How to Approach Professors like a Pro

Confession time: I used to be deathly afraid of my professors (and teachers). What?

I also used to be one of those kids that thought teachers lived at school all the time and didn’t do anything else. What a shock it was when 6-year-old me saw a teacher outside of school for the first time and realized that teachers are human beings just like me.

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Write Away

I’ve been writing non-stop all week so I’m typing this blog with sore fingers. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much work to do in such a short amount of time! What’s the biggest assignment you’ve ever had to write?

This week, I wrote three essays for Urban Politics and Globalization, Indigenous Spirituality, and Economics, for a total of 21 pages plus another 11 pages of references. Yes you read that correctly, I had to write an essay for Economics. You may be wondering what the point is for having essays in a math-based class but if you read an article in an economics magazine, you’ll realize why we need better economics writers…

From my perspective, looking down at the pyjamas and moccasins I'm wearing

Most of the week I was cooped up at home writing in my PJs, so this was the week of the “Pyjama Papers” (Photo by Zachary Biech)

In all honesty, I don’t recommend writing three big assignments in only a week. It’s taken years for me to learn how to research, write, edit and cite my essays correctly and even longer to learn how to do it all quickly. In extreme times like this I can make it through but it’s a rough ride. I don’t want you to have to go through it!

My first recommendation is to do your research first. Give yourself a few weeks to begin researching because it takes a long time and you’ll need the time for the rest of the essay. I have found that researching before I decide on a thesis is really helpful for informing me and giving me direction.

Check your assignment guidelines for what type of sources you need (including course readings and outside sources). When your assignment has a suggested number of sources, my rule of thumb is to use twice as many as suggested. Good essays have a ridiculous amount of cited research so get as many as you can! Also, using peer-reviewed academic sources is always the best route. I use the U of T libraries website and I go into the ‘subjects’ database. From there, you can get specialized databases tailored for your course subject!

Looking almost straight upwards from the front door of Robarts, up to the top of the building

U of T has MILLIONS of sources for you to choose from in their freaky-looking libraries. Imagine how much good research is in there… (Photo by Zachary Biech)

First Nations house has an awesome library too, I highly recommend it!

For taking notes on your research, I use the queue card system. Write the name of the author or document, the page number of the detail you’re taking a note on and only include a few details per card. With this system, you can mix and match cards like building blocks however you need and you’ll have the referencing info you need for your citations later on.

A ridiculously huge stack of Q cards with all sorts of colourful rubber bands, clips, and sticky notes to try and sort them

Here’s what a few essay’s worth of queue cards look like, at least when I’m the researcher… (Photo by Zachary Biech)

Work hard on your thesis and make sure to follow it the whole way through the essay. There are plenty of resources and people at First Nations House and elsewhere in U of T to help you if you get stuck. For example, I use the University College Writing Centre one-on-one appointments all the time! At First Nations House, you can meet with Learning Strategist Bonnie Maracle and she can help you with essays as well!

Next, you’ll encounter the editing stage. Here’s where A+ papers are made or lost. Edit, edit, then edit some more. When you write stuff out for the first time, it will usually be pretty bulky and confusing so go over it a few times. I’ve had essays in which I was able to edit away two whole pages without removing any of my content, so trust me when I say there’s always a shorter way to say what you want to say! Also read your essay out loud! I find that reading my work aloud helps me quickly identify awkward statements.

Lastly, you’ll need to do your citations. It’s super important to get these right, so check and double check that you’ve got them all done correctly! I always use the OWL Purdue website–it has APA, MLA, and Chicago styles spelled out excellently.

Now, time to get writing!



How to write a Research Paper

In a switch from actuarial science to the social sciences, the amount of writing I’ve been required to do has increased, as Api might say in quoting our friend Drake, from “0 to 100 real quick.” Most of the papers I’ve written to date haven’t required me to go beyond class readings and a few newspaper articles, but I’m working on a research paper at present which will require a bunch of external sources. I have found some really cool resources to help, which I think the whole campus should know about. We might otherwise call this post “the things your tuition buys you that you may not have realized”. I’ll break it down into each stage of the writing process.

Planning Your Paper

Look no further than the Assignment Calculator provided by our friends at U of T Scarborough. Simply enter your start and due dates, pick an assignment type (from lab report and research essay to personal statement and grad school application), click the “create schedule” button, and you’re done. It breaks every assignment into bite-sized chunks with due dates for each. Each step also provides links to library and other services to help get you towards completion. Even if you’re not at U of T, having something to split up a scary-looking assignment into smaller pieces is handy. You can also generate a PDF schedule for offline viewing, though it does not have the links the web version does.

