Chapter 1: Making the Transition to University

Welcome to higher education. You likely have a mix of emotions as you begin your university journey.  You may have heard a lot about what university is about — and its value — from family, friends, and the media.  Remember, though, that this is your experience, and that it can be what you make of it!

Most students would say that they’re in university with the expectation of getting a job and/or career out of the experience. And they are correct that university usually pays off enormously in terms of future earnings, job security and stability, and job satisfaction.

People with a university education will make much more in their lifetime on average and be much happier with the work they do. A recent study from the University of Ottawa examined eight consecutive years of income data for 620,000 graduates of 14 Canadian universities, finding that earnings growth was steady. Counter to stereotype, those who completed social sciences and humanities degrees also earned more than those who had not completed a degree at all (Ross Finnie, et al., Education Policy Research Initiative, 2016).

Benefits Beyond Career

Job and career attainment is only a part of the big picture. A university education results in many other personal benefits, less tangible than earnings:

  • Recognizing the limits of your knowledge, yet having the ability to expand your knowledge accordingly
  • Gaining decision-making and problem-solving skills.
  • Widening social and professional networks.
  • Developing self-confidence.
  • Learning to deal with organizations, governmental agencies, and all the hassles of daily life.
  • Being able to work flexibly: individually or in teams.
  • Learning how to communicate clearly and persuasively.
  • Acquiring technological literacies and research skills.

Barriers to Success

Despite the many benefits to completing post-secondary education, it’s important to recognize that some students do not succeed in university and drop out within the first year. Sometimes it’s due to an unsolvable financial problem or a personal or family crisis, but the most likely reasons that a Canadian university student will drop out are as follows:

Certain skills, attitudes, and habits are needed for university, and some of these qualities are present in students in high school; however, the new structure and expectations of university make it hard for some students to carry those qualities forward.

Ultimately, you can learn whatever you need in order to succeed. You can learn how to

  • get the most out of going to class
  • study in ways that use your time efficiently and help you pass tests
  • remember what you read in your university textbooks
  • manage your time more effectively than you might have in the past, so that studying is less a burden and more a simple routine
  • care for your health – both mental and physical
  • reflect on your learning at regular intervals: how are you learning? what’s working and what isn’t working?

You are already bringing a lot of skills and personal strengths to the experience, so take some time to appreciate them so that you start positively.

Start Positively: Using the Appreciative Inquiry 4-D Cycle

Appreciative Inquiry (AI), developed by organizational behaviour professor David Cooperrider, is a useful process to adapt to personal development. AI was designed with organizations in mind, but it has been used for personal development as well.

AI starts with an inventory of positive, or “the best of what is” rather than the problems that need solving (Cooperrider, 2012).

Can you begin your university journey with a list of your strengths and resources? This is the “Discovery” part of Cooperrider’s AI 4-D Cycle, which contains four parts. Get out a piece of paper, or type out everything you can think of that’s positive right now in relation to starting university.

For example, Deanna is starting university in the fall. Here is her Discovery list of “the best of what is” for her:

  • strong connection to my grandmother 
  • one good friend joining me at university
  • excited about moving to city, which has more activities and a range of people to meet
  • know how to cook
  • the campus I’m going to is really beautiful 
  • creative, have good ideas
  • good at helping others
  • embarking on first step toward fulfilling my dream
  • enjoy recreational sports

Note that Deanna’s left out any “but…,” such as “one good friend joining me at university, but what if I don’t see her often? What if we grow apart?” or “the campus is beautiful, but it terrifies me!”; she’s trusting the AI process and focusing for now on the positive.

The second step in the AI 4-D cycle is “Dream,” the place to imagine future possibilities.  Try to write a narrative rather than a list of bullet points.  You can even create a poster or a drawing to represent a vision of the future. Here’s Deanna’s dream, which is grounded in positive realities from the “Discover” phase:

I will move to Saskatoon with my friend Mara.  I will look forward to cooking my first meal in my new home, and making it a home. I’ll look for a part time job where I can be helping people, such as at a daycare or a senior’s home. I will make sure to keep connecting with my grandmother, which will be important for keeping my spirits up and helping me to remember my goals when times get tough, and my friend and I will be sure to connect each week since we don’t have classes together. I’ll join a recreational soccer team so that I can meet some new people and get some exercise. 

The third step in the AI 4-D cycle is “Design,” where you look at your discover list and your dream narrative, and thinking about some of the practicalities so that you plan a way to get to where you want to go. Here is Deanna’s design for carrying out her dreams:

I’ll move to the city in August so I’ll have time to find a place to live. I’ll have time to make it a good home, and won’t be rushed when starting school. In terms of a job, maybe I can use my skill with cooking, my ability to be good at helping people, or my creativity to work with kids or seniors. I’ll visit the university career centre to get some more ideas about that.  I will set up a regular time each week where I can Skype grandma, and where I can meet Mara for lunch or study time at the library. I’ll check the deadlines for signing up for soccer.

The fourth and final step in the AI 4-D Cycle is “Destiny,”  where you are living what you have discovered, dreamed, and designed. The destiny phase isn’t really final, though, as you will return to re-discover, dream and design again before going back to the destiny phase. Deanna will have another look at herself and her strengths and resources in a few months to try this cycle out again. It’s worth the time to come back to AI as it’s extremely motivating and energizing when things start to feel tough.

As you work your way through this chapter, realize that you can harness some of the work you’ve done already, and some of your attributes and resources, to succeed. You will encounter disappointments, stress, and some ups and downs, but if you take the long view, and a positive approach, you will succeed.


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Strategies for Academic Success Copyright © 2017 by University of Saskatchewan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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