Tips for Surviving the University of Waterloo (2019-02-23)

Tips for Surviving the University of Waterloo

Now that my brother is in his first year at the University of Waterloo, I was inspired to write about some tips to get you through it. I've been at the University of Waterloo (abbreviated UW) for just under four years now, and I've come to appreciate the value of investments. I'm talking about investments that'll ease the burden of the University of Waterloo's relentless work-school cycle.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with UW, it's a university in Canada that specializes in providing industry connections ("co-op") for its student population. These students will flip-flop every four months between a school term and a work term. I'll refer to this process as the Co-op cycle (co-operative cycle).

In a school term, a student can expect to juggle job applications, midterm studying, assignments, midterms, interviews, and more. It's certainly no surprise that this cycle can be brutal, especially for the inexperienced or unorganized.

UW has the ability to warp reality itself. You'll find yourself marvelling at all the free time you have, working a 40+ hour job with hours of travel time a day. It's a common joke among students to recall their parents extolling the difficulties of a full-time job when you're dealing with 60+ hour spikes in workload (to be fair, these students also do not have children).

When you're in UW's bubble, you may feel like the workload is unreasonable, especially when compared to your perception of other universities. My rebuttal is this article. You can make investments in yourself and your tools to automate this burden away.

Please note, however, this article will be based on getting through Computer Science at UW, as that is my experience. However, I'm sure some of the advice will apply to other fields of study or universities.

Invest: In yourself (warning: philosophy ahead)

The best investment you can make to get through UW is to invest your spare time and resources into bettering yourself. There's the obvious advice: hit the gym, eat better, and sleep longer. That advice is well elaborated elsewhere.

I think there's some bigger advice that's often less-internalized than it should be.

What I feel is underappreciated is the need to focus on what you want, and determine pathways to get there. You're probably young and if you're at UW, you're surrounded with opportunity.

This is not new advice, as most self-help resources ask you to set a goal, and sub-goals to work towards it. This is easy to think about and easy to apply in linear pathways (e.g. you can do assignments one question at a time), but difficult to apply in less linear pathways, like life.

Life winds about. Things happen. You have successes, upsets, and plateaus. It can be easy to get caught up in the moment; survive day-by-day.

Long term planning, by contrast, is more difficult. There are many things working against you here:

  1. Failure is something most people don't want to ponder. It's often sickening.
  2. It's easy to excuse yourself (and not others!). Your brain is wired to protect itself.
  3. It's easy to dream unrealistic dreams; easier to think than act.
  4. You're human. You're not "ideal". You will make mistakes, miss things, and probably be hypocritical.

These points center around failures of one kind or another. I obsess over these four points as they offer great advice on how to get to where I want to be. So, with these flaws in mind, what should you do?

First things first, you need to determine what you want. I want financial success and a stable career, and use this a platform for some sort of philanthropy. I'm sort of wired for this stuff, as I've known this from my early teens. So, unless you've been blessed like me, you'll need to determine your values and use those to guide you. Note: If you don't know what you want, that's OK. You should ensure you're always keeping opportunities open for yourself when you figure it out.

Then, you need to make plans. I've developed a system I call the "delta system". I'm sure someone else has invented it prior (or its common knowledge), but in the same way I don't blog unless I've made the blogging platform, I won't follow it. This simple system is then: Measure where you are today, where you were previously, and where you want to be.

The measuring part is obviously an important part. Look critically at your life. If you experienced a failure, what caused it? If you had a success, what lead to it? Are you happy with plateauing, or can you achieve more?

Now, once you've accessed where you are, determine the delta required. What actions can you take to get closer to your goals? What actionable item could you be doing in the short-term, to invest in long-term success? For example, if you want long term financial stability, setting up a budget is an immediate delta to achieving it. Or if your long-term goal is career success, and you're failed previously at communication, your immediate delta is to find advice. Your later deltas would be to implement identified solutions.

