Campus Life
by Maclean's
November 11, 2022

21 tips every first-year student should know

We asked leading academics what advice they’d give a frosh. Here’s what they told us.

Author and poet George Elliott Clarke photographed in his home in Toronto. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Be open to unfamiliar surroundings

If you’re attending university in a distant city, expect to feel excitement in meeting new people and forging new friendships, but also to experience some homesickness. I know that I did when I left Halifax to attend the University of Waterloo in September 1979. Although Nova Scotia and Ontario are more similar than, say, France and China, I was still astonished by some subtle differences that made me miss my Africadian (African-Nova Scotian) community. My response to this homesickness or nostalgia or even alienation was to read voraciously everything the Dana Porter Arts Library had pertaining to “Sweet Home” Nova Scotia. Not only did I become an amateur expert on the history and the geography, all that curative research served to inspire my first book of poetry, Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues (1983), and continues to inform much of my scholarship and creative writing. I started out as a Black Nova Scotian, but became Africadian thanks to that transplantation and uprooting experience.

George Elliott Clarke, E.J. Pratt professor of Canadian literature, University of Toronto

Take advantage of research opportunities

The self-discipline you develop in your university years will pay off tenfold in the future. By attending classes regularly and staying on top of things, you will learn new and creative ways of solving problems and hear about all kinds of wild things not found in textbooks or online notes. You will also meet new people who share common interests with you, plus be able to interact with your profs and learn about their research. Many profs hire students to do research over the summer months, and I encourage any student to jump at this opportunity if it’s available. This is how I got into research—I just emailed a few of my professors, and one of them was interested in taking me on. Now, as an assistant professor, I have been able to pay forward the kindness of my former supervisors by hiring some of the bright young minds I’ve interacted with while teaching my first-year chemistry course.

Mita Dasog, assistant professor, department of chemistry, Dalhousie University. Recently named one of the top 150 Canadian women in STEM. 

Don’t be afraid to stand behind what you know

At first the university seemed like a different world to me, but I found it was made of many, many worlds. As an Indigenous undergrad, I remember feeling conflicted about sharing knowledge or ideas in certain classes wherein Indigenous ways of knowing were not commonplace. On one hand, I wondered, is the classroom where this knowledge should be taken up? On the other, I worried Indigenous knowledge systems wouldn’t be taken seriously. Looking back, I know that this struggle was an important process for me. 

While the university is one source of knowledge, it also provides a forum for students to bring in their own knowledges and experiences. This can be both an uncomfortable and liberating feeling. Draw on your experiences—they are a source of knowledge.

I remember being really grateful for the friendships I developed, many of which continue today. Relationships with friends and peers will be crucial to your wellbeing as you explore, contend and deliberate. Take courses with content outside your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to represent your own knowledge. Your learning will stretch you, and the university should be stretched in return. 

Vanessa Watts, acting director, Indigenous studies program, and assistant professor, department of sociology, McMaster University 

Find ways to stay focused in classes

As a first-year undergraduate in the honours physics program at McGill, I often found myself having a hard time understanding material the professor was teaching in class. Either I was tired and found myself drifting off to sleep or else I felt lost and unable to even come up with a cogent question, if I even had the nerve to speak up—and at first, I did not. 

I eventually found two solutions (apart from trying to get more sleep) that were helpful. One was to realize that if I was lost, probably others were too, and they really appreciated someone having the courage to speak up. Also, a very effective trick was to take some time before class to read a little ahead in the textbook. This primed me for class and I found I could get far more out of the professor’s lecture. I could follow better, and I developed enough confidence to ask questions, since I had already given the material some thought. Reading ahead was an investment, but it paid off by making the classroom experience a valuable use of time. I was more engaged, and I found staying awake was that much easier.

