Beginning University is both an exciting and overwhelming challenge. On the one hand, you are thrilled to be moving forward with the pursuit of higher education and an eventual career, but there are aspects of beginning University that can lead to much anxiety, social isolation, discouragement, and even depression in first years. Moving away from family and friends, is one thing that accounts for this difficulty adjusting, but adapting to increasing coursework demands, new peers, competitiveness, a more rigorous grading scheme, and orienting yourself around campus are just some examples of the slue of other factors that can cause much stress for Freshmen. With this post, I hope to offer some sound advice fir first year University students in the hope of reducing their risk of emotional distress. First off, congratulations, you are about to embark on a wonderful road that will inevitably be what you make of it…
Advice for University First Years
1) “Just Keep Swimming:” this tip has to do with the biggest mistake I made in my first semester at McGill University. I majored in Psychology through the faculty of Arts, and the first year included many biology and physiology-based courses I was not very familiar with. To compensate for this, I studied excessively and obsessively, convinced I would get the same results I did in CEJEP with the same amount of effort. The results of my first exam however, proved otherwise. After busting my hump for weeks, I got a 75%. Expecting 100%, this resounding B hit me like a bullet train and I became inconsolably discouraged and ultimately defeated. I could not understand how one could study so hard and review the material so thoroughly, and not get an A. Instead of teaching me to re-evaluate my study methods, meet with my professor to go over where I went wrong, and foster determination to do better the next time, I essentially gave up after one measly exam gone “wrong.” Come year two, I realized a 75% at McGill for a challenging biology examination, especially being my first ever exam at McGill, was an excellent grade! The moral of this story is to learn from your “mistakes” instead of letting them discourage you. When you feel overwhelmed by schoolwork demands, thinking it impossible to stay afloat, just keep swimming. When you receive results inferior to what you were expecting, find out why, adjust your strategies, establish more efficient study methods, and strive to do better the next time. Only the strong survive (eventually making it to graduate school – subject for another post).
2) Don’t Isolate Yourself: okay, I’m sure you’ve heard this one before but it’s a “gooden;” get involved! It is so easy to alienate yourself from social interaction in your first year of University, especially when all of your hometown or high school friends have gone to other schools. You have every excuse to lock yourself up in your room; excessive amounts of reading and homework being reason enough. This however, is the worst thing you can do, especially in light of all the new stresses and pressures University places upon students. Isolating yourself socially, even if in a benevolent effort to stay on top of your schoolwork, can actually lead to adverse mental health consequences such as anxiety, panic symptoms, physical health complaints, and even depression. It could be hard to make friends, especially when in a sea of hundreds of students who have their own priorities, but it is truly so important to both your health; physical and emotional, AND your academic success. So, don’t be shy to start a study group, look into joining the numerous social clubs, varsity sports teams, Sororities or Fraternities, or even approaching a lonely-looking library-dweller. 9 times out of 10, you won’t be sorry you did. I joined the McGill Cheerleading team in my third year, and to this day, I regret not having joined up in U1. Get involved!
3) Stay Active: physical activity is one of the best stress and anxiety relievers we know of. It could seem impossible to find the time to somehow fit exercise into a busy Freshmen schedule, but there are always ways to sneak it in, especially as it is so important. Bike or fast-walk to class, go for a campus jog, join an athletic team, or sign up for your University’s gym; they all have one and they are usually either free or close to it. Staying active will help manage your stress levels and promote good mental health. It is a good way to meet people and build friendships as well – not to mention a good way to avoid the “Freshmen 15.
4) Fear Not Your Professors: contrary to popular belief among most first year students, professors are not frightening monsters who feed on freshman. I remember being terrified to approach a professor for the first time and now laugh at the thought as I was on a first name basis with many of them by the time I graduated. Professors and TAs are there to support you in your studies, and want to see you succeed. Most are positively delighted to get questions from students after class, and visits during office hours. Building a good relationship with your professors is also a good way to gain research and field-experience opportunities, as well as lock in a good reference for graduate-school. Despite the fact that “everybody knows this,” you’d be surprised how few out of their hundreds of students, actually make an effort to know their professors. Remember, there is a difference between sucking up for points, and networking. If you feel collaborating with your teachers would be a viable way to further your success, by all means, don’t be afraid to approach them and ask questions; that is truly what they are there for.
5) Be Aware of Your Resources: lastly, knowing of the excellent services, both academic and social, that are available to students, could make the difference between a wonderful first semester, and a difficult one. If you struggle with any disabilities, learning or otherwise, get in touch with your office for students with disabilities as they are always prepared to offer the best service to facilitate your student experience. Next, University is not cheap, if you are having financial difficulties, find out what kind of aid or bursaries are available to you – you will likely be surprised just how much you are eligible for. There are also committees that provide free meals, organize social events, and allocate student lounge space where you could get some shut-eye on campus for those days with the 5-hour break in the middle of them. The take-home message here is to be pro-active in your pursuit of support. Yes, it can be overwhelming, but there are dozens of staff members employed specifically for the purpose of facilitating the transition for new students, and maintaining the support they offer them until graduation; it is such a pity that so many students are not aware of this. If you’re wondering where you should go to inform yourself, the student services office is always your best bet. They will answer any questions you may have and point you in the right direction. Yes, there are often long wait times and crowds of students looking to get their needs met too, but assert yourself, and take up all the time you need, you are as important as anyone else on campus.
I hope these tips have helped ease some of your first year woes. Remember, with time, and adjustment following error, it all becomes much more comfortable and you will come to enjoy your University experience. Best of luck to all and “may the force be with you.”