Do I make the most of my four years here, or do I keep my sanity?
September 24, 2007 9:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm a first year business undergrad. Not even a month into University, and I feel overwhelmed and suffocated. Help me deal?

Background: The business program that I'm in is one of the most competitive programs in Canada, which I almost didn't get into. I was an IB student in High School, so I do have some experience with stress management. I also live off-campus (as opposed to residence), which makes me feel really isolated at times, though I'm a 10 minute walk from most places on campus.

Academically: It feels like I'm already falling behind. There is a ridiculous amount of reading to be done, and I've given up taking notes on them. Instead, I just read the assigned chapters (either before or after that class) and take notes in lectures, though I'm paranoid of missing something the professor only skimmed and that's covered in detail in the reading that will be tested on a midterm, or something.

Socially: I'm in two clubs primarily, Samba and Badminton. There are two other clubs that I'm also interested in, but that may conflict with my schedules. Were it up to me, I would feel completely happy with these two clubs as it is. But since I am in a competitive business program, I feel obligated to join business ventures/conferences/clubs that look good on my resume. I've got little to no interest in being the frosh rep for the Accounting Association, for example, but it will probably look good on paper in my CV and I feel like I need to do as much as possible to build my resume, otherwise I would be wasting my money. (Oh, that, and I'm finding it hard to make friends.)

So the feeling of struggling to keep up with my work combined with a sense that I have to join all these 'voluntary' committees is ... stressing me out. (Did I mention I'm thinking of looking for a part time job to off-set the cost of tuition?) As a result, I'm either lethargic, doing my work in a sullen stupor or sleeping 18 hours a day and waking up only to go to a lecture. My two close friends on campus are Engineering majors, so they don't really relate...

Ambitions-wise: I want to work in International development/relations with either a company or the government when I eventually graduate. Failing that, I'm enjoying accounting so far so I guess a CA designation would be a good fall-back. I also want to do a Dual-Degree in political science, though I'm not allowed to pursue that till Spring year 2.

Hence, any advice regarding how to cope with a lot of reading, or how to make friends (it's really not as easy as 'joining a club' or 'talk to people in class', really.) would be appreciated. In addition: I have this mindset that business is about networking and reaching out and building yourself up. Is it absolutely crucial to start this first year? Will I be eons behind my other business competitors (read: classmates) if I don't get involved in a couple hundred clubs that all require applications and that I have little to no interest in anyway this year?
posted by Phire to Education (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Academically: this is something you'll learn to handle. The reading will get easier as you figure out how to get the bits you need and disregard what you don't.

Socially: YMMV, but don't join clubs you're not interested in. One, because you're taking away a position (if you do take an officer position) from someone who might actually want it; two, because you're not going to be serving your constituents as well as someone else might; three, because it's really not that big a deal. Your CV is important, but things like summer work, or leadership positions in samba and badminton, will be fine. On top of that, no one really cares all *that* much about what you did in college. (OTOH, I'm an engineering student, so maybe I'm wrong about this.) Anyway - staying involved with activities you're interested is the way to make friends, although it may seem awkward at first. Getting involved with activities you don't care about won't help with that, and you'll simply feel like they're a drain on your time, rather than being a nice break in the middle of the week. And get to know the people in your dorm, if you live there - order a pizza and have it in the common area once or twice, or something like that. Work with people on homework. Doesn't matter, just be there.

I know that hearing this next bit doesn't help much, but I promise you it's true: one month is nothing. Give it another month or two and you'll adapt, both academically and socially.

As far as networking, this is important in engineering as well - but don't get involved with stuff you're not interested in, because it will show. Don't try to put on a persona, just get to know your classmates. Maybe show up for office hours and get to know your professors and TAs. Not only will this likely have an effect on your grade, they'll remember you, and there's a good chance you'll get advice or even an internship (or a connection that leads to an internship) along the way.

Anyway - for the moment, chill out and have fun. That's important in college, not just because it's a cool time, but because you won't survive it (or heck, be happy) if you don't. Once you've figured out What This Thing Is All About, then you can put your nose to the grindstone when appropriate. It's all about finding the right balance.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:30 PM on September 24, 2007

Oh, and re: your title. Keeping your sanity and enjoying yourself at least some of the time is making the most of your four years there.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:52 PM on September 24, 2007

Having been in business school for a few years, I can offer you some simple advice.

