- Sunday, 31 July 2016

University Is Not For Everyone

"University's not for everyone." Yeah, I know. We get told this all the time - whether it's by someone trying to comfort you when you're having a down day, or by someone who feels the need to justify the fact that they didn't go, or even by someone at school when everyone else is applying to places they've had their hearts set on since childhood and you have no idea what to do.

That's where I was three years ago. About to start my final year of school, I had no idea what the future held. At that point I was tentatively considering how to put together a personal statement for French & Philosophy, because I didn't even know what linguistics was (okay truthfully I still don't even though I'm supposedly studying it now). Why tentatively? Because I just didn't feel like that was what I should be doing.

There was a lot I enjoyed about school, but there was also a lot I didn't. I won't go into what I would change about the way things were done there, but will simply say that by the end I was desperate to leave. I felt ready to spread my wings almost as soon as my final year started, and while some people were clinging onto school and dreading the Big Wide World, others were peering out at what we could see of said Big Wide World, eager to get out and explore.

It was this longing to leave that made me question the whole 'higher education' path - I knew with absolute certainty that I didn't want to continue in education. I was going to leave the education system and do something I actually felt drawn to and passionate about, and while everyone else was welcome to their few years of raucous university life, I would quite happily be doing something else.

Or so I thought.

On a quest to have this sentiment taken seriously, I spent hours trawling the internet for university alternatives, reading article upon blog post upon forum thread and more about what people had or had not done in similar situations. I identified the options, narrowed it down to what I saw as the best options for me, and prepared to defend my case.

In a move that was not altogether surprising (she supports pretty much everything I try my hand at), Mum was all in favour of looking at other options. So much so that, having previously been coming up with endless uni courses that she thought might interest me (finding something I actually felt keen to spend years of my life studying was proving trickier than it seemed), she changed tracks and instead helped research non-uni possibilities, knowing that that was ultimately what I wanted to do.

I proudly presented my proposal to the teacher responsible for overseeing my uni application/post-school plan, and was crestfallen to have it cast aside like a silly idea. "You're an academic student, you should be going to university. Now let's have a look at some entry requirements." I put up a fight but was talked into applying, and convinced that my idea was stupid, a whim, nerves, apprehension - nothing worth seriously considering.

Not long after all this, my French teacher put me in for the UK Linguistics Olympiad which I actually really enjoyed, and I decided that that may as well be what I would apply for. Turns out the olympiad could not have been further from what I'm studying now, which is, to be frank, really crap. But hey ho, I wasn't to know.

Long story short(er):
- I swithered and dithered between linguistics and media studies, before settling on one and writing my linguistics personal statement for a grand total of two universities I had found that I would accept offers from (Aberdeen & York)
- was informed that I would be incredibly lucky to get into either of these, or indeed any in the UK, and should look 'further afield'
- looked at fees for American unis and found that for bursaries you are expected to remortgage your house (eh no thanks) so discarded that idea
- had a weird feeling that I shouldn't be too far away in case anything should go wrong at home (which turned out to be kind of spot on), so stopped looking 'further afield' (i.e. Europe)
- spoke to the top dog of overseeing uni applications at school (honestly this man was (is still) adored by every single one of us, most favourite teacher on the entire planet) who told me that "ambition is important and will get you far in life; you should most definitely apply for the ones you want" so that's exactly what I did
- was told by original 'you won't get in' teacher that only applying for two is a terrible idea, but one that I justified by explaining I would be rejecting an offer from anywhere else if that was all I got, thanks very much
- was eventually made to add two more unis to my application, of a possible three (Sheffield (still haven't ever been) & Newcastle (where people fell asleep in the subject talk on its open day))
- received my offers (was accepted everywhere I applied HA knew I could do it) and, as promised, rejected Sheffield and Newcastle
- accepted York as my firm and Aberdeen as my insurance, worked hard, met my conditions, and prepared to voyage south

Plain sailing so far? Not so much. And this was where it got rougher. Having properly involved myself with the European Youth Parliament over the summer between school and university, I decided that EYP was my 'thing' much more than anything else. I absolutely loved (still love) everything about it, and as a total bonus could enhance my CV while doing it. Seeing my palpable dread of going to uni, this time it was actually Mum who suggested doing EYP instead. It hadn't occurred to me, because I had resigned myself to the surety of a secured place in further education.

