How do I wrap my head around university?
May 9, 2010 6:53 PM   Subscribe

How do I prepare myself mentally for university? What did you do to make the experience smoother and less stressful? Alternatively, what did you do that I should avoid?

I'll be going to university this fall after several years working and am trying to be as well prepared as possible. I've attended college twice for different vocations and only did okay. I didn't find the material particularly difficult, but I think I still harboured some high-schoolish notion that school sucks and is a tedious means to an end. I like to think I've outgrown that, but am still worried once I'm there I'll fall back into it. I'll be taking a BA in English.
Can anyone offer some good resources or books to help me wrap my head around what to expect in terms of work load, stress management and so-on? Also, are there any programs etc to make things easier once I'm there (organization-wise, I'm a procrastinator)? Is it worth it to buy an ereader, are textbooks even available for them?
All advice is greatly appreciated!
posted by Miss Mitz to Education (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Good compendium of advice: Been There, Should've Done That
posted by wireless at 7:04 PM on May 9, 2010

Take it as it comes, with an open mind and a sense of humor. The only think you can be sure of is that the most important parts will not be what you expected.

My freshman roommate arrived with a meticulously planned 5-year double major in physics and engineering. He graduated with a major in medieval German literature.

At any university, there will be more going on than you can do. Try one thing after another until you find what fits.

As to an ereader, wait until you get there and discuss it with a prof or advisor. Each school's electronic structure is different, and you just go with what others use.

Remember that everyone is in the same situation as you. There are plenty of people there to help you get up to speed.
posted by KRS at 7:05 PM on May 9, 2010

what did you do that I should avoid?

Well, if you're enthusiastic about what you're going to study, this helps a lot.

Compared to HS, in college going for a BA, you have more freedom in what courses you take and who you associate with. You get to pursue what interests you. Compared to HS, there is a greater chance that the people in your class chose to be there (this obviously depends on the school, the major, and how far along you are in your cousework). Having classmates who are motivated and curious is I think more important than the professor or the syllabus, after a point.

Regarding stress and procrastination, the best advice I can offer is to work through it with a therapist. There are books on how to get organized, which are useful in treating the symptoms. I recommend also addressing the underlying cause.
posted by zippy at 7:15 PM on May 9, 2010

I still harboured some high-schoolish notion that school sucks and is a tedious means to an end.

My biggest advice in getting over that is to find classes you enjoy, and then be active in them. This doesn't mean you have to slave over your schoolwork, but if you're genuinely interested in the topics the GOING to class part will be less drudgery. Equally important is how good the professor is (don't overlook the significance of this). Here's my tips:

- Every term, overenroll in classes (1 or 2 more than you will take, assuming this isn't over the max # of credits)
- Attend above classes religiously for a week, then start knocking out the ones that aren't keepers (professor is bad, books are boring, too much work, no friends in the class, whatever your criteria are)
- Don't be afraid to add classes after you've dropped a couple from the above method. I have added classes almost 2 weeks into the semester before. You have to make up the work, that's the worst that will happen.
- At this point, you should ideally have about 75% of your classes being ones you are happy with.
- Go to class at least 90% of the time.
- Sit in the second row. The first row is for suckups. The third row is okay. The back row is for smartasses that occasionally are smart. YMMV depending on the class size, but 2 works best for me in large classes and row 1 works best in small classes. This way you can ignore everyone else in the class besides you and the professor.

- Don't get sucked into the cycle. If you're stressed, you will find it harder to accomplish your work, which will stress you out (easier said than done I know)
- Keep telling yourself you can do it, and then sit down and focus on the work instead of on whether you will get a good grade on it.
- Remember that doing poorly on an assignment, test, class, etc. does not mean there is anything wrong with you, nor does it mean now you won't have that GPA or job or whatever that you want. People tend to overemphasize the importance of minor mistakes.
- Try to find your limits and don't take on too much. Leave time for fun, socializing, reading MeFi, other hobby X, etc.

To-Do Lists:
I use The Hit List, but it's for Mac OSX (I don't know if you have that). Any simple to-do list will do that gets out of your way. Have one. Use it. Have a calendar (iCal, google calendar, etc.) and use it. These things are basic but do a lot for organization.

