August 25, 2018

Like the coming of the New Year, it was always inevitable. Starbucks’ pumpkin spice lattes make their seasonal reprise as September approaches, drawing its heavy curtain on the last sultry, summer days. You look back, lamenting the end of your halcyon high school era. As Frosh week looms on the horizon, you prepare to propel yourself into your next academic epoch. You’re in a transitional limbo between high school and university that was best described by Alice Cooper in 1970, “I’m a boy and I’m a man, I’m eighteen and I like it.”

It’s an exciting, albeit unsure time in your life: On one hand, you’re flushed with fortitude, having emerged from high school unscathed. Meanwhile, you stare ahead at the uncharted waters of your college campus in trepidation at what scholarly turbulences lie before you. If this mental cocktail of eagerness and apprehension sounds at all familiar, don’t worry. For those of you who’ve been admonished of the difficulties of engineering, I hope to quell those fears with some advice and tips I wish I had when I was in first-year.

Forgot High School Calculus? Don’t Sweat It

There is always a coterie of Frosh students flushed with anxiety at the thought of walking into first-year math with the “everything-I-learned-in-high-school” part of their brains scrubbed spotless like one of Dexter Morgan’s crime scenes.   

If this sounds like you, you might even be thinking, “Who needs Frosh week? I better spend this week pouring over old calculus textbooks, and maybe even read ahead.” Stop right there. Your freshman-year professors are not expecting you to remember every nuanced vagary of twelfth-grade math. On the contrary, they assume you spent your summer like any 18-year-old who just graduated from high school and forgot everything. They teach you exactly what you need to know (and how to do it) from scratch, which brings us to the second point.  

Don’t Fall Behind

Warren Buffet has two rules when it comes to investing. The first is never lose money, and the second is never forget rule one. In engineering, the rule to follow is, do not fall behind. You can guess number two.

Just because your professor starts the semester in first gear, do not be fooled into thinking you will be coasting into final exams. If you think the class is moving too slowly, miss lectures at your own risk – speaking from experience, skipping lectures by telling yourself you already know everything is a sure way to place yourself in academic peril. Sure, today you are sleeping through an introduction to limits, but within a week the chalkboards look like the set-pieces from Good Will Hunting (fun fact: Good Will Hunting was filmed at The University of Toronto).  

Be Resourceful!  

Most students, at one point or another, in pursuit of their iron ring will wallow in frustration, and angst, thinking “How on earth am I going to pass this?”. Not to worry! At UofT (and, university more broadly) there are a plethora of resources made available to you. Here are some I’ve found most useful.

Professor’s office hours

The one thing all your first-year lectures will have in common is professors eager to lend a helping hand. It’s a two-way street. While professors have been in your shoes before, and understand trials and tribulations of first-year engineering, they also need new bright candidates for graduate research. That’s where you come in: Professors always start the first lecture of the semester by writing their office location, and hours of availability on the board. If something isn’t clear in a subsequent lecture or in your problem sets, do not hesitate to drop by and ask the professor (just be sure to attempt understanding it yourself first). Professors, like pro-sports talent scouts, are always looking for hard-working, ambitious students. There’s no better way to plant yourself in their radar’s proximity than attending office hours, and showing your ravenous appetite for learning. Years later, they might just reach out to you with a job opportunity, or research position; and if nothing else, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the course material. 

Teaching Assistants (TAs)

Whatever the course, the TAs will likely be graduate students who have taken it themselves as undergrads. Like Sherpas who guide climbers up mountains, the TAs have meandered the trickiest facets in your course syllabus, and are there to guide you through it. Moreover, upon TAing the same course multiple times, they have marked assignments, exams, and seen where students tend to struggle and helped them overcome hardships. They are an invaluable resource that your tuition also goes towards.

You may or may not have heard about it yet, but aside from Quercus, formerly Blackboard, (and Stack Overflow for you ECE’s) the most useful website during your time here is This website contains past years’ final exams and midterms – many of which contain solutions – for nearly every course you will be taking in your undergrad. It is a vital resource, not just in studying for exams, but also gauging the course itself as it progresses. How do you know which lectures are most important? Which topics to pay more attention to? You can find out all this by simply glancing over old midterms and exams for the course. Based on the types of questions your professor tends to ask, you should have a much better assessment of how you are doing in the course even before the midterm approaches.

Make Friends, They’ll Motivate You to Study

You are entering a program with hundreds of classmates where you know maybe a handful of people (or none!). But fear not, making friends at Skule™ is the easiest thing you will do here. Frosh Week is a great opportunity to get to know your future peers. So, be sure to socialize. The person sitting next to you in orientation may be the person you’ll be asking for help with on a problem set in a few weeks. Before you go to the professor’s office hour, before emailing the TA, the first best way to tackle a challenge is sitting down in one of the many large libraries on campus with a study group. (see here for a list of libraries on campus)

The key takeaway is you should not worry. Sure, engineering is a challenging program, but you probably did not come here because it was going to be easy. You wanted a challenge — and a job, upon graduation. But before all that, put your worries aside and enjoy Frosh week! You are now part of a community of purple-dyed students that can chant gleeful engineering cheers. And in these paeans to Pilsner (for those of you with early birthdays) commence the next chapter of your academic lives.

Originally printed in The Cannon, September 2018 issue