Commentary, Opinion

McGill cannot leave incoming first years behind

The end of the last academic year was extraordinary: COVID-19 barrelled through our lives and took the world by storm, instruction moved online at many universities, and the entire education system was uprooted. Unfortunately, the pandemic’s effects were particularly harsh on graduating high school seniors—students who will now be burdened with a steep transition from secondary to post-secondary studies. It is time for McGill to break from its cold, imposing reputation, which is purported by students on college admissions forums, McGill’s unofficial subreddit, and former CEGEP students. In these uncertain times, the administration must step in to provide extensive support for the incoming cohort. 

Assistance is necessary because there are gaping discrepancies in the academic preparedness of incoming first-years. The Canadian educational response has been incredibly diverse as it is organized at the provincial level. Studies show that disparities in post-lockdown instruction methods have had detrimental impacts on students’ achievement levels in the United States. It may be fair to imagine, therefore, that this year’s new students will not be as prepared for first-year as their counterparts in upper-years were. 

McGill has the steepest minimum entry grade requirements of any Canadian university. Normally, this helps ensure that admitted students are adequately prepared. After all, to get into McGill, students have to be among the highest achievers at their secondary schools. But in light of the rollercoaster semester that incoming students have experienced, it may be a stretch to assume that most students will be ready for classes. 

Other universities have acknowledged this reality. For example, the University of British Columbia offers free academic essentials courses to help support its freshmen. If McGill does not take further measures to support new students, they could leave first years at a disadvantage. McGill has many options for giving incoming students support. For example, this last semester, students were allowed to exercise the Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) grading option for all their courses. However, at the moment, this will not extend to the Fall 2020 semester. A high school course online is not the same as an online university course, much less one at a top institution. To throw students into this new environment without any sort of cushion could be disastrous. And although resources exist to help new students understand what the Fall semester’s course offering will look like, they may not sufficiently ensure the smoothness of students’ transitions to post-secondary learning. 

McGill should adopt new policies to assist first-years. Reinstating the S/U format from the Winter semester, for instance, could level the playing field and help to ensure that students are not penalized for gaps in their knowledge resulting from events beyond their control. While some graduate programs, medical schools, and law schools may frown upon the pass/fail grading structure, McGill can counter by allowing new students to convert their S/U to a letter grade after the semester is completed, thereby mitigating concerns. Administrators could also mimic the response of Duke University, and include a designation denoting exceptional circumstances on the transcripts of incoming students. This way, students can feel confident as they enter online learning at McGill, equipped with some experience and aware of the academic expectations that will be required of them. 

The McGill Media Relations Office has confirmed that there are no plans at the moment to offer any of these options. Instead, McGill will conduct short workshops during orientation week to teach students new learning strategies, how to navigate Zoom instruction, and use library resources. Rather than offering in depth courses like UBC or special designations on student transcripts like Duke, McGill has once again opted to stick by its frigid reputation and only offer the bare necessities. It is imperative that new students are not left behind. More resources are needed to support incoming students, and there is a clear path for the administration to help. McGill cannot leave incoming first-years behind. 

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