Advice For My Sister As She Goes To University

August 30th, 2008 by Potato

My sister leaves for her first year as a Queen’s student this weekend. She’s the first one in the family to do her undergrad at a distance: both my brother and I stayed home and went to UofT. I asked her if she wanted to give me a call tonight for a little bit of big brotherly advice. She said to just email her… so I did. Not being one to lean towards the concise, this is what I sent her.

I’ve been in university for 9 years now, so I’ve got a fair bit of experience in the whole affair. Of course, I haven’t gotten around to the graduating and doing something else yet, so I am a little short on some perspective, but bear with me.

School & Studying:

University is a crazy place at a crazy time. You’re off on your own for the first time; for many this will be their first time getting really drunk, and you’ll be into the biggest melting pot experience you’ve ever had. Remember why you’re there, and how much you (or rather, dad) is paying for you to be there. There will be lots (and lots) of opportunities to party, to get cultured, to meet new people, and tend bar. However, you only get one shot at your midterms.

Sit at the front. Seriously, it’s much less uncool in university since you’re supposed to learn and do well there, and it’s a lot harder to fall asleep that close to the prof. Acting like an A-student helps you be an A-student. You can also read their writing and hear better.

Join or create a study group. Hard science students have a big advantage here since they typically have regular problem sets which encourage group review, but it can be immensely helpful to get a group of people together to review and discuss what you’re learning in class. Go over the concepts, the definitions, how it applies to society, anything to stimulate discussion, review, and further reading. Regular studying is way more effective than last-minute cramming, and a study group can be great support not just for the discussions but also because it’s easy to convince yourself to skip reviewing for a week, and another, and another… but it’s much harder to do that when you have a group of people counting on you to do your readings and participate. Start right away – don’t be afraid to ask your prof for permission to put a notice up or make an announcement in class to get people coming to you. If your class has a on-line discussion board then you can even try an online study group – it’ll be better than nothing, as long as you do some review on a regular basis. The one thing I’ll caution you is to get at least two strangers for your study group. If it’s all close friends from high school or res then you’ll be much more easily distracted.

Don’t just memorize. Some things you’ll just have to memorize, but try as much as you can to learn the concepts as well. Concepts and understanding is forgotten much more slowly than memorized lists of facts. Making sense is more important than making numbers.

Don’t be shy. You’re there to learn. If you’re not understanding something, you’re not learning it. Ask your prof or your TA by email. Note that you do have to put some work into understanding on your own, especially if it’s an assignment you’re having trouble finding an answer to, but if you go to your prof or TA’s office hours or send them an email they will be more than happy to try to help you through your difficulty. Help them out by being as specific as possible on what you don’t understand. In class, don’t be afraid to ask questions and stimulate debate, either. If you don’t understand something, or missed something the prof mumbled, there is an exceptionally good chance that other people in the class are thinking the same question you are. Go ahead and ask the prof, and you’ll probably be doing them a favour. Note that if you’re getting up to say 4 questions per lecture (in what is ostensibly a non-interactive class) you might be overdoing it, however in all my years and the thousands of students I’ve taken classes with, I’ve only known 2 people who overdid it with the questions and lecture interruptions, and hundreds who were too shy.

Don’t be shy. Yes, it’s the same advice, but for a different reason. What do you want when you get out of university at the end of your four years? An education, a degree, yes. High marks, hopefully. But you also want friends, contacts, and reference letters. You can’t get reference letters if you’re a blank face in a crowd of blank faces. If you’re energetic and involved you’ll get a better reference letter, even if your marks aren’t as good as someone else’s. You’re also more likely to get offered summer positions and the like. And you’ll make more friends.

Marks & Organization:

University is very much a sink-or-swim environment. A “give the students enough rope to hang themselves” environment. You’re going to have to organize your notes and your life much more than you ever dreamt in high school. Get organized. Get a system and a calendar. Get time blocked off for regular review if you are in a program that lets a lot of material build up between assignments and classes (which I believe history is – you don’t want to have to cram half a term’s worth of material the weekend before your major essay or midterm is due).

Marks are money. If you can pull off straight-As in first year then you will be eligible for a number of scholarships for your second year. Better marks put you in a position to be more competitive in your first job interview outside university (though honestly, for your second job outside university, they won’t care about your marks). Being smarter is nice, but often the difference between a B student and an A student (and especially between a C student and a B student) is as often as not organization as much as IQ.

Try to stay interested in your class material. I know it’s almost impossible to do it all the time, but try to at least fake it to yourself. It’s much harder to learn something you’re not enjoying and not interested in. For this reason also be careful not to take a “bird class” just because you heard it was easy – it will be much easier to do well in a class you’re genuinely interested in.

Social Life:

Wayfare is a better person to ask if you have questions about socializing at university since she has the girl’s perspective, and she said she already talked to you a bit about that, and knows all about scuzzy people, not walking around on your own after dark and that sort of thing. I’ll just put in my two bits of advice.

