Transitioning Into Post-Secondary Education

As someone who works in a university Writing Centre, I have had the privilege over the years of speaking to countless students thinking about their options beyond high school, as well as teachers from across the province. In these presentations and discussions, I usually build on a common theme: “But it worked for me in high school…!” What I mean by this is: students often assume they can use the same methods at university as they did in high school. Unfortunately, many of them discover there’s a big difference, often in mid-October or even later. They may feel that they worked hard enough in high school, and got the good marks to prove it; however, they soon realize they could have paid more attention and put more effort into their class work and assignments. Coasting through high school just does not make the grade in post-secondary institutions. Feeling overwhelmed is a common experience. So what will help them make that transition from high school to university or any other post-secondary institution? Here is my advice to students:

1. Research where you want to go. Choose an institution where you think you can flourish and grow in all aspects of your life. Your success is the university’s goal. Check out their websites and talk with people who have attended that institution to get a feel for what it would be like to live and study in that environment. Call the Admissions department and arrange for a campus visit if you can. Schools welcome high school students for tours. Even if you can’t visit, make your choice based on sound reasoning, not on the pictures in the calendar or on where your friends are going.

2. Get excited about your education. Start today and put more effort into that report that’s due next week. Do it before Mom asks if you’ve started it yet. Here’s why: at university your days will be less structured than they are in high school. You need to take charge, be responsible, and plan your time wisely— without anyone reminding you. No one will be there to get you out of bed for your 8:15 class or keep you on top of your assignments, either. Those are your responsibilities as a university student.

3. Set high but reachable goals for yourself. Think of your goals like shooting a basketball: you must aim higher than the rim in order to get the ball in the hoop. Aim high with your goals, too. Don’t accept just passing a course; challenge yourself to reach higher, but maintain reasonable expectations. When you challenge yourself, you are more engaged in what you are learning, and usually more successful.

4. Take advantage of supports and services available to you. On average, students see a 13-point drop in their marks from high school to university. Seeking supports to deal with the drop is an intelligent move. Most postsecondary institutions now have Writing Centres where instructors act as objective readers who look at the context of your writing, the flow and structure, rather than the content. These are not remedial centres; on the contrary, students at all levels of “academic preparedness” use supports like Writing Centre (J. B. Cuseo, 1999). Call and book an appointment to brainstorm your topic as soon as you get an assignment. Or go over a section of your draft, and then apply the instructor’s suggestions to the rest of your paper. First-year experience (FYE ) programs are another invaluable service at many institutions; they are designed to give you strategies to make you more successful in your other courses. As K. P. Cross (1992, as cited in Cuseo, 1999) notes, FYE s “focus on the development of student competencies and skills that are likely to withstand the ‘test of time.’” In these seminars you develop or enhance your critical thinking, hone your writing strategies, improve your time management skills and discuss ways to handle stress better—“information that is neither covered in high school, nor is it explicitly covered anywhere in the undergraduate curriculum” (Cuseo, 1999). Some FYE programs are for credit, others aren’t. Nonetheless, supports such as these give you an added advantage, especially in your first year. You can build on strategies that worked well in high school and try different ones in areas that need some adjustment. FYE programs help you communicate more clearly in your courses. Students who take advantage of programs like these are usually the same students who use many other supports offered within the university community. Count yourself among this group.

5. Be prepared for class. Show your engagement with the subject. Be a sponge, an active learner. Take all the strategies you’ve learned in your FYE program and apply them in class. Read assigned articles before class. Ask questions or, even better, answer questions during class; make connections between what you are learning and what you already know. It’s a powerful experience.

6. Get actively involved in your education, academically and socially. Once you comfortable with the increased work load at university, get actively involved in the university community. As you embrace this new stage of learning, not only do the old high school habits give way, but your capacity for knowledge broadens and you grow as a person, becoming more confident, well rounded and well-spoken. None of these suggestions is new or unique; however, if you care about yourself and invest time and effort in your education, you will succeed. You do this by challenging yourself, taking different courses, and getting involved in a school club, association or team. You will not be the student who says, “I wish I had known about that support or taken advantage of that program earlier.” You will know the ways to overcome the obstacles that you encounter and act appropriately. You will learn, excel and graduate. CO

Nancy Marenick, Director, The Writing Centre, eXcel, APEX ,
and LEAP programs, St. Francis Xavier University

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