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'Everything I do from this point on can change my life'

Globe and Mail Update

Imagine being pushed down a steep driveway on a bike for the first time — without the training wheels. Now multiply that feeling by a hundred. Welcome to your first year at university.

No matter what high school prepares you for, it demands nothing close to the degree of responsibility, self-restraint and bravery that university life requires.

In the beginning, it's all adrenaline. New surroundings, new people, new life. But you settle in, start to make friends with fellow "frosh" (who are just as terrified as you are) and relax a little.

Then, as the first classes approach, a thought hits harder than your first heartbreak: "This is it. Everything I do from this point on can change my life. The ship has sailed and I'm the one behind the wheel."

Problem is, you have no idea whether it will be smooth sailing or the next Titanic. I'm here to tell you: It will be a little of both.

Whether you survive your first year — the classes, the bills and the parties — depends entirely on how well you adapt. The best way to deal is with a combination of wide-eyed eagerness and opened-eye caution. The goal is to do good work and have fun too.

You'll find out quickly that there's no manual for steering the ship. But here's a list of things I wish someone had told me.

Don't just sit there

Get out and mingle. As Will — one of the friends I made those first few weeks — puts it: "View everyone as a potential friend. Everyone is looking for a buddy."

And drop that high-school clique mentality. It generally doesn't apply on campus. Sometimes it's the strangest-looking people who have the straightest head on their shoulders, or the most laidback people who get the best marks. Before you make a snap judgment about someone, think again. You're probably wrong.

Don't let opportunities pass you by. There are tons of clubs and societies — everything from campus newspapers to 'Philosophy and Baking.' Try something new every week. After all, half the fun of university is expanding your horizons.

Cell block blues

At some point during the year, residence will feel like prison. If getting locked out of your room while your roommate is entertaining a guest doesn't do it, the strict house rules will.

That's not all. After two or three months, tensions bubble up, alliances give way to rivalries and proceedings may take a decidedly Survivor-like turn. Break the tension with activities fuelled by common interests — like marathon viewings of favourite TV shows.

There will always be people who don't get along, toilets that don't flush properly and shower curtains that disappear. But there's fun to be had in it all. Just stay humble. And don't take any of it too seriously.

Till death do us part?

As a freshman in residence, chances are you'll have a roommate — which, it turns out, is a lot like marriage: You must quickly learn to accept each other's quirks.

For example, I made peace with the fact that my roommate Spence (now one of my best friends) enjoys listening to Soviet national anthems and has absolutely no qualms about being seen in his underwear. And he got used to me yawning with startling frequency and singing in the shower, incredibly off-key.

But sometimes a glitch in the system results in disastrous pairings that can turn nasty. If you're mismatched, don't suffer in silence or declare war. Instead, request a room change. While there's almost always a waiting period, it's easier to reach a truce when you both know it'll be over soon.

Lots and lots of books

The full weight of what you've gotten yourself into doesn't hit until you take a look at the course reading lists. They're filled with words you never knew existed (and can't pronounce) and prices that can put a serious dent in your bank account.

But unless the books contain introductions or features deemed crucial by professors, you probably don't need the exact editions cited in the reading list. So don't buy until after the first class. And before you visit the university's official bookstore:

  • Check out the used bookstores in your area.
  • Watch for posters: Money-hungry sophomores love to get rid of books. (Some even include past assignment sheets and essay questions.)
  • Use the library. Most campuses have a system in place that allows students to borrow from local libraries, increasing the number of available books.

    Dropping a class

    If you find that a course just isn't for you, don't hesitate to drop it. However, avoid dropping too late in the game. For one thing, you'll have that much more catching up to do in your alternative course. Or you may not be able to get into another course. Or, if you've really procrastinated, you may end up having to pay for the hated course, whether you finish it or not. So find out early what the rules are and act as soon as you can.

    Timing is everything

    The penalty for getting to class late in university is worse than detention: you don't get punished. Sounds great, but it can cost you big time. Professors make important announcements — like where to go to write your exam or what books you don't need to buy — at the start of class. And they don't repeat them for stragglers. So sleep in — if you don't mind missing your exam grade or buying a useless book.

