Busting Three Myths about University Success

I write this post today not just as someone who advises university students regarding career choices for a living, but also as someone who has earned two degrees over about eight years of post-secondary education. When I reflect back to my own time at school, I often see things in a new way or notice details that I didn’t at the time, and think, “if only I had known, I would have done things totally differently!”

Alas, for me there is no going back in time to relive those years. But there might be some value for others if I make my reflections public, as is my aim with this post. Here’s a few of the myths you might encounter about what it takes to succeed at the university level, and why they ultimately fail to hold up to (my) scrutiny.

We’ll start with the obvious:

Myth: You need to know what you want to do as a career in order to get the most out of school.

This is old hat, right? It’s well-covered territory in my blogs. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “does Dave ever write about anything other than chaos theory?” Sure I do, but does that mean I can’t sneak it in again here and there? Bottom line: most students don’t know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. The great thing is that you’re totally free to try out a bunch of different things to see what you like—and what better time and place to do that than university? Most institutions won’t make you pick a major right away, so you can spend your first couple of years trying out as many electives as you can.

Fact, supported by personal experience: You’ll figure it out as you go.

When I started my undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta, I picked Physical Sciences as a major. Don’t ask me why—because I really can’t remember. In any case, the subjects in which I excelled in high school, physics and chemistry, quickly became my least favourite and most difficult courses. The workload was too heavy, the calculus too irksome, and I didn’t really care about the subject matter. Lucky for me, then, that I had decided to take an introductory psychology course as an elective. It turned out to be one of my favourite courses, with my favourite instructor (to this day) of all my post-secondary classes. That course was all it took for me to change my major to psychology, setting off the chain of events that would lead me to where I am today.

Myth: If you struggle with junior-level coursework, you’ll never succeed in your senior years.

Oh no! You just got a C- in introductory chemistry, and a C in linear algebra, introductory calculus and statistics. And you know you only got that B in “Newtonian Mechanics and Relativity” because the whole class failed and you were curved up big time. There goes any hope of ever going to grad school, you average student, you. You might as well drop out now, because those senior level courses are sure to be way over your head. A lot of students seem to think this way, but here’s the real deal: your first two years of university will be the hardest. After that, it actually gets easier.

Fact, supported by personal experience: Senior courses are “easier” than junior ones.

There are a few reasons for this. The first couple of years at university are a sort of “feeling out” process for a lot of students, me included. I hadn’t quite developed the habits I needed to succeed. I hadn’t discovered the disciplines I was really passionate about. I wasn’t that aware of my own strengths, and how to leverage them academically. I lacked the confidence to speak out in large lecture halls. I was more concerned with my social life than the broad, uninspiring survey courses I was taking. Once I hit third year and beyond, though, something clicked. Papers seemed to write themselves. I knew what to expect from my classes, and had created small relationships with a couple of professors. I had developed a studying routine and knew exactly how long I needed to prepare for a midterm or an exam. I could read a chapter of a textbook and know what information was important and what I could gloss over. Courses were more in-depth, and way more interesting and stimulating. I could actually apply what I was learning to real-life situations. In short, I cared more. Were the courses more difficult? Maybe, but the experience was way easier precisely because I cared. Those Cs I mentioned were actual grades I received in my first two years at university. In my last three years (yes, I did the victory lap) I did so much better that I was able to get into grad school, something I had previously thought impossible.

Myth: Focusing exclusively on academics is the best way to succeed.

I see the symptoms of this myth nearly every day. Students are under so much pressure these days to get good grades that they almost visibly shudder in fear at the thought of devoting time to volunteering, part-time work or any other extra-curricular activity. There is a general assumption that a great GPA is a one-way ticket to a successful career and life, and that if you have enough spare time to be working or volunteering, you’re not studying hard enough. For some, perhaps the ones who have performed well enough academically to have their education financed by scholarships and the like, this might be true—something is clearly working for them. For the vast majority of students, though, the secret to academic success is more complicated. I frequently see students who haven’t worked or volunteered even a single hour of their time. The reason they end up in my office is always this: they’ve discovered they have no real-life experience to refer to when applying for jobs, and they start to panic. That’s well and good, but is it possible that doing these things can also increase the chance that you’ll successfully graduate?

Fact, supported by personal experience: Working and volunteering can help you do better in school.

I’ll temper this one by acknowledging that studies have shown that students who work 20 or more hours a week are more likely to drop out. But there’s a lot of room between zero and 20, so let’s focus on that. I was one of those students who worked throughout school, doing all sorts of things, but mostly low-paying, “meaningless” part-time work in restaurants. There were even probably months when I worked well over 20 hours a week (rent and groceries being what they are). I also volunteered consistently, for at least 4 hours a week, starting in my second year. What I found was that these activities cultivated strengths in me that school never would have. They forced me to face challenges and discover unique ways of solving them. They gave me confidence and built transferable skills that I’ve brought to and honed further at every job I’ve had since. The best part? I brought that confidence and those skills back to school with me as well. Suddenly I was the one asking intelligent questions in the 200+ person lecture halls, taking charge of the small group presentations, and being the first to hand in exams. As a nice bonus, my resume was a comfortably full two pages upon graduation.

Don’t let these or any other myths about what it takes to succeed in university, and life, sway you. Acknowledge that you’ve got what it takes, that there might be some bumps in the road but that’s how it’s supposed to be, and that being a great student involves more than a few letters and numbers.

After all, you might look back one day and realize you’ve been in school for eight years.

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