Like the coming of the new year, it was always inevitable. Starbucks’ pumpkin spice lattes make their seasonal reprise as autumn takes hold, drawing a heavy curtain on the last sultry summer days.
You look back, lamenting the end of your halcyon high-school era. Your first year of university is a period you spend preparing to propel yourself into your next academic epoch. The whole year is a limbo between high school and university, which was best described by Alice Cooper in 1970: “I’m a boy and I’m a man… I’m eighteen and I like it.”
It’s an exciting, albeit unsure time in your life. On one hand, you’re flushed with fortitude, having emerged from high school unscathed. On the other, you stare ahead at the uncharted waters of your college campus in trepidation at what scholarly turbulences lie before you.
If this mental cocktail of eagerness and apprehension sounds at all familiar, don’t worry. For those of you who have been admonished of the difficulties of engineering, I hope to quell those fears with some advice and tips I wish I’d have had when I was in my first year.
Forgot high-school calculus? Don’t sweat it
There is always a group of first-year students flushed with anxiety at the thought of walking into a first-year math course with the everything-I-learned-in-high-school part of their brains scrubbed spotless over the summer, like one of Dexter Morgan’s crime scenes.
If this sounds like you, you might even be thinking, “Who needs a social life? I’d better spend my fall semester poring over old calculus textbooks, and maybe even read ahead.” Stop right there.
Your professors are not expecting you to remember every nuance of last year’s math. On the contrary, they assume you spent your summer like any 18 year old who just graduated from high school, and, as a consequence, forgot everything. They teach you exactly what you need to know from scratch, which brings us to the second point.
Don’t fall behind
Warren Buffet has two rules when it comes to investing. The first is to never lose money, and the second is to never forget rule one. In engineering, the first rule to follow is to not fall behind. You can guess the second. Just because your professor starts the semester in first gear does not mean you should be fooled into thinking that you’ll be coasting into final exams.
If you think the class is moving too slowly, miss lectures at your own risk; speaking from experience, skipping lectures by telling yourself you already know everything is a sure way to place yourself in academic peril. Sure, today you are sleeping through an introduction to limits, but within a week the chalkboards look like the set pieces from Good Will Hunting.
At one point or another, students in pursuit of their iron rings will wallow in frustration and angst, and think, “How on earth am I going to pass this?” Not to worry! At U of T — and at university more broadly — there is a plethora of resources available to you.
Professors’ office hours
The one thing all your first-year lectures will have in common is a professor eager to lend a helping hand. But it’s a two-way street. While professors have been in your shoes before, and understand the trials and tribulations of first-year engineering, they also need new bright candidates for graduate research. That’s where you come in: professors always start the first lecture of the semester by writing their office location on the board.
If something isn’t clear in a subsequent lecture or in your problem sets, don’t hesitate to drop by and ask the professor any questions that pop into your head. Just be sure to attempt to understand the problems by yourself first. Professors, like pro-sports talent scouts, are always looking for hard-working, ambitious students.
There’s no better way to put yourself on their radars than attending their office hours and showing your ravenous appetite for learning. Years later, one might just reach out to you with a job opportunity or research position. If nothing else, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the course material.
Whatever the course, its teaching assistants (TAs) will likely be graduate students who took it themselves as undergraduates. Like Sherpas who guide climbers up the Himalayan mountains, the TAs have scaled the hills and valleys of your course syllabus, and are there to guide you through them.
Moreover, if they have taught the same class multiple times, they will have marked previous assignments and exams, and seen where students tend to struggle. They are an invaluable resource, and can help you overcome any hardship.
You may or may not have heard about it yet, but aside from Quercus — and Stack Overflow, for you electrical and computer engineering students — the most useful website during your time here is courses.skule.ca. This website contains past years’ final exams and midterms, many of which also contain solutions, for nearly every course you will be taking in your undergraduate years.
It’s a vital resource; not just in studying for exams, but also for gauging the course itself as it progresses. How do you know which lectures are the most important? Which topics to pay more attention to? You can find out all this by simply glancing over old midterms and exams. Based on the types of questions your professor tends to ask, you should have a good assessment of how your understanding of the course even before the midterm approaches.
You are entering a program with hundreds of classmates of whom, at best, you know a handful. But fear not: making friends is the easiest thing you will do as an engineering student. Orientation week is a great opportunity to get to know your peers, so be sure to socialize.
The person sitting next to you in orientation may be the person you’ll be asking to help with problem sets in a few weeks. Before you go to a professor’s office hours or emailing the TA, the first and best way to tackle a challenge is by sitting down in one of the many large libraries on campus with a study group.
The key point is that you should not worry. Sure, engineering is a challenging program, but you probably did not come here because it was going to be easy. You wanted a challenge — and a job, upon graduation.
You are now part of a community of hard-hat-wearing students who can chant gleeful engineering cheers. Those of you with early birthdays can take special joy in the paeans to Pilsner, and you can all prepare for the next chapter of your academic lives.