The question I've always hated the most is "if you were to do it all again, what would you do differently?" The reason I hate it so much is because in hindsight, everything seems possible. In hindsight, all your mistakes seem predictable and avoidable. But only in hindsight. Hindsight's always 20/20. Foresight seldom is.
A better question to ask is: "what's the best way to detect that you're about to make the same mistake you've made once before already?" Sounds like a minority report of sorts, but this question at least has some usefulness to it in comparison to the former.
But yesterday, as I was walking from the math building to the physics building which is where I have all my classes this term, something very profound struck me as I was wondering how I'd do things differently. And it's that Waterloo allows you to get a free Waterloo "degree" without you paying them a single cent.
Think about it for a moment. Being a formally registered student doesn't really benefit you that much. Let's see how we might take advantage of this.
Here's how a rough game plan might look.
You arrive at Waterloo in September after obtaining your free Grade 12 degree in June. But 3 months before you arrive, you'll have found a fairly close place to live in off-campus because you won't be allowed to live on campus. It'll need to be fairly close since you won't be able to bus for free. So something on Philip, Sunview, Lester, Westmount or Keats Way should work pretty well. The rent for a decent room on these streets should be around $450-$500 per month. If you already live in Kitchener/Waterloo, you're better off just buying the monthly bus pass and pitching camp at your parents'.
Once you arrive, you then use the most widely used online tool on campus known as the UW Schedule of Classes (SOC) to plan out a schedule for yourself based on the courses you're interested in. For the first two terms, you can probably copy the courses from your favorite academic plan. All these plans are available online without login. For example, a list of courses for nano engineering can be found here.
Because you won't have a calendar built automatically for you the way people with Quest access have, you'll need to use an online tool like the UW Schedule Generator by James, or a more sophisticated app like Outlook or Google Calendar to build one for yourself.
Once you know what classes you want to take, you go to class everyday at the scheduled time. Everyone else is going to assume you're a formally registered student. There's no way they're going to know you're not unless you tell them. Congratulation, you now have access to an unlimited quantity of free lectures.
This is a rough sketch of the plan. Let's now try to address some of the problems we may encounter by virtue of not being registered.
If you need textbooks, you can buy them at the UW bookstore. You don't need to be registered to buy textbooks. But that would be stupid since books at UW bookstore are heavily over-priced. You're better off buying used international editions off abebooks.com or something similar.
You can't use the used bookstore since you need a watcard to do that. But you can find people who are taking your next term's courses this term (using SOC again) by approaching them towards the end of the term, and buying the book off them directly at a subsidized price. It saves them the hassle of having to drop off their book at the used bookstore and wait until it's sold and then go back again to pick up their cheque. You can also buy bound course notes from Graphics/PixelPlanet without a watcard, so you're clear there.
Sure, you can't check out books at the library. That might suck a bit. But if you're motivated enough, you can read all the books you want at the library itself, or you could find one or more friends from your classes who are willing to check out books for you. If you use the free library internet connection at DP/DC, you also have free unlimited access to all the top journals without a library card.
Sure, you won't have meal plans and subsequent discounts when you eat on-campus. But on-campus food sucks anyway, and everyone knows the "discount" they give you isn't really a discount: they've already deducted the discount at the start of the term.
You'll definitely need a printer since you won't be allowed to print anywhere on-campus. Maybe one of your housemates will have one that you can mooch off in return for some money. Push comes to shove, there's always UW Graphics and also Kinkos down the street. Photocopying shouldn't be a problem since there's a few coin photocopiers around campus. UW Graphics will also do photocopying for you which thankfully accepts cash, credit and debit cards in addition to watcards.
Since you won't have access to Quest, you can't do the more complex searches on courses to find out, for instance, all the CS courses that run on Mon, Wed, Fri from 2:30-3:30pm. You could probably write a UW SOC scraper and import it into a MySQL database or something to query it. Or you could find someone who's done the hard work for you already. Scott from uwlive.ca fame probably has that database without an exposed interface for it. Or you just need to find a registered friend who is willing to run the query on your behalf. Just pretend Quest is down for you for some reason.
You won't be able to do any of the labs since lab groups are small and attendance will be taken. Save yourself the embarrassment of the instructor discovering you're not on the class roster. So wet labs and general science labs are out of the question. For CS/software labs, you'll usually need a NEXUS or UNIX account to login into, which you won't have. So you'll need to bring your own laptop. Or borrow your neighbor's credentials.
The worst part of not registering at UW is the lack of wireless access. If you're lucky, you might get a weak uw-guest signal, but that's only in very specific locations. But I'm sure you can find someone who is willing to trust you with their Quest password so long as you assure them you won't drop any of their courses half-way through the term. Find someone who doesn't care about their grades, or has incredibly good grades that hiding them from everyone is unnecessary. You could probably pay him $100 and talk him into it. Alternately, you could perhaps tether your laptop to your iPhone data plan or something. Or you could use something like MiFi, host your own personal wifi hotspot and charge other people for it.