Try to get what each chapter is emphasizing as its main point. Word for word reading only takes up your time and bores you. Unless you have a prof. that is going to pull out random sentences to use as questions on tests, you should be fine.

Even better would be to get a study buddy or two so you can figure out what everyone else is reading or doing. Sure grades are derived from more than what someone is paying attention to, but if you get caught up trying to absorb the smallest details, your friends will help put things into perspective. All you need to do is approach someone in class that you think knows what's going on and ask if they want to study together. I haven't been rejected yet using that method.

Business school can be tough, but I think the fact that you are actively worrying about it means you're better off.

Good luck.
posted by skwillz at 10:07 PM on September 24, 2007

Best answer: I'm also a freshman in college. For me, it helped to realize that most of my friendships would be superficial. And this isn't a bad thing: I'm polite to people in the hallways. I try to greet people by their names, and smile when I bump into them. But usually, it doesn't turn into anything special.

But for 15 or 20 of these superficial friendships, I'll find someone with similar interests. And my hunch is that most people are just as scared and shaky as I am ("we are"?) when it comes to making new friends.

Also realize that if you're in a very competitive university, you can still get a very good job without getting a 4.0 GPA/top of the class. You should focus on yourself, try to exploit opportunities that you'll enjoy, and juggle social/academic responsibilities for yourself. I'm of the mindset that the best companies are pretty good at figuring out what makes you tick. If you're insincere about what you do, I think they'll catch on.

Or at least that's what I'm betting on :]

Sidenote: A little bit of risk goes a long way. I know we have a pretty good business school, and there are a lot of clubs around here dedicated to getting groups of students together to start their own companies, if you're interested in that sort of thing. I'd be very interested, if I had a bit more time :p
posted by theiconoclast31 at 10:11 PM on September 24, 2007

Based on my experience in getting hired as an MBA in the business world:
1) Don't join clubs you aren't interested. Life is too short and you will go further doing what you are really interested in (outside of class as well as academically) You can easily translate what you do in your clubs to business terms when you write your cv.
2) One problem with focusing on networking is that it can easily cross over into superficial relationships where people can feel used. It is not just how many names of in your rolodex, you want to have relationships that will last - in other words, real friendship. That will take time to build so don't feel bad that you don't have instant friends one month into school.
3) Academically, is it appropriate to form study groups? It can be a big help if each person reads all (most??) the material but you divide up making study notes and sharing them.
posted by metahawk at 10:13 PM on September 24, 2007

just wanted to chime in and say that you will adapt. it takes some time, and the first few months are grueling because the stress is almost unbearable, but you will adjust to the workload. you'll find a balance.

i say this as someone in their fourth year of a five-year undergrad program. in my first year, i was overwhelmed with my 5 classes. i found it really difficult to get all of my readings and assignments done.

now, i'm in 6 courses. i have 2 part-time jobs. i go to the gym. i'm the president of an on-campus club, and the vp of 2 others. i have a "Little Sister". i volunteer with my faculty. i run a workshop for one of the local school boards. and i still have time to hang out with my roommates, visit my parents, buy groceries, do laundry, and sleep (occasionally).

my e-mail's in my profile if you want help mapping out your workload. i'm pretty good with stuff like that, and i have a feeling i know which school you go to and for which program.

best of luck!
posted by gursky at 10:22 PM on September 24, 2007

I'd recommend taking a study skills course through your university's student resources centre or library; I found it really useful. I remember a prof telling us that most bright students can make it through high school without having to develop good study habits, then they get to university (where everyone else is equally bright) and then flounder. A study skills course should help you with stuff like note-taking, scheduling your time, and test-taking.

