel intimidated and frightened about what to expect at university for their upcoming school year. I am certainly no stranger to that feeling. This past summer I completed my final undergraduate credit at the University of Toronto and now, as I depart from the Arts and Science Department and make my way to Graduate School, I feel the responsibility to narrate my experience and provide advice to all students succeeding me. That being said, I will provide some of my personal experiences and lessons from school that can hopefully be a reference for academic and social anxieties many students experience.
Year 1: The Swirling Hot Mess
If you are entering UofT, it is likely that you held a 3.5 average or above average in high school. Nevertheless, the standards and expectations of a student are much higher in university than in high school. Your grades therefore, are likely to slip in your first year, but that is perfectly normal. The added workload and pressure is also overwhelming and you will often feel like you are in a whirlpool trying to organize all of your responsibilities. Do not worry though, as everything calms down after a few weeks and the work becomes manageable. You are also most likely to decide to change your field of study in your first year. Nonetheless, by the end of the year you will reflect on what was a success and failure and be better prepared for your second year.
Although academia may seem like the largest priority, and it is in my opinion, it’s also important to make time to engage with your classmates and have fun with friends. I don’t advise only focusing on studies because it can actually hinder productivity and increase stress. Additionally, if you do go out, it’s likely that you will feel more comfortable with high school friends rather than a new group of people. Nevertheless, in your first year, it’s important to acquaint yourself with classmates and engage in extra curricular activities. The benefit of this engagement is twofold. First, the more people you know, the more likely you are to find your best friend. Second, it will stimulate your creativity and maleate your ability to multi-task, in turn reducing stress levels. Extra-curricular activities will help with feelings of anxiety and depression experienced by so many university students.
Year 2: Second Year Second Chances
The lessons from first year have paid off, and you can definitely better manage both academia and extra curricular activities. A second year brings new chances to improve on work and you spend most of the year conducting trial and error experiments and discovering the best study method for you. If you are in an arts and science program, it is likely that second year is filled completing mandatory credits. Therefore, it is also likely that you will discuss individual analyses with your classmates and may rely on them to complete assignments. The increase in communication improves your personal study techniques and expands your thought process. This will come in handy your third and fourth year when you begin specializing in your desired field.
Just as you get a new chance in your studies, you also get a second chance of making friends. You will definitely meet new people in your second year. If you are lucky enough to enroll in electives outside of your immediate program, you are also likely to make friends studying different fields. Second year is also the one that you start to break off ties with your high school friends, only keeping in touch with those who matter. By this time you have learned how to better manage academia and extra curricular activities and you definitely prefer to stay in big groups rather than by yourself. You are sure to party a lot.
Year 3: “Hey, I think I can do this!”
By this point you will have developed the appropriate study methods and your grades will have likely improved compared to your first year. Additionally, you will feel more confident in your ideas and be able to better express them in class and with your TAs and professors. It is also likely that the specialization of your classes and individuality required to complete assignments will require you to work individually rather than in larger groups. By the end of the year, you feel confident that you are capable of handling any new challenges of your fourth year.
Third year is the best for making long lasting friendships. At this point you begin to understand yourself better as a person and what your priorities are as an individual. This means that you find people that suit your personality and you feel comfortable around. Moreover, you give up going to parties and rather prefer a night in at the movies with your family. You like your solitude because it gives you time to think about your goals and aspirations after graduation.
Year 4: “It’s over, it’s done!”
Fourth year may be the most difficult and heavy on the workload but you will not mind it anymore. Smaller classes mean more intimate conversations with your classmates and professors as intellectuals. Fourth year also allows more liberty in course selection, which means that you are likely to take electives and explore new subjects that you were not able to in previous years. New opportunities will allow you to nurture an existing passion or discover a new one. An elective outside of your immediate field may even redirect your post-secondary career path. In the end however, you will just be glad that the workload and stress of undergrad is finished.
On the social level, it is likely that you are a very different person than you were in your first year of university. You are likely to have one or two close friends and prefer to sit down for coffee or dinner rather than go to a party. With them, you are still likely to discuss the stresses of school and express sympathy with one another. That will never change in your four years of undergrad. In addition, you are likely to discuss the plans of the future and question whether you would like to continue with the profession, to which you have dedicated your four previous years, or change to a new path. At this point, you will realize that you are ready to face the challenges that present themselves before you, outside of university.