How to Succeed at University: Tips from a Recent Graduate

tips for first year university students


This past year, my cousin went away to university for the first time.  We’ve been talking a lot about her experiences so far, and how they compare to mine, since I just graduated after five years at university and am going to teacher’s college in the fall, and I thought I might share some of them here.

I’ve had fairly diverse experiences in my university career.  In September 2008, I started at Brock University as a student in Biomedical Sciences.  A joint program put together by the Departments of Biology and Community Health Sciences, it was geared towards students intending to go into biomedical research or, in my case, medical college.  After two years in the program, I decided that it really wasn’t for me, and decided that I needed a change.  I adored Brock and didn’t want to go anywhere else, so I began looking into what other programs it offered that might interest me.  I considered staying in sciences, perhaps majoring in just Biology or Health, which would at least get me away from the evil Organic Chemistry class that was the bane of my existence.  But, for various reasons, I decided those programs weren’t the right place for me either.

brock1 sciencenerd

It was then that I turned to the Humanities.  Having gone to a private arts school from grades five through eight, and having been heavily involved in music and the arts throughout my first three years of high school, Music seemed like a natural choice.  However, I was also gifted with fairly decent essay-writing skills and read so much it might actually be unnatural, so the English Language and Literature program drew my interest as well.  Long story short, I eventually made up my mind, which is how I ended up graduating with a BA in Music (with First-Class Honours) and a minor in English.

Each year has also brought me a different living arrangement, and a new degree of independence.  When I first arrived at Brock, I didn’t know anyone and therefore chose to live in residence (or as American readers might call them, the dorms).  I lived in a “traditional” residence hall, where my only private space was my own bedroom.


For my second and third years at Brock, I was a don, known at some other universities as an RA (Residence Assistant).  Now, on top of my school-related schedule, I had to attend regular meetings and training days, create programs for the students of my area to enjoy and learn from, and go on rounds at night to make sure everyone was being safe and following the various rules of residence.  Mostly I was breaking up parties and making sure people didn’t get so drunk that they hurt themselves.  On top of all this, I experienced a new form of independence: Brock’s “townhouse”-style residence.  Now, instead of the typical dorm set-up, I had a kitchen and living room, and two roommates to share them with.  Third year was also when I started dating my boyfriend (now my fiance), and proceeded to spend entirely too much time with him.


The last two years of our university careers, we lived together and I finally experienced living off-campus.  I was still fairly close  to campus, but there weren’t dining halls around to fall back on when I became lazy.  While I missed being on the Residence Life Staff, it was nice to have a bit more freedom and not have so many pressures, while at the same time feeling more and more like a “real adult.”  To finish up faster, I also spent last summer living in St Catharines so I could take a few courses.  Until then, I had lived there and gone to Brock from September to April, and then gone home to London for the summer where I could live for free and mooch food, laundry, and money from my dear sweet mother.  While it was nice not to have to move twice that year, it was very different being by myself for the majority of the summer.  And not only did I have to feed myself, but I also had a small, furry, and excessively demanding creature to take care of as well (my cat, not my fiance).

So, with my story as a university in mind, here are my tips for those heading off into almost-adulthood this fall:

  • Don’t be afraid of change.  It’s going to be big – a lot of university students have never been away from home before (I know I hadn’t, not for that long anyway).  Just because it might be intimidating or strange, don’t shy away from these new experiences!  You’re an adult now (mostly), start enjoying the freedom.  I know that once I started making friends with the people in my residence hall, all worries of being away from home faded into the background.
  • Don’t go home too often.  You’ll be missing out on a huge part of the experience.  If you wanted to be home every weekend, you should have chosen a university in your own hometown or close enough that you could have just stayed living with your parents.  It’s only going to be harder on you in the long-run because that independence you’ve slowly been establishing will come crashing down on a weekly basis.  I would say go home, at most, once a month.  If you can wait, every six weeks is better.  I went home for the big things – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Reading Week, Easter – which meant I was going home around the six-week mark anyway (Canadian Thanksgiving is in October, just to clarify for any non-Canucks), and that seemed like good spacing to me.
  • Budget.  You may be working, you may be living off student loans, or you may be one of the lucky few still living on your parents’ dime.  Regardless of what your financial situation is, start learning the all-important skill of budgeting.  You may want to hit the clubs every weekend with your friends, or perhaps you’re just dying for that new pair of jeans, and maybe you can afford all of that.  But maybe you can’t.  Figure out what your monetary limits are, and don’t forget that things like food and cell phone bills should come before going to the movies.  It may suck to be the only person not buying a new pair of super-cute shoes, but your bank account will thank you later, and you won’t have to make that awful phone call to your mom, in tears, begging her to fix your money problems for you.  (Been there, done that.)
  • If you hate your major, switch.  Being in a bunch of classes you don’t like isn’t going to make you want to stick around or give them the time and energy they require.  I hated science, and my grades were starting to reflect that, and so I switched into something that made me happy (and my grades followed suit).  There is no shame in not knowing what you want to do or where you’re headed; university is the time when you’re supposed to make a few mistakes and change your mind twenty times.  There is no point in locking yourself into something you can’t stand, because once you graduate, congrats, you’re stuck and you’ve just wasted the last four years (or more) of your life on something that makes you miserable.
  • Find an organization system that works for you, and stick to it.  You’re going to be balancing lots of different classes, each with their unique workload and due dates.  Find some way of keeping track of what you need to do – readings, assignments, research, essays – and keep it prioritized.  The last thing you need is a 5,000-word research paper sneaking up on you, trust me.
  • Have fun.  Make mistakes.  Get messy.  Yes, I’m ripping off The Magic School Bus, but my point remains.  University doesn’t have to be all serious, and as long as you’re staying on top of your schoolwork and are fully prepared to deal with the consequences of your actions, this is the time for doing stupid things, letting go, and really figuring out who you are.  Just make sure none of it ends up on Facebook, please.

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