You won't get an email address or email account. But UW email sucks anyways, so just use gmail, which is free. You won't have access to UW-ACE. This could be a slight problem. You'll need to get a friend to email you all the lecture slides and assignments periodically throughout the term. Or you'll need to get them off from him using a USB key periodically. However, with technologies like Dropbox, you just need to find someone in class who always downloads everything from a course into a particular folder (file packrats as the name goes), and get him to share that folder with you on Dropbox. This way, both yours and your friend's net extra work is virtually zero.
Even still, you won't receive the emails profs send through UW-ACE, and you can't send emails to all students in the class when you have an uncleared doubt. Not a major concern. If you have an uncleared doubt, just phone the prof or TA or ask them in person the next day. They have no idea you're not registered in the class, let alone in the University.
You won't be able to write midterms and finals because most profs take attendance and check for watcards. But there's still a lot of profs that don't do that, so feel free to crash the party, optionally in a chicken suit. If they suddenly start checking for watcards 10 minutes into the exam, pretend like you're abysmally sick with H1N1, walk out the exam hall with the question sheet, and go do the exam on your own time at home.
Since you won't have access to Jobmine, you'll need to find your own job. Bummer. But having good friends will help you a lot here. I know a number of non-co-op students in CS, like Paul, who do this already. In some sense, this whole idea of a free "degree" will work a lot better if you work towards a CS or software degree. At software job interviews, you can just tell the interviewers that you know x, y, and z, without proof. You can tell them that you've "taken" courses in x', y', and z'. After a few challenge questions, the interviewer should be reasonably convinced you know your stuff even though you have no proof of your knowledge. This trick is a lot easier to pull off with CS and software jobs than for any other type of job. I know this for a fact since that's how I secured not only every co-op job I've had so far, but also my full-time job.
With CS and software jobs, the interviewer is going to ask you challenge questions anyways. Just because you got 97% on distributed computing 2.5 years ago doesn't mean you know jack about distributed computing. Or even if you did know something, it doesn't mean you remember it 2.5 years later, and even if you remember something, it doesn't mean you know how to apply your knowledge to everyday practicality. So from the interviewer's stand point, it doesn't make a difference at all whether you took the course or not. All that he cares is if you know your stuff now, and if you can perform your job function efficiently, period. How you obtained that knowledge is (and should be) absolutely irrelevant.
If you don't get a co-op job, no big deal, just come back to school for another study term. It's not like you have to tell anyone or change academic streams. But if you do find a co-op job, you'll have to post your sublet only on Craigslist since the UW off-campus housing website requires Quest login to post sublets.
It's probably a lot easier to pull something off like this today than it was five years ago. And I can assure you it will be even easier a few years from now unless Waterloo sees this as a problem and does something concrete about it. This is one of those tricks that'll work as long as too many people don't start doing it to make it noticeable. Thankfully, doing this requires more work unlike getting an unpaid bus ride which takes less work (sneak in through the back door).
So the number of people successfully executing this plan will be somewhat capped due to the high levels of motivation required to go through with the plan. If this plan fails disastrously, no big deal. Just enroll at Waterloo like a regular student, and challenge all the courses you feel confident about by passing the final exam without taking the course formally for credit.
At the end of the day, you'll save some $50k (or more) in wasted tuition fees, co-op fees, endowment fees, student society fees, FEDS fees, FEDS administered fees, and student services fees. And what's better, you can skip all the wasteful parts of your degree like lab reports, work term reports, PD, PDENG, etc. that don't really teach you much for the amount of time you put into it. The possibilities and variations on this plan are endless: you're only limited by your own motivation, resourcefulness, and um, creativity.
Instead, use all this saved time to focus on the real meat. Finish your UW degree in only 5-6 semesters similar to what Steve Pavlina did. Overload yourself with 6-7 courses each term. And don't waste time running around campus getting approval for override forms when you have time conflicts or unit overloads. Since your only major costs should be housing, food, and other general living expenses, the faster you finish your degree, the less you have to pay for these day-to-day amenities.
The final nail on the coffin? It's something you should already know. Your undergraduate degree is only a piece of paper and means nothing to anyone, except perhaps to the people who know nothing about what you know, like your relatives and your parents. It gives you some supposed credibility, but after your first real job, it doesn't matter anymore; your results at your first job will count way more. It's for you to ask yourself if such a piece of paper and such vague claims of credibility is worth $50k to you.
If a smart, studious and serious Grade 12 student approached me today and told me he wanted to obtain a free Waterloo "degree", he can be assured he will have my fullest support in showing him or her how to navigate the system and weave through the many loop holes we've got. I'll agree to be the inside man if he can prove he has what it takes to pull off such a incredulous feat.
In fact, I wouldn't be too surprised if there are already several unregistered students today who go to Waterloo and are applying the above techniques every single day. It just seems so obvious.
If I were to do it all over again, this is perhaps what I'd do differently.