Surviving (and enjoying) the Canadian winter

From the moment I found out I would be spending a year in Montreal, the horror stories about the crippling Canadian winters began. “Minus 30 degree temperatures every day” they said. “You won’t be able to go outdoors for months” they said. “You’ll need to spend $1000 on a Canada goose jacket and winter boots” they said. I expected and mentally prepared for the worst but soon came to realise that this worry was unnecessary. I mean, Montreal’s snow and regular sunshine versus Manchester’s grey and rainy Winters… I think I know which one I’d rather.

A spot of ice hockey on Parc Lafontaine

Continue reading “Surviving (and enjoying) the Canadian winter”

The end of study abroad

For what seemed like ages, going on study abroad was my next big thing to prepare for and look forward to, but after what seems like a blink of an eye, it’s over. I’m still getting my head round this and will probably not need much prompting at all to talk about my year for the foreseeable future (hopefully not in too much of a gap-yah style).

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Start of Winter Semester: The Blog

I am back for semester two and my blogs are back too. Have a read on if you can control  your excitement, it’s probably going to be an update up until now and reflections on McGill. What a cracker.

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My life at McGill until now in a nice blog post

I thought I would update you all on my life at McGill University since the last blog update until now, because I have done a lot and seen a lot and you might like to read about it.


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McGill Orientation Week

Nothing quite sums up North American Uni life more than this

McGill Orientation week, also known as ‘Frosh’,  has been and gone and what a week it was. It’s carefully crafted to include academic introductions and guidance, nights out, day events all over Montreal and involve everyone. It’s probably the best way to start your McGill experience.

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Canada, Montreal and McGill: first impressions

I came to Canada about 10 days ago now with family, to combine holiday with sorting my life out. We spent a week or so in Montreal, exploring various areas of the island (it is an island), meeting my landlord and dealing with the bank. Continue reading “Canada, Montreal and McGill: first impressions”

Academic expectations

Harry at McGill in Montréal


Academic expectation at McGill. This is the blog that I’ve been putting off the longest and that has been for two reasons. The first is that it would probably be the least engaging to write whilst the second was because I had to find a way to write it so as not to put future prospective exchanges at McGill off.

Though I realise in confessing that it somewhat undoes my efforts.

There are distinct differences to the academic system they have over here relative to the one the UK has and invariably these differences will be viewed as good or bad differently for every person and degree. Outlining some of these differences will hopefully shed some light on what to expect for people considering McGill.

McGill operates a continual assessment system the result of which is that the only time you won’t have a deadline is in the first week of term when you’re still learning your professor’s names. Regularly I have been absent-mindedly chatting to someone in lectures and they have mentioned an exam or assignment due the next week which I have known nothing about (there is very little hand holding).

Talking to humanities students this works quite well however since the majority of learning done in the arts is in one’s owns time via assigned ‘readings’. The persistent roll of assignments provides a faithful motivator for these readings.

In the sciences there is less of an obvious benefit although in my opinion, due to limitations in any human’s capacity to take on new information, the breadth and depth of content covered here is less than that covered in Manchester. What struck me in the first few weeks was the asymmetry between what I knew compared to my peers. Though they were infinitely better at managing their time. This is the largest distinction in university styles. The rest are just novelties that add to the academic experience:

  • Teaching assistants (TAs) wield more power than PhDs probably should. Befriend them or suffer.
  • People actually use ‘rate my professor’ sites. Definitely worth checking out prior to signing onto courses.
  • You can actually view exam transcripts and get marks back if you put forward a convincing enough case!
  • Exams aren’t really standardised or decided upon by a committee, they are simply made up by a professor. So in this sense it worth going to their lectures where they’ll probably let slip what they’re going to put on tests. Or at least the lectures during the run up to the exam.
  • You get a lot more choice concerning the types of course you pick. Hence people pick a selection of ones they find interesting (often hard ones) and ‘birdies’ (easy courses that ensure you maintain a good grade point average). Identify the birdies you’re eligible to take.
  • Exams results are usually fitted to a curve against the best result. So if you ace it and no one else does… your selfish.
  • People take pride in the study places they’ve found on campus.

No hour at McGill is an inappropriate hour to hit the library. In fact on several occasions I’ve consolidated friendships with people I’ve just met by studying with them. It is not like only people who want top marks go to the library. Everyone does. All the time. McGill’s equivalent of nightline often serves coffee gone 8pm at the library.

