On your marks, get set, study

Contributors write about their experiences within U of T’s highly competitive environment

On your marks, get set, study

It’s not unwarranted to call U of T a pressure cooker, especially around this stressful time of year. Below, students reflect on how their experiences with competition at the university have shaped their lives, for better or for worse.

Dreams of med school bring out the best and worst in students

As a first-year Life Sciences student, I feel like U of T is much more competitive than my high school, and probably most universities in Canada. In general, for any program, the standards needed to excel are quite high — you’re expected to maintain 85 per cent averages for all courses if you aim to achieve a 4.0, irrespective of the nature of the course. This can be very difficult depending on the courses you take; while I breeze through biology courses, I struggle to do well in organic chemistry.

There’s also the fact that many people in Life Sciences are gunning for medical school, which often requires maintaining averages of 90 per cent or higher as well as a full course load every year. I’m not surprised to find many of my classmates frantically studying overnight at Robarts on a regular basis, or plowing through stacks of past papers the night before an exam.

The competition that comes out of this environment can also spawn a sense of self-importance. I was initially quite baffled when I heard friends complaining about “only” getting an 85 per cent grade. However, given that perfect grades are not merely an asset for them to get into medical school — they’re a requirement — I eventually came to understand their discontent.

Nevertheless, I don’t think that the rigorous academic culture at U of T is necessarily a bad thing. The environment has forced me to adopt better study habits and manage my time more effectively, but I’ve still managed to enjoy some free time to pursue my hobbies now and then. Plus, U of T has more opportunities in terms of research and internships compared to other universities, so I think the extra effort comes with its rewards.

All in all, what you put into a degree is what you get out of it. While it may be harder to do well at U of T or in certain programs, it certainly isn’t impossible, and being surrounded by people of equal or higher calibre can make it all the more worthwhile.

Jeffrey To is a first-year student at University College studying Life Sciences.

An emphasis on grades pits overachieving peers against one another

University is the first experience that many students, including me, have with living independently. As such, the university experience can be daunting to begin with. Add to this the spectre of responsibility thrust upon us: our lives depend upon the grades, extracurriculars, and work experiences that we can cram into our résumés within the time it takes to complete a degree.

Since I entered the Biochemistry program with expectations of getting into medical school — perhaps the most coveted aspiration in Life Sciences — my grades were always in the background of every decision I made, often waiting to jump out into unrelated conversations. The pressure to make the cut for the limited positions in a highly competitive field led me to compare my stats with others, always wanting to outscore them. Examinations, quizzes, and assignments were regular topics of discussion, as I was surrounded by friends and peers reaching for the same golden ticket.

Their scores became a measuring stick. When asked about my grades, being able to retort with a higher mark than the ones they had achieved became a target in and of itself. There was great joy when I did well and greater misery when I did not — and my disappointment would be further compounded when I heard about others’ successes. Gleaned from their reactions to my results, it was often clear that their experiences were not too distant from mine.

Despite the significant knowledge and experiences provided at university, the markers of quality are partly implied by our grades. Among my group of friends, the implicit understanding of the competition and its rules was left unspoken, as if such thoughts were taboo. Reflecting back, such competition seems to me to be a natural product of high expectations and the quest for success.

Vaibhav Bhandari is a graduate student in the Department of Biochemistry.

Competition is conducive to survival in a brutal job market

Undoubtedly, U of T has a highly competitive environment. Rigorous academic standards and seemingly neverending piles of coursework are the main staples of student life at this university. The prestige of attending what is, by many accounts, Canada’s top university also breeds competitiveness, with students pressured by intense expectations to do well. At the same time, many students work hard in the hopes that job offers will line up once they take their first steps outside Convocation Hall post-graduation.

