freaks and geeks – the first year of a life science student

Hey, I'm Abdullah! Starting today, I'll be blogging for Life @ U of T. I'm a Cell and Molecular Bio student minoring in Psychology and American Studies. I'm also from UC.  I like long walks down University Ave. to Union Station. When I'm not studying like a boss in Gerstein, I'm listening to One Direction and Tupac,  talking about social justice and searching the campus for legendary Pokemon. Pleased to meet you, I am.

I'm guessing that if you're reading this blog post, you are likely a life science student starting at U of T in September and not a grown man who likes My Little Pony.  The following is my epic tale of being a humble life science student.  Enjoy.


LifeSci Guide

  When I walked on campus that fateful morning, it was with a swagger that rivals this guy's. Life was good, I had got into UofT and was going to spend the next four years of my life studying microbiological organisms and discussing George Washington's dreams via Freudian psychoanalysis with my intellectual peers.  Yeah, life was grand, and then I entered the lecture hall and I saw 1,000 faces staring out at me. Yikes. I knew nobody and everybody looked just as nervous as I did . Not wanting to break the trend and seem like a hipster, I stayed silent. The next class, I decided to take a risk and make small talk with the dude behind me ("Hi! What's your major? Are you in [insert college here]?" - great conversation starters.)  It turned out to be worth the risk, as that dude became a pretty good friend of mine.  I used the small talk tactic in my other lectures and tutorials and it worked (le gasp!). I had friends! 😀 So, go ahead, talk to strangers (in lecture halls)! That is my rendition of the famous Abbey Rd. picture University life feels pretty good, until you hit the first set of midterms. Your brain sees the low mark posted on Blackboard and your instinctive reaction is to laugh like a mad man. Luckily for me, I heard about Victoria College's chemistry tutors and I went to see them frequently. My mark in Chemistry wasn't dashing, but the tutors did help me grasp the content better. I am eternally grateful. Likewise, after being disappointed in my essay mark, I made an appointment with my TA to go over his comments. In my next essay, my mark improved significantly. You're paying for an education - might as make use of all the resources freely accessible to you. As the semester progresses and the labs and the essays and exams pile on, you will go slightly crazy. You may dislike U of T sometimes (those periods are short). To combat this, you have to balance your work with fun. I blew off steam on campus by having tea and cookies (free at the UC Union, Mon-Thurs from 2:30-3:30) like an aristocrat, by writing articles for The Varsity and watching the UTSU elections, by taking time  to pray at Bahen and by getting involved with a campus group. You don't go crazy and you meet people. It's a win-win situation.  Work hard and play hard. That's all for now, stay awesome U of T. may the force be with you. - Abdullah P.S: My heart beats with joy every time I see a comment. Any questions, concerns, statements? Feel free to leave a comment.

50 comments on “freaks and geeks – the first year of a life science student

  1. Hey Abdullah,

    This was awesome!!! What’s up with this victoria peer chemistry tutoring thing? Do they offer this in both semesters?

    Is there any where you can go for editing your essays and stuff? (Do TA’s usually edit?)Thanks!

  2. Hello Alyssa.

    Yes, Victoria College Peer tutoring offers tutoring both semesters. Check the website for dates and times when school starts. Usually, its held the room where the Chemistry Students’ Union store is on the 2nd floor of Lash Miller, and usually its upper (2nd and 3rd yr) year students to do the tutoring.

    Yes, I believe there are writing centres ( I don’t know if they will edit your essay totally. TAs don’t usually edit, but they will give you advice and might read a intro paragraph or a structure of your essay and give you advice on that.

    good luck!

    – Abdullah

  3. Hey Abdullah! 😀
    Enjoyed your post (I’m being serious, not formal)

    I’m not a student of UofT yet and I’d be grateful if you could help me out with some (a lot) of stuff that I am confused about..

    can I contact you via email, if it’s okay? Please drop in your email address in a comment so I can annoy you with my questions (please help me, lol)

    Thanks a lot.