I like to think of the lifestyle here like breathing. Often you might need to work during the weekends, but if you manage your time well this isn’t always the case. Resultantly weekends become the time you can ‘inhale’ and do all the things you enjoy doing that leave you in a positive and restful head space.

The following week sees you ‘exhale’, where all the positivity is converted into library hours and hard work to ensure you’re getting what regularly seems like an insurmountable amount of jobs done.

Don’t worry though. It is surmountable. Having written this it has become glaringly obvious why McGill’s informal motto is ‘work hard, play hard’.

First few weeks

Harry at McGill in Montréal


Salut from Montréal!

It has been a hectic two months so there will be some task to condense everything into one page of text (with hind sight this didn’t happen). For my regular readers (ha) I’ll update you on the situation as it was presented in the previous blog post.

Found a charming flat in the trendy district of the Plateau living with three other exchanges all of whom are from France. Excellent opportunity to learn some French. The only problem that has presented itself thus far was the berating comments received when England shamefully left the rugby world cup so early…

The saturation of French language speakers is high in the Plateau (it is half-outside the student bubble of Concordia and McGill) however since term has started the French/English language encounters has balanced. If anything Francophones are harder to come by now and so I’m thankful for the company of my flatmates, though it is something to bear in mind for those wishing to practice their French whilst in Montréal…

Inevitably you make friends. Obviously. So long as you don’t get intimidated by culture and change etc. etc. Though I feel anyone reading this has already made the transition to University at least once and so really I am providing no new information.

Continuing with more interesting matters, there is a plethora of things to do in Montréal and with McGill specifically. However for anyone reading this it would probably be quite annoying to just read about all the ‘cool’ things someone has done without any real advice. Similar to Facebook where you will see everyone else’s photos and activities and wish you were there doing them instead, as such I’ll only mention things that I can attach a cheeky bit of advice to. There is also a darker side to the First Few Weeks at McGill, but that’ll be in another blog that’ll follow this one shortly…

First things first. Exchanges have the opportunity to take part in Frosh, which is the equivalent of Fresher’s week. You have a few options of activities to choose from though for most people it boils down to faculty frosh or outdoors frosh. There is also a radical frosh for the more righteous and activist members of us student types though this has far fewer places and generally doesn’t seem as raved about… Faculty frosh is a week of partying hard with a frosh group (similar to Manchester Medic PBL group. We all know one) and is more akin to fresher’s as we know it in the UK. Outdoor frosh is a long weekend of either kayaking, hiking, canoeing, cycling or rock-climbing in the great Canadian outdoors.

As a member of hike frosh 2015 I’d vouch for that over faculty. Many members of faculty wished they did outdoors. Then some outdoors wished they’d done a little more partying… Ultimately there will be plenty of time to explore both the outdoors and sample Montréal nightlife, so this decision isn’t critical. Get involved with Frosh in some way however!

Second thing. During the first week there is an open air pub (OAP) on campus that serves as a vital component of getting to know people. Serving relatively cheap beer and hosting a stage with live bands and DJs it is distinctly cool. It is situated at what you will later come to know as the y-intersection and its aim is to fill the blank that you may have when you ask a newly made acquaintance if they want to go and get a drink somewhere and they reply ‘whereabouts?’. Since, after all, you only arrived in the country a week ago.

McGill is huge on sports relative to UK universities (though apparently not so much compared to other North American universities) and as such they have a popular intermural league for almost every sport. I signed up for a ‘soccer’ and ultimate Frisbee team (the latter had to be dropped due to the ‘dark side’ of McGill) and was only lucky enough to do so because I stumbled across the free agent meeting. If you are into sports, but not that competitive, actively find out about the intermural leagues! Met some pretty laid back folk doing it and had some good times playing awful quality football.

Facebook harbours a myriad of McGill only Facebook groups that are pretty useful when it comes to sorting life out. You can become a member as soon as you have been issued you r McGill email ( To date they’ve helped me find a place to live, eat for free on campus (develop a love for Samosas if you don’t already have one), buy second hand gear for my apartment and generally waste time enjoying the comic things people have to post. Think along the lines of Spotted University of Manchester.

