• Race to a Cure Authors

Tips for First-Year University Students

University or college will be starting soon. It is a huge milestone in one's life, but it can be very daunting, stressful, and scary at the same time. Here are some tips from the Race to a Cure board of directors and leads from their personal experience for those starting freshman year this September. Thanks to Donny, Cathy, Serena, Zia, and Celine for their contribution!


Donny Li

I am an incoming second-year student in the Health Sciences Honours Program at McMaster University. I come from Mississauga, where I have lived for most of my life. Outside of school, I am a proud nonprofit founder, student researcher, and civilian staff at the Royal Canadian Air Cadets.

Going to University can give someone a whole range of emotions and feelings. Besides all the excitement and happiness, there is also uncertainty and intimidation. Before anything, I want to let you know that this is normal to feel! Because of the current pandemic, we often keep our thoughts to ourselves. Still, I want to validate everyone and let you know that your doubts, hesitations, and reservations are shared among all incoming students.

Cathy Jian

I'm an incoming third-year student in the honors specialization in health sciences and biology with the Western Scholars program at Western University. Entering post-secondary education can be a puzzle of emotions filled with both excitement and fear. The mix of independence, new learning structures, and a new school all present themselves with unique experiences.

Serena Zheng

I am a rising second-year student at the University of California San Diego, majoring in Economics and Mathematics. As an international student from Canada, I spent my entire first year learning from home because of COVID-19, and I have not yet had the chance to visit campus. It is certainly not the typical university experience I expected, but I used my school's resources to stay connected with my peers.

Zia Baig

Hello! My name is Zia, and I am a third-year student at the University of Waterloo, studying Biotechnology/Chartered Professional Accountancy.

Celine Guirguis

My name is Celine Guirguis, and I am an incoming second-year biomedical science student at the University of Ottawa. Starting University during the pandemic was a different experience from what I expected. With everything being online and staying home most of the time, it wasn't easy to differentiate my school life from my home life. It was also challenging to stay motivated and develop the discipline to study for my classes. However, as the year went by, I started to learn how to manage it and efficiently get things done.


Studying is a huge transition from high school to University, and every person experiences the change differently. Here is some advice from our board of directors!

  • Studying

Feel free to experiment with the note-taking system, studying method, and organizational skills throughout your first year.

“I believe it is important to go in with an open mind for change. Whether it's making changes to be more organized, more efficient, or otherwise, don't be afraid to look for changes if you feel that they can be beneficial!”

-Donny Li

“It is okay to take a little extra time to process everything. For example, take the time you need to get settled into your new routine; there is no need to rush. I would recommend keeping an updated schedule to ensure that you do not miss any important deadlines for your classes.”

-Zia Baig

  • Utilize the resources provided

“The most important lesson I learned in University is to always take advantage of the resources provided. If your professor is doing a couple of extra sessions to help prepare for exams, go to them! They will always give useful information that you might have missed in a lecture or that they might have forgotten to mention previously. Always go to their office hours and ask all your questions and listen to other people's questions. Do not underestimate the information provided in these extra study sessions. Send emails, reach out, and never be afraid of asking questions, even when you think it might not be a good one.”

-Celine Guirguis

“It is great to know where the libraries, computer labs, study spaces, and other such resources are. I would also suggest reaching out to tutors, advisors, and teaching assistants.”

-Zia Baig


A part of university life is to join clubs you are interested in and gain experience. Sometimes, you can take a break from academics and do things you are passionate about with a group of people.

“I would suggest all incoming first-years, regardless of whether you are learning in person or online next year, take part in both student leadership and career development through clubs and organizations. I joined my University's student government, where I surveyed international students about their challenges with remote learning and hosted webinars to educate and connect students. I also joined an investment club where I explored pathways in finance and networked with alumni in the industry. All these experiences helped me bridge the gap between me and campus, and I gained a better understanding of my school's policies, resources, and culture and received professional career advice. It is an excellent opportunity to build leadership experience, expand your network, and find out your professional interests at an early stage."