Like everyone else, I'd recommend dropping activities that you've taken up only to put stuff on your CV. Don't feel you have to cram everything in--give yourself some time (like, a year) to adjust to university life and see how much you can handle before making commitments. (Don't worry too much about dropping out of existing commitments, just say that school's gotten really busy.)
posted by russilwvong at 10:24 PM on September 24, 2007

*Disclaimer: I'm an academic advisor, but not your academic advisor, and I've got a pretty high dose of allergy medication roiling around in my brain right now*

I'm guessing that you're coming up on your first round of tests. This is probably the most stressful period for college freshman and there's a pretty good chance you're overstudying--this is especially common with freshman who did the whole AP credit route in high school. Try to tough it out through the first exam in each class and then you'll finally have some feedback on how you're doing and see the rewards of your work. I would bet that you'll end up realizing you have more free time than you think. Few students I've known actually *read* the readings, word by word--most professors are looking for your own applications of general ideas, and probably the most important skill to develop in college is to identify what is going to be relevant and then focusing on that.

As far as networking and friend-making, it's never too early to start, but a lot of the people you're in class with right now are going to be freaking out in their own way. Most people don't really get settled down and start enjoying themselves till sometimes after midterms. Give it a few weeks, talk to people as they come in before class/linger after a lecture, you'll start making friends without realizing it. Frankly facebook seems to help people here, as people can start communicating outside of class without encroaching into each other's schedules.

As for groups, they do look good on a CV, but so does a good GPA and work experience. If you're doing something exclusively because of how it will look on your resume you will burn out on it, especially if you're being put under stress by other things.
posted by Benjy at 10:31 PM on September 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What makes you think your engineering roommates don't relate? I know engineers who went through the same thing.

Sleeping 18 hours a day - being unable to drag yourself out of bed - is a sign of depression. So too are feelings of helplessness, drowning, being overwhelmed. And it needs to be said: these are understandable. You are still coping with a major life transition. Your roots have been ripped up and you've been transplanted, and you're still scratching at the new soil trying to dig your way in.

Recognize that you are not as alone as you think. Everyone is facing some kind of stress, and many people who may appear to be coping just fine are hiding tremendous strain. Your school has free counselling services. Consider making use of them.

Now, about the rat race you're running. If you are interested in international relations, you can get to work on that right now and no need to goof around in accounting clubs you don't care about. Your profile suggests you are at Queen's. A quick search of the clubs page lists some stuff that looks cool:
International Affairs Association
Model United Nations
Civilized Globe
International Development Issues Club
Oxfam Group

to name a few. Why not get involved with one of these groups? The experience will be ten times as valuable and you will probably enjoy yourself a lot more, because you will be doing something you care about and you will be among like-minded people. This is the place to network. Imagine, you could find yourself writing articles and corresponding with politicians on behalf of the 'International Affairs Association' -- whatever that is. This is real experience.

It took me a long time to get over the idea that there were all these things I was 'supposed' to do to succeed. That road often leads to success, yes, but it's a hollow success; you have to fight hard, because everyone is chasing the same goals you are (because they are 'supposed' to). To succeed you sometimes have to convince yourself you want something that you really don't. Sure your classmates may 'get ahead', but are you sure you need to run to the same place? If you look at the true visionaries, the real leaders, none of them would have ever bothered one-upping each other's 'activities' sections on resumes. Titles are cheap. Action counts.

It is a good sign that you are having doubts. It is a sign of independent thought. Hold onto it. Once you get busy with schoolwork, you will not have enough time to think about the big picture and will have no choice but to just plod along. Keep your head up and don't ever feel like you are obliged to do what everyone else is doing.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:44 PM on September 24, 2007

If you're attending most/all of your lectures, taking notes in lecture, and completing most of your reading, you will probably be ahead of most of your colleagues. So if you're able to stay ahead of all that, I wouldn't worry too much. Many, many other students will be missing class, not doing all the reading...that adds up fast.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 12:11 AM on September 25, 2007

Best answer: If I coule only relate one piece of advice, it's this: ease up, cowgirl! Aside from get your degree, you don't have to do anything. (You don't really have to get your degree either, but let's assume for the moment that you're not going to drop out tomorrow and start doing performance art on the streets of Moncton.)

You're barely a month into your first year of university, which means you've got a ton to deal with. The workload is an obvious one, but there's also the stress of moving, of being in a completely new environment, and of losing a lot of the support systems you probably had in university, like parents and high school teachers and best friends who've gone to other universities. If you're living off-campus, it's even harder. With all that to deal with, plus the compulsion to join as many clubs and committees as possible, it's no wonder you're feeling out of your element.