Screenshot of UTSC Assignment Calculator

Screenshot of UTSC Assignment Calculator

Finding Sources

There’s always Google, and I’m sure many of us have used the search engine at, but these can be frustrating and sometimes futile attempts to find relevant sources. But I just discovered that students and faculty can book one-hour research consultations with a librarian. Specify a subject area, give details on what you’re looking for and when you need it, and you’re away to the races. Just make sure you have your TCard with you when booking – you may need your library barcode. I just got back from my appointment this morning – a very helpful research librarian had compiled tens of sources for my benefit. It has saved me many hours of work and I am so grateful to her. Now all I need to do is read it all …

Citing your Sources

I have always done citations manually, which might be why I am convinced that half of one’s writing time should be allotted for this frustrating and dull (but absolutely necessary) task. Little did I know that U of T has a listing of citation management systems which can be used to automate this process. Of course, it is always a good idea to check over anything done automatically, but the thought of this burden being taken from me is exciting. For reference, the Writing Center has a handy guide on how not to plagiarize.

Writing your Paper

Of all the services on campus the Writing Centers have been the absolute best. They’ll help with any part of the writing process at all – from “I don’t really get what they’re asking” to a polished draft. Just book quickly and act on any waiting list openings as soon as you get an email – appointments fill up fast.

Have you found any resources that help in the essay-writing process? How about less artsy assignments like labs, problem sets or design projects? Let me know in the comments!

T’was the week before finals

T’was the week before finals, when all across U of T 

Students were cramming, for the sake of their degrees

They read all night, unable to sleep in their beds

With visions of 4.0’s dancing in their heads

Picture of handmade card reading "happy finals"

Yes I made myself a motivational card. Deal with it.

IT’S HERE FOLKS. It’s what you’ve been dreading/waiting/prepping for all semester: Winter finals 2014!

It’s been a long ride. There have been tears, cramming and horrible midterms. There have been successful essays and aced tutorials. And it’s all been leading up to these next few weeks.

Ok, I’ll stop with the melodramatic hyping-up of finals.

I’ve worked hard all semester, and I know I may be very close to losing all my motivation and drive, but I’m hanging in there. I know the reward of finishing finals will be much greater than the stress of actually writing them.

What lies in the promise land after finals, you might ask?

  • All my old friends will be back in the city for the holidays.
  • Peppermint candy cane flavored Hershey’s Kisses.
  • Actual free time to spend time with my family
  • N  E  T  F  L  I  X
  • Other various peppermint flavoured sugary things
Picture of Hershey's candy cane kisses chocolate package

Peppermint everything <3

I’m convinced that the grass is greener on the other side. I know everyone studies their best in different ways, so I’m not really in a place to start giving out study tips. But I can request that we stay positive, and keep that morale up!

This my go-to final exams survival tip that I’ve been following for a while now. It’s been 2 years and counting since my last exam-related, stress-induced, panic ridden, night-before-the-exam break down and I owe it all to being positive. Common self-pep talks phrases include:

  • My grades do not define me
  • I am going to ace it. I got this.
  • Yeah yeah, we in dis BRUH. (my inner gangsta likes to make an appearance during pep talks)

So there you have it folks! Hopefully someone makes use of my personal exam survival to make positivity their ally in the war against finals.

Just remember: We are fabulous. We are fierce. We are in the number 1 university in Canada for a reason. We got this. So happy finals to all!

Picture of inside of card from first image. Reading "You go girl" with a hand drawn heart.

The inside of my motivational card. Treat yo’self. Love yo’self.

*Disclaimer: Not studying at all and then being positive usually doesn’t work. Please study <3

So what are you looking forward to after finals, U of T?

Surviving the end of term crunch

This week is the last full week of classes for Arts and Science students, meaning winter break is fast approaching. Standing between us and winter break however, is the hulking menace that is the exam period (dramatic, I know). Somehow I lucked out and only have one exam during the exam period but I also have a large final project in 3 of my classes, and small final projects in the other 2 – so I’m still pretty stressed out. When I have a lot due it can be really tempting to just lock myself in my room and watch Netflix and cry not emerge until everything is done so this year I’m making a special effort to get out and recharge during this end of term crunch.

