I’ve spent several years blundering through the university system. It’s only now, in my fourth year, that I’m beginning to feel like I have a clue how anything works. Alas, it is too late for me to take full advantage of this knowledge, but I thought perhaps I could pass on a few words of wisdom before it’s all over.
Below I’ve included a list of things I wish I had known before I started. I wasn’t sure if I was the only one who had no idea what was going on for the first few years of their education, so I also posed the question to Reddit. I’ve included several of their excellent responses below.
1.Know What You Want to Do Before You Start
I know a lot of people who felt pressured to go to university straight out of high school. Then, once they made it to university, they had no idea what program to take. There are seriously A BAZILLION options. I worked for several years after high school, so by the time I started my undergrad I thought I had developed a game-plan. Even then it definitely wasn’t specific enough. I was so
overwhelmed by the number of choices that I ended up taking several courses that had nothing to do with my degree.
Redditor wolf2600 also suggests having a program, or even a career, in mind before choosing a school:
“Don’t choose a school/major on a whim. When deciding on a school/program, go to the school’s website, find their college catalog, and see what courses are offered in the department (along with their descriptions), and also what courses are required for the degree. Majors with the same name can have very different requirements at different schools, and the selection of elective courses can also vary widely.”
2. Figure Out What You Have to Do (And What You Don’t)
In my first year of undergrad I had no idea how credits worked; that’s partially why I ended up taking so many classes that panned out to have nothing to do with my degree. Yes, I was able to use them as elective credits, but because I used up many of my free electives early on in my degree, I was left with the more difficult required classes for my last few years.
Credit systems change from school to school, so I can’t give you any exact numbers to help you avoid making the mistake I did, but I have included a rough estimate to give you an idea:
“A bachelor’s degree is [often] 120 credits and consists of three kinds of classes: general education, major, and elective/minor. You’ll need about 60 credits (20 classes) of gen ed, around 45 credits (15 classes) of major classes, and about 15 credits (5 classes) of elective/minor classes.”
For a typical undergraduate degree (bachelor of Arts and/or Science), you do have a little bit of freedom before declaring your major. If you haven’t decided on a major yet, a great place to start is in taking general courses (like English or Math) that are very likely going to be prerequisites once you have picked a program. That way you also don’t use up all your free electives in your first few years.
3. Don’t Assume The Advisor is Always Right
Several of the comments I received on Reddit were from people who took unnecessary courses because of an advisor’s mistake. Don’t get me wrong, this is their job, so generally speaking they know a lot more than you. But it is also just their job. People make mistakes, and you don’t want to pay for someone else’s mistakes.
One woman I knew took the precaution of always asking for the advisor’s signature next to advice she had just been given. It is sometimes possible to have certain requirements waived, or for certain courses to be accepted in lieu of the required class. If an advisor tells you one thing, but you later find out that the policy has changed, it is much more likely that the university will honour what the advisor already told you if you have their advice in writing.
4. You Will Have to Work Much Harder Than You Did in High School
Reddit user Zenryhao summed this up better than I could:
“You can’t bulls**t your way through college… No matter how smart you are or how easy high school was for you, you’re going to have to legitimately work to do well in college. Time management is just about the most important skill you’ll have to learn & develop. Self-control is an extension of that, too. Sometimes, you’re going to have to tell your friends that you’re just too busy to go out. It sucks, but that’s how it is. Having fun is important, but at the end of the day you’re there for an education. Get your s**t done first and foremost, or you’re flushing tons of money and your future down the drain.”
WYREY also drove home this point, with a reminder about the level of self-discipline required in University:
“Professors will not come up to you and say you are doing poorly, it’s something you need to usually figure out yourself. They also will not usually tell you that you [are falling behind on] homework, like high school teachers do.”
5. Be Prepared to Pay Thousands of Dollars on Textbooks (or Become Very Creative)
One of the great parts of being an English student is that many of my “textbooks” are novels and anthologies that you can find at many used bookstores and/or the library. Unfortunately for those of you who are not taking English, textbooks can end up being a huge expense.
Luckily, there are quite a few ways you can avoid paying the campus bookstore prices.
