a long read
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started”
Talking about the transition from high school to university amongst friends and family, the conversation always steers towards acknowledging my path paved with hard times lying ahead. These cliché, run-of-the-mill warnings are then compounded with other copy pasted pieces of advices given to anyone wishing to succeed in their academic careers. These include: make good notes, get enough sleep, make the right friends and of course, work hard. Entering into the next stage of my life as a university engineering undergraduate, these were the answers to the questions I asked. What frustrates me the most about the answers I received was their shallow value because of the vagueness and ambiguity they brought to my specific questions. While I understand that they were given with good intentions and with my best interests in mind, that still did not change the fact that they did not prepare me in the least. Having gone through my first term (making me in no way a pro), I would like to venture out and offer my own insight on how to succeed as a first year. If the question doesn’t apply to you, I encourage you to keep reading as the topics I bring up are applicable to any type of new beginning you may experience in your life.
My attempt to answer this question will be broken into two parts. The first part will address the idea of resilience, while the second section will deconstruct a revelation I had that changed the way I look at academics. Some context before I being, everything I write assumes that you always strive to do your best, after all that is the only way you can attribute meaning to anything. So here it goes!
I define resilience as the ability to withstand anything thrown at you while continuing to actively pursue a goal. This may or may not be a new skill for you, depending on how taxing the high school experience was. Regardless, you will need double your regular dose of resilience in the next stage of your education. These past four months, I have been pushing myself to spend more time studying with an emphasis on quality not quantity. When I say quality studying, I mean reviewing class notes, write questions to ask later, actually asking those questions, completing practice problems and applying learnt concepts to higher level problems. A wise friend once told me to never shy away from problems that seem impossible, but instead try them first as you will surprise yourself with how much you actually know. If you surprise yourself with how little you know then be encouraged because knowing your weakness will be your greatest strength. This effort to immerse yourself in what you aim to learn is rather easy at the beginning of the term, since there is time to spare and the novelty of finally being in university lingers. However your resilience will undergo a true test as midterms approach, only being further tested for the remainder of the semester as final exams loom. With the growing workload and sense of obligation to your social life, it is important that you have developed healthy study habits early on as a safety net for these rough times. You will be hit with setbacks and failures, but much like winding back a punch, the resilience you are building today will enable you to hit back twice as hard when it most counts.
My second answer takes a more philosophical approach and pushes you to reflect on yourself. A mindset is a very powerful force that whether we realize it or not, dictates our success. It is said that whether you think you can or think you can’t, either way you are probably right. As you begin to take responsibility over your own life and the direction it takes, as basic as it sounds, you really need to understand yourself. I mean everything from your trivial likes and dislikes to more defining characteristics such as why you ended up going to university and what core principles you choose to live by. The latter are heavy topics which I insist you take the time to reflect on if you haven’t already.
A lot of people I have talked with see university in the same light as those annoying compulsory courses we’ve all taken to meet a certain requirement. Seeing post-secondary education as nothing more than compulsory already taints your view of academics, portraying it as bland and a waste of time. In your self-reflections, what you really should be after is what motives you. Within this searching you may find motivation is non-existent or lacking, it’s here where you must feed it by cultivating an attitude of amelioration, aiming to be your best self. Your new university environment and countless everyday encounters will be the primary source of new tips and tricks to help you in the effort of beating the you of yesterday. These learning cycles will fuel a feedback loop sure to result in improvements equal to the work you put in.
My final point to add is the necessity of building respect for the subjects that you are trying to learn. For many people this is a foreign concept, and I understand as someone who also recently discovered this for myself. Building respect for a given subject is the direct result of recognizing and pursuing the depths of the subject. This looks like doing your own science experiments because you learnt about electricity in school but you want to test what you were told, or picking up a book about a time period that you found interesting in history class but felt rushed, or even watching videos of professionals in a certain field explaining the world around us. This is the process of self-guided learning, independent of straight jacket classroom methods. This is the pursuit of applying textbook knowledge in a creative and challenging manner, the end goal being to make the abstract more practical and having fun in the process.
The switch from high school is a big one in the perspective of the student. A change that tends to be overlooked by many, assuming it will be made naturally. In reality, it is one that requires immense effort from the individual. That being said, I encourage those about to make the leap to dive right in, after all change is good. However, to have the best chance of finding success in this difficult transitional period, the changes that are made need to be conscious and deliberate.
If you have read this far, I am honored and now implore you to question what I have written and test it for truth. Reading this you may also ask, what about the social aspect of university? To that I would say I decided to focus on the academic side, and for the sake of brevity omitted a lengthy discussion on social life, which deserves a whole blog entry in itself. Anyway, this is the beginning of my long journey, a journey I am excited for you to start for yourself!
~ Editor: Xenofon