May 30th, 2014

Top 10 Tips for University Success

(Or, Sara’s Declassified School Survival Guide)

Top 10 University Tips

I get a lot of questions from high school students anxious about starting university. I also frequently get asked how to deal with the work load, the stress of exams, and how to find balance in your life. When I asked you all which topics you’d like “advice” posts about, this was a very popular one. So here are my top 10 tips for university.

Let me start by saying that my university experience was not necessarily the most typical one. I went to a relatively small, design-focused university, and I lived at home because it was near enough to commute and saved me a significant amount of money on housing. Because of this I cannot really provide much insight about on-campus living.

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree last spring, and after reflecting on my four year-experience, here’s the best advice I can give you.

  1. You don’t have to go to university. Despite what you’ve been told, university isn’t the path for everyone. It is an expensive and rigorous endeavour, and if you’re not absolutely sure you want to do it, I would recommend not putting yourself in debt for the next ten to thirty years.Sure, a degree opens a lot of doors to higher-paying jobs. However, there are many professions out there (particularly in the arts) that don’t necessarily need a degree. Your time (and money!) might be better spent pursing those passions full-time, right out of high school.

    Going to university and getting a degree does not guarantee employment upon graduation anymore. Don’t pursue a degree in something you don’t care about just because you think it’s a “safe” path. There’s no such thing anymore.

    If you do decide to pursue higher education in some form, really think about what you want to do with your life and what you’d like to study to get there. I know that sounds scary and you don’t feel prepared to make such an important decision at such a young age, but if you’re going to spend thousands of dollars, and years of your life, spend them wisely. Choose a program that fascinates you, that you wouldn’t mind spending hours upon hours labouring on. Think about what you love to do in your free time. Just about any hobby can be extrapolated into a career. Plus, the internet and social media have created so many new types of jobs, that you have more options available to you than ever before.

    Think about skilled trades, too – like becoming an electrician or plumber. A lot of people discount these sorts of jobs, but if you love working with your hands and seeing the direct results of your labour right away, this could be a really rewarding career path for you. Besides, skilled trades are hugely in demand and pay well, too. So, think about it!


  2. Be grateful to be there.So, you’ve chosen university. Good for you, you’re in for a fantastic four-year ride. Things are going to get stressful sometimes, and you’re going to want to hide under blankets, skip class, and make it all go away from time to time, too. (I know from experience, trust me.)While skipping the occasional class for the sake of getting some sleep (finally), meeting an impossible deadline, or taking care of your mental health is okay, don’t do it too often.

    Remember how lucky you are to have the privilege of an education. Women around the world are fighting and losing their lives for the right to have an education. Appreciate how fortunate you are to be getting one, and treat it with respect.

    I found that this perspective helped when I was feeling overwhelmed with school: think about all the people who would give anything to be in your place, with your workload.

    The setting of formal education is a uniquely beautiful one. You are surrounded by peers passionate about the same topics as you, being taught by some of the most brilliant people in their fields. Look around you – some of these people may one day shape our world.


  3. Work hard.Sure, the social aspect of university is great. Sororities, fraternities, sports teams, parties, and extra-curricular activities are all great, and can all contribute to a well-rounded person and a fulfilling four years.HOWEVER: remember what you’re there for. Be like Hermione and sort out your priorities. You are at university primarily to learn, to (ideally) come out as a more thoughtful, educated, intelligent person capable of critical thought.

    Do not sacrifice your education at the altar of pleasure. You will most certainly regret it later and there are MUCH less expensive ways to have a good time, if that’s all you’re looking for.

    I’m about to sound like a real killjoy, but – if you need to skip a party or two to get your paper done, do it. If you have an exam the following morning, there is nowhere you should be the night before but your room or a library, studying.

    Though I’m sure this goes without saying: don’t plagiarize. Getting a degree in CTRL+V isn’t any use to anyone. You’re paying for an education, so educate yourself. Do the work. Also, if you get caught, you’re in deeeeep doo-doo. Don’t do it.


  4. Make friends.With that said, the low points of university will be almost unbearable to deal with if you don’t have good friends by your side to battle through them with.My university experience improved exponentially when Angelika and I met and hit it off. Even the worst classes were a blast with her, because we could always laugh at everything together. (And stress out together, and help each other out.)

    Friends will make your life easier pragmatically, too. If one of you misses a class, the others can fill you in on what went on and share their notes with you if you ask them very nicely.

    The first few weeks of school are an ideal time to make friends. Everyone is new, lost, alone, and panicking. There’s really no better way to bond than that! Say ‘hi’ to someone and stumble through the hallways together in search of room 402 B. If you’re living on campus, you can easily meet people in your dorm and meet your neighbours on your floor.

    Most universities have student orientation week in the first year, with planned events, team building activities, and parties – so that’s a great way to meet people and make friends too. That’s not to say you can’t make great friends later on, no matter which year you’re in. Angelika and I met in our second year of university in an art history lecture, and after a shy start, we hit it off and have been inseparable ever since.


