A design student’s guide to surviving the first year

If you want to be a designer, odds are you’re going to go to school for it. However, adjusting to life as a design student isn’t easy. Are there any hacks to figuring out student life?

As a first-year design student about to wrap up my second semester, I feel that I have some tricks up my sleeve. Here are my top 5 pieces of advice for those entering design school in the fall:

1.) Learn how to reference.

This goes for any student in any program. Before school starts, take some time to learn the basics of MLA and APA referencing. Be warned: it’s extremely dull and redundant.

However, it’s a skill that is going to be essential for almost every class you take in university–including design classes. Here are some resources to help you get started:



Luckily, there is plenty of information out there on referencing.

2.) Watch tutorials for the ‘Big 3’ Adobe programs.

The programs that you will most likely use in your first year are Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. Learning the basics of these programs before you go into class will give you the upper hand on some of the other beginners. YouTube won’t teach you everything, but neither will your profs.

3.) Plan out your classes wisely.

Most design classes are composed of both a lecture and a lab, and fitting these all into a schedule can be difficult. My recommendation is to copy and paste the dates and times of all the classes you need and then figure out which ones work together. I’d also recommend having a few backup options prepared. You never know which classes will be popular!

4.) Prioritize.

When you begin classes, make sure to keep track of all of your assignments using a planner or even just the ‘notes’ section on your laptop. Design students have a tendency to procrastinate, but for most that is not going to yield high-quality work. When you complete design assignments last minute, you’ll often end up with a product full of inconsistencies and careless mistakes. Keep a list updated at all times of your tasks in order of priority. For some, even mapping out exactly how much work they need to complete in each day is even more successful. There is nothing worse than forgetting about an assignment, but if you always keep track of your assignments that should never be a problem.

5.) Don’t forget about your mental health.

Design students spend upwards of 8-10 hours a day working on a computer, which is enough to make anyone go crazy. To avoid letting your stress take over, eating well and exercising is key. Prepping meals on the weekend is a great way to ensure that you will eat healthy during the week. Chilis and curries with brown rice are my personal favourite–they are low in fat but are filling and energizing. I always make sure to take along fruits and veggies to school. Don’t skip breakfast either! Smoothies and overnight oats are both fast, healthy options. Finding time to exercise can seem impossible, but I promise that it is worth it. Find forms of exercise that are right for you, and mix it up whenever possible. I work out every day, and I try to do a combination of cardio, strength training, pilates and yoga in a given week.

Many universities also offer mental health services to students. Counsellors know the pressures that students face and can be a huge help for those dealing with anxiety, stress and other problems.

So there you have it. It may seem like a lot, but preparing yourself before school starts and creating a schedule and staying on top of it is going to help you succeed in design school. I personally did not do any preparation before I entered my program, and it led to a lot of overwhelmed late nights and unnecessary stress. However, I have been trying my best to organize and take care of myself. I have been maintaining a high GPA and been staying on top of everything through these techniques. So take my advice, and I promise that it will help you survive your first year.


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