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Preparing yourself for first-year university: A student guide


Part 1: The Summer Before

by Rob Wulkan

So you've been accepted into the University of Toronto Scarborough and have confirmed your attendance. First off, congratulations! You are joining a world-class teaching and research institution that is recognized around the globe. Secondly, that means for the vast majority of you, yes, it will be hard. The good news is it will also be a heck of a lot of fun if you let it, and may very well be the most rewarding experience of your life.

Fun is a contextualized term though, and the content of it is relative to each individual. Nobody can tell you what will universally fit the term, because nothing will. What I can tell you is that you should be tossing any pejorative high school mentality that “liking school is for geeks” straight out the window. The simple fact of the matter is, if you don't like the subject you're studying, you probably shouldn't be studying it. For starters, you'll spend a minimum of four years of your life doing something you hate (and paying lots of money to do so). More practically, however, the odds are that you won't do very well at it either. It's a simple fact that when you aren't interested in something, you retain less of it and you become very good at making the mental excuses about why you should spend less time doing it. Besides, let's face it, most of us tend to like things that we're good at doing. So if you don't like it, a lack of natural aptitude might be a factor. The bottom line here is that you need to follow your academic passion to be able to succeed. Sure, you could scrape by with low marks in something you hate -- you might even graduate -- but you would be doing yourself a huge disservice by taking that route and in the end, you will only end up resenting what could have been an amazing experience.

Following your academic passion may seem like a common sense piece of advice, but it's one that can get lost when you're faced with a myriad of outside pressures. Here's something that will seem very counterintuitive though. You have no idea what that academic passion is. To be more accurate, maybe what you think your passion is right now is correct, but if so, that's only a product of chance, because you currently lack the experience to know that you know. This is no fault of your own -- it's simply a product of the high school system’s design and the limited resources available. Translation: A lot of the things you can study in university were not even options in high school, such as linguistics. Furthermore, some of the things that did exist in high school were either brief multi-disciplinary survey courses, or were simply unrepresentative of the subject in a university setting, such as anthropology or philosophy.

What this means for you is that it's probably a good idea to diversify your course load somewhat in first year. Get out of your comfort zone and try things that sound interesting. In many disciplines, the programs are specifically set up to encourage this, since they offer only an introductory course in the 'A' level which is a pre-requisite for all others. While some programs will be more restrictive than others, all provide you with room for electives. You require 20 full credit equivalents (FCEs) to graduate from any undergraduate program at this campus. For most, this translates into 40 half-courses over the span of your degree. Most students will have 16 or fewer FCEs as program requirements, which means you’re left with at least four FCEs (eight half-courses) to take as electives in the other many disciplines offered here.

While we're on the subject of courses, don't forget that selection started on July 14 for first-year students. If you haven't registered yet, do so quickly before spots run out because getting waitlisted sucks. Also, if you need further advice on course selection (especially if you did not participate in the Get Started program), get in touch with the Academic Advising & Career Centre. Visit

Let's get back to the topic of fun though. University life is about far more than just the classroom and if you graduate having focused all of your attention solely on academics then you've missed a big part of the reason for coming in the first place. University is a social hub where you will grow tremendously as a person and meet many of the friends who will stay with you for life. To start off this journey, I recommend that each and every one of you register for Orientation (frosh). Speaking as someone who has partaken in six of them (four of which I helped organize) I can say that this will be an absolutely awesome time for all of you. This event provides something for everyone, and the question “How do you feel?” will take on a whole new meaning by the end of the event. (You'll see). Check out for sign-up and details.

Finally, once you've signed up for courses and Orientation, make sure you relax and have fun this summer because things will be plenty busy come the fall. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this column in September, when I'll give you a guide to surviving your first couple of weeks on campus.

Rob Wulkan is a 2009 graduate of UTSC. He discovered his passion for philosophy while an undergraduate here. Watch the web site for more of his advice to students.

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