  5. Expect your grades to drop.A lot of people panic when they get their first project, paper, or report back from being graded. No matter how hard you work and how brilliant you are, expect your grades to be significantly lower than they were in high school. And that’s okay. The grading system is very different in university. Some schools bell curve, some don’t, but either way if you are usually a 90s student, expect to see some 70s and even 60s. (Bs and Cs.) It’s more accurate to judge your performance in relation to the class average. 
  6. Learn how you learn.Self-awareness is fantastic for all facets of life, but nearly nothing is more practically useful (especially for school) than understanding the way you learn best.Some people are visual learners – they absorb information easiest by seeing graphs, pictures, diagrams, mind maps, etc. Some people are auditory learners – they learn best when they hear concepts explained to them aloud, or can memorize definitions and facts easier when put to music. Other people are linguistic learners: they learn best when they say things out loud. And yet others are kinesthetic (physical) learners. They learn best by doing – using their body and motion to understand the way things work.

    Some people are a combination of learning styles, so pay attention to your own habits to discover yours. Which ways do you find easiest to learn? Do you notice you’re particularly good at memorizing song lyrics? Does making up silly dances to memorize facts help you remember them? Once you know which methods work best for you, studying for exams or tests becomes a lot easier and more efficient.

    Another aspect of this is to discover whether you study best in a social or solitary setting. I know lots of people who do best in study groups. I’m a solitary learner, so study groups are completely useless for me. But whichever way works best for you, harness that when studying for an exam! Hole yourself up in your room, or meet up with a few friends and quiz each other.

    You can learn more about learning styles here.


  7. Prepare for exams.I can’t write about this without first confessing that I’m about to give advice that I never followed. I’m a terrible procrastinator. I got through university by staying up all night the night before an exam and studying a whole semester’s worth of information then. Luckily, that worked for me and I did very well in school – but I don’t recommend it.The least-stressful way to prepare for exams is to start early. The best way for your brain to absorb information is through utilizing both your long-term memory and your short-term memory, which means studying for a few weeks and reviewing the night (or a few nights) before.

    As mentioned in Tip 6, use whatever learning style works for you to study. If you’re visual, sort out the information into diagrams, or draw pictures to represent concepts. Record your voice reading difficult definitions and facts and listen to it on your commute or before bed. Write and re-write information you need to memorize. Say it out loud. Explain a difficult concept to someone else until they understand it. Re-read your textbook. Put facts to a tune until you can sing them. Do whatever you need to do, and don’t let anyone make you feel silly for it.

    Remember to take frequent breaks while studying. Do things that make you happy in between bouts of hard work so you don’t fall into a pit of never-ending stress and despair. Work hard, but then take a step back and let the chips fall as they may – you’ve done all you can and it’s not in your hands anymore. Stressing out after writing an exam won’t change the outcome, so you may as well relax and do something fun.

    Even if you mess up one exam, it’s not the end of the world. Ask your professor if there’s something you can do for extra credit, or if you can re-take it (if that’s allowed at your school), and study better for the next one.


  8. Don’t trust people who use the phrase, “in the real world”

    The concept of the “real world” is a fiction and mostly used by people who somehow think graduating school and having a job makes them superior. Don’t buy into the “real world” nonsense. You’re in the real world right now, you have been every day of your life. Life will change after graduation (naturally), but that doesn’t make it any more or less “real”. Most university students have already experienced having a job (or multiple jobs), so it’s not as though you’re living in some kind of artificial bubble. (Unless you currently have every single expense paid for by parents, which is extremely rare.)
  9. Don’t write everything down.When a professor is lecturing, it can be tempting to want to jot down every single thing they say, so you will have it to study from later. This is a very common mistake.In doing so you will miss out on just about everything of value, because you’ll always be three sentences behind. Often, a lot of what they lecture is already in your textbook, so you don’t need to write your own set of notes. When you do take notes, take down just the important bits. Write sloppily, with short forms for words, and in bullet points. You can decipher it later and write it out in full if you want – just focus on getting it down quickly for now.

    Some professors post audio recordings of their lectures or their Powerpoint slides online. These professors are rare, but awesome. Treasure them. This will allow you to put your pen down and really focus on listening to what they’re saying and engaging in the discussion, instead of frantically scribbling everything down.


  10. Have balance, and have fun! 

    Work hard, play hard. Don’t do anything dangerous, but you’ve got to let loose once in a while. You will internally combust if you keep all the stress locked away inside with no release. My friends and I had a rule about seeing each other every Friday night during our first year. That way, no matter how brutal our week was, we had something to look forward to. A way to let loose, be crazy, and release the tensions of the week.Try to give yourself at least one hour each day of “me time”. Spend it reading, watching your favorite show, having coffee with a friend, taking a bubble bath, cooking a delicious meal, going for a run – whatever makes you feel like your internal “cup” is being filled again, no matter how busy you get.

    These types of activities will make you a healthier person and a more effective person. Nobody can work hard all the time, it’s just not sustainable and you won’t enjoy your life.

University will be both an exciting and stressful time, but it’s one you will invariably look upon with fondness when you’re older.

If you’re starting your university adventure in the fall, I wish you the best of luck. You’re going to learn a lot, meet incredible people, overcome hurdles, change, grow, and have a blast. Take lots of pictures, they’ll be precious one day. If you’ve just graduated, then CONGRATULATIONS, you did it! *throws confetti*

Let me know if you enjoy these sorts of posts, and what you’d like to see next. Happy weekend! x

1 comment

  • cam

    hey, sara! loved this post. I’m currently in my first year of college and I definitely just bookmarked this page. Seeing as you’re a Torontonian, I was wondering if you have any tips on living in “T-dot” (as my cousins call it). I live in Vancouver, but I am VERY bored here, which is why I’ve been considering going away for school. Any advice would be great. Thanks! <3