Now, this is simultaneously a little robotic and highly personal, and that's on purpose. If modern times have shown anything, it's that gamified systems are easier to follow. (see: mobile games, snowball debt repayment, Chinese social credit score)

A personal example of this is the process I underwent to get into UW. I had long wanted a good career, and it was now time to identify pathways. At this time tech was ballooning despite the economic crisis, and this was a topic I had interest in.

Now, I was a pretty bad junior high-school student, with subpar grades to get into a good university. I had to get serious. I took to khan-academy and took a serendipitously timed math course in the summer between grades nine and ten. Great! I had the grades, but I realized I needed more. My next delta would be to build a portfolio, to help me get into UW and land my work tech job. So I built a portfolio. And then things worked out.

I made the necessary investments, and often little more. Do keep in mind that this paragraph does not detail the years of blood, sweat, and tears that go into something like this. A five hundred character "delta system" does not guarantee success, it merely organizes the effort that goes into being successful.

My final note on investing in yourself is just this: Just a Gödel showed a mathematical system cannot prove itself1, an imperfect character cannot perfectly determine his own character. You need to surround yourself with positive, supportive people, and carefully learn from them.

Invest: In your skills

Now that we've made it past personal philosophy, we can talk about more practical matters. As a UW student, you'll need to compete against your fellow students for coveted positions. This means you need to good at what you do. For CS, in particular, there are a few areas to get good at:

  1. You should understand common algorithms data structures, and internalize their concepts.
  2. You should be proficient in at least one industry language (One of C/Python/Java/JS2 is fine), along with proficiency with industry tech.
  3. You should understand that getting an interview, doing an interview, and working a full-time job are three separate skills.

So, let's wade deeper.

Algorithms & Data Structures

If you're in CS, you really don't have a choice here. A large part of your education in CS will be to learn about algorithms against data structures, and measuring complexity. Do your best to gain an intuitive understanding of why these things actually work.

I was blessed to have a curious little brother, so a natural framework I use is to distill these things into something a child could understand. So, for example, why does a (balanced) binary search tree have a O(log n) search time? It's not immediately clear how log fits into the picture as most people usually study logarithms in a calculus context. If you're educated in this area, do try to come up with a good, simple explanation. I would probably say something like: Well, log can be used to measure how many times we can halve something3, and if you follow an example, you'll notice that we cut the tree in half each time as we search, until we reach the bottom. (with lots more elaborations)

If you're not in CS, pick these things up. There are a dizzying about of material elsewhere about this, so my recommendation is to pick a popular introduction to CS and finish it. Then work your way up. Then this stuff will apply better.

So, my advice is:

  1. Study and be able to reproduce common algorithms/data structures.
    1. E.g. Can you sort a list of integers? What's an appropriate way to do it? Merge sort, radix sort, heap sort, quicksort? (hint: almost always quicksort)
    2. E.g. What's a linked list? What's a stack? What's a tree? What's a graph? What's a hash table? How can you use these primitives so model problems? Which ones would you choose?
    3. E.g. Here's some spaghetti code, what's the time complexity of it?
  2. Understand, and recognize, the importance of converting data structures into other ones. (you most certainly do this all the time).
    1. Why do we convert data structures into one another? What's the advantage of converting a list of words into a radix tree? When is it worth it?
  3. Study the memory requirements of data structures/algorithms. This is a science after all, so practical applications are sometimes necessary.

Proficiency in at Least One Industry Language & Industry Tech

This actually pretty easy if you're curious about this stuff. Industry languages tend to be the most popular languages, so you've already picked one up. Proficiency is only gained through practice4, so keep at making programs. Once you've gained enough experience, the world is your limit. There are few other professions where the cost to entry is so low. Don't like something? Screw it, make your own.

Similarly, industry tech tends to be popular ones. I do recommend using Linux or at least some Unix environment. UW's CS club fee is like $2/term, and you get access to a bunch of Linux boxes. Even better, install Linux and use it as your daily driver. You'll find some rough edges you'll need to program around. Besides, it's vital to be comfortable with the command line. It's by far the most productive environment, especially when you hit a wall in your GUI editor (plug: emacs). You will probably want to understand how to traverse the file system, copy files, and pipe bash commands together.

