Image of a university classroom

Tips for Students Starting University

A university student’s take on what might be useful to know before starting this new stage in life

Mental health and wellbeing
By VoiceBox ·

Katerina (not her real name)

A young writer from Canada

Tips I Would Have Liked to Hear Before Starting University

Big transitions in life are always scary, and for teenagers entering adulthood, the year after finishing secondary education is often the biggest transition yet. Even if you’re reading this in hopes of some form of reassurance, my saying, “It’s not actually that bad!” is not going to assuage all your fears. Nonetheless, I think we all find that there is still some worth in hearing from those who have been in our shoes, and have made it to the other side.  So without further ado, here is one first-year university student’s take on what might be useful to know before starting this new stage in life. 

1: It’s okay to still not know where you’re going. This might just be me, but I remember I was in middle school when I was having the first serious conversations about what I wanted to do for a living. Teenagers are often expected to be giving serious consideration to their careers, and that does get amplified once you start post-secondary education. Everybody making small talk with you wants to know what you’re studying. While I definitely see the merit in having those five-year plans, I find it ridiculous that people are expected to know exactly what they want out of life at this age. Most first-year students do not have experience, or even a thorough understanding of the field they want to work in. Many are still struggling to choose their majors when that deadline rolls around. Being undecided is not only more common than society would have us expect, but almost more logical. We aren’t the same people as our middle school selves, and our goals and priorities should adjust as we grow.

In the same spirit, it’s okay for plans to change. The job I studied in elaborate detail for my mandatory Careers class in high school is not what I intend on pursuing now. The classes you take may redirect your priorities in a way you never would have anticipated, and again, we’re still learning about ourselves and the world. Deciding to follow that redirection may not be easy, depending on your university and your program, but it doesn’t make sense to continue to invest in a plan that you’re likely to abandon further down the road. And even if you make the “wrong” choice in university, while the statistics seem to vary, most of them suggest that career changes are not at all abnormal.

2: Figure out what helps you decompress, but keep in mind that it may not be the most enjoyable thing you could be doing. What do I mean? It’s easy to decide you need a break from studying, and pull up your social media, or perhaps Netflix. Yet those might not be effective ways to actually let your mind relax and recharge. It’s easy to insist that such passive, often mindless tasks must be doing you some good, but take a critical look at how you feel after one such break. Are you re-energized, and motivated to continue working? If not, consider what actually has a positive effect on your study habits. Experiment by filling your breaks with a variety of tasks. I find that taking a break to exercise or do some mundane chore is what keeps me going. There are plenty of things I’d rather do with that time, but my mental health doesn’t receive the same benefit.

3: Don’t stress about how your experience compares to your expectations. There is no single university experience. You may not get the same things out of university as your friends or your family. Your experience may not line up with how you see post-secondary education portrayed in media. Just as with any other aspect of life, sometimes you’re going to deviate from what you think is the norm. Don’t let others’ experiences convince you that you’re doing something wrong or missing out when you don’t want to do something in and of itself. Make the right choices for yourself.

At the same time, my bonus tip (which doesn’t crack the top three mainly because you’ve probably heard it elsewhere) is not to be afraid of new experiences. Try new things, take the initiative, learn outside of the classroom. University is, after all, abundant with opportunities. Strike a balance between accepting your experience and taking steps to expand it, by doing your best to live true to yourself.

Good luck, future university students! You’ve got this! 

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