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When I have spoken with senior high school students about their plans for university, the most common thing that I have heard is that they intend to, “work harder.” It may be a bit harsh to say, but I think that this is a poor plan. In high school, course selection is typically much less than it will be in university. As a consequence, I believe that academic planning is not given the attention that it should have. In March 2017, a CBC article argued that, “[r]ecent graduates are finding a post-secondary education is no longer a guarantee of stable employment”. One important statistic that it cites is that the “latest numbers from Statistics Canada show that the unemployment rate for 15-to-24-year-olds is almost twice that of the general population.” With this in mind, it has never been more important to know where your university degree is taking you and how you plan to get there. “Working harder” and planning “to do well” is not a plan at all. If you’re headed to university in the near future, you should know that setting goals and writing them down is the first step to achieving those goals. My advice is simple: write it, achieve it.

Working hard in university should be a given. It is no secret that undergraduate curricula are demanding. But, in addition to committing to invest more time and focus on your studies, there are also some other things you should consider before going to university. What do you expect university to be like? What do you expect of yourself while you are there? Is a university degree part of a defined career path, or are you still weighing options and deciding on the professional road you’ll take? You may have an answer to these questions. It’s certainly understandable if you do not. The great thing about executing a plan, though, is that it will keep you accountable to, what should be, your own high standards.

Who are you accountable to when there are no teachers?

In university, it is much easier to fall through the cracks than it is in high school. Right now, you are accountable to your teachers who you see every day. When you enter undergraduate studies, the relationship with the person to whom you are accountable changes drastically. Often, I have heard this misinterpreted by students as “professors don’t care,” which is simply not true. Professors do care, but they also have the very reasonable expectation that you care about your own studies even more; particularly when it comes to handing things in on time and submitting quality work. For this reason, it is important to record and periodically review what your goals are for your first year. You are expected to be accountable to yourself in university. This is a great way of making sure you stay on track.

Additionally, you should anticipate that your academic road map will change. University has a funny way of introducing things to people that they never knew existed. Don’t be surprised if you meet an inspiring professor, read a text, or take a course that completely changes what you want to do with your life. University will expand your horizons so don’t be shocked if an unknown passion is currently locked away in a future course.

If you are unsure how to create goals or you don’t know what your goals should be, don’t worry, it’s not uncommon. If you find yourself in this situation, ask someone who you trust or reach out to me. I can help with that.

What should your goals be?

The answer to this question is different for everyone. Without knowing you and your ambitions, I cannot provide catered advice. However, I can offer you a good starting point. Here are three themes that your academic road map should include along with some questions to get you started on defining your personal objectives (you should note that the latter two headings encourage you to do things beyond the classroom, which is important for networking and career development):

1. Academic goals: What grades would you like to get in each of your courses? Is there a grade point average (GPA) that you would like to attain? What are the typical grades for someone in the same major/minor field of study? Are there courses that you need or want to take? Are there scholarships that you can apply for? How many times per week/month will you visit your professor/TA during office hours?

2. Social goals: What type of undergraduate organizations exist to support students with your professional/academic goals (and should you join them)? Are there events that are catered to students with your interests/goals? Are there networking opportunities that will allow you to speak with professionals in the field that you want to get into?

3. Personal goals: Is there a campus activity that you have always wanted to do? Can you make five or ten new friends by the end of your first semester? Can you join an intramural club? Can you volunteer for a cause that you are passionate about? What brings you joy and how can you mix this passion with your career development?

Again, these are just a few basic questions to consider and use to plan a successful first year of university. I encourage you to be ambitious and leave space for new discoveries. There should be no limitations. As I said earlier, write it, achieve it.

You may be surprised by the amount of freedom that you have in university. It is true, no one will ask you to hand anything in and your instructor will never ask why you missed a class, or two, or three. In university, you are accountable exclusively to yourself. My advice is that you take a moment to plan your goals and a road map of how to make those goals a reality. If you do so, you’ll avoid the trap of simply promising yourself to “work harder” and you’ll be well on your way to working smarter. One final time: write it, achieve it.