That's a big reason why I didn't do anything but study my first year of university. No clubs or extra-curriculars, just studying, eating, and then whatever free time I could corral to just kick back and relax. If you're worried that taking that attitude now will set you back, don't: you're in first year! Plenty of students go through their entire undergrad career without so much as signing up for anything, let alone actually going to a club meeting. Sitting your first year out will allow you to gain your bearings and get a handle on the academic side of things (and you almost certainly will). Then in second year, if you find yourself with a bit too much downtime and you're getting a bit bored, then you can start thinking of clubs you want to join.

Even then, you should join clubs because you're interested, not because you think they'll look good on a CV; chances are potential employers aren't going to care very much about how many university clubs you were in unless they're directly related to the industry you're joining. I found that when I was in high school in Toronto, there was a lot of jockeying for extra-curricular positions so that you could say to universities, "yes, I joined lots of clubs and did stuff outside of school!" You don't need nor want that mentality in university, and you'll find that a lot of people drop it as soon as they get into university.

If you are indeed at Queen's, you should try taking better advantage of FYNIRS for a start. They may have resources that address some of the stresses you're feeling with regards to your isolation. If you're not at Queen's, there's almost certainly a student group that handles freshman students living in off-campus dwellings; seek them out. Either way, I'd be surprised if they didn't hold mixers for off-campus freshmen; there's a decent opportunity to meet people right there.

And to be honest, first year is always going to be a bit rough in terms of making friends. People in the residences have it easier because they're forced to interact with the people on their floor, but lots of people—myself included—never form close relationships with the people on their floor, and indeed drop the friendships as soon as they leave residence.

In summary: make academics your top priority, don't worry so much about extra-curriculars, make the effort to meet people when you feel up to it, and try not to worry too much about whether you're keeping up with the Joneses. Chances are you'll feel a lot better about things by the December holidays.
posted by chrominance at 12:28 AM on September 25, 2007

Oh, and P.S.: most first-year professors are really good about saying exactly what will and won't be covered on the midterms, mainly because a lot of your fellow students are also paranoid about not studying the right material. If you're especially worried, it might not hurt to drop your prof or TA a polite note asking about the possibility of midterm review sessions or hints on what would be useful to concentrate on when studying.
posted by chrominance at 12:32 AM on September 25, 2007

Do not, do not, do not, DO NOT join an organization just for your resume.
posted by Partial Law at 5:17 AM on September 25, 2007

Best answer: This is a tip I got from a history prof when I was in school: Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Thoroughly read the introduction and the conclusion. If you find what she calls "a really pregnant passage," or one that you need to go all the way through in order to understand, do read the entirety of it.

Freshman year is hell, I think for almost anyone who wants to succeed academically and make friends. It all comes with time. Study groups help. Campus organizations, ones you're actually interested in, help -- but don't overschedule yourself. Don't join more clubs than you can handle. Your classes take first priority (obviously).

So you don't live on campus. In some ways this sucks, but here's what you're missing out on: Dorm "friends" who you live with and hang out with only because they're in close proximity to you, loud nights on which you want to tell all your floormates to shut up and let you study or sleep, roommates who snore, bring their boyfriends back to the room while you're sleeping and borrow your stuff without asking. The list goes on for ages.

In reality, you'll make most of your friends from those groups you join -- because you want to, not because you feel you need to. And, though maybe you don't want to hear it, it'll happen organically, especially if you're in situations where you're working together on projects. (Community service organizations are great for this, btw, and look better on your resume than any accounting association.)

Back to the academics for a moment: Once you've had your first round of exams, you'll know what your professors are expecting. I had one who was so thorough in going over the readings that I had to use multi-colored pens to make outlines as I read the material. I had others who mostlly wanted answers from lectures. (By the way, don't worry too too much about grades. I mean, worry, but not excessively. I read once that freshmen year grades tend to be worse than grades in successive years, just because first year students have so much going on.)

Office hours with your profs are heaven. If you're thinking about grad school (bit early, I know) please do make sure to go to your professors with any questions. Multiple times per semester, as often as you like, eventually even just to drop in and say hello. Form bonds with them, take a few classes from the same professors -- the ones you know after one semester are fantastic teachers and good people.

