Who would’ve thought September would have all the audacity to make it here, to the end of the month. As the hopeful shine and fresh-eraser-smell of early September falls away, something else starts to settle in its place. Did you know there are only ninety-two days left in the year? Did that give you a bit of anxiety and make your cortisol spike? Sorry!
If you’re a student, this is often the “oh shit” time of year, when you realize all your classes actually require a bit of attention.
I might no longer be an undergrad anymore, but I’m back on campus this year taking an advanced Japanese course. (Because I like pain!)
Talking with the students in my class stirred up memories of all the fears and anxieties I had when I was a first-time university student doing my BA while balancing panic attacks and student loans and messy relationships. I often felt like I didn’t have the capacity to cope with what was going on. (But I survived!)
For years after I finished my undergrad, I would be working or learning something on the job and think, Man, I wish I knew that back then. That would have been really helpful.
So, here’s my “hindsight is 20/20” hot take on what does and doesn’t matter in university, in the hopes that you might read this and find something that helps get you through another day.
Grades don’t matter.
You laugh, you cry, but I’m serious. Sure, you should be concerned with passing the class; that’s a given: classes are expensive and you need them to graduate.
However, employers don’t look at your marks. Nine-point-nine times out of ten, they just check to see if you have a degree. Unless you’re headed for a career in academia, no one cares if you have an Honours or not, if your average was 75 or 95.
In my second year of university, I had a hard time. My average dropped, I lost one of my bursaries and I thought it was the end of the world. Despite that, the world somehow went on and I had to figure out a way to continue with it. After much moping around and self-pity, I applied for different funding and combined that with student loans and part-time jobs to make things work. I can only imagine how much more productive and happy I could have been if I didn’t spend so much time dragging myself over the coals and delighting in my own torture.
All that to say: just do your best. Fear of low marks keeps you from taking risks, and university should be a place where you’re allowed to experiment and be adventurous. Your ability to produce As is not your worth. That’s just what capitalism wants you to think. You are more than that.
Also: don’t blame your parents if they’re hard on you about grades. They’re not riding around in your head. They can’t see the big picture. They just love you and worry. Your struggle is to separate your parents’ reactions from your reality with a loving hand. I know; it’s hard.
Don’t stress about things with low stakes.
If you’re doing something for fun, don’t worry about fucking it up a little bit. Join the drama club and have a speaking role? Pfft, whatever. Have fun. Volunteering to raise money for charity? Thinking about standing up at open mic night? Go for it! No one will die. It’s low stakes.
Literally, no one cares what you do, so just try and have a good time and learn some new things.
The highest stakes are you learning to have confidence in yourself to try new things. And the only way to do it is to just go out there and do stuff.
Teachers care more about your attitude than your GPA.
People won’t remember what you said or what your grades were, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. And guess what? Profs are people too.
The truth is if people like you they will want to help you along. And if you like people, you’ll enjoy life a lot more.
Professors who enjoy you will think of you when opportunities arise. Now, admittedly, this can be a double-edged sword and there are some profs you will not see eye to eye with on anything. Still. Turn your papers in on time, respect their class, do the best you can with what you’ve got. Respect goes both ways.
I do believe that at every university there’s at least one prof you can connect with on a personal level. That person can be your rock. Ideally, it’s someone whose classes you enjoy. Make time to visit with them and chat in their office about what you want to get out of university and your future. If you have a good attitude, they will want to help you. (People are good!)
The system doesn’t have the last say on who you are.
Whether you flunk out of a class or don’t get accepted into a certain program, or drop out of university altogether, it doesn’t mean you’re not good at life or that you can never do that thing you were trying to do.
I make my living today as a photographer. I never went to art school to do it. I was an English major who taught myself how to take pictures. Now, the ability to write and communicate has served me incredibly well, but not going to art school hasn’t held me back.
If you get rejected from the program you want, if you love that thing, just keep doing it. The way the institution tells you is the way forward, isn’t always the way forward.