  4. Hey Ahmed!

    Unfortunately, for privacy and professional reasons, I’d rather not post my e-mail on this message board. It’s not you, it’s me. 😛

    But wait! I can still help out. Feel free to ask questions here (doesn’t matter if there’s a lot, I have the time to answer them :P) and I shall answer them! You can also direct questions on twitter to @Sarah_UofT, @Khevna_UofT, and @Chris_UofT.

    Have a good day! 🙂

  5. Wow UFT offers a lot of help!! Hey, I was also wondering if you know what is better to take first semester, chem138 or chem139?

  6. Hey Alyssa.

    Doesn’t matter. I took CHM138 first semester. CHM139 second. I know people who did the opposite. Whatever feels right for you.

    – Abdullah

  7. Any good (helpful, approachable, fair marking) professor recommendations for CHM138 and CHM139 (not browning)?

  8. Hey Alyssa.

    I wouldn’t know really about Browning because I didn’t have him as a professor. Really doing well in a course, isn’t just about the prof. teaching it, but the amount of work you put into it.

    If you, however, want to see the ratings of professors before you select courses; check out the ASSU Anti-Calendar:

    – Abdullah

  9. Haha sweet move 😛

    Alright Abdullah I study in Dubai (I’m not arab, I’m Indian) and I’m really unsure whether to give the TOEFL or not.
    Does UofT require TOEFL?
    I have written the SAT even though its not required ..(keeping my options open :P) but the TOEFL is a lot more expensive so I really don’t want to waste the money if it’s not needed.

    I’m at my final year at the Indian High School Dubai and it IS an
    English speaking school.. just so you know.

  10. In response to that question about TOEFL, it isn’t required but you might have to provide a letter from your school attesting that you have studied a certain level of English. However, that isn’t mandatory either and so you’ll only need to provide it if the university asks.
    Hope that helps!

  11. Hey Abdullah,

    do you think it is a good idea to take physics during the school year, and math in summer school? Or is it better to do both physics and math in the school year?


  12. Hey Alyssa,

    Since Abdullah is out on a excursion with Cookie Monster, he has asked me to fill in for him. (Yes, they’re probably singing the Share It Maybe song).

    Anywho, I think taking summer school is a balance of preference and taking into account what courses you need as prereqs for future courses.

    In terms of personal preference, ask yourself if you want to spend the summer on campus. You also have to think about how well you work under pressure. The common saying is that classes in the summer are easier – that’s because you have less of a course load to offset the 2 months you have to complete a half course. The time and energy normally spent on a full load is just focused on 1-2 courses.

    As yourself these questions:
    Do you think you can take the time off in the summer to go to class? Do you think you can handle the course load during the year? What does your second year look like? Would you want to take a second year course in the summer too? And if so, which ones? Do you need to space yourself from a lot of math/physics at one time for the sake of your sanity? I know in my first year, the biggest mistake I made was take a full science course load with nothing to balance it out. But that’s just me and my love of history 😛

    Don’t just focus on getting your courses done as quickly as possible though – you still need to experience other things in the summer. Think about what kinds of opportunities that may arise, things like research positions, summer jobs, travelling etc.

    I know that I didn’t really answer you question explicitly, and that’s because I don’t know what courses you’re taking in the fall, what kinds of summer jobs you want, what program you hope to get into, what you will encounter in your first year etc.

    Remember: you haven’t even started yet – who knows where what you learn in first year can take you? It’s a good idea to plan ahead, but don’t engrave it in stone 🙂 Don’t stress out (too much) over this quite yet!

    Hopefully my guiding questions will help you figure it out!

  13. Hey there Crystal,

    Thanks so much for the reply!! I think I will just suck it up and take both courses during the year.

  14. Personally, I avoid those companies (they are more for short term prep — keep in mind, these are private companies that are not affiliated with U of T). There is free peer tutoring available from a recognized campus group called UTPT (University of Toronto Peer Tutoring). They set you up with a tutor, and you meet weekly, etc. It requires a commitment of your time, but you’ll end up with a much better grasp of the knowledge without having to pay a penny.

    Above all, please go see your professor and teaching assistants during office hours and in tutorials. They would love to help you out.

    Hope this helps.