The second hand store game in Montréal is strong. Despite people generally being very worked out and well dressed (I felt shabby as anything as a British exchange) there are plenty of thrift shops. Fripperies in the Plateau are a little more expensive but there are a couple more bulk sale ones if you venture to take the metro (Village Valeurs to name but one).

The McGill outdoors club (MOC) is an incredible society to get involved with. Would highly recommend to anyone with even a modest interest in the outdoors. They make Manchester Hiking Society look so tame it’s a little bit startling. MOC has executives dedicated to each mode of transportation you might commonly use in the outdoors, recently appointing a horse-back exec. Just to give you some perspective on how big they actually are. They host a listserv where they will post their organised trips, but also where any MOC may post an outdoors trip they are planning as an invitation for any MOC member to come and join them. It really is a very community orientated setup.

Tam-tams is a drumming circle situated at the base of Mont Royal (lovely mountain; underwhelming cross) that takes place every Sunday. It is very chilled. It is a very anything goes environment where every participant plays to their own rhythm, but the discordance stacks up to generate something fairly aesthetic.

Additionally, if you are a massive square and enjoy going to lame cultural things like museums and art galleries you will be satisfied here. Located a mere five minute walk from the university campus there is a fine arts museum which would takes about seventy hours to complete fully. McGill also has its own Redpath museum which is a nice place to spend a few hours hungover. These are just two near/on campus, however, and there is in fact many more though my personal favourite so far has been the Contemporary Art Museum. It is hard not to be creatively/emotionally engaged whilst standing in an empty white-washed room, gazing at an empty glass box with the sound of a woman’s sobbing emanating from it.

Tune in next week (or other, longer unit of time) for Academic Expectation.

Second Semester

By John Charlton ( McGill University, Canada)

A new semester is well underway, and I begin part two of my study abroad period. Physics students usually take a year rather than a semester abroad as matching courses is key to continue studies in fourth year. I felt that last semester my courses matched very well to those back home, and even those topics I had already learnt were shown in a different way. The new semester courses seem to follow on well and I look forward to the topics.

The winter here stays at a comfortable -20°, and snow piles on every day. Commuting is no problem as roads and pavements are kept immaculately clear of snow. Also, the underground city connects most of the downtown area by heated commercial tunnels, as well as a metro line to get further out. Though there is little snow where people walk, the displaced snow is piled up on the edge of paths and the corner of buildings sometimes a few meters high.

Adorable, sociable squirrels frolicking around in the snow
Adorable, sociable squirrels frolicking around in the snow.

Taking advantage of the Canadian winter, I have been on a ski trip. It was with the McGill International Students Association, with whom I’ve been on trips to Toronto and New York. It took place over a weekend including Friday. We arrived during the evening and after collecting gear went for night skiing. The mountain had floodlit paths that allowed for skiing while the sun was down, leaving incredible views of the nearby towns. During the days even greater views could be had. I had not skied for a few years, but after a couple of warm-up falls I was back on form. The accommodation was at the foot of the mountain where we could watch the skiers while eating dinner next to a toasty fire.

The academics of studying here are, in contrast to what I expected, quite similar to that in Manchester. The workload is the same, but here a bit more emphasis is placed on assignments and the midterm, whereas Manchester would put more on the final exam. Still, I feel the amount of work and pressure of the different sections is still the same, as is the teaching style. The department here is smaller, my classes consisting of between ten people to forty, compared to 200. The classes with only a handful of people in are those I find most interesting, as the learning is more informal and discussions can break out between the lecturer and students. I find these make it much easier to understand topics and gain a greater understanding, as they become more personalized.

Art display of moving prisms casting intriguing colors on the snow
Art display of moving prisms casting intriguing colors on the snow.

I returned home over the Christmas holidays to catch up with family and friends. For the first time in my memory I did not have exams in January looming over the holidays, and it felt good! It is definitely preferable to get exams done before the holidays as it gave time to relax and gloat to friends who do have such exams.

Returning to Canada from England did not bring about the highs and lows of when I first moved here. I feel I have settled down in Canada, and I look forward to what the rest of the semester brings!

McGill 101

By John Charlton (McGill University, Montreal, Canada)

Montreal, to me it is a city with something always going on. Walking the streets one can come across underground art galleries at 11pm, the infamous Tam-Tams weekly festival. There is a fantastic blog about Montreal which informs of events both quirky and mainstream, ranging from foam and body paint parties to cat cafes to pubs centered on board games to socialize. By engaging and immersing with people the opportunity for other possibilities arises, leading on from one another in a progressive story of satisfaction and adventure in a new city.

