How to survive first year j-school

First-year can be tough, there’s no doubt. So, as j-schoolers across the country step out for Day One of their studies, here at J-Source we decided to put together a survival guide to help address some of the issues that will surely arise as the year progresses.

Recently retired Ryerson professor Don Gibb taught first-year reporting for the last eight years of his twenty on Ryerson’s journalism faculty. He helps out here with his “Ten Tips for Surviving the First-Year of J-School.”

Plus, J-Source asked a whole slew of recent graduates for the single most important tip they’d give to students entering first-year. We’ve put together a selection of the best responses from successful, working graduates of Canadian j-schools.

Don Gibb

One of my students – what the heck, we’ll call him Barry — was a polite, well-spoken, motivated student from small town Ontario. He got into journalism school with high school grades in the 90s, but within six weeks he was having second thoughts.

Was journalism the right choice?

He came to see me after he got back his first graded assignment. It was a C. Barry had never seen a C in his life. This was traumatic.

After a brief pep talk, Barry was back on track and discovered the meaning of learning. Since then, he has accomplished a lot – including part-time jobs in an area of journalism he loves — and is on the road to a terrific career in whatever field he chooses.

Which leads me to point No. 1 on my list of “Ten Tips for Surviving the First-Year of J-School…

1)    Don’t get freaked out over marks. You are here to learn to write journalistically – something most of you have never done. It is more important to listen to and to put into practice the suggestions of your professors. Park your ego at the door.

2)    There’s an expression I learned early in my journalism career: “You’re only as good as your last story.” Your marks will not progress naturally upward toward an A. It will depend on each assignment and how well you pull it off.

3)    Resist comparing yourself to all of those brilliant student writers around you. Each of you comes equipped with your own talents that can be developed further, so work on them rather than waste time being envious of other students.

4)    Read. Newspapers, magazines, anything you can get your hands on. Know what’s happening every day in your city, province, country, world. See how other journalists report and write their stories.

5)    Write outside class every chance you get. The more you practice, the faster you learn. Write for student newspapers, pitch a show to your campus radio station, write for the arts magazine. Practice, practice, practice.

6)    Bug your professors. If you don’t understand written critiques of your work, ask for further explanation. If you don’t understand the meaning of a nut graph or a hard versus a soft lead, ask.
7)    If you’re reading this, you’re probably in journalism school. So, you are now a journalist—albeit in training. Call yourself one. Look in the mirror and say, I AM A JOURNALIST.

8)    Remind yourself often of why you want to be a journalist.

9)    Read a good book on journalism. Not a book assigned in class. There are lots of them out there, but one of my favourites for inspiration is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Zinsser will tell you, among many other things, that writing is hard work. You need to be reminded of this – often.

10)    Find the passion. Journalism is about a lot of things – being curious, thinking critically, having ideas, being fair and balanced, being ethical. But without a passion for writing – even when your confidence is low — it’s difficult to get yourself motivated every day. Fall in love with writing.

So, back to that nagging question I raised at the beginning. Had Barry made the right choice? His decision was “yes,” but for some first-year students it will be “no.”

Making that decision is not only tough, but courageous. You spent so much time focused on getting into J-School. Weren’t you told in orientation how lucky you were, how many other students you beat out to be accepted to J-School? And now you don’t like it. In fact, you hate it.

Every year, students drop out. I call them courageous because they have had to make such a tough decision.

If you think in this first year – those early weeks or at the end of the first semester — it isn’t for you, talk to your professors, the chair of your school, or counselling services at your university before you take that final step of withdrawing. They can listen and help you determine that you are making your decision for the right reasons. In other words, it’s not just a momentary spell of depression brought on by that first grade of C … or D … or F.

Don Gibb retired from Ryerson University’s School of Journalism in August 2008. He taught reporting to first-year students for the last eight of his 20 years at Ryerson. Don, who graduated from Ryerson in 1968, worked at The London Free Press for 20 years as a reporter, editorial writer and city editor. At Ryerson, he was named Professor of the Year in 2001 and in 2006 received the President’s Award from the Canadian Association of Journalists for his outstanding contribution to journalism.