Good luck!
posted by mokudekiru at 7:21 PM on May 9, 2010 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I feel I should better explain the transition I'm making. High school was almost ten years ago for me, as I said, I *hope* I've outgrown my childish approach to studying, meaning I haven't encountered it (studying) in so long I'm really not sure how I'll react. My concern now is the transition from working a regular 9-5, supporting myself, and not doing homework. I also need to keep working and paying my rent.
posted by Miss Mitz at 7:33 PM on May 9, 2010

I recently went back to school; my situation was both similar and different. I was last in school almost 10 years ago, then started up at a community college last fall. I do not currently work, though, as I'm fortunate enough to have a situation where I can live very modestly off financial aid.

My best recommendation is to see if your school offers any kind of classes that help students transition. During my first semester, I took "College Survival Skills" and "Study & Learning Skills" for a tiny number of (non-gen. ed.) credits and both were really helpful in getting back into the mindset of studying. They may not be classes at your school, but I'd bet there are workshops or seminars or something similar for you to help deal with returning to school.
posted by asciident at 7:48 PM on May 9, 2010

I'm guessing you're not American from your language and the tags you've used from previous questions in your profile, excuse me if I'm wrong*. University for me was: access to world-class researchers, for whom I could work and actually contribute to their projects; access to a free world-class library; time spent with other undergrads as questioning as me; time spent discussing and arguing topics that ultimately made a difference (as I was in a BA sociology program working with the state government on a number of projects); and an atmosphere inclusive and welcoming of different life experiences. I loved my time at uni, and would love to be a full-time student again... (sigh). Be open to new ideas and experiences, and be willing to be taught, and you'll be okay.

* Undergrad is different in the US, or not. I have a terrible conception of US undergrad, particularly for a BA, as being essentially the last four years of high school. I know this isn't always the case, but compulsory general subjects reinforce that notion in my head, so I apologise in advance for anyone I'm offending.
posted by goo at 8:01 PM on May 9, 2010

Mokudekiru really gives great advice for *anybody* going to uni. To build, or distill some of those points:

Show up to lectures and tutes. If you do nothing else, do this. Don't feel bad if you don't do the reading, show up.

Always hand something in. Even if it's total shit, hand it in. The perfect is the enemy of passing subjects, and as a wise person once said to me "P's get degrees!"

Don't be afraid to approach your lecturer/tutor if you're having trouble with something, or in real trouble generally. If you give them notice (and have a good track record of trying) you will be shocked at how human and compassionate they are.

Take notes - not so much for looking back on afterwards (though you can do that) but because it immeasurably helps with remembering things, the first time around.

Ask around before taking subjects. Find out what the general opinion on the lecturer/subject is. Don't be afraid to drop a subject you're not enjoying a couple of weeks in, and don't feel guilty about it, either. Go for subjects that you will enjoy, and lecturers that you have enjoyed, regardless of subject. This is really important, I failed/got bad marks on lots of subjects because I needlessly stuck with them even though they sucked.

Enjoy yourself!

Finally: clear the schedule as empty as possible around exam times. You will want zero social commitments and as few work commitments as you can get away with.
posted by smoke at 8:19 PM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: In response to goo, this is in Canada, St FX in Nova Scotia to be exact. Loving the answers so far guys, thanks!
posted by Miss Mitz at 8:40 PM on May 9, 2010

(I posted this in another thread, too) I always have a copy of this email in my drafts folder and I've never regretted sending it:
Hi Professor,

I was wondering if we could meet to discuss my grade in the course and answer some questions about the course material. Please let me know what time would be most convenient for you.

Miss Mitz
If you're like me, it becomes much harder to skip classes when you've spoken with the professor one-on-one and told him you're going to be there. And seconding everything mokudekiru has posted, especially the tip about signing up for extra classes and then dropping them without penalty.

Even if you don't have time to start an assignment, read over the problem sheet as soon as you get it. Have you ever missed an assignment and then looked at the assignment after the fact and thought, "If I knew it was that easy, I would have totally finished it"?

