First Year Lessons Learned the Hard Way By University Students

By Catherine, Jeremiah, Kevin, Melissa, Niabi, Rachel, and Zach

First year (or in some cases second year…. And for others really, every year) of university involves an adjustment phase — getting used to student life, figuring out the whole “adult-ing” thing, and finding your personal stride are just a few of the lessons to be learned beyond the classroom. While some of these lessons will be picked up quite easily, there are a handful that can be grasped the hard way — from getting mono to fast food induced fiascoes to time management issues, the YouAlberta team has experienced their share of hard won lessons. Here’s what they learned the hard way:

“No one is better at deciding your future than you.”

No one is better at deciding your future than you. Your parents can’t decide for you, your siblings can’t decide for you, and you probably shouldn’t let fate decide for you either. There’s no shame in taking your time to try and figure out what you want to do. Try to make the decision on your own; it will perhaps be the first, most important decision you will make. So make it a good one.

And if you fail — all the better! When I first started university I was in the Faculty of Science, which, given my past experiences and future expectations, was a choice made through the influence of others rather than by myself. I didn’t care when I failed Chemistry because I didn’t care about Chemistry. I failed, yes, but I also found out what I didn’t want to do. I will not be the next Marie Curie, and I’m just fine with that.

“It’s more important to play up your strengths than to force yourself into an ill-fitting mould.”

In my first year and throughout my degree I learned that it’s more important to play up your strengths than to force yourself into an ill-fitting mould. That doesn’t mean to only take GPA boosters. It means that if you despise most of the mandatory classes in your program and/or you’re doing badly in them, something has to change. Find something you’re good at and mostly enjoy and build up your skills in that domain, even if it’s just your minor. Your mental health, GPA, and maybe even your resume will thank you later.

Another big thing I learned the hard way in the last months of my degree: Educate yourself on what graduate schools and other post-degree programs are looking for as early as possible (e.g. an Honours degree, specific courses, etc.). It will save you headaches, time and money.

Lastly, don’t be an automaton: get involved!

“You need to find that right balance of knowing when to work and when to have fun.”

What I learned the hard way in first year was that you need to find a way to keep your academic life and your personal life separate. Although there is a little bit of intersectionality between the two, such as the friendships you make in class that continue outside of class, you really need to find the right balance to ensure that your semester is a success. I struggled a little bit last year ensuring that I focused on work during the day without being distracted by a desire to socialize or problems in relationships that were going on. I also had problems on the flip side, focusing too much on work when I should have been focusing on being more social or addressing my relationship issues. To ensure success in both your personal life and academic life, you need to find that right balance of knowing when to work and when to have fun.

“There’s a chance that something will go wrong — but you can’t let it ruin your year.”

I think if I had to tell you what I learned the hard way — it would be that you shouldn’t end up in emergency twice in the first week of school. Yes, this happened to me. I stapled my finger, and the nurse in emergency laughed at me. (How could someone be that clumsy?) I was in the hospital only two days later after fainting in the middle of the library — I was diagnosed with mono. What a great way to start the year, eh? The truth is, no matter what your first year throws your way, you have to be tough and stick it out. There’s a chance that something will go wrong — but you can’t let it ruin your year. Was I sick for about four months? Yes, yes, I was. But, what I learned from my catastrophe is that you have to be a tough cookie. No matter how big or small the problem is, there is most definitely a way to resolve it (and sometimes that resolution is just a positive attitude!)

“Take extra good care of yourself.”

I found out the hard way that I am not one of those students who can function perfectly on nearly no sleep and still get good grades, work part time AND have a social life. Hearing other students talk about their workloads, I felt guilty for not doing more myself and tried to juggle all my extracurricular activities and course load like they were.

I made it through the majority of the first semester this way but like all things, my poor sleeping habits and excessive team practices eventually led to me getting shingles. Yes, the virus that generally only elderly people contrive. So in the end I needed to go to bed at about 7:00 p.m. — continuing on my elderly theme and making all those long nights pointless. The moral of the story is to take extra good care of yourself, because even if you feel like you can keep running on all four cylinders, you can end up in way worse shape than you would’ve been if you had just gone to bed a few hours earlier. And really, who needed another reason to sleep anyways?

“I bought my books one week before school started, bad idea.”

You don’t really need to buy every book on the syllabus. I bought my books one week before school started, bad idea, especially if you end up swapping classes. Tip: You can always share a book with your friend if you’re taking the same class or buy used. Required books, most of the time, are also available through the library reserve room. Also, the photocopier is your friend — just don’t forget about the copying rules! And sometimes… you can survive and even get an A without owning the book. You got this! (Regardless of how you access them, do be sure that you actually read the books though.)

“Always check exam dates.”

One of the things we learn over the course of our university careers is the fact that there isn’t any academic hand-holding. Over the course of the semester Profs will maybe remind you about important dates a few times in passing, but usually they’ll assume you’re a mature human being and who’ll be able to remember exam and due dates yourself.

Unfortunately, I was not a mature human being in second year.

Long story short: I assumed one of my finals was on a certain date. In fact, I was so certain that I didn’t bother to check the date on Beartracks. I only ran across the exam date when I was checking the date of another exam, and much to my horror, I found the exam I was so sure about had actually taken place eight hours prior to me checking Beartracks.

That’s right. I had missed a final simply because I didn’t take two lousy minutes to check Beartracks. My advice to all incoming students: always check exam dates, you’ll be glad you did when you actually show up to all your exams.

“I realized the consequence of not taking my own lunch to school.”

In my first year, I realized the consequence of not taking my own lunch to school. I must have spent hundreds of dollars on campus food, which usually upset my stomach anyway (shout out to Panda Express). I am glad to say that I’ve learnt my lesson. Last year I took my own lunch to school every day and saved a lot of money.