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On to university! Some helpful hints for students

Leaving home to attend university is one of the major life events.  It is part of the transition from more-or-less full dependence into adulthood—with everything that involves. When you arrive at university you are in charge—no parents or teachers to tell you what to do and when to do it. Sounds great? Actually, it scares most people when they really think about it. Surveys of incoming university students consistently indicate that failure is their biggest fear as they begin their university careers. Not necessarily fear of flunking out of university, but fear of not succeeding in meeting their personal goals and standards when handling their lives as autonomous adults.

You are about to enter one of the most important phases of your life. What happens over the next four years will have a major impact on the rest of your life. This is the case, not only as it will affect your future educational goals and career plans, but also in terms of some of your most important relationships. You have worked far too hard to get to this point for the experience to be less successful than you deserve.

Happily, most students don’t run into significant trouble, but if they do or to the extent they do, it is usually because they were not prepared for the actuality of university.


Beginning in September, you will find that all the work you did, all the expectations you met and challenges you overcame to earn the IB Diploma have indeed been worthwhile. However, academic readiness for university isn’t everything. Very often, when young men and women with strong educational backgrounds encounter difficulties in first year, it is for social and emotional reasons rather than scholastic ones. Over the years—through reading, attending conferences, and especially from talking to current undergraduates—we have developed a good idea of the major pitfalls that can occur during the transition from high school to university. You may encounter one or two of the problems described here, or none at all; but the more you know about the hazards of being a freshman, the sooner you will recognize them if they come your way, and the better able you will be to deal with them.


Give yourself a head start by participating fully in your chosen university’s freshman orientation program. Because the focus of `frosh week’ appears to be on those moving into residence, this important opportunity is often ignored by students who have decided to live at home and commute to university. If there is a secret to launching a successful post-secondary career, the magic words are “GET INVOLVED,” both in the classroom and out. But don’t overdo it!

You will quickly discover that university is not simply a large high school, but a totally different academic environment. Especially for students coming from independent schools, the move to a large impersonal university can come as a shock that may have  detrimental effects. Suddenly, the small, cosy atmosphere of knowing people and being known is gone. Suddenly, there are no teachers, house advisers, and coaches watching your progress, more than ready to draw any deficiencies in performance to your attention. If you choose to waste time, skip classes, and neglect to hand in assignments, no one will be there to criticize you except your own conscience. On the other hand, no one is likely to make a big deal about your achievements, either.

Quite apart from the scale of the institution itself, the large size of many university classes—especially in first year—can also be intimidating. From a comfortable group of twenty or so, you may find yourself placed without warning among hundreds of strangers. But keep in mind that this is still a class, still a place in which people who contribute the most in terms of attention and participation also benefit most. Everyone is afraid of making a fool of himself in public, but you won’t know whether or not your ideas are ridiculous unless you articulate them. Certainly, the lecturer will never find out who you are if you sit in silence at the back of the hall. By the way, professors are expected to keep regular office hours, which amount to an open house during which students may drop in to ask questions or discuss problems. This provides a great opportunity for you to detach yourself from the nameless throng in your instructor’s mind. And most professors actually enjoy talking to students….

Doing Well

If you think Upper Canada College is academically competitive, wait until university! Almost everyone experiences a drop in standing during that crucial first year. A clear  example of this occurs at Western University, where only 35% of freshmen typically achieve a final average of B+ (high 70s) or better, even though most of them were confident about being able to do so when they started classes in September. In fact, professors at Western (like those on other university campuses) are required by university policy to ensure that their course averages fall somewhere within a specified range. This objective may be achieved by means of the infamous `bell curve.’ The result of the process is that the average decline for students between their final high school average and the end of first year is 15%. But don’t despair; if you give it your best effort, available information about UCC graduates (and IB Diploma holders in general) shows that you are likely to experience less of a drop than friends from schools where academic standards are not as high.

First-year students are often surprised at how few tests and assignments they have in comparison with what they were used to in high school. At first this seems great, until it sinks in that each and every piece of evaluation is now crucial, and that even one poor result can have a devastating effect on your final grade in a course.

Time Management

Students at university have a great deal of free time in contrast to the typical high school schedule. The important thing to realize from the beginning is that these hours, although unspecified in purpose, are really not free at all. Your professors assume that you are using them to read assigned texts, review lecture notes, do research, and write essays. No one will monitor how you put in this time; no one will show any concern if you choose to fritter it away. An organized, realistic work schedule is essential from the very start, not just in the week or two before exams.


Keeping an eye on expenses is just as important as managing your time. Most of you will be fully in charge of your finances for the first time next September. With all of those summer earnings and/or help from parents sitting in the bank, you may succumb to the delightful impression that you are really quite rich. Don’t! Establish a sensible budget at the beginning and stick to it. It isn’t unheard of for academically successful students to drop out part way through first year because of money problems.

Living on Campus

Life in residence can also be a challenge. Organizing your existence will suddenly be entirely your responsibility. Only you will ensure that you go to bed at a decent hour, get up in time for the first class, eat properly, and have clean clothes to wear.

