To follow up on my last blog post where I shared two tidbits of what I learnt from university, I’ve made a collection of shorter things to keep in mind when going through the motions of post-secondary learning. These are some things I heard about or learnt throughout the process that not every student will be told about. Some of these things might seem obvious, but if you’ve never been through the process, hopefully you can learn something important here. I tried to write the notes in a way that they follow each other, from grades, to profs, to course selections and studying.
Also, as a disclaimer, I am not your academic advisor, so please please please double-check with your school to make sure you have everything you need to register and graduate. If you do have general questions (university/thesis/etc), I can try my best to answer, though!
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First and foremost: You are more than your GPA. You are more than your grades.
Grades do not define you, and a low grade is not worth the self-hatred. It just means you have to try harder next time. I know grades can seem like the end-all-be-all of your life, and they are important for applications to medical school or post-graduate education (like a Master’s), but really try not to stress out about them. If you are really worried, find help. Be it a good friend who knows their stuff, or an official tutor from the school, there is always someone to help you out. In fact, see the next point ↓
Talk to your professors and TAs. They are paid to help you.
If you have a question, shoot them an email or drop by their office. If you see something wrong with your exam or test marking, or something weird about their notes that just doesn’t seem to make sense, ask them about it. Pick their brains; for the most part, profs are usually pretty happy to discuss things beyond the scope of the course if you have the interest. If you have not-so-helpful profs, talk to the teaching assistant (TA) for the course. For a lot of the sciences, there is a TA – or many – available for meeting and discussing course content and more.
Make appointments with academic advisors. Meet with your program coordinator.
If you want to make sure you’re going to graduate (i.e., you have all of the requisite courses and the proper amount of credits from each discipline, etc.), visit an advisor every semester before course selection. Once you get into the later years, visit the program coordinator. Your programs coordinator will be best suited to help you get all of your courses lined up for you, and can tell you if you have all the courses required to graduate.
Check the offering schedule of your courses. Some courses aren’t offered every year.
Some courses are only offered every second year or every third year. Make sure you can take requisite courses in time to graduate.
Same for prerequisites.
Look at all of the final courses you want/have to take and look at their prerequisites. If you get into your fourth year to sign up for a required course (or just a course you really wanted to take) and find that you don’t have the prerequisites, you’ll be in a bit of a situation. Sometimes, you can still get accepted into the course, but other times, the profs are unmovable.
Find a group of students in your classes that is interested in studying together.
Group studying is super helpful. You get to hear how other people understood the material, you can learn other ways to consider things, you can bounce and build ideas, and you can learnt really well by talking everything through. Group study is only really helpful though, if the other students are interested in studying and not just chatting (although a chat session is always fun, too), and it’s also more helpful if the group isn’t negative…. When people are freaking out about a test and complaining about how hard they’re going to fail, it doesn’t really inspire confidence in yourself. Try not to be that panic person during study time.
Don’t stick to only one study spot on campus.
Diversifying your study areas makes for much better studying. You won’t get flustered by a change of scenery, and you’ll be able to concentrate on studying in random locations. For myself, I always had to find a quiet place to study and be able to read out-loud, but luckily, I was able to find a few different quiet spots. I also liked to study in really busy, loud areas, just to really hone in on my focusing skills. When you write your exams, there can be sudden, random noises or movements that can distract you and make you lose track of your thoughts.
When you study, understand the why’s and how’s before you get to the memorization.
That way, you can get a better understanding of the fundamentals before you learn the specific facts. Understanding >>> Memorization. While you might “do better” with memorization, you won’t remember anything you just “learnt.” While cues can be great, it’s also great to really know the material, first. That way, if a test question uses unfamiliar words (and not your cue-words), you will still be able to understand and answer the question.
Make time for yourself.
