Going to university is always sold to us as “the best time of our lives”. It is perceived as this ultimate, life-changing experience that is full of amazing memories. However, the reality is that it is a balancing act full of high and low moments, and can often feel lonely and overwhelming. Zaynah Akhtar discusses why this unrealistic expectation to “always do and achieve more” will not give us the most fulfilling university experience; and she instead encourages us to adopt a more positive-mindset in making the most of our time in general, because life doesn’t end after graduation.
Going on as many nights out as you can. Joining every society that seems like it could be of interest to you. Meeting up with your friends as much as possible and creating memories. Finding your “Will and Kate” relationship. Getting the best grades possible. These are all aspects of the “ultimate” university experience that we are all pressured to have.
After high school, there was a lot of pressure to get accepted into university. We all aimed for the best schools we could get into and most of us were taught that university is a necessary step in our immediate future. It is generally accepted in society that as young people we need to attend university to obtain a high-profile job.
And with this whirlwind of change and pressure comes a phrase that is thrown around all too often: “university will be the best time of your life!” While this is true in some aspects, the new freedom, the introduction to many new friends and studying a subject you’re passionate about can, at times, feel like the best moments of your life. But with this idea comes an enormous amount of pressure due to it creating high expectations. And unrealistic expectations will always doom us to unhappiness.
It creates the idea that our years at university will be the last years we have for unadulterated fun and to act without (total) responsibility. And that once we’re graduated we need to grow up, find a job and act more appropriately. But time at university seems to move forward quite quickly and with this comes the fear that you need to enjoy every minute of it before it flies by.
Multiple questions can crowd your mind at times: Should you be attending more events? Are you doing well enough in your studies? Should you be meeting more people? Is everyone else having a better time than me? These constant comparisons to other students are unhealthy and are fuelled by our fear of wasting our time at university. You or your family have worked hard to cover the costs of university; so if you’re not enjoying the experience entirely or making use of your time here, should you feel guilty or ungrateful?
The fear of “missing out” is pretty prevalent in our generation. I can honestly say I’ve fallen victim to it numerous times, and so have my friends. There is this constant desire to stay connected to what others are doing. Social media is a constant reminder of this – every time we switch on our phone we can see everything our peers are doing without us. It can be the smallest of situations, such as whether you should stay in when your friends/flatmates are going out, and potentially miss out on a great experience. But realistically, we can’t attend everything. And going out frequently can become expensive - something particularly difficult for students who have to already deal with financial stresses and budgeting. Instead of obsessing over what you could/should be doing, try to experience what is happening in the moment. Focus less on potential losses of a ‘greater’ time and think more about what you can gain with what you’re doing instead.
University isn’t parties, seeing your friends or doing work all the time. You will have some free time; sometimes this can be boring and even isolating. When you’re on your own at university, it’s extremely difficult to ignore. In fact, you’ve never been more aware of it. It is also definitely hard when you’re expected to be independent and have to go a long time without seeing your family. Homesickness can make you feel childish when you’re surrounded by people who appear to be thriving in their freedom-filled life at university. But it’s important to remember that even though it may seem like the students around you are having a more fulfilling experience at university, we are all going through parts of university that are pretty terrible. Some people just hide it better.
On top of this, aiming to achieve high grades while having a number of distractions is challenging; It can be very difficult to juggle the several commitments we have each year towards societies and clubs, alongside academia. Also, the idea that a 2:1 or a 1st class award is the only worthwhile degree to get creates a lot of pressure and anxiety. Because we’ve already gotten into university, we’re not really expected to struggle a lot at this stage, and instead we’re predicted to naturally excel. I’m not saying aiming to do well in our education is a bad thing, but the extreme pressure to have consistent high grades causes a lot mental health issues to flare up and can often make our grades even worse over the academic years.
However, one thing is for certain: university is a time for growing independently as a person and getting through a lot of difficult situations you may not have encountered before. We may learn a lot of lessons at university, but not all of them can be taught to us from our textbooks. It’s packed with highs and lows, but it’s important to always put your wellbeing first, before any of these expectations that society places on you. If you forget to take care of yourself, then all these pressures are most definitely going to get to you. In these times, don’t forget that you always have people to turn to.
Everyone’s experience of university, academically and socially, will be different. I don’t believe university should be sold to us as the “best times of our lives”. Instead of falling into this mind-set, we should live our time at university as best as we can and continue to have just as many fulfilling moments after graduation. Life doesn’t stop after university and it certainly isn’t destined to go downhill either.
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