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Use these skills to work toward personal success in university. Book an appointment with a Peer Success Coach for personalized support implementing these strategies in your student life.


Manage academic stress

Stress tolerance is the ability to be relaxed and composed while facing challenges or difficulties. By increasing your positive stress tolerance, you'll be able to calmly face obstacles without getting carried away by strong emotions of helplessness or hopelessness.

Pay attention

Engage your self-awareness and look for any physical or mental indications that your stress level may be rising. Review physical and emotional signs of stress from Campus Wellness.

  • If the source of your stress is academic, review the strategies below or book an appointment with a Peer Success Coach to develop strategies that can help.
  • If the source of your stress is related to events in your personal life, we recommend connecting to professional support, such as a doctor or counsellor in Campus Wellness.

Evaluate priorities

Once you’ve developed an awareness of your stress level, consider these questions to better understand the source of your stress:

  • Evaluate all the areas of your life that take up your time and prioritize them. Is your stress related to taking on too many volunteer or extra-curricular activities?
  • Is being on a team worth the anxiety it’s creating?
  • If you have to work while in school, do you have to work as many hours as you currently do?
  • Evaluate if extra activities are helping or hindering your success. It’s ok to say “no” sometimes.

Use these strategies to manage your academic stress

Don’t let emotion determine action

Your emotions may feel overwhelming or extra strong when you’re under stress. Be aware of what you’re feeling, and ask yourself if the emotion matches the present situation. Realistic thinking can help calm your nerves and match your emotions to the current situation.

Focus on one issue at a time

Having more than one area of stress can build significant anxiety and overwhelming feelings. First, list everything that is stressing you out. Then prioritize your concerns in order of immediacy. Tackle the most pressing concern first, then continue down the list. This allows you to take control of problems one by one.

Take breaks

It can be really difficult to allow yourself to take some time out when you feel anxious or out of control. However, a break could be the best thing for you. Go for dinner with a friend or watch a movie. Your concerns will still be there when you return, but sometimes your brain just needs a break from the stress to be able to problem solve effectively.

Use positive self-talk

Say positive statements to yourself, like:

  • I can do this
  • I’m strong and capable
  • This will pass, it's only temporary
  • I've dealt with similar problems before and I can do it again

Find an affirmation that works for you - even if you don't believe it at first. Write it down and memorize it for when you need it.

Try to see the big picture

What significance will this issue or concern have in a week, month, or year from now? If you fail an assignment, it’s ok - there will be other assignments. Thinking about the big picture will help minimize stress by allowing you to see your concerns in a realistic light.

Talk it out

Who’s in your support system? If don’t have one, think about the people in your life. Who's trustworthy and caring? Who encourages and supports you? Talking about your stress can help minimize anxiety by getting outside of your own head. 

Other strategies to tolerate stress

  • Take deep breaths
  • Go for a walk
  • Count slowly to ten
  • Exercise
  • Practice meditation or yoga regularly
  • Listen to soothing music
  • Create purposeful distractions
  • Journal or create another form of artwork

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How to get better sleep

Poor sleep habits can negatively impact your cognitive functioning. Use these tips to create healthy sleep habits that will support your academic success.

Rest before bed

Avoid exercise 30 minutes before bed. Regular exercise is important to help you sleep, but working out before bedtime may have the opposite effect. Try exercising in the morning or early afternoon to avoid interference with your night’s sleep.

Develop a bedtime ritual

It’s important to give your body cues that it’s time to slow down and sleep. Try listening to relaxing music, reading something soothing for 15 minutes, having a cup of something hot (caffeine-free) or doing relaxation exercises, like yoga.

Get comfortable

Make sure your bed and bedroom are quiet and comfortable. If possible, try to sleep in a cooler room with enough blankets to stay warm. If light in the early morning bothers you, cover your window or wear a sleep mask. If noise bothers you, wear earplugs or introduce some "white noise" like a fan.

Decrease caffeine intake

Stay away from caffeine, nicotine and alcohol at least four to six hours before bed. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that interfere with your ability to fall asleep. Coffee, tea, coke, chocolate and some prescription and non-prescription drugs contain caffeine.

Don’t study in bed

Only use your bed for sleeping. Refrain from using your bed to watch TV, read or do school work. This helps your body know that it’s time to sleep when you go to bed.

