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Cheyenne Henry, right, of the Bissett Student Success Centre at Dalhousie University in Halifax, works with a student.Jason Petersson/Handout

From essays to exams, here are seven tips from experienced student advisors on how to deal with academic pressures.

Heather Doyle, senior advisor on retention and director, student academic success in Student Affairs at Dalhousie University in Halifax, considers helping postsecondary students her calling in life, starting with her years as an undergrad working in orientation and residence. Equally passionate about student success, Ruth Silverman and Dal Sohal are both learning-services co-ordinators at the Student Learning Commons at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.


Don’t feel you need to have it all figured out in the first year. It is not always a linear process.

Some students change their major multiple times throughout their degree.

“Students don’t necessarily have to know their major when they come in,” Ms. Doyle says. “That’s a lot of pressure to put on students, especially those coming from high school. The idea is to take classes and figure out what it is you want to do. Often students have never had any exposure to the programs we’re offering, so how are you supposed to know if you want to do something you’ve never actually tried? There are more options and opportunities than ever to [have a] double major and have minors.”


So you failed a couple of tests or didn’t do so well in your first semester. Don’t wait to seek help or try to go it alone.

“We know from students, and backed up by research, that those who seek help early and often are more likely to do better academically,” Ms. Doyle says. “Students often think they’re the only ones struggling, but it’s a huge transition, no matter where you’re coming from, into university. That’s why those supports and services are there. A lot of students don’t know what they can use an advisor for and it’s more than just selecting classes. We support students throughout their academic journey, including connecting them with resources. Find a person you can talk to, whether an advisor, faculty member or someone in health services. We’re here for you.”

“Larger classes can lead to a depersonalization where students are more reluctant to seek help,” says Ms. Sohal. “They see the professor and think, ‘Why would the professor want to talk to me? I’m only one out of 400.’ Also, students coming to university have done well in high school, so they don’t see themselves as people who need to seek help. But seeking help is a sign of strength, not of weakness, academically. It’s the strong students who seek help about things like writing, and then they just get stronger.”


The biggest pressure on students today may be time management. A lack of time management skills combined with real-life demands can be crushing.

“About 60 per cent of our students work outside of school, many just to pay rent and tuition because Vancouver is so expensive,” Ms. Silverman says. "They’re trying to balance that with school and maybe some volunteer experience relevant to their education. At the same time, they’re used to the high-school way where, if you pay attention in class and study a bit, you’ll probably do okay. So they’re not planning ahead the way they should. At the beginning of the term, you need to create a master schedule showing all of your deadlines. But if you’re working 30 hours a week and taking five courses, it’s not going to work for anybody."

"The formula we have is two to three hours per unit credit. An average class is three units, so that's six to nine hours per class studying a week, and that doesn't include the time they're sitting in lecture and tutorials," Ms. Sohal adds. "Multiply that by four classes and you're looking at what is a full-time job. Be realistic about all the things you need to juggle. You may have to make some hard decisions about what's going to give."


Incoming students may not be prepared for the volume of academic reading in university, but there are ways to warm you up for the challenge. At some point, you need to do the reading.

"If students are finding the reading difficult, look for other sources you might be more comfortable with," says Ms. Silverman.

"You can go to YouTube or Khan Academy videos to get background information so you'll have some context. It's a starting point. Some of the material may be hard to grasp if you just launch right into the actual academic reading."


Stressed about your essay? Write your paper ahead of the deadline and seek feedback, even if you think it’s an A.

"I tell every first-year student I encounter that when they're writing their first paper, get some feedback about whether it's at a university level by taking advantage of our free one-on-one writing consultations," says Ms. Sohal. "In B.C., 16 postsecondary institutions partnered to create an online writing consultation service as well, called WriteAway. It's not an editing service. Students submit their paper and get the same sort of developmental feedback they'd get face-to-face, about areas they could improve."


Practise-testing is a great way to find out what you know and what you don’t. Then go back and study the material you don’t know.

"Students need to start thinking about exams right from the first week and not just when they're coming up," Ms. Silverman advises.

"When you're reviewing, start trying to reconstruct the information from memory rather than continually reading over your notes. That allows you to get to the deeper level of application and analysis. If you never reconstruct the material from memory, you'll get to the exam and that's the first time you'll have to do it. A lot of students can't do that, so practise reconstructing information all through the term."

"Practise-testing is so important," Ms. Sohal says. "Ask the professor for an old exam or look for questions at the back of chapters when you're doing your readings. At the end of a lecture, come up with three test questions that you think could be on the exam. Create questions of your own of varying difficulty, including ones that ask you to apply, analyze, compare and contrast material."


You can deal better with stress at school if you’ve had enough sleep.

“The first thing math professors will mention is sleep,” Ms.

Silverman says. “Sleep is essential for problem-solving ability. That’s the first thing to go if you don’t get enough sleep.”

“We tell students to get seven to nine hours every night,” adds Ms. Sohal.

"Try to go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. Create the right conditions for sleep, so don’t take your smartphone with you to bed. Make your room dark.

The research shows that when you have enough sleep, you’re able to concentrate better and be more motivated. Rejuvenate your body and mind."

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