    The best alarm clock on the market — and by far the cheapest — is a trusty fellow classmate. Set up a buddy system (phone calls, knock on the door, whatever) to make sure you're each ready for class. It's not always easy — sleep is the most precious resource for a university student. But once you're up, the worst is over.

    Making to-do

    Once your classes are well under way and your social life has kicked into high gear, time will start slipping away. Unless you take control early, the essays and labs and tests will become overwhelming. Try this: Type a weekly list of things you have to do — writing an essay, meeting with an academic adviser, doing your laundry — and hang it above your work station. That way, when you're chatting with your friends on MSN or watching the umpteenth episode of Trailer Park Boys, a simple glance will remind you of what you should be doing.

    It also helps to write self-motivation notes: "If you're reading this, you're not writing your essay. Why is that? Think of what your parents would say. Now get to work!" There's nothing like guilt to give you a jump-start.

    Know thyself

    It's 4 a.m. Your essay is due in five hours. Crumpled papers filled with barely intelligible notes cover the floor. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics lies open on your desk. You sit in front of the computer, staring at a blank screen as the cursor flashes.

    In 99.9 per cent of these cases, the pain is self inflicted: You've simply put off the assignment until it's almost too late.

    Be sensible in judging your own ability to handle your workload. In the beginning, give yourself plenty of time to finish your assignments (no one loses marks for handing in assignments early.) As the year progresses, you'll come to know how much time you really need.

    The art of studying

    There are two ways to prepare for exams: alone or in study groups. The easiest way to find out which works for you is to attend a study group.

    If you can contribute easily, you've found the right place. If it seems the others are speaking an alien language, get away quickly, find a quiet space (the library is ideal) and plunge headfirst into the material.

    Professors are people, too

    While they are often rushed and carry a heavy workload, most professors love to discuss common interests or class topics with enthusiastic students. Indeed, some of the most interesting people you'll meet are professors. You just have to be willing to knock on their doors.

    If a professor appears annoyed when you approach him or her, don't take it personally. Chances are, it has nothing to do with you. Believe it or not, teachers do live off campus. They're raising families, writing books and struggling to make due financially (yeah, you're not the only one.)

    Budget, budget, budget

    Just because the money's there doesn't mean you have to spend it all at once.

    Figure out your monthly costs, add tuition and books, leave room for emergencies and stick like glue to your budget. Why miss great activities in the second semester because you absolutely had to have some silly gadget in October? Use on-line banking to keep an eye on your balance.

    On the town

    Remember how your kindergarten teacher used to make you hold hands with a partner and never lose sight of them? Except for holding hands, use the same system when going clubbing or pubbing with friends. Make sure at least one of you is sober-minded. This can prevent you from wandering off God knows where or ordering unnecessarily large amounts of food.

    A few last things

  • If a campus tour is offered during frosh week, take it. Forget about looking like a bunch of frosh. You'll discover helpful things. (It took me four months — and a one-minute walk — to find out that an ATM machine and a Tim Hortons were in the building behind my dorm.)
  • Get to know the city that will serve as home for the next nine months. If you're not among the 0.5 per cent of first-year students who actually have a car (and a place to park it), buy a really cheap bike (and a lock.) You can explore more on a bike than you can on foot.
  • Before you reach for that Turkey Surprise, consider this: Many students gain an average of 15 pounds during their first year at university. So give the salad bar a workout, steer clear of junk food and get off your butt or resign yourself to carting around the Freshman Fifteen.
  • Keep in touch with your parents. Chances are they've been feeling lonely since you left the nest.

    You'll make your own list as the year goes on, but the bottom line is: Embrace this as a time of opportunity and, as my friend Rohit advises, "be comforted by the words of Shrek: 'Change is good, donkey.'-"

  • Guy Quenneville is a sophomore at the University of King's College in Halifax. He has first-year books to sell.
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