Good luck!
posted by yaymukund at 8:41 PM on May 9, 2010

If you're used to a 9-5 schedule, you can use that to your advantage to help you focus. Treat your classes as a 9-5 job: your job is to go to class and learn everything that you can. When you're not in class between 9 and 5, you should be still working on your job: revising, doing assignments, reading, etc. If you get in this habit, you'll be amazed at how efficient and productive you are, and how easy it is not to get behind.

re: the problem of making sure you're over your earlier approach to seeing it as a boring hurdle that must be overcome -- I have found that it is tremendously more energising to see it as your opportunity to learn cool things and to talk about them with other people, rather than your opportunity to get a degree. The latter focuses you on the piece of paper; the former focuses you on the content. With the former attitude, you find yourself much more inclined to do "extra" reading or to actually want to go to tutes or ask questions of the lecturer: you actually want to know, not just get a certain mark. Obviously if you have a really bad lecturer or an extremely tedious class it's hard to keep that attitude up, but if you can represent even that to yourself as a challenge ("how do I find what is interesting here, despite the best efforts of my teachers to remove it?") then in my experience even that can be overcome. That said, I nth everybody's recommendation to choose classes based in part on the lecturer.
posted by forza at 8:51 PM on May 9, 2010

Everything that somke just said. And also this:

When doing Liberal Arts (you said English right?), remember that 90% of the time, as far as grades, you won't go wrong by just writing what the Professor already thinks and wants to hear. In order to do this you must WATCH the professor during a lecture and get to know their personality and what they think about the subject matter.

I don't know how to make this sound not as bad as it sounds but I took philosophy, sociology, anthropology and poly sci classes in College in the US. Unlike, say, math, physics or engineering where there are empirical theories, facts and principals that get applied and produce some objective "right answer", in Liberal Arts it's all relative. If you want the grade you are better off learning what the professor cares about (their ideology, biases, specialty etc) and making sure you write about that, or at least acknowledge that you know and respect that part of the subject matter before you jump into whatever you actually want to talk about. And hint, what they really care about you can only learn by watching them teach the class. Course material/reading is 99% useless (for that at least).

I can only think of like 2 classes where this was not the case. Those were the hardest and most interesting classes to take, but, on the other hand I could not have done well in them without the other classes either.

And, thought I hated "writing what they want to hear" at the time, I've found that Grokking a professor is useful, since when you approach material later you now have a dozen professors in your head all responding to what you are reading/writing and giving you insights. "Oh Professor So-and-so would not like this critique of Kant" or "This would not be feminist enough for professor whats-her-name". Getting into people's head is what it is all about, it's much easier to start with like a professor sitting in front of you before you climb into say Foucault's head.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 9:09 PM on May 9, 2010

Hey Miss Mitz! I'm about to graduate with my AA and will be shipping off to a Real School to finish off my BA within the next year. I've also kept up a full-time job at the same time so I can pay the rent.

It's hard. Exhausting.

But, you really figure out what you want to do in life. I started out interested in chemistry and ended up a poet (I like to think I've been a poet my whole life :D). When you work and go to school at the same time, you will definitely figure out what interests you. You have to be passionate about what you are studying to survive.

Some of my tricks:

-I haven't even bothered with an e-reader. Most of my books are... real books (fellow English kid here), so carrying them isn't a huge bother.

-Find that job! I was extremely lucky to find a well-paying job with very flexible hours. If you have a 9-5 now, talk to them. Tell them your plans, and convince them you that you are worth keeping on while you work on your education. Most places are cool with a weird schedule as long as you still work 30-40 hours and you get your work done. This is how I was able to keep my health insurance while in school. (You don't have that problem, though. Lucky duck!)

-BE ORGANIZED. My god. I can't express this enough. My classmates are amazed at how I ALWAYS have everything I need with me. Get a really sturdy/big over-the-shoulder tote bag for everything. School stuff AND purse stuff. Most days I go right from school to class, and rarely have time for a pit stop. For classes, I stopped using those awful three ring binders and switched to spiral notebooks and folders. You can reuse them all. I've had folders last me three semesters. I also use an accordion folder for my creative writing classes, so I separate different projects.

