Succeed at University: ten tips for new undergraduate students

The start of term is an exciting time for those of us involved in Academia – new students are arriving on campus, full of enthusiasm, hope, and questions.  As a Program Director for McGill’s Environmental Biology Major, I am asked a lot of these questions, and I am sometimes asked for advice.  I thought it worthwhile providing ten simple tips for incoming students, and perhaps some of these will help make the transition to University a smooth one.

Meet your advisor!

1.  Meet your academic advisor:  Most academic programs have an ‘academic advisor’ associated with them (e.g., see here for McGill’s website about advising).  These individuals are there to help students get through their program, and advisors typically help students with course selection, and help plan a student’s academic program.  When arriving on campus, you should book a meeting with your advisor, and more importantly, listen to their advice!  Advisors know the ins and outs of your program, and paying attention to them will help you in the long run.  You don’t want to end up messing up your academic program because you decided to avoid taking required courses early on in your program!

2.  Have an agenda, and use it:  This seems like pretty obvious advice, but you would be surprised how many students (and Professors!) don’t have a good system for managing time.  University is a lot about managing your time: getting to classes, dealing with e-mails, assignments, planning for exams, facebook, and squeezing in a social life, or a part-time job.  It’s a struggle to manage all these tasks, and to help with this, develop a clear and straightforward system of ‘calendar + tasks‘.  Under calendar, include your class schedule, important dates and meetings, and most importantly, LOOK at the calendar regularly!  I personally prefer using an on-line calendar that syncs with my phone – but some people prefer the old-fashion (yet dependable) hard-copy calendar.  For tasks, include short-term tasks (with deadlines – cross-referenced with your calendar) and long-term tasks, so that you are reminded of deadlines that might be weeks away, yet will sneak up on you.  I use a small notebook for my task list, and it is always with me – for me, the act of physically writing down a task list helps me remember what I need to work on.   A good system for your agenda and tasks will make your life a lot easier.  Furthermore, effective use of an agenda and task list will help you refine your time management skills, and these skills are truly essential to success at University (and for your career, beyond…).

3.  Show up on time and don’t miss deadlines:  Again, this seems pretty obvious, but it’s also pretty easy to mess up.  Treat University like a professional job – you need to be mature, you must be on time, and you never miss deadlines.  In fact, aim to have everything done early (with good time management skills, this is very possible!).    Being late to lectures, or having to ask for extensions on papers or projects, does you no favours.  Professors, generally speaking, are not impressed by these behaviours.    At some point, you may need to ask your Professors for a letter of reference, and it is much better to be remembered as the students who hands in papers early.

University awaits: the entrance to one of the buildings at McGill Macdonald campus

4.  Go to lectures:   Lectures are there for a reason:  they provide you with value-added content.  It’s true that some of the content may be available on-line, or with a text-book, but in most cases, lectures will help to draw connections between different content, and/or provide a valuable context to the material that might be in the textbook or on-line.   Most Professors take a lot of pride in lecturing, and work hard to make the lectures engaging, interesting, and thought-provoking.  You will soak up an amazing amount of material by just being in lectures, and paying attention.

5.  Ask questions:  In most of my classes, I tell students that there are no stupid questions (except for “Will this be on the exam?”).  This is very, very true.  If you are confused about a concept, or failed to get the point of a slide, or discussion, you must ask for clarification. Although it can be intimidating to ask a question in a large lecture hall, it’s important to try.  If you are confused, it’s highly likely that other student’s are also confused.  You are helping yourself, and your peers, when you put your hand up.

6.  Get to know your instructors:    Whenever possible, get to know the instructors of your courses, be they Professors, Lecturers, or Teaching Assistants.  Most instructors have office hours, and these hours are there for good reason – they provide time to meet your instructor, ask questions, and have a personal connection with them.  Don’t be intimidated by the Professors: we are people, too, and most of us recognize that life as an incoming undergraduate student can be stressful and difficult.  We can provide you help with course content, but also help direct you to other resources.  Getting to know your instructors also helps when you might be seeking a summer job in the future, or when you need a letter of recommendation.

7.  Get help when you are struggling:  At some point in your University career you will likely need help, whether it is with difficulties with a personal relationship, failing a course, or getting sick.  The University system is a compassionate and collegial environment and it’s a place with a lot of wonderful resources to help you when you are struggling.  Don’t hesitate to seek help when you need it – visit health services when you are sick, or talk to your academic advisor if you are having difficulties with your program.  Most importantly: know what services are available ahead of time (e.g., see this example for McGill), so when you need assistance, you know how to get it.

8. Avoid ‘grade panic’:  I am living proof that it is possible to do poorly at undergraduate courses yet still have a successful career!  When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, I just about failed my first year physics course and I was terrified that this would make it impossible to succeed in any kind of career.  Of course this was not the case – a University education is much more than a single course, or a single quiz or examination – an academic program has many components and even if some of the components slow down occasionally, this does not mean the program is broken.   Aim for excellence in your academics, but also remember that EVERYONE has bad days, preforms poorly on an exam, or just can’t seem to figure out a particular University subject.  This is normal, and you must keep everything in perspective!  Your University career is not defined by a single moment of failure – keep the bigger picture in perspective, and don’t sweat the small failures.  In a University environment, success at everything is nearly impossible to achieve.   Keep a level head,  keep calm, aim for excellence, but don’t panic when things go wrong.

Eat your veggies!

9.  Stay healthy: Your mother was right – eat your vegetable and get some sleep.  Invariably, influenza and/or a bout of gastro will whip through residence halls sometime around when mid-term exams are starting.  Your best line of defense is a healthy immune system, and part of that includes nutrition and sleep.  I think it’s more important to be less prepared but well rested than over-prepared and exhausted – and if you attended lectures (see point 4, above), your rested mind will be in a good position to access the course content.

10.  Have fun!   Life as an undergraduate student is incredibly enriching on intellectual, emotional, and social levels.  Slow down every now and then, breath deeply, and remember what an amazing environment you are in. University provides a wealth of opportunities (student groups, sports, lectures, laboratories, and more), and these are all extremely rewarding in many ways.  Don’t forget to take it all in – in the future, you will remember a lot of details from your University days and you want these memories to be more than sweating over deadlines.

What did I miss…? Pass along your best tips!

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12 thoughts on “Succeed at University: ten tips for new undergraduate students

  1. Avoid working more than ten hours a week. If possible to get help from parents, loans or bursaries – do so. The more you work, the less time you have to concentrate on your studies. As a full-time student and full-time employee (40hrs/week) – I can tell you, it’s brutal.

  2. Great comment, Justin – I agree – i always worked during my undergrad, but it was rarely more than 10 hrs per week. The little extra cash was much needed, but more than that number of hours would have made it difficult to stay on top of school work.

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