Victoria Kaspi, professor of astrophysics and director of the Space Institute at McGill University 

Aritha van Herk. (Ewan Nicholson)

Don’t let your program confine you

Explore. Give your curiosity free rein. Universities are programmatically structured now, but don’t let the requirements of your program confine you. If you want to take astronomy and your English degree tells you that you can’t take any more options, resist and figure out a way to do both. It is less important to complete a degree than to discover your fascinations, which will follow you through life. Add another year and take those options. Stretch. Expand your interests and follow the spirit of inquiry that will serve as the signal for your success. Allow yourself the pleasure of fascination and engagement in an area that will tell you what you really care about, even if it doesn’t result in a cut-and-dried profession. And always work on your ability to express yourself with eloquence and passion. The greatest skill you will need to succeed is articulation, clarity and effective persuasion.

Aritha van Herk, professor, department of English, University of Calgary. Member of the Order of Canada and Alberta Order of Excellence, and fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Engage with subjects that frighten you. Take a course that scares and challenges you.

I started university as a science student at the University of Western Ontario (now Western University). All my courses were science courses, and they provided me with a set of problem-definition and problem-solving skills that have been useful to me over the course of my working life. I did not take any courses in history or philosophy because I was afraid of them and thought they would not be helpful. Years later, I discovered that context influences understanding and that all things have history and philosophy. I’ve had to go back and learn the things that frightened me those many years ago. You never know what you’ll need on this journey through life. It’s best to be prepared as best you can for a world in which context is as important as method.

David Newhouse, professor and director, Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies, Trent University

Ask yourself questions

If I could repeat my first year at university, I would ask more questions of myself, my classmates, senior peers and professors. The shift from knowing the answers to asking the questions lets your curiosity shine and helps you figure out the new and vast university system. As a student, I could have asked questions like: What are the requirements and options in my program? What are the campus services (including mental health services)? What’s the best way to approach this course or assignment? What are the options in my program? What clubs or sports could I try? By practising these questioning skills early on, you will be better able to ask for help when you struggle, and hopefully you will challenge yourself enough to struggle—it’s a good thing!

Asking questions helps you understand the moment, make connections and build skills. You are building the foundation for lifelong learning.

Alison Flynn, associate professor, chair in university teaching, department of chemistry and biomolecular sciences, University of Ottawa, 3M National Teaching Fellow

Follow your curiosity

“Pursue what you’re passionate about” is incredibly banal advice to give new university students, but it strikes me as the most important thing that I wish I’d known in my first year of university. I initially applied to pursue a degree in business before changing my major twice to settle on political science. Why? Because I came in thinking I should get a degree that sounded practical, something that would pay well, something that would look good on a resumé. These are perfectly fine factors to take into consideration, but you’re not going to succeed doing something you don’t enjoy. I ended up with a degree that gave me a lot of skills and a variety of great potential career paths (in other words, it kept my options open), but more importantly, I could only do well in a program I was interested in. Use your first year to explore all a university has to offer, inside and outside the classroom, and remember that it’s okay to chart a different path than the one you initially planned.

Emmett Macfarlane, associate chair, graduate studies, associate professor, department of political science, University of Waterloo 

Manage your time and take a partial course load if you need to

I began university when I was 21 as a mature student and was driven and passionate about my education. However, my financial and family circumstances meant I needed to work to attend university, despite receiving a small student loan and eventually scholarships. I was able to succeed by finding employment that either related in some way to the skills and knowledge I was gaining in university, or was unionized, physically demanding and paid well. I learned to multi-task and ruthlessly manage my time and deadlines. At times, I chose a partial course load, which meant I could concentrate on my studies and build strong relationships with my faculty and peers. I also learned how to manage my personal finances. I loved my undergraduate years at Simon Fraser University, and graduated with an honours degree in history and communication.  

Sara Diamond, OCAD University president

Establish positive lifelong habits

Cultivate friendships. The most valuable thing I have from my undergraduate years is my social network of friends, which includes both former classmates and professors. I’ve had so many opportunities in my life because people I met in undergrad thought of me for some role.

Write every day. It’s easy to leave a 3,000-word essay to the last minute. I have a rule for writing projects: I have to write at least 10 words every day. Just 10 words. Of course, I usually end up writing far more, but the act of writing every day helps me not fall behind, and “just 10 words” is small enough that I don’t put off the task. It’s strange, but it works.