Lull yourself to sleep

Be gentle with yourself when you have difficulty falling asleep. Listen to quiet music or read something boring until you naturally fall asleep. Trying to “make” yourself sleep almost never works. Sleep will come - be patient with yourself in the process. Regardless of when you fall asleep, get up at your regular time.

Don’t go to bed on an empty stomach

Have a light snack before bed. If your stomach is too empty it can interfere with your sleep. Dairy products contain tryptophan, which acts as a natural sleep inducer. Try having a warm glass of milk before bed if you’re worried about falling asleep.

Bathe before bed

Take a hot bath or shower 90 minutes before bedtime. A hot bath or shower will raise your body temperature, but the drop in your body temperature afterward will leave you feeling sleepy.

Sleep only when sleepy

This reduces the time you’re awake in bed. If you can’t fall asleep within 15-20 minutes, get up and do something boring until you do feel sleepy. Sit quietly in the dark room or read the warranty on your refrigerator. Don’t expose yourself to bright light while you’re up. The light cues to your brain that it’s time to wake up.

Sleep for six to eight hours

Your body can function adequately on fewer than six to eight hours of sleep, but your brain won’t be at its best. Getting enough sleep every night helps you retain and recall information. Just one night of getting adequate sleep won't allow you to “catch up.” A routine of getting enough sleep allows you to feel rested and alert during the day.

Avoid naps

Avoiding naps will help you feel sleepier at bedtime. If you can't make it through the day without a nap, sleep for under one hour before 3 p.m.

Rise and shine

Getting up early contributes to better grades. A study of university students showed that students who woke up earlier had higher grade point averages.

Don’t watch the clock

Avoid clock-watching while trying to sleep. It’s unhelpful to stare at your alarm clock if you’re having difficulty sleeping and it can keep you awake longer than necessary. Turn your alarm clock around to face the wall to avoid watching the time go by.

Try not to worry

Worrying about not sleeping will keep you awake. Rather than focusing your attention on worrisome thoughts, try to notice that they are just thoughts and direct your attention somewhere restful. Tell yourself that worrying won’t help. If you're worrying about a particular problem, write it down and tell yourself you can sort it out the morning.

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Adjust to university life

When you enter your first year at Waterloo you’ll begin a process of change. Most students are here from another city or country and some are living away from home for the first time. There’s no one to report to about what you’re doing and when, and there’s also no one to ask you how your day was when you get home. The excitement of this new freedom and opportunity may be mixed with feelings of homesickness – missing your family, friends and community.

Over the year, you’ll get to know some of your classmates, faculty, residence dons, roommates and other peers at Waterloo. Perhaps you’ll get involved in intramural activities through Athletics and Recreation or join clubs and attend events hosted by the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association. You may read the student newspapers and check university websites or social media accounts to familiarize yourself with campus activities.

Even if you welcome this change it’s natural to resist new ideas and ways of doing things. Take a look at the suggestions below to manage the uncomfortable time between the old and the new:

  • Take control – Try to do things that make you feel more in control, like getting the information you need to find your way around.
  • Accept that transition isn’t easy – Understand you’re in a transition time. If you feel overwhelmed it doesn’t mean that going to school was a bad decision for you. You’re just going through a transition.
  • Build your support system – Find support from your family, old and new friends, professors and peer mentors.
  • Create goals – Keep in mind your reason for coming to school; focus on your desired outcome.
  • Ask for help – Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’re not alone in this transition time. You can meet with a Peer Success Coach to talk about adjusting to the new environment and figure out how to get involved in your new community.

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Create effective goals in university

Set long and short-term goals using the SMART goal model. Download the goal setting worksheet (PDF) to organize and keep track of your goals.

  • Specific (S) - A goal should identify a specific action or event that will take place. The more specific you are, the easier it will be to determine if you achieve your goal or not. Vague goals are also easier to disregard.
  • Measurable (M) - The description of a goal should be quantifiable, meaning it’s something you can measure or check off as complete.
  • Achievable (A) - A goal should be attainable given your available resources.
  • Realistic (R) - A goal should challenge you, but should still allow you to be successful.
  • Timely (T) - A goal should state the time period in which it will be accomplished.

Staying on track to reach your goals

Once you set your SMART goals, make a plan to stay on track by answering the following questions:

  • How will I remind myself daily about my goals?
  • How will I know if I’m falling back into old habits?
  • Who does my support system include?
  • How will I get back on track if or when I start to slip?
  • What reminders do I need to set for myself about my goals?

