Each semester the paradox of choice rears its head, turning important decisions into a hall of mirrors. Amid thousands of options for incoming students, straightforward tasks such as choosing courses or picking a laptop can trigger exam-level anxiety.
Here’s how-to advice from a panel of experts on everything from how to land the right roommate to keeping dreaded insomnia at bay.
Land the right roommate
Want to test the limits of your character? Live in a shoebox with someone you can’t stand for a year. An incompatible roommate is more than an inconvenience – it can wreck your university experience.
While most first-year students won’t be able to choose their partner in co-habitation, Cate Morrison, residence life manager at the University of British Columbia, says there are ways to help student housing co-ordinators make the right match.
The first step is to keep on top of your mail-in questionnaire. “Sometimes parents fill out the form for the students and it’s not necessarily accurate,” Morrison says.
That also means answering the questions honestly. If you hate clutter and the taste of alcohol, a messy binge-drinker is not for you – even if you think university would be a fun place to test the opposites attract theory. “Don’t fill it out based on the person you want to be,” Morrison adds.
UBC maintains a Facebook page where newly matched students can congregate online once assignments go out. Morrison has found this alleviates anxieties and allows future roommates to move in as acquaintances rather than strangers.
Finally, your best friend may not be your best roommate, particularly if you want to graduate with your friendship intact. And if things get particularly dicey, you can always request a room transfer.
Manage your money better
An 18-year-old with a shiny new credit card and no parental supervision can rack up debt faster than he can down a six-pack. It’s a situation Gerry Pettipas sees every September.
“First-year students especially tend to spend more money because they’re away on their own and they don’t have that experience budgeting,” the Halifax-based Bank of Nova Scotia branch manager says.
To help keep your bank balance in check,
Pettipas recommends filling your wallet with a set amount of cash each week and sticking to that sum.
And though you will eventually want to establish good credit, it’s a good idea to stay away from credit card sign-up promotions on campus unless you know you can handle plastic responsibly. Free incentives may be tempting, but they can lead students down a rabbit hole of debt.
Your smartphone can also provide some clarity. For example, a new app called Spenz helps students track spending by providing comparative insights into peer purchasing habits, aligning with personal bank accounts and helping set financial goals. It’s a free download for Apple users.
Pick the right courses
Sifting through thousands of courses to find the “right” combination can prove a bewildering task. That mix of pressure and inexperience can often lead incoming students to pick what they think they should take instead of casting their intellectual nets wide.
“Students are sometimes surprised
at where their talents lie, so that’s why I keep emphasizing that they explore things they never knew about before,” says Glenn Loney, the faculty registrar at the University
Certain programs will naturally offer less variety – mechanical engineering, for instance. But if the option to experiment presents itself, Loney recommends a course load that can branch into a number of possible disciplines. “That’s the whole point of discovery in university,” he says.
A mix of large core courses and smaller seminars will help students decide which learning style they prefer. Lifestyle also plays a crucial role. If you know you’ll have trouble rolling out of bed at 8 a.m., choose afternoon courses. If you hold an evening job, morning classes shouldn’t conflict with your schedule.
And try not to take on the world too quickly. You may think you can tackle six courses, but Loney emphasizes that first-year students should enroll in no more than five at a time.
Get a better night’s rest
A host of factors rob university students of their sleep: noisy dorm life, an active social schedule, alcohol, and academic anxiety all play a role in keeping students from getting the proper amount of shut-eye.
Though less sleep in university is a common affliction, Colin Shapiro, director of the Sleep & Alertness Clinic at Toronto Western Hospital, says sustained insomnia can affect everything from a student’s well-being to academic performance.
Surprisingly, your pancake-thin dorm bed isn’t the problem. “We adapt very easily to our environment, except in extreme situations,” Shapiro says. “[So] mattresses aren’t the biggest issue, unless you have a chronic back problem.”
Light levels and temperature are a different matter. Shapiro, who recently co-wrote the guidebook Insomnia in Adults and Children, says one of the best things you can do is invest in a decent pair of curtains to block out excess light.
A portable fan will cool down a hot room and earplugs can block out the cacophony of slamming doors and all-night chatter that provides the soundtrack to dorm life.
When these changes still fail to help, a number of campuses offer sleep counselling. Ryerson University uses cognitive behavioural therapy to treat insomnia, while meditation programs can train students to still their minds long enough to shut them down for the night.
Get plugged in
No longer a luxury, Internet-connected laptops have become as integral to student life as textbooks. Perhaps even more so. A growing number of professors have started to go paperless, offering course material online and encouraging digital essays.
The good news, tech expert Marc Saltzman says, is that you can find a machine to fit your needs within a range of budgets. The key is to identify four key components: What do you need it for? Where will you be using it most? What are you able to pay? What are your personal preferences?
Entry-level computers start at $400 and can accommodate the simple e-mail/word processing/Web surfing triumvirate. If your program requires more sophisticated tasks, such as video editing, you’ll need a machine that has a faster processor and more hard
Also, make sure your computer is compatible with any software your professor requests. Windows-based programs can run on a Mac but may cost you oodles to install.
Because trends change so quickly, Saltzman is hesitant to champion any specific models, although he will cop to being a fan of the 2012 Ultrabook models – thin, lightweight, Intel-based laptops that boot up immediately and have an all-day battery.
Smartphones for smart students
A simple flip phone will suffice, but today’s smartphones can offer advantages in the classroom and off campus (see page 46). They can allow you to record lectures, keep your schedule organized and connect to the Internet.
After that, it depends on personal preference. If you like big screens, tons of options and a range of prices, an Android phone may be your best bet. Fans of iTunes and avid gamers might want to stick with the iPhone, as Apple’s software is designed to run best on its own platform. And if touchscreens transform you into a many-thumbed creature, BlackBerry’s keyboard will make your typing less autocorrect-prone.