What I did wrong

Don’t make the mistakes I did.

By any objective measure, I was a very successful undergraduate student. I earned A’s in nearly all my courses, won awards and scholarships, and was accepted to all the graduate programs I applied to.

Still,  over twenty years after I first enrolled in university, I am painfully aware of things I could have done better. Since some of you are preparing even now to begin university in the fall, I thought I would share a few thoughts on what I would do differently if I had it to do over again.

1. Take advantage of language instruction. As an undergraduate, I made two half-hearted attempts at French courses (the second of which landed me with the only C I ever got), partly because I thought that’s what smart English Canadians did, and partly because I needed a second language to get my honours degree in English. But like many of my own students do today, I endured the courses; I did not embrace them. Looking back, I shudder to think how much French I could have learned over those two years if I had really worked at it. And if I wasn’t prepared to work at French, I should have tried something else. Today, working as a scholar of the Renaissance, I could sure use more than my high school Latin.

2. Read everything. In my undergraduate years especially, I took pride in getting good grades without reading everything on the syllabus. I knew exams gave you your choice of questions, and I was naturally clever, so I could dodge and weave around what I didn’t know. But I now realize that every book unread is a whole series of missed opportunities, partly for what is in the book, and partly for developing the open-minded discipline that comes with reading what needs to be read.

3. Have more humility. In my first-year English course I was assigned a book about essay writing, which I bought, but promptly tossed aside. After all, essay writing had always been my thing in high school. Surely that book was for other people who had done worse than me in schools easier than mine.  And then the B papers started to come back. Gradually, I came to learn what a university A-level paper was like and I wrote plenty of them, but I could have saved myself a lot of anguish if I had been less cocky.

Coming soon: What I did right.

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