To remind myself of the joy that will come after all these assignments are done I’ve turned to my second favourite genre of music: Christmas music. Listening to Christmas music always makes me happy so I have a (very large) playlist of it on my phone to listen to while studying or walking across campus.

an Iphone 5 held up in front of grass with an image of a christmas album on it. The song playing is elvis "santa bring my baby back to me"

nothing like Elvis to get you in the Christmas mood

knox college quad is shown with a curtain blowing out of a window. When the weather is nice out walking through campus can be really pleasant, as you all know by now I’m in love with Knox College so I always walk through their cloisters if I’m going that way.picture of the knox college cloisters. the shot is from the doors looking west and shows the empty arched cloister with a bench and some hanging planters.

The bamboo garden in the Donnelly Centre is a place that I’ve always heard about but never visited before now. It’s absolutely beautiful and super peaceful in there so its the perfect place to go if you just need a break from studying, rushing to class, or general holiday chaos. Being surrounded by so much green also makes it easy to forget that it’s winter outside, I envision myself spending a lot of time here come February when we’ve all forgotten what grass looks like. bamboo and other tropical ferns contrast a cement barrier between them and a walkway at the Donnelly Center donnelly center bamboo garden. a girl is sittting on a bench in the background. In front of her are trees and shurbs and a lamp post. she is sitting against a light yellow brick wall. the bamboo garden at the donnely centre. the left side of the image is the garden while the right side is the white hallway. bamboo garden at the donnelly center. there is a wooden platform with a bench surrounded by trees and shrubs. DSCF4580


How are you surviving the end of term crunch U of T? What are your favourite places to go to/things to do to keep you on track during this busy time? 


It’s all about the free stuff: some resources to keep you going

If you’ve been tuning in this week, you’ll know that UofT has dedicated October to Mental Wellness Month, and we here at the Life@UofT blog are taking part by talking about our own experiences with stress and mental health. The hope being, that you can learn from our experiences and mistakes.

In my first few years, I thought I had to deal with things all on my own; and to a degree, I still feel that way—even though I know better. It’s not easy to ask for help, and sometimes you have to engage in some self-care. For some, that might just be sitting down with some soothing tea and watching television, get a massage, listen to some calming music, or even pop some balloons or some bubble wrap. For me, it’s always been a combination of these, but also a matter of learning to use the resources available to me.

It’s easy to think that resources are meant for other people: people who need them more. It’s just as easy to forget that sometimes we are the ones who need them. So here: let me lend a hand, and even if you think you don’t need it, please read on. Here are seven of the free resources that I use to keep on top of things during the school year:

Vintage photo of people looking at books, with an added speech bubble that says "Wowee, check out these awesome free resources, Mildred!"

1. Free Past Tests & Past Exams
I often have problems with my memory, so when it comes to midterms and exams, I can stress out a lot. Papers I can handle, but tests… tests are something else. Fortunately, the Arts and Sciences Students Union (ASSU) has filing cabinets full of past tests: literally. Just walk in with a T-Card and you can take a free peek at one of their many past tests, donated by students (find them in SS1068). (They also sell test packages around midterms). And, when it comes time for exams, you can always look at the past exam repository, to help you get a clue.

Photo of some of the files and past tests that ASSU has available.

From A(CT240) to Z(OO362), ASSU has you covered.

2. Free Essay Clinics
Essay clinics are run by professions, free of cost to you: professionals will look at drafts of your paper, and tell you how to make it better, and generally how to improve your writing, for free. And why not? You can only get better. Each college has a writing centre, and so do some departments. Find one to book a free appointment here.

3. Free Massages
Free massages, every Monday at Hart House. Enough said: click here for more details.

4. The Free Seed Library
It’s nice to take a break from studying every now and then, and I find planting relaxing (and science does say plants make you more creative). DG Ivey Library at New College has a seed library, part of the Toronto Seed Library. The idea is simple: you “check out” seeds, plant them, and when your produce is ready to harvest, you take some seeds from your yield and return them to the library for the next person to use. A nice, free way to relax and go green.

Photo of the Seed Library at New College, showing packets of seeds.

The New College Seed Library at Ivey Library

5. Free Math, Chemistry, Stats, & Eco help
Just like the writing centres: why not get free help from professionals? Get free tutoring in math, chemistry, stats, or economics. The resources are there for you!

6. Pop some Free Virtual Bubble Wrap
Okay, so this one isn’t provided by the university, but who can resist? Start popping here. (Also, you can get bubble wrap super cheap at Dollarama: just so you know).