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Get the most out of Reading Week and scheduled pauses

Plan to get the most out of your Reading Week with this simple four-step self assessment.

Step 1: Consider what a good break might look like for you 

Based on surveys of Waterloo students and current research, here are some tips on what a good break looks like for undergraduate students: 

To relax and take a break:

  • Get lots of rest
  • Take a relaxing staycation
  • Do something fun
  • Connect with family and friends

To focus on your academic success:


For grad students, this may look like:

To relax and take a break:

  • Get lots of rest
  • Take a break from writing, research, grading
  • Set TA boundaries for the week
  • Connect with family and friends

To focus on your academic success:


Step 2: Check in with yourself

Now more than ever it’s important to check in with yourself and figure out what you need from your Reading Week. 

Undergradate students may need to: 

  • Catch up on readings and assignments
  • Study for upcoming midterms/tests 

  • Take time for rest and personal wellness 

  • Access resources and seek support  

  • Connect with friends/family in person or online 

Grad students may need to:

  • Take time for rest and personal wellness 

  • Catch up on sleep 

  • Catch up on personal errands 

  • Connect with friends/family in person or online 

  • Access resources and seek support 

  • Work on scholarship applications  

  • Prepare for upcoming presentations or exams 


Step 3: Create a plan 

One way to plan for a good break is to create a task list. Write down what you hope to achieve/do over the break and then start to prioritize each item on the list: 

  • High - for tasks that are urgent and/or need to get done 

  • Low - for tasks that you could do if you have time, but don’t have to do 

Step 4: Identify your supports to help stay on track 

Sometimes the best way to keep things moving along is to have a little help! Plan to connect regularly with a friend, classmate or family member on how you’re doing, what you’re doing and what’s coming up. They can support you in being accountable, regrouping when you need to and help to celebrate your successes! Who will you connect with to help stay on track?

Download, print and complete a Reading Week Self-Assessment, then post it somewhere you'll see it through out the week to stick with your plan.

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How to communicate effectively in difficult situations

Assertiveness is the ability to express your opinions, feelings, ideas and needs openly and in a way that’s both true to who you are and respectful of others. It involves standing up for yourself in a way that encourages conversation rather than defensiveness.

Assertiveness is a healthy and honest form of communication that can eliminate the stress associated with holding things inside. Being reticent, or unassertive, can lead to feeling uneasy in social situations or resentful of others, and to stress-related physical symptoms such as headaches, anxiety and fatigue.

Unhealthy alternatives to assertive communication are passivity and aggression. These are typically less effective because people are too busy responding to the delivery of your message to consider what you’re saying. You don’t usually get what you want when you’re indirect.

Passive Assertive Aggressive
You win, I lose Win-win I win, you lose
Pleases others, but decreases self-respect Willing to compromise, creates mutual respect Pleases yourself, but decreases respect for others
Others’ needs get priority Respects your own needs and others’ Your own needs get priority
Doesn’t achieve desired goal May achieve desired goal Achieves desired goal, but at the expense of others
Insecure response that lowers self-confidence Builds self-confidence and self-esteem Insecure response that lowers self-confidence
Results in feelings of anger and anxiety Results in feelings of happiness and confidence Results in feelings of defensiveness, anger and control
Socially inhibited Socially productive Socially destructive
Holding in thoughts, ideas and feelings Expressing thoughts, ideas and feelings, while encouraging others to contribute Expressing thoughts, ideas and feelings

How to communicate assertively

State the problem

Make the problem about the situation or behavior, and not about the person. It’s harder for people to get defensive about what you’re saying when you stick to the facts and don’t include personal judgments. You’ll increase the likelihood of a positive conversation by separating the person from their behavior. For example, “You’re always late and clearly don’t care,” can become, “I’ve noticed that you were over 20 minutes late the last couple times we got together.”

Use “I” statements

  • Practice using “I” statements to communicate your thoughts, feelings and needs. For example, “I feel happy” or “I want to try it this way.”
  • “I” statements are clear.
  • Taking responsibility for what you feel is honest and underlines the personal importance of your statement.
  • Owning how you feel can also decrease anxiety.

Get to the point

  • Be clear and concise about what you want.
  • Be simple and specific to help others understand your request.
  • Don’t create an opportunity for the other person to say no by using tentative language to ask for what you want. For example, say “will you please…?” instead of “would you mind…?”
  • Try to avoid the words: if, maybe, perhaps, but.