Exercise every day. It’s good for mental health, and in your first year, you will have stress. During the exam crunch, you may not feel like you have time, but that’s when it’s most important. It’s time well spent.

Mike Moffatt, assistant professor in the business, economics and public policy group at Ivey Business School, Western University, and director of policy and research for Canada 2020, a leading, independent progressive think tank

Bonnie Norton. (Bonnie Norton)

Use your learning to work toward a more equitable world

My parents were not wealthy and never went to university. It was therefore necessary for me to learn to navigate the many cultural practices of university life through trial and error. I was surprised when one student, who came from a wealthy family, was given a generous financial scholarship, while I was holding down two jobs and working around the clock. I gathered up the courage to ask him how he knew about the scholarship. Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “I make it my business to find out.” I have never forgotten this lesson on the relationship between human agency and access to knowledge and opportunity. We need to make it our business to “find out”—not only about scholarships and financial aid, but the way human possibility is socially and historically constructed, both locally and globally, and how we can achieve a more equitable world through sharing access to knowledge and power.

Bonny Norton, professor and distinguished university scholar, department of language and literacy education, University of British Columbia 

Develop a work-life balance

Remember that mental and physical fitness and health go together. Pay attention to your nutrition and make sure you get enough sleep, especially before exams. Your first year at university should be a time when you explore new ideas, strengthen existing hobbies or discover new ones, make lasting friends, and join and actively participate in clubs and societies. These non-academic activities will sharpen your ability to competently use your time, make you more efficient and effective in learning your academic material, and make your university experience more fulfilling and rewarding. In the broader context and when feasible, volunteer outside of the university, such as at a homeless shelter or in assisting residents in nursing homes to learn to use new technologies or develop their computer skills. Be aware that university is very different from high school in both the speed and depth of new material that you will have to master. Finally, remember that life is about balance and choices, so choose your major wisely, focus and persevere, and strive to balance your academic and non-academic life while you build your professional foundation with strong personal growth and healthy living.

Jamal Deen, professor, McMaster University, and Senior Canada Research Chair in information technology

Allow yourself to be intellectually uncomfortable

If I had one piece of advice to give, it would be: don’t be afraid to make yourself intellectually uncomfortable. What I mean by that is let your mind be open to different ideas—especially those that challenge your viewpoints.

A lot of students I see coming into university today are married to a very specific position, which mirrors what we are seeing now across North America. There’s too much polarization—people with different political and social views aren’t talking to one another, and that’s a problem. Luckily, universities were created to beat that problem. You will be exposed to new ideas daily, be it from professors, other students or clubs you belong to—but only if you are open to them. You need to seek them out. Those new ideas will allow you to better understand others, learn new things, change your opinion or simply become more resilient with your own ideas, but you need that perspective and context.

 We are developing tomorrow’s leaders at universities like ours, and we want them to be responsible leaders; that’s a key focus for us at UBC Sauder. Responsible leaders understand all the viewpoints at play and don’t become dogmatic on one specific idea. I think true leadership is about understanding all the different positions that people have and coming to a consensus on the best decision that can be made.

So be curious, be open-minded and be uncomfortable. It will make you a better leader and a better person.

Darren Dahl, senior associate dean, faculty director of the Robert H. Lee Graduate School, UBC Sauder School of Business, 3M National Teaching Fellow 

Remember that you have time to make connections

I wish I had known how many paths my career would take, from designer to running a health sciences programme to teaching in Brock’s M.Ed. program and researching post-secondary teaching and learning. I wish I had known that what would matter most wouldn’t be the specific content of any course but rather the learning skills I was acquiring along the way.

As the well-known scholar Patricia Cross wrote, “Learning is about making connections.” Two of the most useful things I have learned are the ability to make connections from one subject and context to another, and the ability to make connections across diverse groups of people. Above all, develop these meta-cognitive skills so that when you leave school and enter the workforce, you’ll be able to keep learning and reinventing yourself as you go.

Another critical consideration is that there is enough time. There is time to do the work, but also connect to friends. To read the articles, but still go for a walk. To write the papers, but still have time for yourself. At the end of the degree, what’s left is you. The patterns you create will be with you for a long time—make them ones that will work for your life. Let busy-ness be for others; make your life rich and full.

