Advice for Your First Year of University (Without the Sugarcoat)

Collage by Rebecca McLaren

Collage by Rebecca McLaren

University introduced me to new passions and incredible friendships, but post-secondary life isn’t always the glossy brochure photograph of friends studying under a big oak tree. With so much pressure to have the “best years of your life,” it’s easy to get down on yourself when every part of your university experience isn’t exactly what you thought it would be.

When I think back to my education, fond memories come to mind – but that’s not to say that first year didn’t come with lessons to learn and a little voice in my head constantly telling me I wasn’t enough. I’m familiar with the unparalleled hype of orientation week, the year-round flurry of happy roommate Instagram posts, and the non-stop, hectic nature of residence living.

And I’m familiar with the stresses and pressures that come with it.

So, I’ve decided it’s better to be blunt. To let you know that university very well might be the best years of your life, but only if you’re able to let go of society’s expectations and make decisions which are best for you. To give you the advice I wish I had known coming into first year: advice without the sugarcoat.

1. Stay in residence with your peers, but don’t feel bad scheduling in alone time – your friends will understand.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to stay in residence, I say you should absolutely go for it. Even if it seems a little outside of your comfort zone, residences are organized with first years in mind, and they are equipped with the tools to help ease your transition into university.

Upper year leaders and staff members are actively trained to keep students safe and can answer questions about everything from what courses are easiest, to coping with roommate drama and homesickness. Plus, living on campus make getting to class a lot easier, which is especially helpful when you’re unfamiliar with campus (and during cold, winter months!)

But as great as residence can be, living with your peers also comes with pressure. Housing primarily first years, residences are filled with other students just as eager to introduce themselves and make new, life-long friends. This can create a convenient, exciting environment for meeting new people, but it can also set unrealistic standards for social interaction.

While you might rather take a night to reflect on your day or do something for yourself, it’s easy to feel pressured to join your floor in the common room, engage your roommates in conversation, or venture out to a party. When everybody else seems to be having fun together, it can feel like skipping even one activity with your peers will cause you to miss a significant inside joke or be kicked out of the group entirely.

But interacting with your peers 24/7 is draining, especially when there’s an expectation to make a good impression and be consistently cheerful and entertaining. Your home should be a place where you have the time and space to be silent, to be angry, and to decompress. Your days are already jam-packed with social interaction – from classes, to parties, to cafeteria meals and study sessions. You can’t be “on” all of the time. It’s important you take time to refuel so you can be prepared to put forth the best version of yourself when you do interact with others.

Of course, finding time for yourself requires a conscious effort, especially if you share a room. Compare schedules with your roommate or tell one another when you’ll be home so you can plan ahead. Venture out of your dorm to take a nature walk or explore your new campus by bike. Take a meal back up to your room. Go to the library alone. Bring your laptop to a café downtown. Visit your parents for the weekend.

Don’t beat yourself up for taking time away from the hustle and bustle of residence every so often. Trust me, there’s a big difference between locking your door the entire year and spending the occasional night alone.

2. Orientation week doesn’t have to be the best week of your life – everybody feels just as insecure starting school as you do.

Orientation week is set up to provide a friendly and welcoming atmosphere for starting your post-secondary education. While you should take this opportunity to try new things and meet as many people as you can, don’t worry if you don’t meet your new best friend right away! You have the next 3-5 years to find your place, and I promise you: you will.

Starting over somewhere new can be scary, and it’s tempting to cling to the first people you meet. You’re embarrassed to be seen on your own, you really want to fit in with your residence floor, or you think you have to live up to the expectations blockbuster movies have set for college. You go to that concert or party because you feel like you should. You agree to buy a house with the first person that asks because you’re afraid you won’t find anybody else.

The endless stream of happy social media pictures only amplifies the pressure to thrive during orientation week and have a “life-changing time” with your “brand-new family.”

The thing is, you just met these people – and you’re not going to hit it off with every single person you meet. It takes a while to develop the same deep connections you have you’re your previous friends. And trust me, most of your peers are on the exact same page: clinging to the first people they meet and pasting on a smile for the week despite feeling lonely and homesick. 

So invite your roommate to grab dinner or sit next to somebody you don’t know in lecture, but don’t feel discouraged if it’s awkward or you don’t hit it off. You won’t feel at home immediately: you’ll hate a class, bicker with someone on your floor, or miss your old town. Or maybe, large crowds and partying just isn’t your thing.

Just because it’s a fresh start doesn’t mean everything has to go perfectly. You’re allowed to feel overwhelmed by the rapid, extensive changes. Sometimes, the “incredible,” “life-changing” first week of school is actually the hardest.

But university isn’t only the wild parties, extravagant carnivals, and costume-clad, cheering seniors. After orientation week, the hype dies down, and your classes move past reading the syllabus. You get a part-time job. You meet upper year students. You discover a new hobby or passion. You make incredible friendships.

