My first day of university was almost five years ago, but it feels like yesterday. Seriously, time flies. I’m almost envious of those just beginning their university adventure. It’s an awesome ride. But, what would have made it even more awesome was if I had had a handy, quick, and witty ten-point list of tips to help me optimize my first year experience. That would have been great…


I go to McMaster, and have tailored the examples in the list to fit that university. The tips apply to anyone, though.

1. Your TAs are your friends

The TAs aren’t your enemies. More than likely, they are graduate students who were in the same position as you not long ago. They are also the ones who will be marking most of your work, so utilize them. There is an exactly zero percent chance that you attending a TA’s office hours or asking them a question will negatively affect your mark.

2. Find your classrooms BEFORE the first day

There’s no worse way to start your university career than running around the campus like a chicken with its head cut off, frantically checking your phone every ten seconds and knowing you’ll be late for class if you don’t find your room in the next two minutes. At some point before the first day, walk around the campus and find your classrooms, and remember where they are. Some schools even have specialized GPS apps that you can use (McMaster does here).

3. Get an agenda

I don’t care that you never used one in high school. I don’t care that you think it’s dorky. I don’t care that you think it’s a waste of time. Buy an agenda, and use it. Professors typically hand out, or provide the link to, the syllabus on the first day of class. Look at it and write in your agenda the due dates for every assignment and every reading. You’ll thank me in the third week of November when you have four essays due and bewildered agenda-less folk show up to tutorial with no clue what’s happening.

4. Sit in the front row

Yes, for every class. This will force you to pay attention lest you face the wrath of the professor who spots you checking your phone, and you won’t have to contend with a bevy of Facebook and SportsCentre screens staring back at you when you’re trying to focus on the lecture.

5. Buy your textbooks USED

Unless the book that’s required is new for that year, buy your books used. Your Campus Store will probably sell used books (McMaster’s does), but Facebook groups (McMaster has a very active one here) are usually better for deals.

6. Join a club. Or two.

Yeah, you hear this one all the time. But seriously: join something. Universities have clubs for practically every weird hobby ever invented. Let’s look at McMaster: Fencing? Quidditch? Eating vegetables? Just get out there and do it. And if you’re worried about joining a club affecting your marks: it won’t. Taking some time away from the books will actually benefit your marks, and by joining a club you’ll meet tons of like-minded people to befriend who you can later guilt into giving you notes.

7. Avoid the Freshman 15. It’s easy.

There are so many healthy food options available now that you don’t even need any cooking ability to avoid the dreaded Freshman 15. Instead of fries, get a salad. Instead of pop, get water. And go to the gym. Universities, including McMaster, have them. Again, if you’re worried about taking time away from your studying: don’t be. Healthy bodies and minds are both important– don’t neglect one for the sake of the other. (And it doesn’t take any extra time to grab a turkey sandwich instead of a pizza slice.)

8. Hand-write your notes

This works on the same principal as #4. By hand-writing your notes, you will be forcing yourself to pay attention, and not exposing yourself to the tempting distraction known as the internet. The only exception to this rule is if the professor talks too quickly for you to keep up. In that case, you won’t have any time to check the internet anyway, and a laptop is fine.

9. Find a study space

You will probably have gaps between your classes. Use them productively. Find a good space and, you know, actually read something. This is an especially salient tip for commuter students: don’t just wander around the campus for two hours. Sit down and study. For McMaster, a couple of good places are the third and sixth floors of Mills Library. (The entire sixth floor is a silent area– no talking at all.)

10. Party

I’m serious. Don’t forget to have fun. Don’t have fun at the expense of your marks, but don’t forget. Partying is part of the university experience– not one that’s heavily advertised, but one that’s important nonetheless. University is about more than classes: it’s also about discovering yourself– and there’s no better way to discover yourself than downing ten tequila shots and then trying to play beer pong, only to pass out and wake up seven hours later surrounded by drool, vomit, and other people who read this list too. (Unless you’re underage. UNDERAGE DRINKING IS WRONG.)