Notes for for my first-year self

November, 16, 2020

By Melina Ashali, Engineering Physics & Biomedical Engineering, Level 2


I remember spending Welcome Week on campus, excited to start something new but at the exact same time, nervous because I was starting something new. Classes seemed overwhelming, lecture-based learning was foreign, and the number of people in my cohort was way more than what I was used to. Now looking back, there’s a lot of things I wish I could’ve said to myself. Unfortunately, since time travel is not a working technology yet, I hope that this advice helps incoming first years who are joining our Fireball Family.


Focus on learning the material, not just studying to pass the exam. Trying to memorize the steps to solve problems might seem like the easiest thing to do, and I’m speaking for the entire faculty of Engineering when I say, we’ve all been there. But, in all honesty, I would’ve been better off trying to properly learn the material first and do well on the test second. To supplement your lectures, use the resources on campus, go to your profs/TAs office hours, Google everything (My favourite Youtubers are Michel van Biezen, The Organic Chemistry Tutor, and patrickJMT). My rule of thumb is this, if you can teach someone the material you’re learning, then you’re probably good to go on the exam too.

Reach out for help when you need it! First years have a lot of support when it comes to their classes. The Math Help Centre (MHC), in particular, got me through those 3 math courses that first years take. MHC has a whole team of math TAs and older students to help you understand the material you’re learning. They’ll walk you through the process of solving problems or clear up any of your questions. There are similar centers for physics, chemistry, and materials, so don’t be shy to ask for help! The TAs who run these things are incredibly kind so don’t be worried about asking what you think are “dumb” questions. They know people are struggling and don’t mind taking time to help.

Finish your assignments early. I cannot stress this one enough. In your first year, you’ll have weekly assignments from a lot of your courses. It might not seem like a lot, but once they start getting harder, working on them earlier is a big help in learning the material properly. If you wait until the last day, you’re more stressed and more likely to give up and just look up the steps to solve the question. If you start early and do the assignment properly, learning from the textbook/notes/help centers as you go, you’ll be much more prepared for the midterms and exams. I always tried to pretend like the due date was a day or two earlier than the actual due date. It didn’t always work and sometimes I was scrambling to finish; but when I did finish early, it was a huge weight off my shoulders.

Clubs and Teams

Find something that challenges you. In your first year, you’ll have a lot of classes and projects to focus on and it may feel like you don’t have time for anything other than studying. But my suggestion is to join a club or team that challenges you in a different way than school. I personally joined the Baja Racing Team in my first year, a team that designs and builds an all-terrain vehicle to compete in races. Going into the team, I knew virtually nothing about cars or design. But being part of a team where I was challenged to think differently and learn from older students helped me to enjoy my first year. A club or team gives you an outlet to do things creatively and a break from studying. You learn so much and get to apply what you do in class to a real-life situation. Not to mention that if you find one you like, it’s just fun!

Managing your time. Honestly, this one’s a toughie, and it’s something I’m still working on as well. In university, it’s so important to know what due dates are coming up, and how you plan on spending your time. Everyone organizes their time differently but I personally liked to create rough timelines on a monthly calendar. The calendar had all due dates and test dates on it, and I’d write in checkpoints where I wanted certain things done. So if something was due on the 10th, I’d want the outline done on the 2nd, draft done on the 5th, and so on. This might not work for you and that’s ok! I would suggest having some way to keep yourself on track because it’s much harder to convince yourself to keep up without a teacher there than you’d expect.

What to expect in your first year

All in all, first year is a wild ride and can be a lot of fun. At the end of the day, your physical and mental health is the most important. So take care of yourself, eat as healthy as possible (LPT: Bridges is a vegetarian/vegan place on campus and delicious), get lots of sleep (<6 hours is not enough no matter how you try to convince yourself), and don’t be worried if your grades fall a bit! First-year is as much about learning the material as it is learning how to learn in a new environment. A lot of what you learn is a review of your grade 12 year, but the pace and style are going to be new to you. So don’t be worried if your average drops, just focus on getting through first year and doing the best you can.

Welcome to the Fireball Family, it’s gonna be great!