Think you are
ready for university and college?

Think again.

February 2022 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

Attending university and college is about so many things, much more than just attending classes. It is an opportunity to discover who you are and what you are good at, as well as an opportunity to learn how to meet people and work well with others. But it is also about learning how to think critically and becoming an expert in the area of study that interests you, and lastly, about getting the work done and completing your degreeIt will be one of the most fulfilling and exciting times in your life and also one of the most stressful. 

However, these four things – discovering who you are and what you are good at, meeting people from different backgrounds with different skill sets, pursuing excellence in area that you may not know that much about yet, and completing the degree within about four years – can and will always be competing goals. Too much discovery and you won’t excel; too many friends and you won’t finish. It’s a fine balancing act. And a lot can get in your way. 

Most students will start their classes not being as ready as they would like to be. Students arrive not having perfected all of the study skills or coping skills that they will need in order to do well. Many have never written an academic papers.  On top of that, a good number of students will arrive at the university with additional challenges in their lives, including mental health challenges, learning difficulties, or a some kind of disability. Some students will have to contend with being far from home or living alone for this first time. Most will need to learn how to manage money, as well as how to deal with conflict with friends and maybe even a breakup or two. Any of these challenges can take the fun out of school and make it hard to focus on doing your best.  

Whether you are about to start school or have already started, understanding the hurdles to doing well and how to tackle them is the key to getting the most out of the few years you are in school. 

Academic challenges

Large-scale surveys of students entering university reveal showed that approximately 25% of students report academic difficulties with a variety of skills and abilities that they will need throughout their studies. These include difficiculties in several different domains, including time management, writing papers and preparing for tests. Approximately, one third (28%) of students reported difficulties in every area surveyed. This means that a very, very large number of students will be starting classess with at least a few study study deficits that they will need to address.  

Some students have more difficulties than others.

As you know, not all students are the same. Some arrive with just a few study deficits to address; others with many, many more.  Not surprisingly, as the number of study skill deficits increases, so does the likelihood of not reaching your full potential and not getting the grades you would like or need. As the challenges pile up, so does the chance of discouragement and disengagement. If it gets too high, students start avoiding the work they need to do and may even start questionning whether or not university is right for them.  The level of stress can skyrocket, parents start to worry and doubt, worries and what-ifs start to set in.  It can quickly snowball and get completely out of hand.

What contributes to poor performance:

When asked about the factors that negatively affected their performance on tests, papers, assignments and exams, students identify a wide range of challenges. everything from mental illness, too many extracurricular activities or obligations at work, relationship difficulties, conflict with friends, as well as too much internet. 

The figure presented below summarizes the results of the American College Health Survey in which schools from all over the US and Canada participate each year.  Not surprisingly, stress — from both heavy workloads and excessive worry — tops the list. Six different types of mental illness are named, including anxiety, depression, ADHD, drug misuse, eating disorder and gambling, as well as a number of traumatic events, physical illness, and day to day activities, adversity and conflict. 
There’s a lot that can get in the way. But it doesn’t have to. 

Not sure if you are ready? The Learning and Wellbeing Project was developed to help students identify the challenges they may face and to help them acquire the skills  needed to maximize their success and enhance their wellbeing. Here are a few of the interactive questionnaires that will help you identify some challenges you may be facing: Of course, these are just a few. We also have questionnaires on your personal strengths, social anxiety, and maintaining friendships, to name just a few.   Don’t forget to follow-us on Instragram or Facebook to ensure that you to stay on top of the newest resources and the most important updates throughout the entire school year.

What big changes should I expect?

In addition to the excitement of attending university-style lectures, meeting students from so many different places, and many students live on their own, a couple of changes occurred immediately — the ‘flipped’ schedule and the big drop

The inverted or ‘flipped’ schedule.

The first big change is about class and study time. In high school, you spend most of your time in the classroom, about 30 hours a week, and far fewer hours at a desk studying on your own. At university, this flips. Typically, you have just 15 hours in the classroom. The rest of the time, you are on your own. For some students, you may have a day on which you have no classes at all. For most students, there will be a large chunk of time with nothing specific to do. 