Finally: The advice above about not joining things because they're good for your CV is exactly right. Make the most of every summer. Get the best internships you can find. If you're looking for a part-time job during the year, see if you can find one in your area of interest. You may be an office gofer, but you'll still get to see a bit of what goes on in one of these firms.

Good luck, and congrats on getting into the program of your choice.
posted by brina at 5:27 AM on September 25, 2007

One more thing. I recall hearing about the Queen's 'club culture' from a friend, where everyone is sort expected to be in ten clubs. Who knows how this started, but it's abnormal. Other schools I've been to (Waterloo, UBC) don't place nearly as much emphasis on clubs.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:47 AM on September 25, 2007

My two cents as someone who spent way too long in college and now works at one:

I also live off-campus (as opposed to residence), which makes me feel really isolated at times, though I'm a 10 minute walk from most places on campus.

This can be real plus, actually. Dorms are fairly distracting places. I'm assuming there are places on campus where you can hang out and study in semi-public, right? Libraries, coffee shops? Student centers? That can make it feel a lot less isolating.

Academically: It feels like I'm already falling behind. There is a ridiculous amount of reading to be done, and I've given up taking notes on them. Instead, I just read the assigned chapters . . .

You'll feel this way the whole time your in school. Most programs have more work than anyone can really manage. You have to prioritize and spend time where you need it most. But if you're actually 1) going to class and 2) doing the readings, you'll be ahead of quite a few people.

As for taking notes on readings, do this if it helps you. Jotting a phrase or one-sentence summary of each paragraph in the margin can be very effective, as can just underlining the thesis statement. But I admit I mostly just did the reading and never bothered taking notes over it.

As for class notes, there are a lot of strategies for making that effective. Don't hang on every word. Search for main points. If the prof puts it on the board, it's probably important. If you have time for it, get a study partner and go over the notes together, coming to consensus on the main points.

(Oh, that, and I'm finding it hard to make friends.)

Friend will come. You're in your first semester, right? As you get into courses that only other people in your major have to take, you'll start to see a lot of the same people. It's quite natural that you'll end up working or hanging out with them in some capacity, for class projects or for a break from the same.

As for academic plans: all of that can (and probably will) change as you make your way through college. You're there to learn. Things you learn may change your priorities. I'm not sure what percentage of people have the same major coming out as going in, but it can't be very high.

I should think two clubs is fine. You've got a lot of academic work to do before you have to worry about networking and jobs after college. Right now, just focus on your classes and do the best you can in them. You're not behind. You're just swimming in a fast stream along with the others.
posted by wheat at 11:50 AM on September 25, 2007

Lots of good advice here.

DON'T let yourself sleep 18-hr days. That way lies ruin, depression, etc. It may feel like a result of the stress, but believe me that sleeping too much is nearly as bad as drinking too much in terms of making your situation feel much worse than it is. So: Set up some required thing for yourself in the morning so that you get up and out of the house - cup of coffee with friend, quick workout at the gym, just walking to campus with someone. Be sure you get out of the house at least once a day no matter what, even if it's just to walk a lap around downtown.

You are almost certainly studying more than you need to. Figuring out the balance is part of the normal first year learning curve. The suggestion to read just the first and last sentence of each paragraph is a good strategy to get through bulky readings fast (you can always come back to particular spots of interest). Find a friendly grad student to talk to; they will probably be able to offer some calming advice about which things they would choose to focus on if they could only read one of the three articles carefully.

Study group is a good idea. Joining a group that is FUN would also be a good idea -- do you like Japanese movies? Do you want to play frisbee? etc. Don't join resume-polishing groups yet. Wait until you have found your feet with the workload, and found some actual friends who aren't interested in comparing resumes.

First year is hard; it's hard to make new friends and get used to life on your own. Give yourself time. Your goal for this semester is just to DO OKAY, not to set the world on fire. Seriously, believe this. Your performance will pick up after you've got one semester under your belt. Don't drive yourself crazy over the difference between an A- and a B+. Really and truly, it's more important to just get through this term, and if you obsess over needing to be the Super-High Achiever you have previously been, you risk making yourself so sick you will drop out for a semester (which would be more expensive etc in the long run). Your best bet is to try to DO OKAY.