-Serena Zheng

“I found that the first year of University is a perfect time to try out new things and get involved with different clubs. I think it is important to immerse yourself and make the most out of University, so I recommend getting out there and exploring activities that might interest you. You never know what you might end up liking!"

-Zia Baig

Even though the clubs and opportunities are unique, you have to be mindful of your time management and commitment.

“Don't feel that you have to be everywhere to be "engaged" with the community, but do take the time to pick a few that you are passionate about and feel strongly about!"

-Donny Li

Most importantly, stay open-minded and be open to new opportunities.

“As I recall my first year, I was riddled with fear when joining new clubs and meeting new people, and perhaps it was the introverted side of me that held me back. As I would later learn in the school year, you must embrace vulnerability to allow a new openness to the unknown. Many students are in the same boat, seeking new friends, opportunities, and memories. Take advantage of that commonality and let your personality shine through. More good can happen than bad, and you're likely to wind up with prospective close friends too."

-Cathy Jian

Student Life

Apart from studying and extracurricular activities, remember you still have to take a break and have some free time.

  • Self-care

Self-care has become an important topic recently and it is crucial to practise that from time to time. The Center For Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State reported that anxiety and depression are the most prevalent concerns for college students. Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath, stop what you are doing and listen to your body.

“Just because you're too busy and can save time by eating fewer meals doesn't mean you should do it. Just because you can wear some clothes for longer than they deserve doesn't mean you should do it. Just because you could spend your time studying instead of exercising doesn't mean you should do it."

-Donny Li

  • Don’t forget to make friends

“Another important lesson I learned is to make friends in your classes. The friends you meet in your program often have similar goals to yours, and surrounding yourself with people who are just as ambitious will make things easier. By this, I mean you can help each other understand difficult material, but also complain together about that super hard exam you guys just did and feel less alone."

-Celine Guirguis

  • Seek help if you need

You do not have to be at your lowest to seek help. Mental health can take a toll on your academics as it can affect your energy level and concentration and hinder your performance.

“I was fixated on the study hard, party hard mindset, and unfortunately, it left me burnt out halfway throughout the year. After my first year, I realized that I couldn't continue much longer without addressing my mental health. I sought the help I needed and learned to care for my mental and physical health. Be sure to note where you can seek mental health support on campus or in your area if needed as well."

-Cathy Jian

“You study because you wish to live a good life, but there is no good life that doesn’t begin with good health.”

-Donny Li


One huge shift from high school to University is your mindset. The new environment, city, professors, and classmates can be exciting but nerve-wracking. The courses will be more challenging as well. It's completely normal to fail and make mistakes but remember everyone is on the same boat!

  • Disengage from attachment, allow yourself to fail, and learn to forgive yourself

“Failure is inevitable and important. However, more often than not, we look down on failures and associate them with negative emotions. A shift towards a growth mindset will allow you to see value in failure. By recognizing the negative experiences, we can voice our feelings and forgive ourselves - through forgiveness. We can accept responsibility for our failures without excuses and learn from our mistakes. The resilience you will gain from this practice is truly the key to finding success."

-Cathy Jian

  • Focus on yourself

“There will also be a lot more students in your classes. I know this can feel intimidating, but do remember that everyone else is thinking the same thing. There will be those that show themselves in lectures but don't feel intimidated by them. The biggest thing I would say is to focus on yourself. As you enter University and soon into even larger communities, focusing on yourself is crucial. Learn from others and be inspired by others, but don't compare yourself with others."

-Donny Li

“At university, do not be afraid to be your authentic self. It will be a new environment and it will take some time to adjust. Stay open-minded and be willing to work with others.”

-Zia Baig

Thank you again to our members who took the time to share their personal experiences during their first year. I hope you find something helpful and apply it during your first year. I wish you all the best and have a remarkable, unforgettable, and unique university life.

Article Author: Michelle Lam

Article Editors: Clara Han, Edie Whittington