Unfortunately, it’s a cruel world out there in terms of job prospects, even for U of T grads. As of the Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey conducted in February 2017, the unemployment rate for people aged 15–24 is twice that of the general population. In a job market saturated by graduates holding bachelor’s degrees, more than a quarter of them are underemployed — people who hold degrees often end up in jobs that don’t require them. The fear of not scoring a job post-grad generates even more competition, as students must dedicate more hours to filling up their résumés while maintaining good grades.

From my own experience, the competitive environment at U of T only made me more zealous. To outcompete other students, I spent my summers working internships and gaining job experience. Similarly, my peers spent their summers working for different companies. With everyone grinding and hustling, the desire to compare and ‘beat’ each other becomes toxic. I have friends complaining about other people’s successes while berating and putting themselves under more pressure. I have also known overly eager students who have put their academics above all else, sometimes at the cost of their friendships. It is not uncommon to hear about probation periods slapped onto underperforming students or of students dropping out of school altogether.

At the same time, this exposure to competition — and to the realities of the job market — was a useful experience. It made me mentally tougher and more equipped to deal with pressures after university. In this way, the competitive environment at U of T is a double-edged sword. Staying ahead of the game is not easy, but given the state of the job market, a certain level of competition is a necessary reality.

Arnold Yung graduated from St. Michael’s College in November 2017 and holds a degree in History.

From stress in academia to success in student journalism

I came to U of T believing that I was going to become an English professor and an important asset to English scholarship. I had little knowledge of the competitive nature of the institution as a whole.

In first year, my self-esteem plummeted. The high school literature nerd had somehow received a C+ on her first paper in ENG150 — The Literary Tradition, while my friend had received a B. It seemed as if I was the only student performing below average on assignments while my peers were receiving As and Bs. Truthfully, even by my second year, I wasn’t able to handle the rigorous competition in my classes because of the ‘trauma’ of receiving bad grades on essays, pieces of writing in which I had always prided myself.

During my initial period of frustration at the university, I joined a few extracurricular activities that shared one commonality: student journalism. Writing for various publications became my safe haven from the low points in my classes, and I started to prioritize my journalistic work at the expense of my schoolwork. I fell in love with the fast-paced newsrooms, the daunting deadlines, and the editors with their endless comments on pieces I thought wouldn’t get published, until to my surprise, my work ended up on newsstands a week later.

I realized that I was not suited to the intense competition of getting the highest mark among my peers that I experienced inside the classroom. But competition in the journalism environment was not only addictive, it was empowering. I stopped feeling a sense of defeat from academic failures and started to thrive from competition I experienced in the newsroom. Perhaps this preference was fueled by the fact that my English peers praised me for my journalistic work, or that many of them thought they were simply not cut out for the fast-paced environment of journalism. I came to realize that competition was exciting and liberating in an environment where I felt recognized and acknowledged — feelings that I had not experienced within the classroom setting.

Reflecting on the four years I have spent at U of T, I realize that my initial career path was irrelevant to my true passions. U of T is a highly competitive school. But sometimes, that competition helps you figure out what you really want to do with your life.

Carol Eugene Park is a fourth-year student at Victoria College studying English and Renaissance Studies.

The climb to the top can come at the expense of mental wellness

The competitive environment at U of T has definitely had an impact on my own mental health. There is an inherent hypocrisy evident within the competitive attitude that the school espouses. We know that talking to others, developing a more open school environment, and sharing our problems are surefire ways to alleviate students’ mental health problems. However, the way that competition at the university manifests itself is often through the creation of cliques centred on accomplishment, which are present everywhere from upper-year classes to course-based student unions.

Within these groups, the discussion is often dominated by the most experienced students: those who are involved in research projects or those who have valuable internships or jobs on their résumés. It can be hard to break into a conversation in a class or at an event when you don’t have the requisite experiences to keep up with others in the group.

Not only does this create a crushing sense of anonymity as you go into your upper years, but it also has a damaging effect on mental health. When the community on campus is centred on individual productivity as opposed to solidarity, feeling excluded or unworthy can cause self-esteem issues and does not do much to help against the forces of isolation that drive depression and anxiety. Just as importantly, this kind of social environment is incompatible with the university’s efforts to improve mental health among the student body. It is difficult to build communities focused on unity and equity when we are pressured to talk about inherently stratifying subjects like grades and work.