The first is to not get sucked in to alcohol. You know I’m a teetotaller, but I know that most people aren’t, so odds are you’ll be drinking at least a little. You’ll have a lot more fun at a party with three or four drinks than you will with ten in you. You’ll also get into far less trouble. I don’t want to preach on the point too much, but 19 is way too young to start drinking, no matter what the government might say about it. Not just because kids that age (and not necessarily you) are too immature to really handle it, but because your brain is still developing. People joke all the time about alcohol killing their liver, but under 25 it’s doing more damage to your brain than your liver. And if you got into a university program then your brain is something you want to protect. Oh, and no drinking on school nights, even if you can find the time to go to the bar with friends on them. You’ll thank me later.

The second is to pick one extra-curricular or volunteer activity and go get involved with that – but just one. Whether it’s curling, student council, a multicultural club, or fencing, you’ll probably only have time for the one by the end of the year, even if it looks like you have time to join three or four at the beginning. Nonetheless, they’re great ways to meet people and make friends outside of class.


University provides so very many ways to abuse your health. I won’t even bother trying to tell you to eat three squares a day since it’s virtually guaranteed you won’t eat well. But at least be sure to keep up with your exercise: every campus gives you a gym membership as part of your student fees. Take advantage of it, though you might want to take advantage of the good weather in September to exercise outside and get to know the city – by the first midterm, the gym will quiet down and will be much easier to get into.


University is a flaberghastingly expensive experience. Most people walk away with huge debts. You’re very lucky in that dad is going to help you out a lot, but nonetheless, learning (and sharing with your friends) how to be at least a little bit frugal will go a long way in university. First off is the most obvious tip I can share: buy used books. Books are a big expense, often right up there with food, housing, and tuition. Look for ads on bulletin boards, craigslist/kijiji, etc. to get used books for your classes. The bookstore will also usually sell some used books at a decent discount (but often more than you could spend by finding a student from the previous year). If you have to buy new books, because the prof changed the text, or because you couldn’t find a good quality used version, then remember that the campus bookstore is generally the most expensive place to get your books. UofT had several nearby off-campus bookstores that stocked the most popular first and second year class texts (by third and fourth year the class sizes became smaller and they didn’t generally bother) generally at a 10% discount to the bookstore. Amazon and Chapters may also have your texts available online – in that case be sure to order early so you’re not stuck waiting for a shipment!

As I mentioned above, why buy ten drinks when three will do? I’ve known people who have spent hundreds of dollars at a bar in a single night, just to puke their guts out and forget the whole thing.

In a university town, you’ll find student discounts on nearly everything if you look and ask – from subs to clothes to train tickets home. Take advantage of it.

Get a credit card. It will help you build up your credit, which will be handy if you need a student loan from something other than the Bank of Dad, and especially when you’re done school. Remember though that everything you put on your credit card has to be paid off in less than a month when your statement arrives. Credit cards may seem like they create money out of nowhere, but they don’t. Don’t ever carry a balance on a credit card, not even for a day. Get a line of credit or ask dad to loan you some money if you end up charging too much to the card, but don’t let a balance sit on the card. If you can’t handle it (some people can’t, but since you’re a spud you should be able to), then cut it up and go back to cash.

“Marks are money”. It’s the mantra of my prof, but to that I’ll add that there are scholarships all over the place. Most of them have some kind of mark minimum, but not all of them are strictly mark based. A lot of the ones that require an application have so few applicants that they give the scholarship out to everyone who meets the minimum. Others have community service or essay competitions, so you don’t necessarily have to be the best student. Keep your eyes open for scholarships that are out there. Ask departmental secretaries if they know of any you might be missing. The success rate is usually quite good just for taking a few hours to write an essay and fill out an application. And the beauty of winning a scholarship, even a $25 departmental volunteer prize, is that they make your resume look better, which makes you more likely to win more in the future. It all snowballs quite nicely.

The Big Picture:

I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life in first year. Hell, I’m in the 3rd year of my PhD and am still kind of fuzzy on the details. Nonetheless, try to give some thought to what you would like to do with your life when you leave university. Think about what you would like to continue learning in your 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year as you go through your 1st. Try to keep the big picture in mind – even if you don’t ever make any final decisions until you’re out, thinking about it from time to time will give you a leg up. Getting high marks and a degree of some kind is nice, but you also want to come away from your university experience with something. What are you there to learn? What skills (rather than just knowledge) are you there to pick up? Sometimes you’ll find just one or two lectures from a whole year will really go towards helping you in the future, and as long as you’re open and considering what you might need you’re more likely to twig onto those tidbits or opportunities, rather than letting them pass by.

I’ve talked a lot about the practicalities, studying and marks and whatnot. I’ll end with this: make friends, have fun. Just not so much fun that you forget to study.

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