Take the arts, for example. If you’re in the arts and want to make a living from it, you may be better served by taking a couple of entrepreneurship classes than a studio class. You’ll do the art anyway because you love it, so if the way you want forward is barred, try and find other courses or skills that will supplement your practice.
Get a friend to edit/proofread your work.
This is so stupid-simple and works so well, but most people don’t do it because they don’t learn time management quickly enough, or they procrastinate writing because they’re afraid their writing will be bad, or they’re embarrassed to show it to anyone. Don’t be the fool that I was!
When I first graduated, I went to work at a law firm as a legal admin clerk, and another legal assistant would read and correct every document that I created. It blew my mind how efficient this system was, how many errors it caught that, once corrected, made my work so much better. I can’t tell you the number of times I sat in my little cubicle, looking out over the harbour and wondering if my university time would have been different if only I’d had someone else look over my work.
A lot of on-campus writing centres offer these types of services for anyone who wants them, including you! Or in a pinch, find a friend with whom you can swap essays and help each other out.
Don’t stress about being the best. Just get it done.
On more than one occasion during my university days, a project would come up that I really cared about and wanted to do well, but because I thought I couldn’t do it justice I’d procrastinate at even starting. Inevitably, I’d end up doing something at the last minute and handing it in. Ugh, amateur hour.
Written work is so easy to get in your head about (trust me). But when it comes down to it, just getting it out is the best thing to do. If you’re trying to write an essay, start stream-of-conscious writing down all your thoughts about it and then see what spills out. You can always go back and edit (and have a friend proofread) later.
Tell people when you’re having a hard time.
That’s right: not “if” you’re having a hard time, but “when.” Because it’s inevitable. We all have bad times in our lives. And the thing is: we are all in our own little bubbles.
We may want our friends and family to notice when we’re having a hard time, but the truth is sometimes with all the goings-on of our busy lives, things can be easy to miss. So please take it upon yourself to tell people, because your mental and physical health is important. It’s infinitely more important than how well you’re doing at school. You are more important than a degree.
If you’re having a hard time, please, tell someone. If you’re having a hard time in a class, communicate it to the teacher. If you just need someone to cook you supper and listen to you air your grievances,—ask! If you need to drop a class—do it! Need therapy? Get in there! Do whatever you need to do to be okay.
Don’t ever feel bad about asking for help. I’ll let you in on a little secret: many people like to be asked for help. Love it, even. Because, when you help someone out, it creates social bonds. It’s literally what makes our communities stronger. Go out there and help us become a better society by asking for help.
Don’t blame the teacher if you’re failing.
Now, I hear you. I’ve had some really horrible teachers in my time. That said, having a difficult teacher (whether it’s their personality or their grading) is a very real challenge that you will face as a human living and working in the world outside of school. There will be people you don’t like! There will be unfairness! There will be conflict.
It’s great to communicate with your teachers early on if you feel like you’re not set up to succeed in their class. A good tip for these conversations is to use “I” statements:
“I’m worried about failing; I don’t understand the content.”
vs. “You” statements:
“Your course is too hard; you did a bad job designing the syllabus,” etc.
Not only does the former get you further, but it shows an impressive amount of personal accountability. The idea is not to attack or blame anyone but to share your feelings and try to find the best path forward.
Now, I’ve definitely heard tales of (and seen) some professors who don’t have the skills to have these conversations, and it boggles the mind why they even teach. If you get someone like that, I am sorry. It truly sucks and there’s not much you can do. If it gets really bad, or their behaviour borders on harassment, consider writing to a dean or their manager to see if you can find some reprieve (and so there’s a paper trail of their behaviour on file in case they have a history of bad behaviour).
It is valuable to make time for friends and being friendly.
Some of my best friends to this day are people I met in university. My partner of a decade (I am old) is someone I started dating my second year of undergrad. The friends I’ve made in university have been there for me throughout my life since. Sometimes, like the planets, our orbits shift and we come closer or further away from each other. The people who were my ride-or-dies aren’t all still my ride-or-dies today, but that’s okay. We’re all still there, inhabiting the solar system of friendship (aw) together.