If we want to work to improve our collective mental health, we have to consciously steer conversations at university away from the idea of productivity — even if that means moving the higher-achieving ones among us away from the centre of attention for once. Yet if we continue to prioritize competition, ongoing mental health crises will become harder and harder to beat.

Arjun Kaul is a fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Neuroscience.

Overwhelming responsibilities sometimes become too much to bear

I often tell my friends that I could never attend Harvard, if only because of how competitive it is. It is ironic, then, that I am a student at U of T — an institution that is sometimes referred to as the ‘Harvard of the North.’

Yes, U of T is competitive. Probably thanks to U of T’s incredible PR team, I thought the competition would be healthy instead of harmful before I started at the university. Healthy competition is good; it is what pushes me to participate more in class, enables me to stay motivated, and encourages me to study harder so I can use my good marks as an excuse to treat myself.

The kind of competition I find at U of T, however, is the opposite of healthy. Students at U of T are implicitly expected to balance five courses — one of which might be a research or independent study course — and to not only finish all of their assignments and tests but also to get good grades on them. Further, students are expected to balance their academic careers with volunteering in clubs or organizations on campus to build their CCR records. Many students also work part-time because the transit fares required to get to and from campus, let alone the tickets to pub nights and socials, are not going to pay for themselves.

Juggling all these responsibilities while also trying to preserve my health, ‘networking’ in search of professional opportunities, and maintaining a social life outside of school have caused my shoulders to sag permanently under the weight of the workload. My eyes are haunted by dark circles, and my face is dotted with pimples born of the heady concoction of too much stress and too little sleep.

The pressure to be well-rounded is daunting and can take a toll on your mental health. It is hard to feel good enough, and it is easy to feel guilty for burning out when it seems like no matter what you do, someone else is doing more and doing it better.

I don’t regret my decision to study at U of T because the opportunities and resources it has to offer put other universities to shame. However, while I do think that the pressure U of T puts on me is the cause for much of my stress, the university should — through improving its mental health services — also provide the solution.

Zeahaa Rehman is a third-year student at UTM studying Linguistics and Professional Writing and Communication.

Administrative delays only add to student stress

From delays in posting marks on ACORN to the untimely release of the exam schedule, the Faculty of Arts & Science should be more concerned with timeliness

Administrative delays only add to student stress

Over the past few months, students in the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) have been subjected to various inconveniences. At the beginning of the winter semester, marks for several courses from the fall semester were not available on ACORN, with some marks not posted until as late as January 17. Students in CSC236, CSC324, CSC411, STA347, JAV200, and ARC251 were particularly affected by this.

The FAS did not offer a satisfactory explanation or an apology. Instead, Deborah Robinson, Faculty Registrar and Director of Undergraduate Academic Services, excused the delay by stating that most students had their marks by January 11.

More recently, “technical issues” caused a delay in the release of the FAS exam schedule. Some students did manage to access the schedule after refreshing the page several times, creating a situation in which only a small handful of students were able to access what should have been available to all.

Though the exam schedule was eventually released online after a couple of days, the FAS failed to fully explain what the exact nature of the problem was, let alone issue any kind of apology. They released a GIF of a cheerful student when the exam timetable finally became available.

Both of these delays may seem like mere inconveniences, but they can, in fact, cause real problems for students. The delayed first semester grades resulted in a great deal of uncertainty: some students found themselves unsure if they were able to apply to a certain program of study, if they had fulfilled necessary prerequisites, or if they needed to retake any classes to obtain a credit or improve their marks.

And while it is fortunate that the exam schedule was posted shortly after the scheduled release date, one can imagine the many potential problems that can come from not knowing your exam schedule. Deferring exams, or rescheduling them due to conflicts, can be an onerous process in and of itself, while uncertainty in the schedule can also delay students’ ability to make summer plans.