Aim for a win-win situation

Assertive communication is about initiating a dialogue between two people. Sometimes being assertive will get you want you want, and sometimes it will lead to compromise for mutual benefit. Either way, it’s better than getting none of what you want.

Don’t dominate the conversation

  • After you share your needs, invite the other person to comment, add their ideas and ask questions. Now you have a conversation!
  • Remember to listen carefully so you can keep the dialogue going.
  • Without inviting feedback, you risk coming across as aggressive or bossy.

Try to empathize

  • Empathy is about expressing genuine interest in what someone else is saying.
  • By showing that you’re trying to understand where someone else is coming from, you increase the likelihood that they’ll respond in kind.
  • Empathy can also be disarming because it makes it difficult for others to stay defensive. It’s easier to reflect on a situation when we don’t have our guard up.

Be mindful of body language

Be aware of your non-verbal communication. Face the person you’re speaking with straight on, maintain eye contact, keep an open posture (i.e. don’t cross your arms), keep your voice calm and speak at an appropriate volume.

Practice makes perfect

  • Until you’re comfortable being assertive, it can help to plan out what you’re going to say ahead of a conversation. You can also anticipate others’ responses.
  • Rehearse the skills above at home and start practicing assertive communication with friends and family you trust.

How to be assertive in difficult situations

It may be more difficult to communicate assertively in certain situations. Use these tips to navigate difficult conversations or situations where you are more likely to be passive or aggressive.

Responding to criticism

  • Criticism is often misunderstood. Evaluate someone’s criticism before selecting your preferred response, which may or may not agree with them.
  • If you’re confused by a comment, you have the right to ask for more information or to question it.
  • Try to respond to what was said by the other person and not their tone.
  • It will be easier to avoid getting defensive if you try to identify the behaviour they're criticizing, rather than taking the criticism personally.

Communicating through strong emotions

It’s not recommended to have an important conversation when you can feel yourself getting angry or upset. If you feel you're having a strong emotional reaction, try not to respond immediately. It’s okay to ask for time to think about your response. Tell the other person that you’re open to speaking about the topic at another time. This will allow you to process your emotions privately, compose yourself, reflect on what was said from a more rational perspective and respond in an assertive way at a future time.

Saying “no”

You have the right to say “no” without feeling bad about it.

  • Many people have unhelpful beliefs about saying no that stand in their way. If you find you have difficulty saying no, think about why you may have negative feelings about it. Some people believe that it seems uncaring or selfish, that it will cause friends to stop liking them or that it will just seem rude.
  • Remind yourself that by saying no to something, you're making the choice to say “yes” to something else.
  • Prepare how you will say no and stick to it.

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How to connect with new friends

Maintaining relationships that are mutually satisfying, fulfilling, rewarding and enjoyable for all parties are all facets of positive interpersonal skills. Review the tips below to learn how to develop your social skills to create and maintain new friendships. 

Seek out new interactions

Evaluate what your interests are and join a club, class or group. Go out of your way to meet people in these new environments. You never know if a lifelong friend is just across the room waiting for you to say hello.

Be prepared

Try to think about topics you can talk about easily. Think about the things that interest you and try to talk about those. Brush up on the latest political topics, current popular movies, television shows or news events happening around the world. Be prepared to comment on one of these topics to maintain a conversation.

Don’t overthink it

Try not to overthink what you say and do. Try to relax, because the person who will criticize you the most is you. If you stammer or spill your drink, it’s ok. Try to move on and don’t let small accidents or mistakes get in the way of having fun.

Listen and be curious

In uncomfortable situations, it’s easy to forget to listen to the response after you ask a question. Pay attention to what the other person says and ask follow-up questions. If you don’t know anything about what they’re talking about, all the better. That means there are more questions you can ask. Be curious!

You can also take mental notes of your new acquaintance’s upcoming events. Next time you see them, ask follow-up questions about their events and how they went. Your new acquaintance will appreciate that you remembered.

Don’t get hung up on first impressions

Don’t worry about giving a “bad” first impression. Everyone is nervous the first time they meet someone new. Avoid seriously analyzing an interaction after you meet someone new. If you look at anything that closely, you’re bound to find things to question and reasons to feel deflated. You probably didn’t give as bad of a first impression as you think. Most people don’t even remember all of the details of their first interaction with someone new.

