09/01/2011 01:25 EDT | Updated 11/01/2011 05:12 EDT

The Beginner's Guide to University

University is tough: you'll have a learning curve that has less to do with schoolwork, and more to do with leaving home, making new friends, exploring your identity and bumping up against new kinds of knowledge. Give yourself permission to fail!


Next week, thousands of kids will head back to school. Some, like the bright-eyed kindergarteners, are experiencing the trials and triumphs of academic life for the very first time. There will be tears, I can promise, over their next decade-plus of schooling. (My personal Waterloo came at the hands of the multiplication table, a nefarious and horrible educational device. To this day, if you ask me what eight times seven is, my palms will start to sweat.) Kids will falter in the face of the five-paragraph essay, or clarinet lessons, or the special horror of changing for gym class.

If you're heading off to university, however, your rules will change. No more school bells, detentions, dress codes or lunch money. Instead, there will be seminars filled with diligent young people like yourselves, all studiously nodding as some old professor warbles out sonnets or chemical reactions. Starting university is A Big Deal, made bigger if you're doing the full post-secondary package: dorms, meal plans, moving out and starting in a new place.

When I considered my university options, I made a point of applying to large institutions outside my hometown. My parents had both gone to a mid-sized school in a mid-sized city, but I wanted something more cosmopolitan. I wanted a skyline and subways. I ended up in Toronto, ensconced in a residence run by actual, habit-wearing nuns. University freshmen are starting their frosh weeks soon, if not already, and I'm here to drop some knowledge on y'all -- words of advice that I wished I had known, even if, in my teenaged hubris, I hadn't heeded:

If you're rooming with other folks, play nice. I had two roommates, both girls with sequined tube tops and bottles of coconut rum stashed under their beds. We didn't gel; by Christmas, I had set up a privacy screen so that I didn't even have to look at them. Do not let me be your role model. Find some common ground (Coffee? Foreign films? Drinking hard liquor on Tuesdays?), be friendly, and set your ground rules early. Issues like quiet time, lights-out, food sharing, who buys the toilet paper, study spaces and entertaining friends can all become hugely annoying in a matter of days.

Explore your new city. Toronto, when I first moved here, was exceedingly small; I barely went off-campus. Find your grocery store and a local pub, a great place for take-out and a park, and you're on your way to finding a home in your new location. If you're coming from a big city into a smaller town, rest assured that most places will have an independent movie house, a sushi joint, and a great bookstore. Try your new campus gym, check out the free health clinic, and goof around in the libraries. My favourite discoveries were that my alma mater held a free movie screening every Friday night, and the local "Irish" pub was operated by a Korean family.

During my frosh week, I was given an oversized baby-blue t-shirt, a program of events, and encouraged to "make friends," a command that came from my parents, my frosh group leader, my residence don, and all the cafeteria ladies. "Making friends" is hard. Instead, I insist that you hit up every last one of the frosh events that allows you to get free stuff: food, tote bags, pins, drinks, agendas, whatever. Get some of your less-annoying floormates and frosh-group buddies together and go swag-crazy. Trust me, you'll feel like you earned it when you see the sticker prices on your course books (Word to the wise: buy second-hand texts whenever possible).

One of the perks of university is that you get to choose and schedule your own classes. Do yourself a favour: if you aren't an early bird, don't take a 9 a.m. class. If you hate crossing campus after dark, skip the after-dinner courses. I learned the hard way that attendance lists are rare, and nearly failed one freshman course because it was a Monday morning time slot. I never made that mistake again.

Lastly, university is tough: you'll have a learning curve that has less to do with schoolwork, and more to do with leaving home, making new friends, exploring your identity, and bumping up against new kinds of knowledge. This is hard! Give yourself permission to fail! Ditch people who aren't going to be lifelong friends, kiss genders you don't usually kiss, switch programs and drop classes, and be lonely, irritable, gregarious, funny, outspoken, shy, or needy. Ask for help if you feel overwhelmed. Know that almost everyone you meet is going through the same sticky feelings. And don't worry too much about midterms -- they aren't as bad as they say.