After these delays, the best the FAS has managed to offer its students has been to thank them for being patient. What they should have done instead was explain what was going on and clarify any technical issues while also telling students how those issues were being addressed, even if they were unable to specify a timeline.

It’s also important for students to know if these delays are merely flukes in a system that generally works well, or if they are symbolic of larger technical or organizational problems in the FAS. Students have a right to know what’s going on, especially with so much at stake. The consequences of grade delays can be very serious — they can even impact the educational and career tracks of students who need their grades to apply to graduate programs or jobs.

Incidentally, technical difficulties at U of T do not just occur within the FAS. In May 2017, thousands of U of T email accounts were inaccessible for days after access was meant to be restored. However, in that instance, there was a clear explanation: the accounts had been temporarily deactivated to facilitate their transfer to a more local data centre. The lack of access was obviously frustrating, but at least we all understood the source of the problem and knew that it was unlikely to happen again.

Hopefully the posting of the exam schedule signals the end of the FAS’s technical issues. If not, I hope that student frustration will at least encourage the FAS to be more open about the causes of any future issues as they take steps to fix them.

Adina Heisler is a third-year student at University College studying English and Women and Gender Studies. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.

Remembering ROSI

ROSI Student Web Service retires after 19 years online

Remembering ROSI

U of T’s Student Web Service for the last 19 years, the Repository of Student Information (ROSI), will retire on February 15 after three years spent operating alongside its successor, ACORN.

The declining use of ROSI, and the corresponding increase in students who now use ACORN as their only student web service, led the Enterprise Applications and Solutions Interface team (EASI) to move to the next phase of revamping U of T’s online student services: having one modern centralized platform for students’ online academic needs. This meant ending ROSI’s operations to make way for ACORN to be U of T’s only student web service.

Mike Clark, U of T’s Manager of User Experience & Process Design with EASI, explained that many factors were considered in making the decision, including the move to newer technologies under the hood. “Web technology moves very quickly,” he said. “We were seeing support go away for a lot of the building blocks that were holding ROSI together.”

ROSI began operations on March 15, 1999. It dates back to when earlier days of the internet, and around the time that it first became a tool for post-secondary students. Back then, the university was looking to move away from using paper for course enrolment, which required students to wait in long lines before the start of the term to submit their course requests, followed by having their timetable mailed to them.

ROSI was the university’s answer to this problem.

When it first launched, ROSI had both a website and a phone line, giving students two ways to access their information without having to come to campus. There was much fanfare around the opening of ROSI, and even a marketing campaign that involved a ROSI mascot.

The phone line was eventually shut down, leaving the website to become a staple of student life at the university. Over the years, ROSI’s website has gone through some interface changes, all aimed at making the online experience for students as smooth as possible while effectively presenting students with the information they need.

ROSI often had to manage large numbers of students using the system at the same time, particularly during course enrolment periods. This led to periods of downtime that left students frustrated as they tried to get into their courses. As ROSI went through its growing pains, such as ways to mitigate those issues, such as staggered enrollment start times for students in different years of study, new improvements were introduced. When ACORN users began experiencing downtime issues during peak enrollment times, students successfully used ROSI as a backup system when they couldn’t get ACORN to work.

ROSI’s legacy and its name will continue to live on, at least for the foreseeable future. The student portion of ROSI will become ‘ROSI Alumni Transcripts;’ according to ROSI’s website, will have “reduced functionality to facilitate transcript requests,” mainly for use by alumni who are familiar with the interface. In addition, the part of ROSI that is used by university administrators and staff will continue to exist and will continue to bear the same name.

Arts & Science marks posted on ACORN after delay for some courses

Students expressed concern when fall marks weren’t back by January 15

Arts & Science marks posted on ACORN after delay for some courses

As of January 17, all submitted marks from the Faculty of Arts & Science have been posted on ACORN after some students expressed concern that their grades were not yet posted. The only remaining exceptions are some students in Individual Studies courses or those who deferred an exam.