-Do your school work every day, not just the day (or day before) it's due. For some reason, the longer I wait to start something, the longer it takes me to finish it. Take a half hour/hour a night to do your work. I'm lucky enough to be able to sneak in some school work at my job (boring laid-back office job), so I can usually head home and relax for the rest of the night.

-I definitely agree with those that told you to drop a class if it doesn't interest you. Or, if you are feeling particularly stressed that semester. It's better than an F.

That's all I have right now. I'll come back with more if I think of something. Good luck!
posted by Lizsterr at 9:10 PM on May 9, 2010

BTW - I never took "English" courses. I assume you mean Lit and Critical Lit type stuff? From what I understand from the three English majors I know it is basically like philosophy except no pretense that any of the material actually relates to realty. Total absurdity. Excellent for the corporate world and computer scripting/database IT careers. But YMMV.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 9:20 PM on May 9, 2010

Not ready to dive into the deep end of note-taking?

Get a digital with an SD card...record lectures, drop them into the correct folder on your computer organized by the subject covered and/or syllabus. Look for one that has a recording level feature so you can actually hear the prof. speaking. Bonus points for one with mp3 file capabilities and then just drop them into iTunes, etc... Good luck.
posted by bach at 9:30 PM on May 9, 2010

Assuming you're going to a state school like I did:

-If you're paying retail on an out of state tuition, then think very carefully about whether it's worth paying $$$ for the first two years when you could just as easily get all your credits done at a community college for pennies on the dollar and transfer them in. Likewise, if you can take a year off to get residency and qualify for in-state rates, do that. Unless you're going to a particularly unique school, you are better off taking your gen ed requirements at community college. Don't worry that the coursework is any less rigorous; you're almost certainly using the same textbooks (at least for math, science, econ, and foreign languages).

And even if you aren't:

-Get a P.O. box for your time at college because you will be moving around a lot in four years and it's a pain to have to change your addresses every time.
posted by holterbarbour at 10:53 PM on May 9, 2010

I can't speak for other people's experiences, but I am about to finish undergraduate in the US for a literature degree after attending a very idiosyncratic private high school. Some things that may or may not be of interest:

1. Many college students have peculiar beliefs. If you read the race/"gender"/homosexuality/mental illness/etc threads on Metafilter and find that you agree wholeheartedly with the majority, you don't have to worry about this. Otherwise, just shut up because you will be treated as insane. Philosophy departments tend to be a bit more accepting.

2. The most important thing at college is making time for reading outside your classes. I know this is counter-intuitive, but reading books that are not on the syllabus is a very important way to enrich your education, as you will see parallels that you will not otherwise be able to uncover. Since you're doing a BA in English, your professors will appreciate it if you use these books in your papers.

3. I have difficulty paying attention, so I always sit in the front and take notes, no matter what is happening. I have almost never actually referred to my notes, but they help me concentrate.

4. A word of caution from the school of hard knocks: NEVER go to the school mental health services. If you feel that you need mental health services, go to an outside service. Never make your mental health issues known to your RA or anyone else in a position of authority. Laws are notwithstanding; the college will discover a way to get around them. With school shootings, suicides, etc. in the news, universities are vigilant against potential problems. "Medical leave" is the euphemism for "expulsion" that they use in these instances. Your school will probably cover up any such cases, so you won't hear about it if it is happening.

5. Take advantage of the opportunity to take lots of different classes as time allows. I took Yiddish, philosophy, and English courses within the context of a Classics major.

6. Try to make friends with your classmates. Having friends in classes will help you to get notes and have somebody to bounce ideas off of without having to shoot an email to the overworked professor or TA.

7. If you have a professor who has a reputation for being scatterbrained, you can often wait until he or she actually asks for the textbook before buying it. One time, I was ordered to buy a $100 book... that we never used in the course. It is better to buy the book and not need it than not buy the book and need it, but there will be obvious cases where you will not need to buy a book. Try to figure this out as quickly as possible. Since you're majoring in English, it is possible that there will be low-cost alternate editions to the ones in the school bookstore. Book-buying can be a budget-buster, so manage this carefully.

8. Your college or university likely has many services and apparatus that you will not hear of, just because of the volume of the university. If you can imagine it, see if it exists. For instance, I had no idea that the university I'm graduating from had a career counseling center until quite recently.