Be kind

People want to talk to others who are encouraging and uplifting. Don't be shy to give a compliment to the person you’re talking to about their accomplishments, or even about what they’re wearing. If you're genuinely impressed or like something, share how you feel.

Be aware of give and take

The most successful relationships are comprised of mutual give and take. Some people may “over give” by inviting themselves over the next day for dinner. Others “under give” by revealing very little about themselves and coming across as cold or unfriendly. Try to strike a balance that feels comfortable to you. 

Learn how to change topics

Have some transition statements in your back pocket, just in case you find a conversation dragging. Some examples are, “come to think of it” or “that reminds me.”

Make eye contact

If you’re uncomfortable with making eye contact, try to challenge yourself to make more eye contact with people during conversation. It will increase the ease and comfort of the conversation.

Be real

You may want to impress new people when you meet them, but sometimes trying too hard can put people off. Be authentic with people. Have boundaries around what you share, but show your real self. The people worth knowing will like you for you.


Interacting gracefully with others is a skill. The more practice you have, the more comfortable you’ll be.

Be patient with yourself and others

Developing a lasting relationship takes time and intentionality. Be patient as the relationship grows and allow yourself and others to make mistakes. Friends are going to do and say hurtful things sometimes. Try not to overreact. Is the relationship worth sticking it out though the hard times? If you decide that it is, your relationship can grow to be even stronger.

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How to solve typical life problems

Problem-solving is a skill that can promote personal and professional success. It demonstrates a desire to take action and promote positive change, rather than to accept things as they are or remain stuck. It’s a skill that helps with personal transition, relationships and success in university and beyond.

Follow this five-step process to develop your problem-solving skills:

  1. Identify the problem - Identify an area of your life where you feel stuck. Describe in detail what you’re experiencing. This process is driven by your self-confidence and motivation to confront problems, rather than to avoid them.
    1. Some guiding questions you can use to get started are: What is my concern? What is happening? When is it happening? Where is it happening? Why is it happening?
  2. Define the problem – Be as clear as possible about what the problem is. What do you want to achieve or change?
  3. Brainstorm approaches – Think about different ways you might solve the problem. Try to generate a few strategies to get what you really want. What can you do?
  4. Pick an approach - How should you solve the problem? Evaluate the pros and cons of each possibility. What are the potential consequences of each approach? What might happen? Choose the best option for you and implement it. Give your strategy a real chance to work before going back to step one.
  5. Assess the result - How did your approach work? Did you achieve the desired outcome? If you didn’t achieve the desired outcome, or the problem still exists, repeat the process again.

Additional problem-solving tips:

  • Can’t think of a solution to the entire problem? Try to break the problem down into simpler parts you can work on.
  • If you know there’s a problem, but have trouble brainstorming approaches:
    • Identify your desired outcome.
    • Work backward to identify what needs to happen for that outcome to be possible. Imagine yourself taking the steps required to get to your end result.
  • Controlling your emotions is key to problem solving. Emotions can hurt your focus on finding a solution and slow down the process. You may come up with fewer alternatives or less useful ones. Try to increase your stress tolerance, then return to trying to solve the problem.

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Strengthen your sense of community

Social responsibility is a demonstration that shows you’re a contributing and constructive member of society. Social responsibility involves acting in a responsible and dependable way, even though you might not personally benefit from the act. It’s an act done for and with others while upholding social rules. Use these tips to become more socially responsible and strengthen your sense of belonging in the campus community.

Be outward focused

Don’t allow the conversation to focus solely on yourself when you interact with others. We all like to be in the spotlight, but that’s a reason to allow others to have the opportunity to shine as well.

Spread the love

Pay attention to the needs of others. What do you hear or see that tells you what those around you need? Do they need a listening and attentive ear, because they had a bad day? Do they need a ride home, because they had one too many drinks? Do they need to be distracted with a night out, because of a recent break-up? Do they need you to show up on time, because the deadline for an assignment is approaching quickly? If you don’t know what someone needs, ask.

Give back

There are so many opportunities to give back. Find a charity or organization that you can be passionate about and help make a difference in the world. You may think, “What’s the point? There are so many people in need,” but it takes everyone doing a small part to make a collective difference. You’ll be surprised how much satisfaction you experience from giving back. You can give back on campus by getting involved as a volunteer for a student service or campus club. The Volunteer Action Centre Waterloo Region can also help you get involved in the Waterloo Region community.

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