I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer. Ever since I was a kid, I’d talk about my dream of being the first in my family to attend law school, while constantly imagining having the career of my dreams. Before I could apply to law school, of course, I had to complete my undergraduate degree, and I decided the University of Toronto was the best option for me. However, when I shared the news that I’d be attending UofT with friends and family, a countless number of people told me that it was a bad decision. “It’s impossible to get a high GPA at UofT,” they said, explaining to me that I’d be better off anywhere else if I wanted grades high enough to get into law school.
However, I’ve never really been one to say no to a challenge, and I enrolled in my first year of social sciences at the University of Toronto; to this day, I am incredibly glad I did. In my opinion, the negative reputation the school gets for fostering an extremely competitive academic atmosphere is not entirely justified, and I was able to end my first year with an almost perfect GPA. If you’re one of those students who are debating between several schools in fear that your grades will suffer by attending the University of Toronto, look no further for your comprehensive guide on how to maintain a high GPA at UofT, based on my experiences as a first-year student!
Choose Your Courses Very Carefully
As the kind of person who’s always loved school, I wanted to make sure I was making the most out of my first year. UofT is interesting in that you’re not really in a program during your first year; you’re in a stream. At the end of first year, you apply to your Program of Study (POSt) which will be your major/specialist/minors for your degree. Some programs may require intense applications which involve interviews, resumes, and essays (some limited enrolment programs), while others are open enrolment and available to anyone.
Most limited enrolment programs also require prerequisites, so before you start picking courses for your first year, familiarize yourself with the courses your desired program requires (if any). These are the courses you will have to take during your first year, and they’ll provide a little insight into what you’ll be studying in upper years. Prerequisites often have grade cut-offs, meaning that in order to be considered for the program you’re applying to, you have to achieve at least a certain grade in the course.
This is why it’s so important to choose your courses carefully, research the course outline, and conduct research on the professors teaching them before you enrol. Let me give you an example: to pursue an international relations major at UofT, you need to take a full year’s worth of economics courses in first year. You have the option between two types of introductory economics courses, however, one of the courses requires high school calculus and uses a ton of quantitative methods, while the other does not, and serves as a broader overview of economics. When researching my course options, I kept in mind that I’m not a fan of math, and chose the economics course without the math focus. Some classmates of mine who didn’t do as much research on the course options ended up taking the more mathematically inclined course and struggled greatly because math was not their strong suit! The moral of this story is not of course, to shy away from courses you may think are challenging, but to do your research on them so that you know what you’re getting yourself into and are aware of all your options!
A side note on courses: what’s easy for someone else will not always be easy for you. At UofT, you’ll hear a lot of chatter about bird courses, which are courses known for being easier to achieve good grades in. However, it is so important to note that easiness is subjective, especially at a huge university like UofT. My advice is to find the course formats and evaluation methods that work best for you. For example, if you’re good at tests, find old syllabi and see which courses predominantly use tests as their evaluation method. In contrast, if you’re more of a writer who doesn’t thrive in a test environment, courses that use essays as their main evaluation method may be better suited to your testing style. Additionally, if you don’t enjoy a course, you’re far less likely to want to do the work required of you; regardless of how difficult it is, the work will feel like a chore if you’re not interested in the subject matter. For these reasons, I strongly advise that everyone takes “bird courses” with a grain of salt, because you are a unique individual with unique learning and testing styles! There is no one size fits all for academic success at UofT, and each student will have to find what works best for them.
Take Advantage of the Countless Opportunities for First Years
One of the best opportunities for first years that I encourage everyone to take advantage of are first year foundation seminars! These seminars are capped at 25 students and are an incredible opportunity to make friends, establish personal connections with professors (which is very rare in first year), and discuss a topic you’re interested in with others who feel the same way. Because the class sizes are so small, exams are rarely used for these classes, and many find these seminars more personal, enjoyable, and easier to do well in than their regular classes which can have hundreds of students!