- You can find cheaper version on Amazon. If you choose this route pay close attention to the edition. If it is an older edition you can possibly still purchase it (with your teacher’s permission), but it can make following along with in-class discussion much more difficult.
- You can download textbooks to your tablet through websites like Course Smart. This is generally cheaper than buying a hardcopy and means you get to lug around a lighter backpack.
- Buy textbooks from other students. In larger schools you may find a textbook consignment store, so you wouldn’t necessarily need to meet up with a student to buy their textbooks. Now that many universities, and many departments within each university, have their own social media sites, it can also be possible to arrange sales/purchases there.
- You can use the on-reserve textbook at your school’s library. My husband is currently doing this for one of his Math classes. Because the textbook is on reserve, he can only take it home at the end of the day and he has to bring it back first thing in the morning. He is also able to work with it during the day in the library if no one else is using it. He has said that having such a limited amount of time with the textbook forces him to get as much work done as possible whenever he has access to it.
6. Look for Work Experience Opportunities at Your University
Just having an undergraduate degree may not guarantee you a job. Having some hands-on experience is a different story. In my first year at UVic I heard about various work study positions that other students were doing with professors in their discipline. I just assumed you had to be invited by a professor in order to be considered for this kind of opportunity. Recently, I was invited to do a work study with one of my professors. When I happily agreed, he sent me a link to the work study website. Upon reading the application process, I quickly realized anyone in the department could apply. I could have applied for a position years ago!
Don’t be like me. Be proactive. These kind of experiences look excellent on your resume, plus it doesn’t hurt to make a little extra cash during the year.
7. Apply for Scholarships and Bursaries
This is a lot easier said than done. I tried the Scholarships Canada website many a time with no success. Most of the scholarships listed there are so broad only the highest of overachievers will be raking in any dough. For the rest of us mere-mortals, free money can be hard to find. If you don’t know where to start, check if your school has a financial aid department. They will be able to tell you if you’re a good candidate for need-based bursaries supplied by the school. If you are a transfer student, like I was, you may have some success applying for entrance scholarships.
If you work hard and have already declared your major, start asking around within your department. Sometimes there will be research grants available within a department, or scholarships given to students who write an essay on a particular topic.
8. Avoid Student Loans
Try to think of student loans as a last resort. If you know your program will provide you with an immediate job, then go right ahead. But if you are like the rest of us, then do what you can to avoid taking out loans. If you must take out a loan, try to only use what you need and put the rest in a savings account. If it helps you to be more cautious, think about the 15 billion dollars the students who went before you are still trying to pay back to the Canadian government.
9. Be Open to Community College
I took my first year of studies in a community college, and I loved it. The classes were small. I never got lost looking for classes. I saved money living with my parents. The best part was the tuition, which was about half what I now pay at a much larger university.
10. If You Aren’t in a Program That Will Streamline You Into a Job, Then You Will Probably Need a Masters or PhD
“Generic undergraduate degrees (Science, or Art, for example) [are] only a stepping stone in your education path. Very few jobs exist where the sole requirement is a degree in those fields alone; be prepared to become more focused on a major, and to get your masters in that field if you are expecting to actually work in that area.” -redditor Azweape
11. Join a Club
Universities, especially the larger ones, can be a really lonely place. Some programs have several hundred students per class, and no one arrives in class with the intention of chatting it up with some new friends. People are there to listen and learn, and check their Facebook updates from the back of the class. If you are having trouble meeting new people it can make a big difference once you get plugged into a niche.
If you do find a club that is a good fit for you, you may find leadership opportunities open up to you. If you take on one of these kind of volunteer position you set yourself apart from the crowd, something that can sometimes get you noticed when it comes to applying for scholarships.
12. Be Grateful
Sometimes I take my student life for granted. As a full-time student, I get to spend my time reading, writing, and thinking. I get to choose my hours (by choosing my class schedule). I get to pose questions to intelligent people who are experts in their field. And I get lots of stuff at a discounted price because I have a student card.
Don’t get me wrong, School is hard work, but it’s hard work you get to dedicate to honing your skills or satisfying your curiosity. Try not to forget just how lucky you are.