9. You can often get a lot out of a class by staying afterward and listening to the questions that the other students ask. Always do this if you have the time— often the questions will provoke a whole new lecture that will cover interesting ground.

10. Talk to your college adviser often; once a term is good. There may be regulations which you are not aware of and they can help you navigate. If you suspect something your college adviser said is wrong, investigate your hunch. I can't even count the number of times someone at the Dean's Office has told me something that is simply not true. Not everyone is aware is every regulation, which is just a consequence of the organizational complexity of the institution.

Good luck!
posted by Electrius at 11:25 PM on May 9, 2010

If you are having, or anticipate having, any significant problems in a class, tell the professor very early on. Take responsibility (as opposed to whining), tell them what you are doing about it, and ask for suggestions. It's a good idea to document all this stuff in email too. That goes for academic problems, health problems, mental health problems, life problems, etc. You don't have to write a confessional (obviously it's possible to overshare), but keep them posted.
posted by molybdenumblue at 12:08 AM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do a double major, English and ___________, where _____________ is a discipline/craft/trade that can pay the bills. This way you can follow your bliss and also get a job afterwards.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:47 AM on May 10, 2010

4. A word of caution from the school of hard knocks: NEVER go to the school mental health services. If you feel that you need mental health services, go to an outside service. Never make your mental health issues known to your RA or anyone else in a position of authority. Laws are notwithstanding; the college will discover a way to get around them. With school shootings, suicides, etc. in the news, universities are vigilant against potential problems. "Medical leave" is the euphemism for "expulsion" that they use in these instances. Your school will probably cover up any such cases, so you won't hear about it if it is happening.

This really, really depends on the school. I know of more than one instance where people have been genuinely helped by their schools' mental health services. Since these are often both cheaper and easier to get to than other options, it would be a mistake cutting yourself off from the option of using them if this wasn't true for your school.
posted by forza at 2:31 AM on May 10, 2010

Buy a daily planner and write all of your due dates for assignments, papers, quiz dates, test dates, etc in there. It's also a good idea to keep track of your grades in a spreadsheet for each class so you know roughly what your grades are. Then you can focus on trying to improve in some classes where your grades aren't good enough. I made sure going into the final to know what grade I needed for an A or B in the class.

Get in the habit of doing your class home work in the school library instead of at home. It is too easy to get distracted at home and libraries are made for studying. Do your homework assignments as soon as possible after class. I would also suggest making friends in your classes to form a study group with. Nothing helps you to get through assignments than putting several heads together to try to make sense of them. You will also make some good friends that way too.

Sometimes it's hard when you've been away from school for a few years but try to avoid conflicts with your professors. Some things they do might not make sense but they do them for a good reason. Don't assume you know better. Ask questions if you don't understand or during their office hours but remember you are going to college to learn, not to teach everyone else what you think is the right way. If the teacher likes to give you lots of work, don't take offense, just do it as well as you can. Some college classes for freshmen will be very work intensive to weed out the weak. College is not supposed to be easy, so don't be afraid of the challenges and do not complain.

Some universities are requiring e-readers but there is no sense in getting them if your University doesn't use them. You'll find out in your first classes or on the school website.
posted by JJ86 at 9:32 AM on May 10, 2010

Your planner should be your life. My planner is with me ALL the time, and everything gets entered into it somewhere. Building off of what JJ86 said, I have a sheet for each class (if it's a notebook, it gets written on the inside of the front cover- if not, I have a sheet of paper at the beginning of each binder) that has the point value of every assignment on it with blanks (so Quiz 1- __/10, Essay 1- ___/25, Quiz 2-___/10) and I fill it in with every single assignment I get back. These assignments get put into a folder for the class. It does the same thing as the spreadsheet but gives me a physical sheet of paper I can take in to talk to my professor about my grades thus far.

Also, know that no amount of other people telling you what to do is going to give you a clear cut answer. Just because a few people in this thread have said that they sit in the front row to take notes doesn't mean that this will actually help you- I personally have to sit a few rows back, because I find it hard to concentrate if I can't see what anyone else around me is doing (because I feel like they're watching me).
posted by kro at 7:49 PM on May 10, 2010

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