7. Free Professor Office Hours
Nobody knows how to help you succeed in a class like the people running that class. Talk to your profs and your teaching assistants! They get pretty lonely when nobody comes by, and they’d love to chat and help you get through assignments and material. It’s also a great way to make friends (profs are people too!).

8. What about you?
I could go on and on with the other resources on campus I use, but I only get so many words per post, so why not help me out? So what resources do you use: do you have any tips or tricks to help you get through your year? Help me out and let me know in the comments!


Library Lovin’

Last week I had my very first (and maybe last?) summer school exam and I found myself once again spending a lot of time in the library. I’ve never been one for studying much in Robarts (although the 12th floor views are a big pull for getting there earlier and snagging a table in the window section of the St. George corner) so over the last 2 years I’ve sought out smaller, more visually appealing libraries. If you read my last post you’ve already gotten to see some of my favourite (outdoor) study spaces so this one will be some of my favourite indoor spaces!

Hart House • 7:00 am – Midnight • noise level varies hh

Hart House Library is a great space because it's so central on campus. Unfortunately every other student at U of T also thinks it's a great space so all the good spots are pften taken. Never fear though, you can normally find a spot onthe benches and chairs on the landing, or at a table in the reading room.

Hart House Library is a great space because it’s so central on campus. Unfortunately every other student at U of T also thinks it’s a great space so all the good spots are often taken. Never fear though, you can normally find a spot on the benches and chairs on the landing, or at a table in the reading room.


Chairs and benches on the landing

This is on the landing at the east end of Hart House and I've never actiually studied here because it's always occupied but one day I will.

This is on the landing at the east end of Hart House. I’ve never actiually studied here because it’s always occupied but one day, if I’m lucky, I will.

Knox College Library • hours vary • quiet space

knox lib'

The perfectly inspiring place, especially when poring over history books. Look up and be transported to a bygone age of architecture. Make sure you check out the old card catalogues!

Emmanuel College Library (Victoria College) • hours vary • quiet space

This tiny library is so beautiful and only gets really full at the peak of exam season. To get here go to the third floor of Emmanuel College, in front of you will be the reading room (which I also love) and to your right is the library. There are divided desks throughout the main floor and some (but don’t quote me on this) up on the mezzanine.  DSCF2541DSCF2537DSCF2535


The reading room opposite the stairs. People seem to sleep in here a lot.

The End of Essays

So last Tuesday I wrote an essay. I wrote it like most other essays, reluctantly and with heavy doses of caffeine. It was only after I was finished that I stopped and realized that it was the last one, the finale, the ultimate essay in my career at U of T. There will never be another, and that must mean something . . .

For some of us, these present weeks have been laden with essays. Endless visits to the library. Pulling all-nighters. (BTW, why do we say ‘pulling’ all-nighters? Any ideas? #allnighter, if you got the answer.) No time for friends, or food, or fun. Just coffee, coffee, coffee, essay, essay, essay!

If you have finished all your essays for the year, give yourself a grand ol’ pat on the back! No, really, do it! It’s very easy to take all the seemingly minor accomplishments of a university career for granted once you are elbow deep in thick of it. But any finished work was surely hard work. It took effort (some) and time (yeah) and consideration (maybe), and any combo of those deserves a moment of congratulation.

I tried to calculate how many essays I have written in my undergrad. But I’m lousy at math. I think it’s somewhere between 60 to 100 essays. That number seems really small when I think about the accumulated mass of time and stress and thought that went into each essay. But I guess memories have a certain weight to them. I’ll stick with a pat on the back.

I try to remember my final essay in first year, for HIS103 on the Spanish Civil War. I stayed up several nights in my dorm at New College. My desk was cluttered with books, orange and yellow sticky notes marking key pages. I was drinking lots of tea in first year (I was against coffee, ha). I stood from my desk and paced. I sat back down. I opened the window. I tried to find that particular passage. I remember calling my dad and he said my essay sounded interesting. I drank more tea, surrounded by books, deep in thought, scouring my sources, page 6 of 15, and trying. I was happy.

An essay is more than a developed argument. An essay is the practice of a kind of critical, analytical, and reflective thinking. An essay is the embodiment of the liberal arts pursuit, to be able to think conscientiously, coherently, with conviction, and cognisant of the consequence of our thought. To this I am happy to say I have finally finished the forceful and at times strongly resented training period, but I think I have emerged all the better for the tutelage, ready to take my essaying habits into the wider world.