You may discover that your roommate is not at all the sort of person you had in mind, or even that sharing private space is far from your idea of bliss. Tolerance of others is one of the badges of a mature human being, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy virtue to acquire. If your dislike turns out to be mutual and impossible to resolve, you can always apply to change rooms. Avoid the temptation to bunk with someone who is already a buddy: many apparently solid friendships have ended because of the changed circumstances involved in residence life. And anyway, sticking to the old crowd is not the way to meet people–one of the real advantages of going away to university.

You may find that you are homesick, even if you’ve been away from home for extended periods in the past. Cutting the umbilical cord is a painful but necessary operation for every young adult. Try to keep phone calls/emails/texts home to a reasonable number. Loneliness is the worst part of being homesick; just remember that this feeling connects you with pretty well everyone else in first year.

Fun and Games

Opportunities for `living it up’ and `having a great time’ are considered to be among the benefits of university life—and so they are. But socializing can easily get out of control. Not only can it take too much time and energy away from your studies, it can lead to more serious difficulties. We especially remember talking to an Old Boy who described how quickly and easily he acquired a drinking problem during first year. Beginning with Frosh Week, there was always plenty of alcohol around, and lots of encouragement to over-consume. He was shy and awkward meeting new people. Having a drink made him feel relaxed and self-confident; drinking too much made him feel nothing at all. Eventually he discovered that the only thing he had in common with his new friends was that they all regularly got drunk together. He then saw that he was facing a crisis, but by then most of first year had gone down the drain. He later became the campus president of BACCHUS, an international student organization that advocates moderate drinking.

Don’t underestimate the possibility of finding yourself in a similar situation. 70% of university students believe that alcohol is necessary to break the ice in social situations; 50% say that it is essential to drink in order to have fun. In a recent survey of freshmen at a leading Ontario university, students themselves said that at least 18% of their number are “heavy drinkers” (defined in this study as consumption of between 15 and 28 drinks per week) and that two-thirds of these are “out of control” (more than 4 drinks a day).

Of particular concern these days is `binge drinking’, a sort of race to see who can consume the most drinks in the shortest period of time. Sounds like fun, until you see the statistics about university students who have died from alcohol poisoning. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health has found that binge drinking is on the increase on campuses throughout North America, and that two out of every five students now engage in this dangerous activity. For males, binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks in a row at least once in a two-week period; for females, it is four drinks. One drink, by the way, is defined as twelve ounces of beer, an ounce and a half of liquor, or five ounces of wine.

The abuse of alcohol or other substances increases the likelihood of making poor decisions. Most young people these days are aware of the dangers of driving while impaired; it takes only one moment of bad judgment to change (or end) a life. It is also crucial to realize that any type of sexual activity requires “informed consent” and someone who is under the influence is not capable of providing that. Respect for your partner and yourself is the cornerstone of any sexual relationship.

Your Health

Most of you will avoid substance abuse, but that doesn’t mean other health problems won’t occur. 85% of freshmen report feeling unwell during part or all of the first two months of university. This is usually caused by a combination of anxiety, academic pressure, too much partying, too little sleep, and unwise eating habits. The situation is so common that university health services have identified the symptoms of a condition they call “Frosh Flu.” This ailment hits in September or October, lasts from five days to a  week, and is cured by returning to a sensible lifestyle. Many students find that their weight changes dramatically during the first couple of months on campus. The usual trend is upward (the so-called “freshman fifteen”), but some will lose pounds because of stress and/or a distaste for institutional food. Of greater concern is the rapid spread of sexually transmitted diseases on university campuses, even among students who consider themselves “experienced” when they move into residence.

Getting Help

If you do encounter problems of one sort or another, remember that there is plenty of help available. But the difference between university and high school is that people aren’t going to offer you advice or emotional support; you have to go after it. Every university employs professional counsellors to deal with problems of all types: academic, medical, psychological, and financial. Use them if the need arises. The people who advise university students are often frustrated by young men and women who don’t “discover” their services until third or fourth year, despite extensive advertising from orientation week onward.

Certain young people are identifiable as prospective clients of various counselling services. Included in this group are those with poor academic preparation, inadequate financial resources, chronic health problems, and histories of family abuse. But all first-year students are considered “at risk” of facing academic and/or social obstacles, including those with strong educational backgrounds and supportive, prosperous homes. Sometimes it is the ones who were most successful in high school—the top scholars, athletes, and leaders—who have the toughest time making the transition to    university. Suddenly they are no longer stars receiving constant praise and attention, but instead are just nameless little fish in a much bigger pond.

If it turns out that you have made the wrong choice of university or degree program, don’t despair. You shouldn’t jump to either conclusion after a week or two of classes, or even after your first essay or mid-term test has been returned; but if by January or  February it’s become clear that you’re off-track, then do something about it. 70% of students at Canadian universities change their degree program at least once during first and second year, so it’s considered a perfectly normal thing to do. Some may change university because they find the one they’re at too challenging, or not challenging enough. Others decide that the big city (or small town) is just not for them, and that they would be happier and perform better in a different environment. Don’t be afraid to admit a mistake and take action to correct it. If you need our assistance in this process, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Best wishes for a wonderful post-secondary career. Please keep in touch!