Learning how to function at university is a skill like any other, which means there’s a lot of trial and error involved. To make matters more difficult, some of these skills are opaque conventions or norms that no one explains and you have to pick up on your own. It took me about two and a half years to build up my university muscles, and I’ve compiled a cheat sheet of information I wish someone had told me in my first year, as a head-start of sorts.
1) Making the right friends can take time. Friendship is a weird type of chemistry that needs just the right environment to stick, so don’t force it, and don’t get discouraged if you feel like your Orientation Week pals won’t be next to you at graduation. You’ll find your people.
2) Essay-writing techniques that are taught in high school are lies. Thesis statements can be more than one sentence, paraphrasing is often better than quoting, and overall structure should fit your argument not vice versa, so throw an extra body paragraph in there if you wish.
3) Many academics are bad writers, so if you don’t understand a jargon-filled article, don’t sweat it. Employ Google — or, dare I say, Wikipedia — liberally to explain concepts, or talk to your teaching assistant (TA).
4) On this point, folks, TAs will seriously save your life — befriend them.
5) Ignore what the syllabus says about assignment extensions. Most professors will give you an extra couple of days if you really need them and if you’ve proven yourself to be a reliable student. However, don’t make a habit of it.
6) Make that participation grade work for you. These marks can be anywhere from 10 to 20 per cent of your grade, and they are the secret to a consistent GPA. If you hate public speaking, talk to your TA and see if they’ll let you submit written responses for participation instead. They will.
7) Never put school ahead of your mental health. I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘Oh but what about…’ no, don’t. School is never as important.
8) Try to actually give half a hoot about your classes. It’s much easier to stay motivated when you’re curious about the material, and this interest will come through in your writing, making it more entertaining to read.
9) Figure out how you learn. By this I mean, understand whether you need to hear the material in lecture or do you have to read it? Can you read articles off a screen, or do you need to print them out? Can you work on essays in pieces, or do you need to write the whole thing at once? This one takes time, but figuring it out lets you prioritize and manage your time effectively.
Being wrong makes you smarter. Be wrong bravely and often.
This article may not be ground-breaking, but I hope giving you a jump on the unspoken rules of academia makes it all a bit more legible. University is truly a one-of-a-kind experience, so in parting I’ll say this: launch yourself at it full-force; it won’t be worth it if you do anything less than that.