Being in first year and seeing your schedule can cause a whole lot of confusion and create anxiety. How the heck does an engineering major have more than 27 hours of classes in one week? Why do I have a lab for a course every single week? How come there are two lectures for a course totaling of up to 4 hours of content in one week? How come some of my friends in non-engineering fields get a day off and my schedule looks like trash? Trust me, I’ve had each and every single one of these feelings in my first year and was very frustrated. The good news though is that this frustration dies down a little bit year after year. By the time third year rolls in you take one look at your schedule and it’s a ‘meh’. I’ll adapt.
Sure you can easily switch around one or two things in your schedule like class timings and tutorials, but the end game is the same: the number of hours for a course remain the same. The amount of homework you will get is the same and amount of studying you need to do to pass a course is the same. As a first year student transitioning into university, learning how to manage yourself with the available time is challenging. I can strictly say from experience it is not the course contents that made studying engineering hard but rather the weight of the content. The weight of handling it all is overwhelming. So I decided to make a list showcasing how you can lighten your course load and still graduate on time. I’ve used most of these tips and I hope that you too take advantage of them.
1. Check if your courses are pre-requisites to your next semester studies or next year studies
As a first year student you should learn how to manage your time with your academics. To make your transition successful, take only the courses that are 100% compulsory and mandatory. In other words, drop the courses that are not prerequisites to your next semester or year of studies. Such courses like liberals are an example. Take the liberal courses in maybe your upper years. (But don’t forget about these courses! Last thing you want is to not be able to graduate because you forgot a course.)
I took all my liberal courses in third and fourth year and got all A’s in them just because I learned how to manage my core ‘courses’ (aka engineering courses) in first and second year and was able to balance the light weighted liberal courses in my last two years of university. Also the course load in your upper years is much lighter than the first two years of engineering (at least for industrial engineering it was.)
2. Are your courses being offered in the spring/summer session?
Something I regret is not enrolling into spring and summer classes as much as I could. Most courses especially in first and second year are offered in the spring and summer term (spring: may-june and summer: july-august) because a lot of students fail core subjects such as programming, calculus ll, and electric circuits (these courses will vary according to your school and program). To help students keep on track, schools will offer these said courses so students can begin second year without interruption.
Now, these courses in most schools like mine had smaller classroom sizes which are beneficial to a student’s learning ability. There is more professor and student engagement, you can see the board clearly and you make more friends in smaller classrooms! There is not a single person who I have met that feels like they learn best when the professor to student ratio is 1:500. If you can’t handle your course load and need to drop something, see if the course is being offered in the spring/summer term and then drop it from your regular schedule and take it in the summer months.
Not only will this help you lighten your course work during the school year, it will also boost your CGPA. Rumor has it that courses offered in the summer months tend to be easier even though the content is the same as when it was being taught in the school year. I guess you can thank the classroom atmosphere, student to professor ratio and the fact that you can easily manage fewer courses successfully. As I said, it is not the content of the courses that make engineering or any field hard. But rather the weight of all the courses’ content.
3. Take courses in a different school during the weekends/summer/or online
To say you graduated as an engineering student in Canada, your school must be accredited by the engineering board. Now this board makes sure that universities who offer engineering programs maintain a set standard. So the good news is that your courses are easily transferrable between these accredited schools. You should, however, always check with your department before making the decision to study a course at a different school. Even though the course contents are the same, some schools are hesitant in accepting credits from other schools. But I know this works because I have friends how have done first year courses from UofT and have been approved at Ryerson. Do know that this option exists but is a little bit easier for non-engineering fields.
Because it is easier for non-engineering courses, think about doing your liberals online or at a different school. Think about how you can allocate courses in a lean fashion so that your current plate is lighter.
4. Talk to your department chair
Sometimes a course that you may be struggling in and want to drop is not offered in the summer term and is needed for you to proceed in the next year or semester. This is very common. So what options do you have? You can drop it and stay a year behind because it isn’t offered in the summer and is a mandatory credit or you can talk to your department chair. As a first year a good tip is to familiarize yourself with your department and all the key people. I’m not talking about the person that sends you email blasts or the secretary sitting in front of the offices, or the first-year office. I am talking about the people who makes the key decisions. You can find these people in your school’s webpage – in my school it was in the contact us page under each department.
