Uni 101: Academic Life

Hi friends! My original plan was to publish a blog post a week for the month of August in preparation for back to school in September. Clearly, that didn’t work (August was so unimaginably busy I just simply couldn’t keep up with the blog), but I’m going to continue my series anyway.

I’m currently sitting in a dark classroom with no windows and only one set of lights on by myself because my tutorial was cancelled but no one told me. Regardless, I feel like with my hour of free time I now have because I’m not in class, I can write a bit about academic life.

As many people know from previous blog posts of mine, when I was in high school, I had an unhealthy perfectionist mindset and basically front loaded my life with my academics because I had the time to do it. Once I was in university though, that all changed. I recently saw a presentation at my university about how incoming students from high schools have a grade average of 90.1%, which is incredible! In fact, that was my exact high school average when I was leaving grade 12 to go to university. What’s shocking is that by the end of first year, that average drops to about 73%. That’s about 17%! When I first saw that statistic, I was gobsmacked.

There’s no way that’s going to be me, I thought to myself. I’m a smart kid who works hard. I can do this.

How naive that is! Now granted (and not to toot my own horn or anything) but my final grade average in first year was 84%. Was it easy? Was I happy with it? At first, no. I was anything but happy. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to understand the arbitrariness of grades, and I’m here to provide insight as to what these numbers mean, and how to find success regardless of what the numbers say.

1) Grades don’t mean the same thing they did in high school.

In high school, I was kept myself to a 90%+ average. I thought to myself, if grades are measuring how much of the course content I understand, I want to know 90%+ of the material. In high school, 90s are base line for knowing the material. Getting 70s, even 80s, is devastating to our self esteem. I know for myself, seeing anything below 90% caused me to burst into tears. But this idea is dangerous and far from the truth. The truth is, 70% means that we are meeting the requirements. We understand what’s happening, and we are learning. Anything 80% and above means that we’ve exceeded the expectation for what we’ve needed to learn, and demonstrated that we’re well beyond the learning outcomes of a course. And we don’t need to be like that in every course. One thing that was hard for me to accept, but is liberating is that getting 70s is okay. My choral conducting professor explained it well. 70% means you put in the effort and you’re meeting the expectations. 80% means you’ve shown that you’ve put in an exceeding amount of work that wasn’t necessarily required of you. 90% means that you’re an expert and could present to the experts in the field.

It’s okay to be a 70s student. Don’t break your neck trying to get 80s and 90s. If you are doing well and getting those high marks, that’s great. If you’re not, thats okay too. When you’re out of university and trying to get a job, no employer is going to ask you what mark you got in a first year psych class.

2) Studying is not something you can cram in the night before an exam.

I’m 100% guilty of doing this in high school. The day before my exams I’d be on the phone with friends as we quiz each other on our 3-4 page study sheets we made together, trying to cram in all the information that we could. It’s easy to do this when you’re in high school because honestly, there isn’t that much information to cover in one semester. Don’t get me wrong, high school is extremely difficult for some people. There were definitely moments in high school where I thought I was in over my head. But compared to university, the vast amount of knowledge you have to learn in a 4 month semester is absolutely insane. I’ve learned the hard way that it is thoroughly impossible to fit in everything from the semester in a couple of hours.

One of the most useful things I’ve learned when it comes to university academics is how to study. MAKE A SCHEDULE. I can’t stress this enough. I know it seems stupid and you don’t want to follow it, but trust me, it helps. I usually allocate myself a couple days to write study notes, which helps me refresh my brain on the material, but I also give myself days to study with friends and quiz each other. Did you know one of the best ways to learn information is to talk aloud? Having a study group of friends that just quiz each other and hearing and speaking the material out loud together is immensely helpful. I 100% recommend it.

3) Asking for help is okay. Even if you were the “smart kid” in high school.

When I first came to university, the idea that I could ask for help was all but literally forced down my throat. “Ask upper year students, talk to your profs, schedule meetings with your TAs, have a conversation with your academic counsellor…”, you name it, I heard it. And yet, my younger self thought that I couldn’t ask for help. Perhaps it was my pride, and believing that I could do everything myself, because heck, I was living on my own for the first time. I could do this.

But the fact of the matter is, it’s okay to ask for help. And when you do, it’s incredibly helpful. I took an English class in first year where we had to write 2 essays. I wrote the first one, thought it was pretty decent, and submitted it. If I were in high school, an essay like this probably would’ve gotten me anywhere from an 80 to 85. It’s no surprise that I was shocked to see a solid 72 in my grade book, and a copy of my essay literally mauled with red ink. My head started spinning at 100 mph. What did I do wrong? How could this happen? What do I do? Our next essay was coming up soon, and I definitely wanted to see an improvement from this essay, to our next essay, which was worth a LOT more.

So of course, I swallowed my pride and e-mailed my professor. I asked him to meet with me so I could discuss my next essay, and what exactly I could do to make it better. So I met with him, and within an hour, I felt enlightened. The standards in university are different than they are in high school, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I was focused on the wrong things, and needed someone to point me in the right direction so I could meet the requirements of what was needed AND exceed and succeed. It’s no surprise that my second essay got me a nice solid 80%.

4) Your academic life shouldn’t take over your whole life.

I’ll end with this point. You go to university to learn. There’s no doubt about that. BUT, university is also meant for so much more than that. This is something I really wish I knew when I first started. University is a time where you can learn so much beyond your course work. It’s your first time out in the world when people expect you to start figuring things out on your own. It’s learning to create social connections, it’s learning to find new experiences, to develop skills you can’t learn without trying. It’s the time to join clubs and meet people that share the same passions as you. It’s a time to find out who you are, what you like, and what you want to accomplish in life.

And you can’t do that if your head is down, reading books, and studying all the time. Your academics are important, yes. But they’re not everything. So get up, stretch your wings, and fly. Even if you fall, you can get back up, and learning from our mistakes is the way we grow.

– Carole

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