    – Abdullah

  15. Hey. So I’m also starting Life Sciences at UofT this September. I was deciding between taking Physics and Math during the school year, but I am now considering taking Physics in the summer. Do you think taking Physics 131 and 132 in the summer would be too difficult because the course would be too rushed (since the material would be condensed in a smaller period of time)? Would you recommend taking Physics in the school year, or in the summer?

  16. Hey Abdullah,

    From your personal experience what would you recommend taking first chm138 or chm139? And which one is more difficult in comparison to the other? Thanks.

  17. Sorry I forgot I asked that. My other question is this whole concept of alternating labs. It doesn’t make any sense to me. The course sheet says that for alternating labs you have to make sure the code for bio is po101 and or chem it has to have the same ending (po101)……but it also says that practials ending with 1 start on sep. 17 and practicals ending with a 2 start on sep.24……hence if I

  18. pick practicals for both bio and chem that both end with the same digit (like po101)… does that make both labs “alternating”…..cause if they end with the same digit won’t they start on the same week, thus making them non-alternating??

  19. Hi Alyssa.

    I believe you have just looked at the dates for one course. You should take the practicals with the same ending number, to alternate.

    For BIO120H1:

    Praticals with the ending 01: start on Sept. 17th.
    Practicals with the ending o2: start on Sept. 24th.

    For CHM138/139H1:

    Practicals with the ending 01: start on Sept. 24th.
    Practicals with the ending o2: start on Sept. 17th.

    Hope this helps.

    – Abdullah

  20. OH!!!!!haha wow I get the whole practical thing now!!! I kinda just assumed they have the same dates!!! Thanksss!!!!!!!!

  21. Also, this may sound like a random question but would you happen to know what days midterms/exams happen for first year students? Is it usually Friday, Saturday or Sunday, during the evenings?

  22. Hi Annie.

    With regards to PHL281H1, I wouldn’t know, I never took it. Everybody’s different, so long as the course sounds interesting for you, it has no prerequisites and you have room for it, then go ahead and take it. 🙂

    Midterms and exams at the St. George campus almost never happen on Saturday and Sundays. Midterms can occur at any time really. For life science courses, its generally the late afternoon/evening. However, for some others, midterms could be written in class. So it depends.

    With regards to exams, that again varies. I once had an exam as early as 9 AM and an exam as late as 7 PM.

    Good luck with course selection!

    – Abdullah

  23. Hey,
    Thanks for answering. So, is there a week off for midterms/exams? Or do you have to leave your lectures/practicals in order to write the midterm/exam? Also for summer courses, do classes occur more frequently in a week in order to cover all the material within six weeks?

  24. Hey Annie.

    There is generally a week between classes and exams. However, midterms occur as classes are running. So no break for midterms. If a conflict occurs for your midterm/classes, U of T policy is that classes get priority and the department which runs the class (that you’re having the midterm in) should provide you with an alternate sitting for the midterm.

    I don’t take summer school classes, but Chris (@Chris_UofT on twitter) did and he says, it’s twice a week. So for example; if you had one 3 hour class a week during the school year, it would be two 3 hour classes a week during the summer.

    And Julia – omgosh zayn malik.

    Good luck with course selection!

    – Abdullah

  25. omgosh yes zayn malik, dont get me too excited here haha. I had a question, if you take a half course in summer school; so from may-june, when do the final exams for that course happen? And are there midterms in summer school?

  26. The final exams for that course would usually be held at the end of june. And yes, there are midterms in summer school.

    Hope this helps.

    – Abdullah

  27. alright thanks 🙂
    I had another question, around what time are midterms exams and final exams during first semester?

  28. Hi! Sorry just saw this. Ten days late.

    Midterms will be held throughout the semester in Oct. and Nov. Whereas exams are held in the 2nd-3rd week of December. Hope this helps!

    – Abdullah

  29. Hello!
    I was wondering is there any differences between CHM138H1 + CHM139H1 and CHM151Y1. Is the year course harder than the two semester courses?

    1. Hi Kitty,

      Yes there is a difference. CHM138 and 139 are meant for students going into life science programs, whereas 151 is meant for students going into Chemistry.

      Hope this helps.

