Facing Uncomfortable Truths as a First Year Student

By Sharyl Chin • LinkedIn

As the summer break offers us necessary respite from the school grind, this break spells out different things for all of us. For some, it simply is the end of a fun-filled semester. For my fellow ex-freshmen, it marks the end of our first chapter in university. It seems like only yesterday when I got my acceptance letter and in a blink of an eye, my first year at NTU has ended. After riding the highs of what university life has to offer, it is time to sit down, re-evaluate, and confront some uncomfortable truths. 

1. You are not always going to love your major 

This was the toughest pill to swallow. Not loving your major after dedicating years of studying just to get accepted is not something many can sit well with, myself included. As an English major, I love the knowledge and comfort that books offer. However, not all books are my cup of tea which unsurprisingly brings problems when engaging with assigned texts for core modules. Naively assuming I could love every text led to some awkward tutorial discussions when it was clear to everyone that I barely got through the first few pages. 

Thankfully, university life consists of much more than just academics. Interest groups, hall activities, and other university events are some outlets you can tap into to enrich your experience. When I asked some friends about this, the common consensus was that these social activities helped expand their freshman experience. Whenever the going got tough, they leaned onto their non-academic activities for stress relief. I, too, depended on non-academic commitments such as Student Union to stop myself from nit-picking over grades. We cannot deny the importance of studying, but it is important to not let it consume every waking moment. Having fun is just as crucial to keep burnouts at bay, and as the saying goes, work hard, play hard. 

Dealing with this truth is still an ongoing process. At times, I wonder whether this major is right for me and where I would be if I did something else. However, I try to remind myself that hitting a rough patch does not mean it is a sign to give up. It is part of life to not love everything you do, same goes with our majors. If you have at least a smidge of passion for it, I believe it will get you through the rough times. 

2. It is much harder to achieve good grades 

This may seem obvious, but it’s hard to register until you experience the trials and tribulations of tertiary education. The difficulty of modules are upped, and so are the expectations to meet. Furthermore, the competitive nature of university makes chasing As much harder compared to in pre-university institutions.  

In the same vein, the uphill climb towards getting good grades gets steeper for those not continuing what they studied previously. I studied Mass Communication in polytechnic and entered NTU’s English course after rekindling my love for reading. No longer was I writing nut graphs for articles, instead I was crafting theses for literary papers like clockwork. At times, it felt akin to throwing myself into the deep end of a pool especially with peers from junior colleges with more literature experience. Despite everyone going through the same admissions test, it was impossible to not feel the infamous imposter syndrome creeping up on me. 

A noteworthy aspect of university is the Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) option. This allows you to exclude up to 10% of your courses from GPA computation. On one hand, this helps protect our GPAs from unexpected dips. However, it also amplifies the pervasive competition. Starting from an A+ grade which is a 5.0, your GPA drops as your grade does. For example, an A- is equivalent to a 4.50, while a B+ is equivalent to a 4.0… so on and so forth. Each grade can make or break your GPA especially when gunning for research projects like URECA, or a prestigious internship. I have yet to utilise my S/U options, but since students cannot see their grade before S/U-ing in NTU, a piece of advice from seniors is to be as sure as possible when using it as it is irreversible. 

This daunting level of competition paired with entering a new field can be an obstacle, but I turned it into motivation by seeing it differently. If it is infinitely harder to get a good grade, that means that the payoff when I achieve satisfactory grades will also be greater. At the end of the day, we are here to learn. I am still learning how to detach my self-worth from my grades, but at least I have taken the first step of doing so. 

3. As much as it is scary, university can also be freeing 

Unlike pre-university institutions where your schedule and modules are pre-set, university allows us to take charge of our experience. Want to branch out of your major and take a STEM related minor? Or maybe you desire a four-day school week? You call the shots. 

To ensure that I did not start off feeling overwhelmed, I took five modules in semester one instead of my faculty’s normal load of six. Whilst I had a less hectic time than my friends, I initially questioned whether I put myself at a disadvantage by not taking six classes. Uncertainty frightens me, thus I was constantly unnerved by the danger of lagging behind and making future semesters harder. Surprisingly, my choice showed me that I could deviate from the “normal” route if needed. Having a lighter workload aided me in grasping how university functioned, and I managed to tweak my study and time management methods for semester two. 

The newfound freedom also extends to what you wish to dedicate time to beyond academics. When entering NTU, I was mind blown at the range of CCAs offered. Every possible interest seems to have a group catered to it, such as Wine Society, Cyber Games Society and Scuba Diving Club, just to name a few.  

Like what Taylor Swift shared in her NYU commencement speech, part of growing up and moving into new chapters is about catch and release. The freedom in university allows us to forge our own path which may differ from the norm. You might ask, how do you know if what you are doing is for the best? There is no all-knowing being who can tell you the answer, and perhaps that is for the better. 

The endless opportunities may seem daunting and there will be ups and downs, but that is what makes life worth living. How else will we learn to stand on our own feet if we do not face hurdles head on? As you enter possibly the last phase of your educational journey before adulthood, do make the most of it. Take classes that seem hard but still interest you, join unconventional interest groups, step out of your comfort zone. The freedom to do this is right at your fingertips, let us use it to our greatest advantage. 

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