If you are not used to studying on your own, this will be one of the biggest challenges. You are expected to work on your own, master all of the material, complete the assignments, and write your papers.  Most students have little practice with storyboarding their week or using a backwards schedule or semester schedule to stay on top of all of the deadlines. 

Students consistently report that time management, keeping on top of the work and sticking to a schedule are their biggest challenges at university.  

The big drop. 

The second big change is the drop in grades. Depending on the school you attend and the program you take, students typically enter university with high school grades that can range anywhere from the mid-70s to mid-90s. In fact, the average high school grade will be in the mid 80s. 

The average first-semester grade for most programs at most universities will be in the mid-60s — a drop of some 20 points, on average.  Keep in mind that that is an average, which means some students will drop less, some even more.  You won’t know until the end of the first semester, but it is fair to say that your grades will drop a lot. 

For most students, it will be a rough awakening and a real hit to their self-worth.  The flood of negative thoughts will be steady – ‘not good enough, won’t make it, going to fail, everyone will be disappointed.

Don’t panic — it is going to be okay.  

University is a lot of work, but it is all manageable and you can excel – if you put in the work. You will have setbacks and failures from time to time. But you can also have a great experience – discover who you are and what you are good at, meet the people who will help get you through the tough times, pursue excellence, and complete the (darn) degree.  f 

Avoiding the Big Drop. 

 Of all of the skills promoted through the Learning and Wellbeing website, the three most important for avoiding the first-year drop in grades all have to do with managing your time and the amount of work you will have to do. These are:

Each of these skills – a weekly storyboard, a semester schedule and daily to-do lists — will help you use your time in the most efficient and effective way possible.  Research studies show that it is not so much about how many hours you put in but how effectively you use your time. 

In our experience, there is always enough time for everything — school, work, friends — so long as you spread out the school work and make sure you get a little bit done every day.  Once these skills are in place, you can add in other study skills like practice problems and flashcards.

The impact of the pandemic on academic readiness

The challenges that students have faced have always been there. However, as every student, teacher or parent of a student knows first-hand, the pandemic and the impact it has had on students has been profound and far-reaching. 

The majority of students now starting university and college have had few experiences with writing in-person exams, little opportunity to sit through long in-person exams (3 hours), not to mention attending in-person lectures, which require students to focus, take notes, ask questions and interact with other students.

Many students have indicated that they do not feel comfortable being in an in-person class. This is an additional challenge that many students will have to address and for which they may be entitled to some accommodations. 

All universities and colleges are aware of these challenges and have hundreds of academic advisors, counsellors and student mentors to help students do their very best. 

The Getting Ready for University and College Presentation is is a 60 minute presentation ideal for teachers, parents and students in grades 11 and 12. We would be happy to speak to your school about how to get ready and get the most out of university and college. Please email us at 

The Science of Learning and Wellbeing is a 12-week, semester long course offered at the University of Ottawa. The sequence and topics addressed in lectures was design to ensure that student develop the critical skills needed throughout their studies. 

The Friday Afternoon Seminars take place on Friday afternoon throughout the school year. These brief, one-hour seminars are designed to provide students with an opportunity to see how these skills are used. Anyone can enroll. All seminars are delivered on a video link (i.e., Zoom).    

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Brewer, J. A., Worhunsky, P. D., Gray, J. R., Tang, Y.-Y., Weber, J., & Kober, H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(50), 20254–20259.
Cairncross, M., & Miller, C. J. (2020). The Effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Therapies for ADHD: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of attention disorders, 24(5), 627–643.
Kabat-Zinn, J., Massion, A. O., Kristeller, J., Peterson, L. G., Fletcher, K. E., Pbert, L., Lenderking, W. R., & Santorelli, S. F. (1992). Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 149(7), 936–943.
Luders, E., Cherbuin, N., & Kurth, F. (2015). Forever Young(er): Potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.
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