And each year, you do it all over again.

Although some parts of your life will remain constant throughout your education, each year will introduce you to new classes, clubs, experiences, and friendships. The pressure may be on to have the time of your life in your very first week, but one week can’t determine your entire university experience. Give it time, and you’ll find your place.

3. Don’t be so hard on yourself if you don’t get that club position you really wanted. Let rejection fuel you to work even harder!

So you were high school president, valedictorian, and captain of the basketball team – but now you’re at a school with 30,000 other people who are just as accomplished. It’s normal to feel embarrassed when you apply for a club position you really want, and there’s a better candidate. As a first year with few connections and very little knowledge of the school or club, it’s tough to land a leadership role right away (even if you really want to).

University can be a competitive environment, and when you set your heart on one specific position, being rejected can discourage you from wanting to join anything at all. The thing is, the odds are there’s at least a dozen other clubs which fit your interests and offer similar roles. With more resources than most high schools and a diverse population of passionate people, universities pride themselves on their plethora of niche club and sport opportunities, with everything from origami clubs to Harry Potter quidditch intramurals.

And if there isn’t a club for what you’re passionate about, nothing is stopping you from gathering a group of like-minded people and making it happen yourself. If you think there’s an activity or interest which isn’t covered by the current club system, chances are other people thinking the same thing. And what better way to lead a team than to inaugurate it yourself!

Now, this isn’t to say that you have to leave a club altogether if you don’t get the position you really wanted. You don’t have to be the president or VP of a club in order to make a difference: most clubs offer a general membership which allows you to attend the same events, meetings, and activities as the executive team.

If you’re really passionate about getting involved with a club, it shouldn’t matter which role you play. Besides, being a general member gives you the free time to try out a range of other clubs, to develop other talents, and to meet even more people. Being a general member also allows you to make connections on the team and learn more about the club – giving you a better chance of landing your dream position in your upper years.

So don’t let one rejection keep you from participating in extra-curriculars or from applying year after year for something you’re truly passionate about. In my own experience, I’ve seen people who were rejected for positions in their first few years who have reapplied and landed positions as club executives (and even as club president!)

Let rejection fuel you – not to give up, but to work even harder.

4. It’s okay to change. In fact, sometimes, it’s for the best.

For some reason, society has instilled in us the expectation that we know exactly what we want to do with our lives midway through our senior year of high school. With that mentality, we think we’re to come to college already having figured it out: a program we love, a direct career path, maybe a high school sweetheart we’ll marry one day. We think we have to have some sort of plan in place, and we’re terrified to make even the slightest changes to it.

But I’d be lying if I said you won’t change and grow during your post-secondary education. Think about it: for the first time in your life, you’re in charge. There isn’t a mandatory subject rotation – you pick what you study. There aren’t school uniforms – you decide how you present yourself. Maybe you’re even living on your own for the first time, choosing which foods to buy and how to decorate your living room.

With freedom comes the potential to define yourself, to try new things, and to become who you always wanted to be. But as exciting as freedom is, it can also be incredibly stressful. For the past twenty-something years, you’ve lived under someone else’s rules.

Suddenly, your future is up to you.

You’re quickly given a lot more responsibility, and sometimes, there’s no real transition period. You’re bombarded with big decisions and endless choices. And with an internalized notion that “you’re running out of time,” it’s no wonder throwing out your previous plan sounds terrifying. It feels like your entire future is on the line, and there’s simply no room for mistakes.

But the truth is, you will make mistakes – and if you don’t, you’ll never know where you’re supposed to be. You’re allowed to switch programs if you don’t like what you’re studying. You’re allowed to change how you look or adopt new terminology if it makes you feel more like yourself. You’re allowed to leave old friends behind if you’ve found people you mesh with better.

You’re allowed to switch up your values; question the things you were told as a child; take extra time to complete your degree; end a relationship; adjust your career path; disagree with your family; move away; try new things; change your mind.

You have time, and you’ll learn and grow for the rest of your life. Deviating from what you know sounds terrifying, but it’s also worth it. Remember: you’re in charge. Make decisions which are best for you, and if that means altering your plans, welcome the change with open arms.


At the end of the day, my university experience introduced me to my best friends, taught me to make decisions for myself, and helped me realize my passions. I still don’t have life figured out, but with the knowledge and relationships I’ve gained, I know I’m ready to take on the next chapter of my life – whatever it may be.

If there’s one more piece of advice I can give, let it be simply this: enjoy every moment. There will be good, there will be bad, and there will be everything in-between. But it’s your life, and you only have one so you might as well do with it what makes you happiest.

Find time to relax, remember that everybody feels insecure, be kind to yourself, and allow yourself to make mistakes. The next few years of your life hold all of the possibility in the world.

And who knows? The next few years just might turn out pretty sweet.