University of Toronto: A General Survival Guide

University of Toronto. You either associate it with the “Harvard of Canada” or hear “Good luck maintaining a stable mental health.” But once you’ve enrolled, regardless of whether you’re an international student or not, you can’t help but feel exhilarated and anxious. Entering as a first year international student at the St. George campus, I couldn’t help but be excited about being in the 6ix (Sorry. This had to be done).

Here’s a link to Drake performing Know Yourself live in Toronto. You’re welcome.

Once you arrive at the campus, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed at how intimidatingly huge the campus is. I still remember using Google Maps for the first two weeks since my classes started. After seeing how easy it is to get lost in a university this big, your next worry is “How do I find friends?” Of course, if you were living on-campus, it is more likely that your roommate(s)/housemates would be your first couple of friends. But that became my biggest worry – I was an international commuter student living alone and that was going to make it all the more difficult for me. Although I’ve always been an extroverted person, I couldn’t help but feel anxious. Next, once classes start, you feel overwhelmed with how big each of your classes are (if you had classes at ConHall, I feel your pain) and how big every class size is.

Fun Fact: The mathletes competition in the movie Mean Girls was shot at the Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto.

Once you get the hang of your class schedule, you want to go out and explore the bustling city. Once midterm season gets closer, you begin to panic, leading to procrastination and you begin to feel overwhelmed, yet again. This whole cycle of feeling overwhelmed is inevitable, even when you’re aware of what’s coming.

If you’re a prospective/incoming first year student or a transfer student in any year going into university, I’ve created a survival guide/handbook just for you (more than the usual “keep up with your readings” and “attend all your lectures”). I’ve successfully compiled a list of all the things I did and would definitely encourage you all to do, as well as a list of things I regret doing/not doing in retrospect, while giving you some experiences of my own. 

WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AN INCOMING SECOND YEAR STUDENT:

1. Please attend frosh week at your college/campus. 

I had the privilege to be part of the beautiful Victoria College – reputed to be the friendly college from the seven others, the paradise for all aspiring writers and English scholars, where the famous Margaret Atwood began her educational journey, I was more than happy to be a part of it (although I was a Life Science student).

Nope, this isn’t disneyland. It’s just a picture of the main Victoria College building (popularly known as Old Vic).

Whether you’re living on-campus or commuting everyday, enroll to be a part of the frosh week at your campus if you have one. And yes, this applies to you introverts as well. I was lucky enough to meet the nicest and most amazing people during my frosh week and I could not be more grateful. Although I cannot guarantee that you will form lifelong friendships, this is a great opportunity to not only build your social skills, but also learn information about your college and the university, beyond what’s written on google or reddit. My frosh week consisted of a number of ice breaker sessions, a casino night, the red and black semi-formal, the tri-campus parade, and a bunch of other activities. If some activities don’t appeal to you, you could always go for the frat parties. Again, I can’t guarantee you’ll have the best time there, but it’s definitely something worth experiencing. 

All that being said, if Fall 2020 is scheduled to be online, I would still encourage you to be a part of the orientation week at your college/campus because it really helps build a great foundation to commence your university life on a good note. 

Optional Tip: Another thing I did was follow whoever had the same graduating class as me mentioned on their instagram bio and start conversations with them. I would really recommend following those who introduce themselves on the UofT2024 instagram page too. Join facebook groups/chats with people in the same classes/programs as you. There’s no harm in putting yourself out there as much as you can.

2. KNOW AND LEARN, I REPEAT, KNOW AND LEARN ABOUT ALL THE RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO YOU AND DON’T TAKE THEM FOR GRANTED

Let me tell you about an unfortunate experience I went through. In my second semester, I was taking a seminar course offered by my college as part of our first-year requirement. This course had a lot of assigned readings heavily based on Philosophy and all of our assignments were essays. Being a Life Science student, I knew nothing of the sort, other than writing lab reports or research proposals so I was struggling. It was only until closer to the end of the semester I found out that every college at UofT has free writing centres all students have access to. Long story short, I utilized them as much as I could before it was too late and managed to land a decent grade. 

The point is, take some time out during your first month of university and make a list of all the resources that your college, as well as the university offers. I understand that it might be boring and at the time, you’d rather do something more productive, but trust me, you never know what kind of problem you might face in the future and the time will come where these resources will be your savior. Financial advisors, academic advisors, learning strategists, counselors, and so many more are available.