(If it's Queen's: have you been down to the Sleepless Goat? To the Grad Club for a show? To Minotaur on Princess St -- they have free Games Nights on Wed and Sun nights where you could go hang out?)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:15 PM on September 25, 2007

Oh yeah, and:
Be sure to eat enough!
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:21 PM on September 25, 2007

What are you doing for leisure? I think things will fall into place (or at least seem much more bearable) when you find a balance of stuff you have to do/think you have to do versus want to do.
It sounds like you are at Queens, so I have some more specific advice. All the commies I know knew the people on their res floor and other commies. Without living in res, these people really wouldn't know anyone outside Commerce. The commies were definitely second only of the physedies in keeping to their own. This means that you are going to have to make even more of an effort to meet other people.
Once your groupwork starts, I expect you'll spend a lot of time working with them. It sounds (IANAcommie) that it would be a great way to gauge how much effort they put into their reading and to get help with homework.

Your engineer friends should be able to relate to your workload. I had about 35 hours of class in first year and spent at least a couple hours a night on homework.
Oh, and don't think of your classmates as competitors. They're much more useful as friends and people to study with. After you graduate, they are just people that you have something in common with. In the long run, the affect they will have on your career will be small to miniscule.
Also, the three commies that I spoke to most last year were not part of any clubs that I know of. One of them has recently joined a club (in 2nd year).
posted by Ctrl_Alt_ep at 1:36 PM on September 25, 2007

1. Form a study group, preferably with people in your class. This helps you network with people you'll be seeing for the next 4 years while helping you with your study. I find that I have a much better understanding of the materials after discussing the concepts with another person. Plus, I made some really great friends along the way.

It might be hard at first to find people to form a study group with but if you go to office hours, midterm reviews, etc, you usually can find someone who is just as eager as you to form a study group. Or you can be blunt and just ask the person sitting next to you if they want to review materials with you after class.

2. Get to know your profs / TAs & their teaching styles. One of my profs loves to add questions in midterms about a random example he talked about in class (to see who came to class and pay enough attention to understand the concept behind the example). Yet my other prof only tested us on things from the problem sets. So for one class, I had to make sure I pay attention in class while for the other one, it was more important to do and understand the problem sets.

If the class is more of a writing class, I find it's always best to arrange a time your prof (or who ever is grading you) and discuss your thesis, arguments, and outline. Especially for TAs, since many of them are not as good at communicating their expectations as most professors.

3. Nthing everyone else, don't join clubs you're not interested in and don't feel like you have to. This isn't like applying to college anymore. For example, when I did my job recruiting, I find that most companies don't care what clubs I joined or how many I joined. Some of the clubs / activities did helped me in my interviews but YMMV, as my bf never joined any clubs in college and still secure a wonderful job at a great company months before he graduated.

If you still want to join some more clubs, my advice is to sit in on some meetings or events and see if you like the people and environment. College is only 4 years, enjoy it while you can! Don't waste it by doing things you don't like.

4. Networking, reaching out, & building yourself is important but (and this is a big but) there's different ways to do this. Just because you're not going to business conferences doesn't mean you're not networking. Talking to people in classes, making friends with your co-workers or getting to know somebody in a social event are all networking.

5. Don't put so much pressure on yourself to do everything at once. You can't build a house without the foundation. So settle in first, build your study skills for college, get comfortable in the college environment, and then worry about other things. If you put too much pressure on yourself and start building a house while your foundation is still shaky, you're not going to have a very stable home in the end. So try things out, see what you like, what type of people are compatible with you as friends, experiment, etc. It's okay to make mistakes, that's what college is for.

Lastly, remember any activity can help you in multiple ways. Study group can help you academically and socially. Getting an internship over summer can help you network, get work experience, and make $$$ & friends all in one. So don't panic, you'll do fine!
posted by vocpanda at 3:53 PM on September 25, 2007

Oh yeah, you should also see if there's any online group for your college. There's a lj community group for my university and it helped a great deal to talk to people from the school when I first started out.
posted by vocpanda at 3:55 PM on September 25, 2007

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