The faculty’s submission timeline requires that all marks be submitted by January 11 to be reviewed by their corresponding department. Professors have seven days to grade and submit the marks, not counting winter break or weekends. This allows exams taken on the last day of the exam period to have the same seven-day timeline.

Deborah Robinson, Faculty Registrar and Director of Undergraduate Academic Services, told The Varsity that by January 11, 98.1 per cent of courses had their marks posted on ACORN. According to Robinson, the remaining 1.9 per cent had grades posted by January 17. “Not very many courses were late.”

Some students voiced concern about the time they received their grades largely due to the fact that certain fall semester courses were prerequisites for winter semester courses.

University marking delays an undue burden on students

Re: “Marking delay in some courses leaves students without first-semester grades”

University marking delays an undue burden on students

With the second semester well underway, many students have yet to receive final grades in several Faculty of Arts & Science courses. On Monday, January 8, the Arts & Science registrar tweeted that most grades should be posted by mid-January and thanked students for their patience. However, the faculty has not given any convincing reason for the delay, which has had students waiting far too long, especially since many wrote their exams a month ago — or even before that.

The delay has resulted in many students being unable to plan the rest of their academic year in a timely and organized manner. Third-year student Shanelle Mullany told The Varsity that she was particularly upset about the delay, as it left her unable to apply to internships that required her to submit her grades before any of them had been posted.

Knowledge of one’s final grades is vital for students who may want to drop or redo courses. With the second-semester enrolment period on ACORN having ended on January 17, students were left with insufficient time and information to find courses to replace any that they may need to retake or replace.

One cause of long delays in marking might be an inadequate number of teaching assistants (TAs). Classes with large numbers and few TAs obviously create a large burden for the TAs that are there, potentially resulting in long waiting periods for feedback on tests and assignments, which could hinder students’ improvement in the course. This was particularly apparent in my full-year political science course this year. I wrote the midterm for the course on December 4 and only received the grade on January 15, since only one TA was tasked with marking the exams for a class with over 200 students.

The University of Toronto is one of the largest schools in the country, which understandably makes it difficult to grade all exams swiftly. However, the time students have been kept waiting for grades this semester seems to be exceptionally long, with the university giving no substantial answer for the cause of the delay. Students are being greatly disadvantaged by the current state of affairs through no fault of their own. If students are expected to submit work on time, faculties should be expected to return grades in a timely manner as well.

Yasaman Mohaddes is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science and Sociology.

Editor’s Note (January 20): This article has been update to clarify that the author’s grade on her midterm exam was not her final grade in the course.

Marking delay in some courses leaves students without first-semester grades

Arts & Science registrar says marks should be posted by mid-January

Marking delay in some courses leaves students without first-semester grades

Students in at least six undergraduate courses have yet to receive their marks from the first semester, a delay that has not been explained by the university as of yet.

The Faculty of Arts & Science registrar has tweeted that grades should be available on ACORN by mid-January and has thanked students for their patience.

Students took to online forums over the past week to voice their concerns regarding the missing grades, largely among Computer Science classes.

“So, I’m over a week into the winter semester, and I don’t know whether I should be re-attempting the course (in order to get into the POSt), or continuing my studies in computer science,” wrote reddit user DMihai on the U of T subreddit. “I was hoping I would be out of this limbo soon. Since admission into the computer science post is already incredibly stressful, releasing CSC236 marks this late is insulting.”

Komania, another Reddit user in a different computer science course, CSC324, wrote that prior to writing their final exam on December 16, the class had only 20 per cent of their total mark returned. “I’m venting because I’m really annoyed. I just wish there would be some communication but [the professor] just ignores all of us. I pay $13,000 in tuition and they can’t hire enough TAs to adequately mark.”

