The Mental Battle

Overwhelmed

Image "Overwhelmed" courtesy of flickr user Walt Stoneburner, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Feeling overwhelmed by university is normal. Everything is new and adjusting takes time. Unfortunately, the adjustment process isn’t always (never?) smooth and may be littered with missed assignments, forgotten deadlines, bombed exams, and crappy essays. Every student is different, and some adjust faster than others. Contrary to popular belief, poor academics is not the reason why people don’t do well in university – adjusting mentally to the fundamental differences between university and high school is. Poor grades is often a symptom, not a cause.

So what can you do? Keep the following things in mind:

1) Most people also feel overwhelmed.

Yes, some students adapt to university like fish to water, but most students adapt to university like dog to water (initially disoriented, but gradually getting use to it and even liking it). You’re not the only one, so don’t be shy and talk to other students about your questions and concerns. Ask others how they deal. If possible, find a few friends a couple of years ahead and ask them how they lived through it all (talk to the survivors!). Ask for advice, guidance, and maybe even mentorship. In fact, some schools offer mentorship programs for new students, so take advantage of them. Use the wisdom of people who’ve “been there, done that”.

University is NOT high school and you cannot think of it in the same way! <– This is possible the most important sentence of the entire post, so I’ll repeat it: University is NOT high school and you cannot think of it in the same way!

2) Professors are professors, NOT teachers.

University professors are generally hired for their ability to do research as opposed to for their ability to teach (in fact, more than one professor/instructor have told me that they were only asked to provide a short teaching statement, and nothing else teaching-related, before being hired).

Thus professors, brilliant people that they are, don’t always understand or appreciate undergraduate students. Some of them hate teaching, but have to. Others just can’t seem to connect with the students. Yet others can’t seem to present the topic in a coherent manner. Some are monotonous, others have an accents, and a few speak too softly. Even worse, some profs simply don’t understand why you don’t understand the perfectly understandable topic they just presented to you. Yeah. I got that too. Add that to the fact that university classes proceed at 3 to 5 times the speed of a high school class and most of the learning is supposed to occur outside of lecture time, and it’s no surprise students feel in over their heads.  What can you do? Realize that:

3) It’s all about you.

No, the universe does not revolve around you, but your academic success does. In high school, it was all about the teacher. He or she wrote out careful notes on the overhead, taught you the 20 types of questions that are likely to show up on an exam, chased you down for homework, and talked with you when your grades are suffering. The teacher was expected to teach at a certain level and model tests after practice questions. The teacher held your hand and made sure you didn’t fall.

That won’t happen in university. Profs won’t write out nice concise notes, teach you every possible application of a theory, chase you down for anything, or worry about your grades. Profs won’t hold your hand and he or she won’t be there to catch you when you screw up.

What’s especially unnerving is that while professors may do their best to teach you, they probably don’t have time to teach you everything on the curriculum and they certainly won’t show you each permutation of a type of problem. I remember mentally blaming my professor the first time I did terribly on an exam. I thought “well, it’s all the prof’s fault because he didn’t teach us everything”. BUT that’s just it – in university, it is not your professor’s job to teach you everything. It is your job to learn everything – the professor is merely there to help. 

This is why studying outside of class hours is so crucial. Typically, the ratio of out-of-class to in-class time spent on a course is:

Easy course – 2:1
Medium course – 3:1
Hard course – 4:1

Yes, that’s 2-4 hours of outside time for each hour of in-class time!

Profs won’t care about you if you don’t make a conscious effort to help yourself. A high school teacher is like a shepherd – he or she kept the herd together and every sheep safe. On the other hand, a university professor is more like a train conductor. He or she will open the door and help you on the train, but his or her main aim is to keeps the train on schedule for the majority of travelers. In high school it’s about making sure no one fails. In university, it’s about making sure most people succeed.

The onus is on YOU. You have to make sure you find your seat on that train. You have to ask for help if you need it. You have to find ways to get back on if you miss it. No one else will do it for you.

4) So what if he/she is smarter than you?

We all know someone like him/her (or is him/her!). The keener at the front of the class. The one with an answer to every question. The Hermione. He or she understands a topic intuitively and has flawless recall. Being the professor’s favourite, a high A in the course seems guaranteed.

