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Ask Ainsley: “What should I expect coming into first year?”

Ask Ainsley/Student Living by

Dear Ainsley, Dear Ainsley,

I am entering my first year at McGill in the Fall, and I'm not quite sure what to expect academically. I've heard grade deflation at McGill can be severe, and that classes are rigorous. What should I expect?


Frightened First Year (FFY)

Dear FFY,

To be honest, I didn’t quite know what to expect going into first year either. In one of my first classes, the teaching assistant (TA) told us that we should be proud of getting a B on an essay. The shock in the room was palpable. The majority of students who get into McGill were at the top of their classes in high school or CEGEP, so being pleased with a 70 per cent isn’t something that most students are used to. 

While this may not  happen to you, just know that getting a B isn’t the worst thing that can happen, and that there are plenty of other students in the same position as you. That being said, a lot of this also depends on your faculty. If you’re in science or engineering, you may be taking some required courses in first year that cover a lot of material you’ve already learned in high school. Your grade may also be curved, which, depending on your grade and your teacher, could either benefit you or not. In Arts, however, you are given a bit more flexibility in your first year courses and program requirements later on, and as such, you may end up taking classes with upperclassmen who have more experience writing university-level papers, so your marks may end up being closer to the average than you’re used to.

One good thing about first year is that it’s a great time to dip your toe in the water of many different subjects in order to figure out your interests. It’s not uncommon for students to change their major numerous times before deciding what they want to do with their degree. Use first year to try out different classes that you may consider majoring or minoring in later on at McGill.  

In terms of course registration, you should try to make the most of add-drop period, which occurs during the first two weeks of classes each semester (from Sept. 2 to 20 in Fall 2016; from Jan. 4 to 17 in Winter 2017). Use this time to sit in on classes you are considering taking to get a feel for their subject matter, workload, and rigor. If you don’t think you’ll like a class, drop it and pick up something else. Also, if you want to take a class, but are worried it will be challenging to get a good mark, consider taking it pass/fail. You’re allowed to take one elective a year this way and it won’t affect your GPA. 

Part of the challenge of first year is adjusting to the change in environment and lifestyle, which can impact your academic performance. Especially for those moving into residence, which is a distracting environment at best, it can feel next to impossible to balance your academic and social lives while also potentially working, taking part in extra-curricular activities, and generally adjusting to your new surroundings.

Your first year should be dedicated to figuring things out. It’s exciting, it’s stressful, but ultimately, the experiences you have will shape you as a student and person, and help you discover what you’re interested in, what study patterns work for you, and maybe even give you insight on what you want to do later on in life. The important thing is to try your best, and to stay on top of your schoolwork as much as possible. If the stress is too much for you, don’t be afraid to email your professor or drop into their office hours and explain the situation. Professors want you to do well, and many are very understanding, especially when it comes to mental health. So play hard, study harder, and don’t be scared to ask for help. If there’s one thing I learned in first year, it’s that I’m not the only one who has no idea what they’re doing.

All the best,



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