Reddit user jjstat4 expressed concern for students who have to decide on back-up courses if they fail CSC236, “as the wait-list end date and drop date rapidly approaches.”

As of press time, marks for CSC236, CSC324, CSC411, STA347, JAV200, and ARC251 have not been posted to ACORN.

U of T Media Relations did not respond to The Varsity‘s inquiries on the grading delays by press time.

If you are a student who has been affected by the grading delay, The Varsity would like to hear from you. Email deputynews@thevarsity.ca with tips.

Editor’s Note (January 17): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that CSC165 had not released course grades by January 15. CSC165 had, in fact, released course grades by January 15. 

Arts & Science students report general course enrolment difficulties

Problems with functionality of ACORN, ROSI

Arts & Science students report general course enrolment difficulties

Following the updated procedures, many students experienced problems with course enrolment on August 5.

After reports of ACORN not working on that date, the official U of T ACORN Twitter account encouraged students to enrol with ROSI.

Ana Fonseca, second-year Neuroscience and Physiology student, told The Varsity that she was not able to log into ACORN until two hours after her start time; she was able to log in to ROSI 45 minutes after her start time and enrol in a course.

After logging into ACORN later on, Fonseca discovered that she was not enroled in her course, perhaps due to a malfunction in ROSI; by this time the waitlist had gone up by 20 spots. Regarding her overall experience, Fonseca said, “It was so much more stress than it should have been.”

Jay Zuo, second-year Computer Science student, said that U of T had “failed us again.” He said both ACORN and ROSI were unresponsive for him from approximately 10:30 am to 12:00 pm.

According to Zuo, there was a glitch in ROSI that may have given some students an unfair advantage over others while enroling in courses: “If you clicked the enrol button repeatedly on ROSI, then click any section on the grey sidebar, six out of 10 times you will be enroled in said course, while others wait fruitlessly.”

U of T Media Relations Director Althea Blackburn-Evans commented on the problems students faced during course enrolment: “Unfortunately, efforts to alleviate potential overload on ACORN didn’t have the desired effect,” she explained.

The university was planning to have ACORN permanently replace ROSI by late 2016; Blackburn-Evans, told The Varsity that “[ROSI] will remain active until we have a good solution in place.”

Blackburn-Evans noted one positive outcome of the staggered enrolment times: students were able to contact staff directly when they encountered problems, as the 9:00 am start time aligned with the start of the business day.

“We’re very focused on improving the enrolment experience for students, and Arts & Science will continue to work with the ACORN team to ensure the new system is stable during heavy enrolment periods,” said Blackburn-Evans.

Staggered enrolment start times for Arts & Science after priority controls are lifted

New policy marks end of 6:00 am battle for courses

Staggered enrolment start times for Arts & Science after priority controls are lifted

The Faculty of Arts & Science is changing the process of course enrolment for when priority enrolment controls are lifted.

After the priorities drop, the August 5 enrolment start time will no longer be the same for all students; it will instead be staggered by year of study. Fourth years and up will start course selection at 9:00 am, followed by third years at 10:00 am, second years at 11:00 am, and first years at 12:00 pm.

During the priority enrolment period, some courses have controlled status for students, determined by factors such as subject POSts or year of study. These courses are made available to other students — provided that there is space in the course — during the general course enrolment period.

In previous years, priorities would drop for every student at 6:00 am, and ACORN and ROSI were susceptible to crashing due to excessive website traffic.

U of T Media Relations Director Althea Blackburn-Evans identified two reasons for this change: to avoid overloading the website and causing difficulties with selection; and to provide upper-years with first access to courses, addressing previous student feedback and consultations with staff at the colleges.

Blackburn-Evans also identified the benefit of immediate access to assistance should difficulties arise, now that the 9:00 am start time aligns with the start of the business day.

By the end of the summer, the Faculty of Arts & Science will collect feedback from students regarding this change and assess whether their goals of improvement were achieved.