So don’t focus on just grades. An A+ in chemistry will not drive you to the hospital after midnight when you’ve had a major panic attack. A friend will.
Follow your interests when selecting classes.
Sure, you need all the right mandatory classes and requirements for your degree, but for your electives, really branch out and follow the courses you’re passionate about, or just have a weird interest in. Always wanted to see what the fuck French cinema is all about? Try it! I don’t give a shit that you’re a computer science major—get in there and live a little! La vie est belle!
Especially if you don’t plan to go into academia, you’ll get so much more from choosing courses you have an interest in than just taking what’s expected for your degree. Passion is real and useful.
Another strategy is to follow a teacher you really like. If there was a professor I really got along well with whose content I enjoyed, I’d try and take almost every course they offered because I knew I’d have a good time with them. Life is a buffet. Go back for more of what you enjoy.
Having to work during university is good.
While I often fantasized about an ideal world where I got to focus exclusively on my studies and didn’t have to worry about money, money is real and necessary and I worked the entire time I was at university so that I could afford it. I worked part-time jobs, did headshots for friends, worked at the school for honorariums, ate a lot of pasta, etc.
You know what, though? While I, at times, begrudged having to work for money (Imagine! Perish the thought!), these were fantastic experiences and opened doors for me.
First of all, when people know you can work and are reliable they’ll have you in mind when opportunities come up. Things come to those who show up.
It’s almost guaranteed to be stressful at first, learning how to balance life, work, and school. And it’s hard seeing that not everyone’s playing with the same hand of cards, or even the same deck, or even the same game. But, I promise you, this is excellent practice for what comes next.
Working while studying teaches you how to manage time, prioritize, and let things go. Because that’s life. You don’t get a perfectly balanced plate. No one does. On the bright side, as with real juggling, the better you get at metaphorical juggling, the more things you’ll be able to keep in the air and make it look easy.
For inspiration, here’s a list—in no particular order—of random jobs I had while I was a student:
- Page turner (for concert pianists)
- TA for Digital Imaging (my longest-standing and most reliable gig)
- Layout editor and contributor for the student newspaper
- Busker (flute) and musician-for-hire
- Student safety officer (for a very short time)
- Bartender, then bar manager (every summer)
- Photographer (not at the level I’m at now, but doing the odd headshots and engagement photos)
- Research assistant (scanning old images in the library for a professor’s book)
- Videographer (recording concerts or lectures for professors)
- Social media manager
The horror you feel at your personal fuck-ups will pass.
You’ll turn in papers that look like a dog’s breakfast. You’ll say garbage things to people you care about. You’ll date and trust the wrong people. You’ll make bad decisions with money. You’ll fuck it all up somehow. None of it is the last word on who you are.
Don’t take it personally; learn from your mistakes and from when people treat you badly. Be accountable to others and yourself when you mess up. Learn how to apologize easily and early. Deal with shit before it becomes a shitstorm. Know who your inner circle of people who truly care about you are and prioritize them over appealing strangers who may toss you aside. Invest in people.
The final word…
I know. Reading this won’t necessarily make things easier for you. You’re going to grow and change and it’s going to be awkward as hell and (I can almost guarantee) really painful. (I’m sure that’s just what you wanted to hear!) You’re not going to read this and then instantly synthesize a decade of my personal experience and materialize hindsight goggles out of nowhere. It will still be tough, slogging through the woods of your early twenties, machete in hand, unexpected sounds creaking up from the underbrush.
But, I hope you realize you’re not alone; that you will get through it. If anything, know that while a certain amount of worry is good, it does no good to worry too much and not enjoy the journey. Please enjoy the ride. Things will suck at times, but even when they suck it doesn’t mean you’ve failed the journey or that you’ve fucked things up beyond all repair. The important thing is to just keep going. If you know you can keep going, you know eventually you’ll reach an end. There will be highs and lows, and as long as you can push through the lows, there will be more highs. Keep your good attitude and good humour.
You’ve got this.
- Friends, therapy, perspective. Combine in equal measure with ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a highball. Top with soda water. Garnish with lemon.
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