So what? Your classmate’s smart. What does that have to do with you? The answer is really “nothing”, but no one likes the keener. Why? Because he or she makes others feel inadequate. Not smart enough. This is especially hard because you were near the top of your class (if not at the very top) in high school. You’re use to being outstanding and being simply “good” takes some getting use to.

This is where I’m going to use tough love. Suck it up. You’re not the best but you don’t have to be the best to get an outstanding grade! If you really care about being the best, work harder at the class. But really, let it go. You don’t like the keener, why are you trying to be him/her? Furthermore, looking like you’re the best is NOT the same as actually being the best. Which one is more important to you…?

5) Don’t write yourself off.

While it’s one thing to be upset about not being the best, it’s another to keep thinking you’re not as good as anyone else. You’re at the same school, the same program, and the same class as whomever you’re comparing yourself to. You are just as good if not better. Don’t believe otherwise! Hang in there, by your fingernails if you have to, and you’ll succeed spectacularly. *Cue bunnies and rainbows and other feel good objects*

6) Perfectionism doesn’t pay.

I’m a perfectionist. There, I said it. I proof-read papers dozens of times before handing it in and can’t seem to send off an e-mail with a typo or a missed capital letter. But I really shouldn’t be (and am working on it) because perfectionism is not a good thing in university. A student only has limited time to study. Being a perfectionist eats into valuable time that could be spent on something that has a higher payoff per time spent.

How do I avoid the perfectionism trap? I allocate an x number of proof-reads for anything I have to hand in and tries to stick to that number. I also have friends who warn me if I’m starting to go into the “this has to be perfect” zone. I still drive myself and others nuts sometimes, but it is slowly getting better.

7) Have a life.

Piano, violin, clarinet, ballet, ball-room dancing, tennis, soccer, ultimate Frisbee… the list of extracurricular activities students give up once starting university is a mile long. While it is a good idea to put some activities on hold to focus more time on school (you’ll find yourself studying a lot more than high school), dropping all activities and JUST studying isn’t a good idea. Actually, your grades will probably suffer if your brain doesn’t take a break once in a while.

This is not an argument for getting drunk every weekend (or every night).

Drop some of your least favourite or important extracurricular activities, then slowly pick them back up again throughout the school year to ensure it is adding joy to your life and not just causing you stress. Don’t just stick to activities you’re comfortable with – try something new! Your university probably offers a wide range of activities, so give some of them a shot.

8 ) It gets better.

While 15% of students drop out of Canadian university, most students head in that direction during or right after first year. Hang in there and if you make it through first year, you’re pretty much set.

9) It really is all about attitude. Short of sounding like a Hallmark card, it is about staying positive and believing in yourself. If you’re really feeling down, talk to someone! A friend, a parent, a trusted professor, etc. If you prefer, talk to a professional. Most schools have free counselling services for students. Go, unload yourself. You’ll feel better, I promise.

Since adjusting to university is largely a mental battle, some students do fall through the cracks. I knew of one student whose parents were getting divorced and were constantly fighting so he could never study in peace. Another student was so shy she couldn’t talk to anyone on campus for a month. Other perfectly capable students fail exams for the first time in their lives and couldn’t climb back out of the “I’m a failure” hole (in fact, this is probably the most common red flag).

If you feel yourself slipping the cracks through academically, emotionally, or personally, don’t be damsel in distress. Don’t wait for anyone to save you. NO ONE ELSE cares about how you do as much as you. Plenty of people will be willing to help you, but you have to be proactive, not reactive.

If you’ve read through this extremely long blog post and actually think it makes some sense, you’re all set for university. The battle is mental and it’s initially a war of attrition. Hang in there and have no fear, you’re going to kick some serious ass 🙂

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2 thoughts on “The Mental Battle

  1. How is a useful article for the first year students. I strongly recommend it! About 30 years ago, I experienced the hardest time in the first year university. I could not find a message like this. I was afraid of talking about the feeling in the absolutely new environment. I was soaked in the disappointed mood for a long time. Thank you for the good article publishing in the just right time. Good luck for the new students.

  2. Pingback: Your First Day (Of University) – A Resource for First Year Students

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