Surviving the ‘Big Five’

If you’re planning on studying science at U of T, you’re almost definitely going to end up taking at least one of these 100-level courses. To help put you in the right mindset for survival, four veterans of the five biggest first-year science courses have given you a quick-start guide which outlines which skills you’ll need to hone in order to ace each of them.


First-year biology courses are very different from high school biology, and they require you to adjust your study habits accordingly. The sooner you realize the importance of understanding concepts instead of just memorizing them, the sooner you’ll see your grades improve. Keep on top of lectures, especially readings, and study as you go so that right before the test or exam you are prepared to apply what you know. Labs can also be stressful, but approach them as an opportunity to learn rather than as evaluations. Don’t forget to talk to your TAs — they can be more helpful than you think.

Maha Noor, fourth-year developmental biology specialist


The main ingredients you need to succeed in this course are planning and thoroughness. Students often underestimate the importance of learning the lab manual well, revising lectures regularly, and following up on their mistakes, although these three things are crucial to doing well. Your professors will build on the concepts you learn rapidly, so don’t procrastinate. Lastly, practice past tests until you feel confident, so that when exam time arrives, you will be good to go!

Shahin Imtiaz, second-year student cognitive science and computer science student


The trick to acing your first-year physics courses is the same trick used for math classes: practice, practice, practice! Remember — no matter how impossible a problem seems, your professors will never ever ask you to do something that they haven’t taught you how to do. If you’re stuck, try re-reading the textbook or reviewing your lecture notes. If a concept ever looks overwhelming, office hours is your most useful tool. Physics professors are huge geeks who love talking about science, and will be happy to explain the tricky bits to you over and over again. Make sure to take advantage of this. 

Nadezhda Woinowsky-Krieger, The Varsity Science Editor and physics and astronomy student


Working hard may help you master the subject, but working smart is often enough to score well in these two courses. Past exams are an excellent tool: they have long followed a clear pattern of questions, and practicing them will give you a good idea of what to focus on. To stay on top of things, solve the weekly problem sets and discuss them with your TA. There’s always the math aid center or your prof’s office hours should you need extra help. Even if you don’t, the TAs and professors make such great math conversationalists that you should drop by anyway!

Shahin Imtiaz, second-year student cognitive science and computer science student


Doing well in first-year psychology is all about reading your textbook. After each lecture make good notes on the assigned chapters to fill in any gaps from your class notes; it’s important to stay on top of material because the course involves a lot of memorization. A great resource is the MyPsychLab online accompaniment — a lot of the test questions are application-based and using this will help you practice. Try to apply the concepts to daily life — it makes the course more interesting and will help ingrain the concepts in your mind.

Kasi Sewraj, second-year neuroscience and psychology double-major