First week… and beyond

The quiet halls of a university summer have metamorphosed – suddenly, as they always do – into the exciting clamor of the first week of classes. It is great to see so many students back for another year of learning. And, of course, it’s great to welcome new students to our campus for what will be, for many of them, their first university experience.

So, in the spirit of welcoming new students (and old) to the excitement of university education, here are a few tips that might be useful in the year (and years) ahead. Please feel free to add other ideas in the comments section below.

  • It may sound cliche, but you are about to embark on what will likely be some of the most amazing years of your life… if you choose to make them so. You will be in daily contact with professors who love (“obsession” is likely not even a strong enough word in most cases) their subject matter. These people will show you things about the world around you that are, simply put, mind-blowing. Take full advantage of their expertise and excitement about the subject matter.
  • Take classes on topics that you appreciate. And learn to appreciate the classes that you may not think that you will find particularly appealing at the outset. As per the “mind-blowing” statement above, even the seemingly driest material reveals astounding details when examined closely. Take the time and make the effort to see, hear, touch, and taste the subject matter and you will understand what I mean.
  • There are two main ways to get a good mark in a class. One is to work hard, communicate with your professors and TAs, and turn in high quality work on time. The second one is to do all of those things while also appreciating and deeply exploring what you’re learning. The second way is more fulfilling and will likely get you a better mark than the first way. Follow the second way.
  • No class is included in your degree progression or the university calendar “just because.” Classes are all there for a reason and their inclusion has been carefully considered. Hopefully the professor articulates that reason. If he or she does not, ask.
  • Look for linkages between courses that you are taking, even courses that seem completely dissimilar. Again, feel free to ask your professor how he or she sees their course linking to other topics that interest you. And listen to the professor during class time. Chances are she will highlight some of those linkages for you.
  • At this point it’s probably best to reiterate a developing theme in these points: talk to your professors. Ask relevant questions about the course material. They won’t know every answer. Who does? But they should be able to point you in the right direction to determine the answer yourself. Most professors hear from most of their students in the day before the exam and in the week after an exam is handed back. That’s fair, of course. But it gets tedious. On the other hand, thinking about interesting questions and having discussions with interested students never gets tedious. These discussions are a valuable part of university life, if you choose to make them so.
  • Not all questions are answerable. And not all answerable questions are answered. And not all answers are correct. Those edges of our knowledge are where things get fun. Find those edges and explore them.
  • Budget, both your time and your money. Specifically in terms of time, you can’t do everything, even though there are so many cool things to do. Prioritize.
  • Find things to do, clubs to join, causes to support. As per the point above, budget your time, but don’t neglect these things. They are potentially as much part of your learning experience here as are your classes, labs, and tutorials.
  • Buy the text used. Even if the text has gone to a new edition, the old edition is probably good enough. (Disclaimer: check with your professor first in terms of editions, but that rule should hold at least 90% of the time.)
  • Or, buy the electronic “rental” version of the text if one is available. You may think that you’ll consult the textbook later on in life, but you probably won’t. And if you find that you do need it, there will be plenty of extremely cheap used copies available shortly. See “budget your money,” above.
  • Don’t ask “is this going to be on the exam?” because it likely will be. Especially if you ask. Rather, ask for further clarification on topics that seem highly complex.
  • Find a support group. While the first week of classes after a relaxing summer is generally full of positive energy, things can seem much different in the dark days of exam-ridden and hard-frozen February. You will need the support – and you will need to provide support as well – of family, friends, and like-minded individuals at those times. Use your early days to develop that network. And continue to cultivate that network as you progress in your degree.
  • Campuses have specific resources (offices, personnel, etc.) to help you address issues that you are having. Don’t suffer alone if you are having a problem with a course, a person, your personal life, or whatever. Help is available.
  • Call home. Frequently.
  • Take care of your whole self… mind, body, and spirit. Don’t neglect one or the other.
  • Talk to your academic advisor(s) on a regular basis to ensure that you are on the right path toward graduation.
  • Find electives that you’ll enjoy and learn from, not just ones that all of your friends are taking because the course has a reputation for an “easy A.” Branch out from your major to unexpected areas, and then look for linkages to what you’ve already learned. This is your best chance in life to do this. Take full advantage of it.
  • Talk in class. I don’t mean “whisper to your neighbor.” Rather, ask relevant questions and participate in class discussions and activities.
  • While university grads typically find good jobs (unemployment rates for university grads are generally significantly lower than for non-grads), it’s hard to predict today what the job market will be like in four years. It’s also hard to predict what you will find at university that will excite you. By all means, go into your degree with a plan for a road ahead. But be aware that the map may change, or you may take a new route, as the world changes and as you discover new things.

Again, welcome to university. Learn, interact, have fun, and prepare to be amazed at what you’re going to discover.

(Addendum: I just noticed that @CMBuddle has also posted a really great list of 12 tips for undergraduate students.)