Also, DON’T be afraid to try these resources out. I always made excuses saying I didn’t have the time to utilize them. You never know how essential these resources can become to your personal growth. Try to schedule an appointment with your academic advisors and learning strategists, even if you feel you’re doing alright. There’s always room for improvement. Utilize those free tutoring services. Get help immediately when you need it, not the day before the exam. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your TAs and Professor office hours – they’re usually sitting idle so take advantage of that. Be actively involved in even the smallest events held by your college/faculty – whether it’s de-stressing sessions (sometimes involving the cutest dogs), bake sales, karaoke nights, even chocolate-tastings (my personal favorite).

3. Please prioritize your mental health

I know you’ve heard this a lot, but coming not only from a Psychology major and from a member of the executive team at the UofT Mental Health Association, but also from a person (even a friend) who genuinely cares about your well-being, please take care of yourself. The thing I regret the MOST about first-year is not reaching out to a counselor when I was going through one of the most mentally draining times in first semester. I was lucky enough to have made such amazing friends who supported me through that entire experience, but don’t wait for others to offer help to you. Whether you’re feeling homesick, lonely, anxious, stressed out or even if you just want to talk, take the initiative for yourself and reach out for help. 

MAINTAIN A POSITIVE MINDSET. I urge all of you to involve yourself in clubs and activities you genuinely enjoy. Attend de-stressing sessions. My advice, go to Eaton Centre alone one day and indulge yourself in some retail therapy. Meet with friends and surround yourself with positive energy. Keep in touch with your family and friends back at home. Dance was genuinely a savior for me. Another thing I found really helpful was making a “year in pixels” sheet. You’ve probably seen this all over pinterest/tumblr but if you haven’t, you essentially color in how your day went before going to bed for the whole year. This was a great way for me to be more self-aware, to get a big picture of how I was doing throughout the year and motivate myself to either pick myself back up if I was having a bad week or continue maintaining a positive mindset. 

Note: you could also make an “honorable mentions” section where you could list down some of the best days you had and what you did.

Lastly, I cannot emphasize this enough, please maintain a good diet and GET ENOUGH SLEEP. Do you know how ironic it was when I was studying this particular section in my PSY100 textbook which showed statistical proof that getting enough sleep greatly improves memory retention, while I was running on 3 hours of sleep before my midterm? Anyways, besides memory retention, sleep and mental health are closely connected. A study conducted by Gujjar et al (2007) showed that one restful night of sleep helps to “reset” brain activity to prepare for emotional challenges the next day.

I know you might think studying would be more important than sleeping at the time, but why prioritize what’s left to learn at the expense of forgetting what you’ve learned so far? Plus, your mental health is much more important than another exam. It’s alright to miss a few lectures here and there and it’s alright to fall back on your readings a little. It’s completely normal to feel demotivated and burn out, but the best way to deal with that is by talking to someone. I will list a couple of links to mental health resources at the end of this article.

4. Expect the unexpected and don’t get demotivated.

I remember the horror flashing before my eyes when I found out that I failed my first chemistry midterm. The worst I’d done in high school was get a 68%, so this was definitely my worst nightmare. And that’s another thing I want to highlight – university is NOT high school. You might have to make some major changes to yourself – whether it’s your study habits, attitude or sleep schedule. EMBRACE CHANGE. Don’t be afraid of a bad grade and don’t be afraid of failure. Work on your mistakes, reach out for help and pick yourself back up. You must have heard this a million times but work on your time management skills. One of the things I’m most grateful for is the daily planner my lovely sister gifted me. Google Calendar is an alternative that’s just as effective. Here’s the link to an article from another content creator at General Intelligences that does a great job of explaining why you should utilize Google Calendar

5. Lastly, DON’T be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and try new things.

Experiment, make mistakes and involve yourself in activities you never thought of doing. It doesn’t have to be something as crazy as getting a tattoo (although I’d recommend you go for it if you want to), it could be something as small as trying out a new restaurant (hmu if you want some great restaurant recommendations in Downtown) or a new cuisine, visit the Royal Ontario Museum, indulge in photography; it could be anything. You might end up being pleasantly surprised. This is a great way of having something to look forward to everyday beyond just lectures and studying. Break away from your routine once in a while and try something new to motivate yourself.

In conclusion:

UofT, just like any other university, is filled with stereotypes and is reputed for all sorts of things. I know this is exceptionally hard for all of us but, don’t get intimidated by opinions you see on reddit. At the end of the day, your experience here is what you make it. Perform to the best of your ability, while also prioritizing your mental health. Take some time out to de-stress if you have to and more importantly, don’t forget to have fun. 

Good luck to all of you starting out!

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Links to mental health resources available at UofT: 

– All the love

Rohina.

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