Surviving your first year of university or college

Girl Studying
Girl Studying

Heading into your first year of university or college is exciting. You’re on your own for the first time, and it’s a major step towards shaping your future. But it’s also a little nerve-racking because you’ll likely see more unfamiliar faces, and you don’t know what your classes or workload is going to be like.

So to help first-year students ease their way into post-secondary, we spoke to Laura Cavanagh. She is a Professor and Academic Coordinator for the Behavioural Sciences program at Seneca College. From making new friends to studying, Cavanagh’s tips are sure to make the transition a little smoother.


Technology plays a huge role in how we interact with other people. It’s easy to pull out your phone to send a quick text or scroll through social media, but Cavanagh suggests first-year students try “to make meeting people a priority.” She notes that it will be easier to get through university or college “by making friends or making a community of support not just for your mental health, but for your academic success as well.” University and college campuses provide students with tons of opportunities to meet other students in their program. Find out if your school holds orientation sessions before classes start. Cavanagh says it’s a great place to ask another student to exchange numbers, which is a small step in putting yourself out there.

There is a time, however, where technology can have its place. Cavanagh says she’s seen students create a group chat for their classes on apps like WhatsApp to share resources and ask questions, where “friendships naturally form.”

It’s important to remember that it’s completely normal for first-years to feel nervous, and Cavanagh says, “sometimes just knowing that other people feel the same way even if they don’t look like it can be helpful.”


A given student will likely feel overwhelmed by the huge jump in workload when they first enter university or college. Still, Cavanagh says they will also carry that same feeling when it comes to post-secondary culture. “The responsibility shifts to the students,” she notes. Cavanagh says there is a lot of high school guidance from the teachers reminding students when assignments are due or when tests are held, but you don’t get any of that when you are in university or college. What students should expect “is to be given an overview of the assignments on the first day […] and your professor will walk you through it and will probably not mention it again.” Not being told what to do may give students this feeling of “freedom,” but it also does come with consequences like falling behind and potentially failing your classes if you don’t do the work.

Cavanagh says a good rule of thumb is “you should expect to be doing about an hour of work outside of class for every hour inside of class.” Another piece of advice is to do your reading assignments before going to class because otherwise, it will be difficult to follow along. “Class time is often used to go over either the more difficult concepts in the chapter or to introduce concepts beyond the basics of the chapter.” Once exposed, it’s during the first 24 hours of learning when most of the “forgetting happens,” so Cavanagh suggests getting “information encoded into your long-term memory during that critical period […] [making] it a lot easier come study time because […] studying will be more of a review instead of a re-learning.” Cavanagh recommends that in addition to reading chapters before class, students should take a couple of minutes to review their notes and again before class the following week.

Phones are a great tool to make notes or schedule reminders for yourself, but they don’t give you the best visual overview of the entire semester. “Students need a calendar outside of their phone.” For example, Cavanagh says, “you can get a dry eraser format calendar [and] on the first day of class write all the important dates in there […], and then you’ll have it in front of you […] that will keep you from falling through the cracks.”


Just like sparking a conversation with a person you don’t know, students can also find it difficult to speak up in class or ask their professors questions. If you’re hesitating, Cavanagh encourages students to raise their hand and ask questions because “if you’re wondering something […] there are 15 other people in the class wondering the same thing, and they will all be grateful that you [brought it up].”

In addition to helping your classmates, speaking up in class is a way to lay down the foundation for what’s next. “Networking with your faculty and your fellow students is a huge part of building either the beginning of your career path or your next step in your post-secondary education if you are thinking about graduate school.”


After the first year, students really begin to feel like they’ve mastered their way around university and college. They’ve spent an entire year learning what works and what doesn’t to remain academically successful. With that being said, the expectations are higher. “You might find that what your professors would let slide in the first year, they won’t let slide in the second or third year.” Cavanagh says students should also prepare for more independent work, “the content is less heavy, but it’s more about analysis, making connections, so you have to go deeper into the material.”


It may sound surprising, but Cavanagh says students should start thinking about internships starting on day one of their post-secondary career. It’s important to make professional relationships with people because you could one day work with a faculty member or another student in your program. Cavanagh notes that it’s not uncommon, especially in college, that faculty members are also working full-time in the field, “so they may actually be the ones doing the hiring.” So it’s always important to present yourself professionally because you never know who you’re going to be interacting with and how that could impact your future.

For additional tips and resources for a successful first year, you can head over to the following links below. If you are heading to a university or college at a different institution, make sure to check its website for updates or ask a faculty member for more information.


Start at Seneca
Student Services and Support