The view from Mont Royal, which the city is names after
The view from Mont Royal, which the city is named after.
A nighttime illumination of the Chinese botanical gardens
A nighttime illumination of the Chinese botanical gardens

My adventure started with frosh week, another freshers week. It was a week of all-day and all-night activities. During the day it introduced me to the student areas and attractions. At night the downtown area turned into an inebriated party as everyone on the street made their way to clubs and parties. The whole week carried a feeling of crisp excitement in the air.

Soon after this, lectures kicked off. I am only doing four modules each semester, compared to six back home. This leaves me worried which courses to focus on. It would need a careful balance between topics that would teach a lot, but would not be too challenging. I realised that the best choice is to go with the ones that seemed most sensible. Similar to Manchester, the courses I took involve some third year courses, as well as some fourth year topics. The undergraduate degree in McGill is only three years, meaning that one graduate tutor I have assisting a course is also a fellow student in another!

The lecture populations range from thirty people to twelve, which creates a more personal lecture compared to Manchester classes of over a hundred people. The opportunity to question and discuss topics is more possible, though some courses have so much information to cover that there is not much time during lectures, although all professors have open office hours to ask them questions as well. I was expecting a large change from Manchester in regards to assessments, (here they have continuous marking with less emphasis on the final exam) which is somewhat true due to how much they weigh the weekly homeworks, coming to about 20% of the overall mark, as well as a midterm of about 20%. The biggest change I feel (and by far the better way of doing this) is that the exam season is from early to mid-December. It cost a couple of weeks from the summer holiday, but pays off as the Christmas season can be enjoyed without the worry of exams looming overhead. This of course means that my exams are in three weeks and lectures are finishing in two weeks.

Unveiling the worlds largest Brownie, made by McGill staff. Weighing 2 tonnes and feeding about 20,000 people!
Unveiling the worlds largest brownie, made by McGill staff. Weighing two tonnes and feeding about 20,000 people!

One thing looming just beyond the horizon is the inevitable snow. Already it has snowed what I would consider a nice amount, giving the untrodden paths a layer of white. However, this is to Montreal what one small raincloud is to Manchester, and I look forward to the next semester where winter will last until April time. Montreal is equipped to survive this time with an underground “city” connecting much of downtown shops and attractions with warm cosy pathways.

It has been a thoroughly enjoyable time here so far. There are many interesting and diverse people, innumerable activities and events, and it is with great excitement that I continue onwards.

Adventures in Canada

By Rachel So (McGill University, Montréal, Canada).

The semester in McGill ends very early compared to Manchester. My last exam was on the 29th April. I spent May and June travelling around North America. Having spent four months in Montreal, it was great to explore different parts of Canada. Canada is a very diverse country and each city I visited was very different. Here are some of the places I visited.


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Niagara Falls

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Studying at McGill


By Rachel So (McGill University, Montréal, Canada).

I have now finished my semester abroad at McGill. The four months have been both a joy and a challenge. Academically, it has been tough. There are a number of differences between Manchester and McGill:

Firstly, there is more regular assessment throughout the semester at McGill. In Manchester, the majority of your mark is based on the final exam. But in McGill, there are may midterms, essays, presentations and quizzes that need to be completed throughout the semester. This means that you have to stay on top of your work. If you slack off, you’ll find that you are very far behind!

Secondly, the attitude towards studying is very different at McGill. The majority of the people at McGill care a lot about their education. This means that they are willing to work very hard and put in a lot of effort. Students are also willing to help one another out. Students are always willing to email the lecture notes they made in class to other students who have missed lectures.

Thirdly, everything is much more intense at McGill. The semesters are four months long, with one reading week in March. There is no study break before final exams. During the semester, there is more content to learn in lectures. Each lecture is packed with so much information. This means that you end up learning a lot, but it is a very tiring in the process.

Reflecting at my time at McGill, I definitely felt like I learnt here than at my semester at Manchester. The whole attitude towards studying is different and it is clear that people care a lot more about their education. This has pushed me to work harder and has given me to opportunity to learn many new things. However, I am not sure if I would be able to sustain this lifestyle! It was manageable for one semester but I don’t know if I would be able to take four years of this amount of work. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to study at McGill and I know that I have learnt many new things.