My experiences with first year seminars are amazing! I’ve always loved learning about astrophysics, and I grew up questioning how and why the universe is the way it is. I’ve found that so much of the literature surrounding such a complex topic is inaccessible to the average interested person, often using academic language that serves as a barrier to someone who doesn’t study quantum physics. That’s why, when I stumbled upon the first-year seminar called “Modern Physics for the Curious,” I embraced the opportunity and enrolled ASAP! I spent my first semester learning all about incredibly interesting topics like multiverse theory, black holes, and string theory from Dr. David Curtin, an exceptional professor who removed the mathematical barrier by explaining these incredibly complicated topics in a simple manner.
UofT has so many classes just like this, providing students with the opportunity to explore an interest that they otherwise never would’ve been able to in an academic setting. Engaging in discourse with other students allows you to broaden your perspective and question why you see the world the way you do, which makes you grow both as a student and a person!
Other examples of really cool first year foundation courses are “What, Who, How: Privacy in the Age of Big Data Collection,” “A History of Queer Asia,” “How to Study Video Games,” and “Disaster and Terrorism: Religion and Ethics at Ground Zero.” All first-year foundation courses count toward breadth requirements and your degree, which means that exploring courses outside of your intended POSt is a great idea to complete breadth requirements while expanding your academic exposure.
UofT also offers One programs, which are an amazing opportunity for interested students, and can make your first-year experience incredible!
Use UofT’s Resources
UofT has a ton of resources to help students succeed academically! If you’re a student in the Arts, the Writing Centre can be extremely helpful for proofreading. Every college has its own writing centre which can help you plan out and write your papers, improve your overall writing skills, and edit and revise your work. When transitioning from high school, it can be especially difficult to adapt your writing skills to the much greater demands of university, and these writing centres can be a huge help in assisting with this academic transition!
Office hours are another amazing resource for success, and one that I definitely capitalized from in my first year. You’ll find that most students won’t take the extra step to connect with their professors, express interest in the content of their classes, and ask questions. Remember that you have access to some of the most distinguished professors in the country – take advantage of it! Office hours are incredibly helpful if you’re struggling with grasping a course concept, would like an opinion on your essay outline, or want to run your project’s idea by your professor. In my experience, taking the time to attend office hours has rewarded me immensely, as professors have always been more than willing to provide feedback on my work, which provides me with the opportunity to revise it accordingly! Also, if you’re in a first-year seminar or smaller course, the professor may be the one actually grading your assignment (as opposed to a teaching assistant), which makes office hours that much more valuable!
UofT also has a useful program called Registered Study Groups, which are an opportunity for students to study more effectively, earn recognized involvement at UofT (which goes on your co-curricular record), and make friends! RSG’s are study groups of up to 8 students enrolled in the same course who meet weekly to discuss course content, ask each other questions, prepare for evaluations, and more! Being able to talk about and explain what you’re learning is a great way to make sure you understand it, while also connecting you with other students who are interested in similar topics! RSG’s are an underrated way of excelling academically while making friends.
Lastly, don’t go into UofT thinking it’ll be as easy as high school – this is one of the biggest mistakes students make. At UofT, you’re going to be surrounded by academically-inclined students who are all intelligent in their own right. Everyone is working extremely hard, which means you will also have to put in a lot of effort if you want to have above average grades! Do not beat yourself up if the standards you once set yourself in high school are seemingly unattainable in your first year – UofT is not a walk in the park, and it will be much harder to achieve high grades than it was a year ago in high school. Nothing good comes easy though, and in my opinion, seeing the fruits of your hard work when grades come back at the end of the semester is an unparalleled feeling!
While, like I was, you may be experiencing some fear about your first year and what to expect, your experience is for you to create! UofT St. George alone has over 40 000 undergraduate students, and you will easily find students at both ends of the spectrum – some who enjoy UofT immensely and others who find it way too difficult! Your experience is going to be unique, and I encourage all the first years reading this to make the most out of it.
On that note, remember to work hard, take advantage of the countless opportunities UofT offers you, and find how you study best and what you like to study the most! With these handy tips in mind, succeeding at UofT will be a little more easy for incoming first years.