      – Abdullah

  30. Hey Abdullah,

    I’m looking into applying at UofT for life sciences, but I heard a lot of criticism about the program. Reasons ranged from the “bell-curve” marking to the difficulty of the program itself. I get the difficulty of the program, but what was striking to me was when I heard that profs could lower your mark if the class average is too high in order to maintain the average at a certain level. Are these rumors true? What makes UofT Life Sci so hard for so many?

    Thanks in advance for your help. UofT (specifically UTM Life Sciences) is my number one option, and I just want to make sure I have the right info.

    1. Hey there Tyson!

      I can’t speak for UTM Life Sciences since well, I don’t go to UTM. But my first year in life science was both challenging and rewarding. With regards to bell curves, UofT ArtSci policy prohibits the practice of bell curving, and to my experience, it doesn’t happen at the end of a course. Professors will however, adjust the average for tests during the year. This is mostly to help students (the average may be lower than expected, so that may mean that the exam might have been too hard) and rarely have I heard a case of a student going down after this.

      What makes it hard for many, is just the adjustment after high school. You really have to do your work every day and be committed to it. Here’s a great article from the Varsity featuring one of the first year Life Sci chemistry professors, Dr. Andy Dicks.

      Hope this helps! 🙂

      – Abdullah

  31. Hi im in the 9th grade and i was wondering if physical science is a difficult subject? And if i should choose it are rather leave it

    1. Hi there, Gala.

      I did take physics in high school, and I found it moderately difficult, while others found it incredibly easy. It really depends if its your thing or not. U of T life science programs, for the most part (with some exceptions) do require high school physics. That being said, you’re only in Grade 9! Way too early to be worrying about university. Enjoy high school. 🙂

      – Abdullah

  32. Thank you! This made me feel a lot better about my decision to go to UofT Life Sciences. I hope everything is as awesome as you make it seem 🙂

  33. Hi! Thank you very much for the post and all the answers. I see you posted it a year ago, but I’m hoping you would come back and answer my questions..(please say yes!) I’m just wondering how is university hard? I mean, I understand that you gotta make commitment and work your ass off, but I’m more curious about how the exams/tests differ from the ones in high school? How does uni count our gpa/grades? I heard from friends that the mid-term is usually in mid October and exam in mid/late November, is it true? Thank you!

  34. Hi Abdullah. I got accepted to UC for Life Sciences. I want to go on for Med School later on. Ive continuously been stressed out by people on the fact that getting GPA’s in pre req courses in U of T is 10X harder than other universities so if i want to got to med school U of T is not a wise option. Could you please give me sincere advise on this so i can make a decision about which University to join in the fall! thanks

    1. Hi Ayesha,

      Abdullah’s done for the year, but I will do my best to answer your question! I took physical sciences myself (Chemistry major), but I also did a Psychology major (which falls under life sci) and took chemistry, physics, biology, calculus, and psych in first year.

      The bottom line is that what school you decide to go to is entirely a personal preference. There will be a lot of factors: what kind of city do you want to live in? What specific aspect of Life Science do you want to study? I can’t tell you where to go, but I can tell you more information about U of T that might help you in your decision.

      First of all, I can tell you that you will definitely be challenged academically, though there will be an adjustment from high school no matter where you choose to go. I think some of the reason U of T has the “hard” reputation it does is because of its size (many first year life sci classes are in Con Hall – seats 1600 people!): if you aren’t proactive, you can fall behind.

      Fortunately, U of T has resources to help you. Besides the chem tutoring Abdullah mentioned in his post, you can check out the Academic Success Centre ( Also, each professor will hold office hours for each course where you can chat with them one-on-one. Not enough people actually do this! They can help you with any specific problems, answer questions about concepts, and give you advice on how to do better in the course.

      Being at a big school has benefits, too. There’s a huge range of courses you can take (Check out this year’s course calendar: and there are plenty of opportunities to do research with professors (either as a course or for the summer. For instance, we have a research course you can take in second year to get started early!:

      Another benefit of Toronto for a potential Med School student is the presence of at least 3 major hospitals within walking distance of campus. Check out the volunteering program at the UHN hospitals ( – not affiliated with U of T): it’s a great way to see if you like being in a hospital environment.