But most of all an essay is a vestige of my self, like a Horcrux, but less evil. With every essay—regardless of how I felt at the time, whether I hated it or loved it—I necessarily left a piece of myself in the work. Remembering them, I can recall who I was at the time. I can map the development of me.

Til next time, U of T, stay diamond!

– Stephen.

Essay Tips!

I’m about to finish writing my last essay of the semester, and I couldn’t be happier. I have never had to write so many essays (6) in such a short amount of time (1 month)…I know there are probably people who have it worse, but this is all new to me!

Here are a few tips that have made my writing process a lot easier this semester when I’ve been stuck on an essay. This isn’t advice that you’ll find on UofT’s Writing website (Check it out if you haven’t — it’s awesome!).

You’ll be done in no time (SpongeBob always gets it right). Source

1. Include subtitles:
Your professor or T.A. might tell you that they don’t want to see subtitles in your essay. If they don’t mention it, then I strongly suggest that you use them, especially if you’re writing a paper that’s eight pages or longer. Subtitles focus your thoughts when you’re writing a section, or if you decide to add them at the end, they make it easier to self-edit and pick out unclear or unorganized arguments.

2. Mention the limits of your paper:
a.) If you finish writing a 5,000 word essay an hour before it’s due, go back to edit it, and realize that you’ve left out an important or interesting point, mention it in your paper and note that the topic is beyond the scope of your paper. This one’s a bit tricky — If you think that the addition might disrupt the flow of your paper or sound incomplete, leave it out. The only time this hasn’t worked for me was when I tried to introduce a point that was too weighty to be self-explanatory.

b.) Don’t be afraid to point out the gaps in your essay! If you can explain weak arguments (perhaps there is a lack of research on the topic, for example), you might potentially be able to make them stronger.

3. Think of your target audience:
If you’re short on time, cater your work specifically to your T.A. and professor. Pay attention to the arguments your professor constructs in lectures, their views, beliefs, and their values. If you keep those things in mind while writing, you’ll have an idea of where your arguments need to be stronger and more convincing, and where you might be able to get away with lazier work. Attempt this at your own risk!

Anyway, that’s it. Those are my tips. Happy essay writing, and I wish you the best of luck on your exams!

And Here We Are . . . The End of Term!

I used to snowboard a lot in the winter. Ever since I was about six years old, I was out on the snow-hills and riding chairlifts. But once I came to university, I stopped. I guess I got busy. Always finding myself, all of a sudden, at this same moment: The end of term.

Feeling rushed. Stressed. Panicked. Less than a week left of classes. Then exams. It’s especially hard because I can smell the winter break like it’s a warm, cinnamon-sugared beavertail at the bottom of the hill and I just want to bomb the course to reach it. But school and snowboarding, unfortunately, are two dissimilar things.

I can’t bomb school. I have to work hard. I have to do well. I have one final project this term (it’s true, but it’s my fifth year, so don’t hate me). I probably could rush it. But I know that if I take my time it will be better, more interesting, more enjoyable, and altogether more worthwhile.

The tricky part is committing, staying focused, and seeing the project through to the end. Whether it was my first end of term, or now my ninth, finding the energy and concentration is a challenge. Not to mention finding the time to eat, and to take healthy breaks.

And that’s where I bet most of us are right now. I’m assuming that everyone is busy, stressed, and resenting the day they ever chose to attend U of T. So I’ve decided to forgo regaling you with a tale of my own academic sufferings, and just get on with my schoolwork.

Yep, that’s right, I am going to study. I can do that, no problem. I’m going to take my time and do an excellent job. It’s not like I’ll slowly drift away to amuse myself with strange, funny, stupid, and generally pointless distractions . . .

Like these!

Okay, that was fun! But I should probably get back to work.

Ha, I love that! All right, I really need to study for that in-class exam on Monday.

Wow! Just wow! But that’s enough. Time to destroy this essay!

You know, I kind of want to see that. No! Stop! I need to focus!



Maybe I could become an extra once I graduate. THAT’S IT! No more! I have to finish my schoolwork!

What just happened? How long was I watching that stuff? I guess it doesn’t really matter.  It’s the end of term. Needing some kind of break from studying is inevitable. I’m not going to stress, or panic, or run away. I’m going to recognize that distractions and procrastination are normal. Good studying and good work require a break now and then.

Next time, though, I think I’ll go out for a walk. Get some fresh air. Call a friend. Eat some soup. And let my tired little brain actually rest, until it has to get back to work.


Good luck out there, U of T!

– Stephen