This one I struggled with. Sit down, even on your busiest day, even for just 5 minutes, and relax. Stop what you’re doing, stop studying the textbook – close it! – put your phone away, too, and just relax. Drink something yummy, eat a snack, hang out with friends, go for breakfast. Even just scrolling through Facebook or Instagram can be a nice reprieve from the mental work you’ve been doing.
Get involved in your preferred communities on campus.
This is something I did only sparingly in second year by joining a club that invited girls from Africa to our schools for a look into our education systems. It was a bit of an activist/environmentalist club. It was fun, but I moved away from it after not feeling connected to it. I regret not joining or staying involved in more clubs or activities. It’s a great way to meet new people, and to distract yourself from studying for a night. If you’re really up to it, try running a club, or join the executive team.
Apply for scholarships and bursaries.
I don’t remember how many application processes I went through during my whole 4 years, or how much money I was given through scholarships, but I know it was a lot (and I’m still grateful to have been chosen for all of the awards I’ve received). If you think you might fit the criteria for something, apply. It doesn’t hurt to just submit an application and see what happens.
On the topic of money, look into government grants.
That said, the majority of my tuition was actually paid by the former Ontario Tuition Grant (was the “30%-off tuition grant,” now rolled into OSAP). Apply for OSAP (“Ontario Student Assistance Program,” or something similar in your province/country). Going into college this fall, I actually qualify for “free” (not actually free) tuition because I’m no longer a dependent child. See if your government has a similar opportunity for independent students. Just keep in mind that LOANS MUST BE REPAID, and grants are generally free money (double-check into the grants, I am pretty sure they’re free, but it might be different in different provinces/countries).
If you want to do a thesis, or a Master’s program, make sure you give yourself time.
Profs need time as well to consider all of the “applicants” they speak with, and early chats can also make profs see how interested you are. I emailed and spoke with my professor in February of third year (2016) for a thesis in my fourth year that September (2016). You can sometimes start your thesis during the summer – I started my thesis in May (2016), so it gave both myself and my supervisor the time needed to order reagents, prepare for the project, and get everything underway. If you’re good about it, you can even get the research done that summer to clear up hours of spare time during the school year. I finished my last experiment a week or two before I defended (May 2017). So it took me a full year, basically, to do my thesis. On that note, don’t panic if your thesis is taking a long time to get right. And make sure you do all of the optimizations. Share your data with your supervisor often.
On the topic of supervisors, get to know them!
Make sure the prof is amicable, or at least gets along with you. Preferably, you’ve had courses with them and know their style. If they aren’t very “present” and don’t want weekly updates, sit down and talk with them anyway. It’s better to annoy them a little bit with visits and emails than it is to meet with them a week before you defend, only to find a massive hole in your data (that did happen for me). Again, optimizations are IMPORTANT!
And finally, enjoy the process. Enjoy your time learning, by learning what you love.
This was one of the tidbits in the last post I made, but I think it’s really too important to leave off of this list. Do what you love, and love what you are learning. Enjoying your courses will make learning easier, and it’ll help relieve some of the anxiety and stress of school a little bit.
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If you have any questions on anything I’ve mentioned, please let me know, but also visit your university or college FAQ page and send an email to your academic advisors. They will hopefully be able to provide you with accurate information from your specific school. My school’s system will be a little different from your own, so make sure you get to know your school’s methods. And know your deadlines. Crap, that’s another important point on the list:
KNOW YOUR DEADLINES.
For scholarships, term fees, tuition payments, course selections, course changes, supervisor requests, etc. Get a page and write them all out, or even better, get a month-by-month calendar and write everything down in it.
Anyway, like I said, if you have questions, please ask me or your academic advisor. Your academic advisor will be able to help you a bit better than I can, for your specific situation, actually! That said, do not rely solely on the stuff I’ve mentioned above: make sure you check everything out for yourself as well. Use this information as more of a template, or an idea of what to expect. I’m not an advisor, so please take my writing with a grain of salt.
PS: if you’re a future/current/past student who has other helpful tips, please share them in the comments! Or post links to other helpful blogs for students. Feel free to share!