      Ultimately, you’re right that you’ll have to work hard if you choose to come to U of T (or anywhere else, for that matter). But there are resources to support you, and a lot of opportunities for you here as well. I’d encourage you to visit each of the schools you’re considering, as how much you like the atmosphere of each campus will have a lot to do with how at home you feel (and how motivated you are) for your undergraduate years.

      Let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to know!


  35. Hey! I know I’m a few years late……. but I’m coming to UofT this coming fall for Life Sci and your blog has really helped me out. I really want to balance academics and fun like you say you have but I’m wondering, is it possible to balance both and still do really well? I’m just really nervous because in high school I was really involved with the school and managed good marks but I’m terrified of UofT being super demanding with heavy workloads. Also, are you on residence? I’m commuting and I feel like I’ll lose a lot of study time traveling back and forth so extra curriculars might not work out.

    1. Hi Georgia!

      Abdullah’s not at the blog any more, but I’ll do my best to answer your question! I’m a Chemistry/Psychology major, so I took pretty much the same first year courses as life sci students (bio, chem, physics, calculus, psych!).

      It is definitely possible to do well while balancing academics and fun. In fact, I’d say that it’s essential to take breaks and have fun! If you make an effort to relax and get involved in things that you are interested in, you’ll more calm, motivated and happy. Which is a great mental state to be in to study effectively. Research has actually shown that students who are involved learn more! (source:

      It’s going to take some prioritization and time management – you won’t be able to go to a club event, have a long dinner with friends and have a Netflix marathon all in one day while still finding time to study. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do one of the three!

      I’ll give you one caveat about the phrase “doing really well”: you may have to redefine what academic success means to you. Since you’re coming to U of T, clearly you were an excellent student in high school. But because U of T is a great school with high standards, it is completely normal for your grades to drop a little bit in terms of percentage points. Personal anecdote: I was one of those kids in high school who was upset with anything less than a 90, but my marks settled into 80s land when I got to U of T. I learned that my marks were still an incredible accomplishment, and to aim for work/life balance rather than the highest percentage point possible. Some people’s marks drop more, some less, some not at all. Some people gel really well with the learning style of university and see their marks go up! Instead of the specific value of your marks, try your best to focus on the skills and knowledge you’re gaining instead.

      I myself lived in residence for the first two years, but I know that Abdullah (the author of the post) is a commuter! It’s entirely possible to be involved in extra-curriculars as a commuter student. Actually, you may even have a bit of an advantage. You’re going to have breaks in between classes – while a student with a residence room can fall into using these for naps and internet-browsing sessions in their room, you will have time on campus to write an essay in the library, catch up on readings or go to campus events. Definitely try out some extra-curriculars that you’re interested in: they’re a great way to make friends and feel connected to campus.

      Let me know if you have any more questions!


  36. Hi Elena,
    I’m from Morocco and I’m applying to UofT Life Sciences but the thing is that I’m not used to this “canadian” system as I’m from a french high school. I was on the website for the application and they asked me about the Major I want to take and I don’t know which one to choose for a pre-med school student?
    And I also saw that they ask about colleges rankings but I do not have any informations about each one of them (and what’s the best thing to do for a pre med school student)..
    Thank you so much!

  37. I’ve been accepted into the Life sciences program at the St. George Campus and I’m slightly freaked out by all the negative comments. I’ve heard people tend to drop 10-15% on average. So I’m in a tight bind- I’m by no means a genius and instead am a hard worker. Should I attend the university for it’s prestige or accept an offer that is slightly less intimidating?

    1. Hey Adibs –

      Congratulations on your acceptance! It’s completely normal to be freaked out about choosing the right University (I know I was!) But it’s also a very personal decision – and it sounds like you should look at some other aspects of U of T, other than it’s prestige. While classes are a big part of school, you should also see what you think about the campus and the environment. If you feel comfortable here, you’ll find it a lot easier to thrive. As for the mark drops, University is a big transition, and it’s normal for things to change. However it sounds like you’re very industrious, and if you’re a hard worker I know U of T won’t be anything you can’t handle!

      – Michael.

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