Nicola Simmons, assistant professor, department of education studies, Brock University. 3M National Teaching Fellow and Brock University Chancellor’s Chair in Teaching Excellence, 2018-2021 

Joe Schwarcz. (Joe Schwarcz)

Make good use of recorded lectures

When I was an undergrad back in the 1960s, skipping a lecture was a foreign concept. We were scared that our performance on exams would suffer for having missed some pearl of wisdom that the prof cast our way. How times have changed! At McGill, back in 2000, with technical help from two bright undergraduates, Nic Siggel and Nat Goodyer, my colleagues David Harpp, Ariel Fenster and I pioneered the recording of lectures with a view toward decreasing students’ stress. At first we were dismayed by the decrease in attendance, but have since found that grades have actually crept upward. That is likely due to the opportunity of reviewing the material in a more efficient fashion, clarifying more difficult concepts as needed.

At the beginning of each course, we offer students advice on how best to master the material and optimize performance. It is critical not to attempt to “binge watch” the lectures just prior to exams. Numerous studies, as well as our own observations, have shown that material consumed in large lumps does not lead to durable learning. As evidenced by student evaluations, the availability of recorded lectures makes for a better, more efficient learning process. We are also satisfied that most students abide by our advice and relatively few are seduced by the possibility of binge watching.

Joe Schwarcz, director, office for science and society, McGill University

Prioritize learning to write well

One of the things I wish I had known as an undergraduate was the importance of writing well. When I was completing my B.A., I thought my ideas would speak for themselves. It didn’t matter if I picked the right words or structured my sentences properly, since my understanding of the material would shine through regardless. In fact, I remember ruminating over my essay topics for days, then drafting whole papers in one night. I’m pretty sure I even submitted a few without editing them. That was a bad strategy. I did well on exams, but my essay marks kept bringing my average down. Luckily, I was still able to get into graduate school. Once I started my M.A., my stubbornness subsided, and I finally accepted that I had to improve my writing. Although I’ll never be a great writer, I try to get a bit better with each article, book chapter, op ed or blog post I churn out. As I tell my students at the start of every class, arguments are far more convincing and compelling when they’re effectively communicated. When ideas are presented clearly and concisely, they’re more likely to be considered and retained. These messages are particularly important for students who are planning careers in fields that depend on persuasion and explanation, such as public policy and international affairs. My undergraduate papers would have been much better had I figured that out earlier.

Philippe Lagassé, associate professor and Barton Chair, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University

Don’t be afraid to change direction

While exchanging with a student with whom I’ve worked for several years, who has now completed her undergraduate degree and moved to graduate work, something suddenly crystallized: “I wish I’d known when I first arrived at McGill that I had a right to change my mind,” she said. Nora arrived as a student in the faculty of science, and subsequently transferred to the faculty of arts. We worked together on the transition and culture change she had to navigate. She added that she wished she’d realized that she had not only the prerogative but the ability and freedom to change course. Initially, as she shifted, it felt as though she was “letting people down”—her family and the people who had initially advised her. We talked about what it takes, especially these days, to overcome that sense, fed by many discourses in contemporary culture, that one must come to university with a set plan and objective in mind for “success,” and that departure from that initial direction is seen as coming at too high a price. Yet that’s what undergraduate experience is crucially about (I say this from the perspective of someone positioned in the humanities): exploration, discovery, playing a sudden hunch that may lead to a swerve and a new discovery. Nora also wished she’d known that the red tape she’d feared would stand in her way as she changed pathways just wasn’t there. There were actually lots of resources in place to encourage what she was doing. I was glad to hear that the university’s advising infrastructure helps to support the spirit of remaining open to change, evolution and unexpected possible futures. 

