On Campus

Why it’s okay to be terrible in first year

Struggling is what teaches you the habits of success

Western students (Jessica Darmanin)

As you cram for midterm exams and freak out about November’s essays, consider this story from the Maclean’s Guide to Canadian Universities. You’re not the only one who is struggling.

In the late summer of 1999, I drove with a friend from Calgary over the Rocky Mountains to Victoria, where I was to start university that fall. I was 18 years old. My hair was tipped blond and I had the collected works of James Joyce in my suitcase. I hadn’t read any Joyce at the time. But I wanted to be a writer. And I thought his collected works were the kind of thing a writer should have when he goes off to school.

Writing novels—being a novelist with a capital “N”—was what I had always wanted to do. Reading defined me as a kid. It was what I did better than anyone else. What I didn’t do back then, at least not outside essays, was write. No short stories. No plays. Nothing to indicate a budding creative talent. And once in university, my dream of becoming a writer lasted all of four weeks. After nurturing the vision through a decade’s suburban childhood, I gave it up after less than 30 days of actual work. What happened was this.

I was enrolled in the University of Victoria’s creative writing program. In first semester, that meant one creative writing class. One night, not long after starting, I sat on a landing in my residence building grinding through an assignment. What I had written was a mess. It was supposed to be an excerpt from a short play, but it had no characters and no plot. It was just awful dialogue about nothing. So I dropped it. Not just the assignment: the whole class—and program. My first piece was terrible and so, I figured, was I.

What I wish someone had told me then, and what I now know to be true, is that it’s okay to suck in university. Depending on how you deal with it, you might even be better off if you do.

Just getting into university in Canada today is tough. At Queen’s, 96 per cent of incoming students enter with a high school average of 80 per cent or better. Most students, in other words, come in used to the idea of succeeding, of being the best.
But not everyone can maintain that standard in university, especially not right away. It’s like going from minor hockey to the pros—the overall standard is just better.

It’s something Queen’s principal Daniel Woolf tries to impress upon incoming students. “Just about the first thing we tell them and their parents at an assembly on move-in day is, ‘Yeah, you were the top kid in your class, but so was the kid to the left of you and the kid to the right of you. Now you’re competing against peers,’ ” he says. “And while we send that message, it may be something that has to be experienced first-hand before it can really be internalized.”

Part of the problem is that schools don’t always do a good job of easing students across the divide between high school and university. First year can be a massive challenge. The assumptions of the educational system change dramatically. Both what and how you study are completely different from what came before. “It’s a huge leap, and we just deal with it like it’s normal,” says Alan Sears, an assistant professor of sociology at Ryerson University.

The result, Sears believes, is that too many students sink in their first year. Many of them, he says, just don’t know how to reach out. They’re used to a system where teachers look out for them. But in university—where class sizes can run into the hundreds–the onus is on the students to find help if they’re struggling.

Sears had one student in a recent class, for example, who missed the mid-term exam. At the final, Sears sought him out to ask why. It turned out the student had a legitimate excuse for not being there; he just didn’t know who to talk to about it. If Sears hadn’t recognized the student, hadn’t personally sought him out, he would have failed the class. That kind of scenario, Sears believes, happens all the time. “You’re used to a system where someone will notice if you’re in trouble,” he says. That’s not always going to happen in university. It’s important to know, though, that help is available. Profs are there to be approached; so are teaching assistants, counsellors and student services centres.

One reason Sears empathizes with struggling students is that he was one himself. He switched majors three or four times as an undergraduate. He partied too much and got poor grades. He didn’t really know what he wanted. Even if he did, he wouldn’t have known how to get it.

That’s another thing high school doesn’t prepare you for: life is different in university; it can get in the way. You’re becoming an adult. And if you’re at a university away from home, you’re doing it without the boundaries and comforts you’re used to. Some of that is chaotic and wonderful. You can and will have experiences in university that will change you forever. You might fall in love. You might do things you regret. But you’ll almost certainly get distracted in one way or another.

That’s especially true when you first arrive. It certainly was for me. I defined myself in high school by the things that kept me busy. I spent the hours before and after class working in the theatre or practicing rugby or volleyball. My activities, and the people I did them with, shaped my life. Without them in university, I found myself more than a little lost.

In my first months at UVic, I drank myself blind far too many times. I chased girls (with poor results). And I played an abnormal amount of ultimate Frisbee. What I didn’t do, nearly as much as I should have, was go to school. In one class in my second semester, an introduction to psychology, I didn’t even buy the textbook. I just borrowed it the day before the exam and crammed in what I could.

I kept this up for about 30 months before I bottomed out. It wasn’t until I found structure, in model UN (you can pause here to judge me) and the student paper, that things turned around. Having a community, people to impress, people who cared if I screwed up, made all the difference. It gave me a reason to get up and go to school every day.

What’s important to take away from this is that problems can be overcome. A lot of people who don’t do particularly well at first in university thrive later on. Woolf is now one of Canada’s most accomplished university administrators and a noted historian. But he struggled as an undergraduate. In his first round of essays in first year, he didn’t get a single A. In his second year, in an area that ended up being his specialty, he landed a 62 per cent from a professor who would later become his mentor. “These were deeply disappointing at the time,” Woolf says. “But they were also real learning moments for me in terms of, ‘Okay, what did I do wrong and how can I do it better.’ ”

Steven Galloway, the undergraduate director at the University of British Columbia’s school of creative writing, also struggled for years before breaking through. He was turned down the first time he applied for the program he now runs. After graduating, he was waitlisted for UBC’s master of fine arts program. Stumbling early helped make him the writer he is today. “It made me make myself better,” he says. And that’s key.

Struggling can help teach you the habits of success: how to work hard, how to take risks, how to move on from experiments that don’t succeed. While your work might not be any good in first year (or second or third), it will get better if you keep trying. The important thing is to not give up before it does.

This is the part of the story where I come back to the beginning, where I tell you how, after quitting in first year, I found my way back to writing. But it didn’t quite work out that way. I’ve made a career in words, as a reporter and editor, and I’m mostly happy with what that’s brought me. I’ve done some wonderful things in my work: I’ve covered elections, I’ve travelled abroad, I’ve interviewed murderers and novelists and some of the strangest and smartest people in the world. But in the 13 years since I walked out of the creative writing program, I have not written a single consequential word of fiction, and that is to my everlasting regret.

I thought I was no good in first year so I quit. That was the wrong thing to do. This doesn’t mean I would have been a great novelist if I’d stuck with it. It just means I never gave myself a chance to try. First-year university is about being terrible. It’s about learning what good is and how you can get there. It’s not about being great right away. In other words, relax. It’s going to be fine.

Richard Warnica is a staff writer at Canadian Business. This story originally appeared in the Maclean’s Guide to Canadian Universities.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.