In majority of the schools the hierarchy is something like this: dean of engineering and then departmental chairs for each stream of engineering reporting to the dean. Because the dean can be super busy, contact the department chair for a quicker response. Email the chair, ask for a sit down and meet face to face. Whatever you do, do not disclose your issue in the email! It is so much easier for a departmental chair to ignore that or reply with, “sorry.” Instead ask for a meeting!
Discuss your issue with the chair. These people can help you and most of the time they sympathize with students and want them to succeed. They can offer you better options catering to your situation. They can provide better options than on this list. Even if the chair isn’t very keen on helping you out and is more like, ‘ah well. Not my problem, kid.’ Then do not stop there. Go to the dean. Go to his office, talk to him, cry to him if you must. Do everything within the appropriate boundaries but just don’t give up. A lot of students especially in first year contact their department’s secretary’s or admin staff and ask such questions and the answer is always fixed and is a no. Don’t take that route! Meet people with power who are able to do something for you and at least lay down some options.
So many first year students get beat down by certain courses and accept that they will just have to take the course next year and be set back. But there maybe other routes! To know these routes, you must contact your chairs/advisors/guidance counsellors or even senior students. Senior students and even alumni can give you tips on who to talk to and how to talk to them. Maybe the dean or departmental chair can override a certain course allowing you to take that course alongside other ones so that you can graduate on time. Perhaps the dean or chair can suggest courses you can take at other universities that can be a substitute. Before deciding to completely drop a course which isn’t offered in the summer term, talk to someone about your situation and get their perspective on what you should do.
5. Ultimately your health is more important
When I was in university I think I cried at least once every single semester. There were many times when I wanted to switch out of engineering because I didn’t get it and it was overwhelming. I remember sitting in my dynamics lectures in second year and just trying to comprehend what the professor was talking about. It was simply a course I had zero interest in. Like do I care at which speed the ball rolls down the ramp while the ramp itself is moving. No thanks. I remember sitting in class after class not understanding anything. And that made me even more angry.
I remember giving this course more priority than all the courses but the output was still the same. This literally drove me insane. I hated myself for not understanding a course that some of my friends easily grasped. I didn’t sleep the day before this course’s midterm and would do each and every single question while looking and trying to understand the solution and I still failed the midterm. This was the first midterm I failed with a 45%. Even though the class average was 48%, I was devastated. How could I fail a course which I thought I put in a lot of effort studying? I remember skipping other classes just to prepare for this course’s quizzes and buying two-three different types of textbooks about this course. But while this was all happening, I was freaking out.
I freaked out while studying for this course, I freaked out while sitting in the lectures and seeing how some students got the question and I was clueless. I freaked out the day before the midterm and small quizzes and would often stay up trying to absorb in as much information as possible. It was at a point where my parents would come in my room and ask if this was the only course I was taking this year. And because of this course, I stopped focusing on my other ones. So my grades started slipping and guess what? I started freaking out even more.
That’s when I got an email from my school reminding us of important dates and one of the dates mentioned were course drop dates. And at that moment, without any hesitation, I logged into my school’s system and dropped out of that course. It was the biggest relief! Second year was my hardest year because I had a lot of courses that were heavily physics focused – and not the nice high school physics! When I dropped dynamics, it was like I had so much more time to focus on my other courses. I was able to boost my other courses and live happily for that semester.
The moral of my story is that there will be times when you come across something that will stress you out. It will make you hate yourself because you can’t grasp it. It will make you question if you can even finish your program or if you are even worthy of studying in your field. When you come across these type of situations, always take a step back, breathe and reset. Maybe it isn’t the best time to take this course. Maybe you’ve burned out and need time off. There is nothing wrong with that. Your mental health should always come first even if that means sacrificing your summer to catch up – do it! Because at the end of the day, this degree is just a paper. Never sacrifice your health for a piece of paper.