Miranda Hickman, acting associate dean, faculty of arts, associate professor of English, McGill University; Nora Shaalan, M.A. student, McGill University

Make time for personal growth

There were so many avenues that I followed that have contributed greatly to my success later in life. Many of the experiences were unknown to me when I first entered university. I never imagined I would enjoy something so much that I knew nothing about previously. Through uncovering these hidden experiences, you will connect with others who, like you, are waiting to discover a passion they did not know existed. Having everything planned out and scheduled does not leave room for growth. Taking on new challenges and exploring new disciplines will allow you to deviate from plans or may reinforce the route you had already planned to take. Whatever the result, you will have varied experiences to broaden your thinking. When you walk off the beaten learning path, so many amazing adventures await.

Jay Wilson, associate professor and department head, curriculum studies, University of Saskatchewan, 3M National Teaching Fellow

Dan Dolderman. (Jenna Liao/TedX)

Things I wish I’d known (in no apparent order):

1. Play. Never stop having fun. Besides, it gets you happiness, productivity, friends. And you never know when life ends.

 2. To maximize No. 1, work very hard, in bursts. Don’t “study all the time.” That makes you depressed, bored and boring. And it’s a colossal waste of time. Focus and dedicate yourself fully to the tasks you are engaged in. 

3. “Cheating the system” by doing things at the last minute, skipping class but still managing to pull off the A-minus or whatever, is just stupid. If you can slack your way through school, who knows what your potential is?

4. Find people who are helpful and motivated. Share notes and help others freely. Any friend will party with you; hold on to the ones who will help you grow.

5. Professors want to talk to you. (At least, I hope so!) Asking questions is not “wasting their time.” They want you to succeed (so they can brag about this great student they knew, who’s now doing amazing things).  

6. The small things matter. A lot. Get enough sleep, eat half-decently and organize your time well so you aren’t always stressed. Everything will work out better from there. 

7. Everybody is insecure. Don’t be intimidated by people. Just be yourself. Some people will like you for you, and that’s enough. So let your freak flag fly.

8. Practically everybody could benefit from a good therapist or mentor. Don’t wait until you hit bottom before you get help. 

9. Relationships determine most of the quality of life. Learn how to set boundaries with people, how to be a good communicator and what your weaknesses are. Then, take the leap and trust people—when it seems wise.  

Dan Dolderman, professor, department of psychology, University of Toronto

Stay curious and learn beyond your assigned course load

Don’t underestimate the importance of embracing experiences outside the university as part of your education. A walking tour of a historic neighbourhood, listening to an elder tell stories or studying an ecosystem in the field—such happenings can spark intangible and unexpected encounters. Enrol in courses held on the land or in community settings, and read, read, read. Opening yourself to new ideas and pushing beyond your comfort zone will not only enhance your current academic experience but might inspire you to shift directions and lead you down new learning paths. Thinking back to talks I attended both on and off campus when I thought I didn’t have time to spare or I was too tired to venture out often provoked new questions I hadn’t considered. 

And do not forget to read beyond what is assigned for your classes. University libraries are filled with amazing books. Choose a section, walk up and down the stacks and pull books off the shelf that catch your eye. Crack open the spine and read the table of contents or start with the first sentence. You might find something you didn’t even know you were looking for. I started out at a two-year program after high school and never imagined the places I would go, the experiences I would have and the paths that eventually led me to becoming a professor. 

Carmen Robertson,Scots-Lakota professor of art history, Carleton University 

Work on your meta-cognitive skills 

What will you learn in university? You will memorize a lot of facts and learn a lot of new skills and techniques. But all those facts you memorize will likely be quickly forgotten, or you can always Google them. Specific job skills you learn may be out of date by the time you start your career, let alone all the times you will change careers over the course of your working life. Much more important is a layer of meta-level skills that will help you in any career path and in contributing to the world as a functioning citizen. Two essential skills are good time management and the ability to pay close attention to detail. These are skills you will need for all your courses, and for your jobs later. Overall, there is the ability to deal with complex issues: to think your way through a maze of opinions and information, decide what is relevant, make reasoned and evidence-based decisions, then communicate and defend those decisions. These critical-thinking skills are what higher education should give you, and they are essential to survival in a fast-changing world. 

Shelly Wismath,dean of liberal education, professor, mathematics and liberal education, University of Lethbridge, 3M National Teaching Fellow