On Campus

The best advice I have (is a bit depressing)

Treat your high school years like a failed relationship -- forget about it and move on

At this time of year, people frequently turn to me and ask what a student just entering university should know. Actually, they don’t ask, and I’m glad they don’t because the answer is probably not what they want to hear. What one thing should you, the new student, know if you are just starting university? With a high degree of certainty, I can say the following:

Your high school betrayed you.

If you are like most, and as far as preparing you for university goes, about half of what you learned in high school was probably useless. The rest was probably wrong.

Take my discipline, English, for instance. In a typical first year class of forty-five students or so, there is maybe one — maybe one — who actually knows how to write an essay. Many of the rest have done no formal writing at all, and those that have done papers might have called them “essays,” but they were really just reports or personal commentaries. This last group has a particularly tough time, because no matter how much I explain it to them, they assume that what passed muster in high school will pass in my course. It doesn’t.

And it’s not just English. A colleague of mine in biology once told me that she prefers it if her students haven’t taken high school biology at all because then she doesn’t have to spend time at the beginning of the year unwinding the misconceptions and falsehoods with which previous teachers have tangled her students’ brains.

This is not entirely the fault of high school teachers. Little was probably expected of them in the first place, and from the young teachers I know, most attempts at holding high school students to tougher standards are doomed to failure. Principals won’t allow it. Parents won’t stand for it.

Which brings me back to the advice. Your university professors don’t have a principal telling them they can’t fail you. And we don’t care how special or misunderstood your mother thinks you are. So forget about what you think you learned in high school. If you’re lucky, you had some great teachers who actually taught you something valuable, and if you did, you’ll be that much further ahead. But, in general, anytime your professor says something that seems to contradict what they told you in high school, believe your professor. Especially if the sentence begins with “You will not receive a passing grade if…”.

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