Other bits of popular industry tech include docker, react, Django, etc. Look around online for popular frameworks and tools.

The Art of the Interview

As mentioned above, there's a reality-warping field in the tech industry which has divorced the industry into the holy trinity of the Resume, the Interview, and then the actual Work.

There's an immense amount of advice on the internet about all three of these, but here's what personal experience has taught me:


  1. It must stand out visually but must be familiar.
  2. Be as concise as humanly possible, and convey what you accomplished.
  3. Use active voice. If can stick "by zombies" at the end of the sentence, it won't feel good to the recruiter.


  1. Practice beforehand; map your skills and experience to the position.
  2. Get comfortable with getting stuff wrong. You won't always get the question the instant it's asked. They'll help you, and learn more about you.
  3. Communicate communicate communicate, if you need a second to think, tell them.

Actually working:

  1. Be yourself, but don't be a know-it-all.
  2. Ask questions. Fuck up. Learn. That's the point of co-op.
  3. Dress nicely and be friendly. If you're introverted like me, take the effort to get to know your co-workers.

Invest: In your templates

This section will probably yield the best time savings relative to the effort.

In my previous blog article I described the importance of having an optimized system for editing text, and this section will deal with having optimized systems for producing documents.

I've developed a few such templates, and I'll share three of them.

The Resume and Cover Letter

Before I get into this, I highly recommend using LaTeX or similar templating tools. The websites are nice and easy, but everyone uses it so you may not stand out. I keep my templates in source control and as its text, I can do dirty things to it with emacs.

This is probably my most complex template, as it contains several hundred lines of commented out sections that I add in or remove depending on the context. For example, my resume source has a bunch of these blocks:

%% \entry
%%     {2015}
%%     {}
%%     {I coordinated, managed, and shipped a report on technology in the classroom to the Ontario Minister of Education. \\
%%     Key Skills: \textit{Effective Communication, Problem Solving, Analytical thinking}}

Depending on the job or position, I toggle these sections to better fit my resume to the job. I then compile it and submit it.

Of course, a template also has to have variables. This is pretty easy in LaTeX. In my cover letter, you'll find a bunch of things like:

\newcommand{\recruiterName}{Hiring Team}

And use it like this:

Regarding the \positionTitle{} position currently advertised on

Obviously, for more important applications, I add new handwritten sections and save them for future use.


This one is pretty easy if you're using org-mode. I usually just copy/paste the header of a previous assignment, which looks like:

#+TITLE: CO487 - A2
#+AUTHOR: David Briggs (09876432)
#+EMAIL: [email protected]

#+OPTIONS: toc:nil num:0
#+LATEX_HEADER: \usepackage{mathtools}


Otherwise, you'll probably need to use LaTeX for your CS assignments. Develop a common enough document and reuse it later.

Work Term Report

If you're not familiar, at UW, you need to write a report on something relating to your work term. The grade weighting is all messed up, and the format is weighted as much as the content itself. So, if you have a perfectly formatted template, you can write a few thousand words of hot garbage and pass the assignment.

So, I built an extensive, nearly perfectly formatted template with LaTeX and org-mode. Nearly everything is automated. So when I need to write one, I fill in the variable section (see below), and then spew bullshit.

\newcommand{\theTitle}{Neato Documentation and Tutorial}
\newcommand{\companyCityProvince}{\companyCity{}, Ontario}
\newcommand{\companyPostalCode}{N2L 0Z0}
\newcommand{\companyStreet}{Something Dr}
\newcommand{\currentProgram}{Computer Science}
% … snip (more variables/latex) … %

And that's it. Develop one of these templates in your 1B coop and it'll pay dividends for years to come.


All said UW is like any university, plus the constant job-finding part. It's a lot of work, but if you make good investments, it's way easier.

David Briggs






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