Buoyed by this brilliant suggestion, I composed my email to York to tell them thanks, but no thanks, and left it sitting in my drafts folder. From my point of view, it seemed scary, but an obvious choice. Not so for everyone else. After talking to every single family member from a variety of different standpoints, and yet more internet trawling, I figured I may as well give it a shot for a couple of weeks. The email remained unsent, and off I went.

Although this may all sound quite negative, I want to remind you that this is coming from someone who is almost eternally optimistic and loves throwing themselves into new, unknown and exciting situations. So please understand that I really, really tried.

Freshers week was dreadful. I know now from speaking to people about it since that plenty felt this way, but at the time it really seemed I was the only one not enjoying myself. I went out and joined clubs and activities during the day in the hope of meeting people, but it seemed everyone was either nursing hangovers until the evening for their next night out, or just not bothered enough to take part in anything, so the whole place was permanently deserted.

First year as a whole wasn't a massive lot better. The social side improved, but I eventually accepted that I couldn't be wholly committed to eleven clubs and societies (especially when one (cough rowing cough) takes up approximately every second of your free time). My course was deathly dull ("It's just because we haven't been able to choose our own modules! Next year will be good!") and by the end of the second term, I had explored every corner of York. Honestly. When I look at a map of York, there is nowhere I haven't been. The city (pa, 'city') is absolutely miniscule.

Second year was set to be brilliant - me and two friends living in our own very sweet house by the river, and course modules chosen specifically so that I could study something more like what I had actually expressed enthusiasm for in my personal statement. WELL, WELL, WELL. That's not quite how it went, and by the time I went home for Christmas I knew I didn't want to go back.

I had already bookmarked in my calendar the date at the beginning of January that marked my entire degree's halfway point. That acted as a 'now is when you need to make your actual final decision' signal, so I got going with another load of internet trawling. This time, I wasn't just looking for other people's advice or stories, but for methods of analysing what you want in order to aid with decision-making. I wanted to be sure I was doing the right thing.

But then, as before (and as always, really), I placed a great deal of value on the opinions and advice of my family. Although they could all sympathise, many having been in not dissimilar situations, they all seemed resigned to the fact that nowadays a degree is almost a necessary evil. And so, partly for fear of letting the people around me down, and having also had dreams of running off to Denmark quashed, I stayed. And now I'm about to go into my third and final year.


So what's the point of writing all this? Well, in part it has been selfishly therapeutic for me, as well as helping to organise my thoughts on the whole thing. But also, I'm hoping it can serve as an example that despite what you may see on social media of other people's uni experiences, all may not be as rosy as it seems - I know that seeing everybody else apparently having an amazing time did make me feel pretty isolated.

The main (/kind of only) reason I'm staying now is the small matter of having already signed for another year living in my York house.. because of that, though, I have built a new structure to my life that is based around making uni as okay as possible for one more year (basically coming back up every weekend to my wonderful friends and wonderful job all here in wonderful Edinburgh).


Moral of the story?

If you don't feel 100% like you completely, absolutely, totally want to go to university, then don't. Really, don't. There is absolutely no point in subjecting yourself to something that could make you so miserable because, useful as that £27,000 piece of paper may be, it is not a requirement. I adore my job and am genuinely excited by the potential career path it brings with it, and it didn't/doesn't require a degree in the slightest. As long as you don't have your heart set on a career that actually requires it (doctor, engineer etc.), then don't waste your time. If you're keen to study something and think you'll enjoy it, by all means go ahead, but don't put yourself through it if you're anything less than convinced.

Further to that, if you're already at uni and you hate it, that's totally okay too. And if uni is nothing more than a distant, slightly negative memory, that's also completely fine.

Life is too short to spend any great length of time doing something supposedly by choice that isn't making you happy. University's not for everyone.

7 comments:

  1. I'm so glad you wrote this, because having just completed my first year of uni I too have many of the same feelings, our experiences have been startlingly similar. (I've made the decision to transfer from Sheffield to London in the hope that I at least get a career headstart that way instead of just wasting another two years...) But I'm also really sad that you've been unhappy enough to be able to write all that! Best of luck for your final year and enjoy the bits of life that really do make you happy. I'm rooting for you!! <3

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    1. Oh no, I'm so sorry to hear your uni experience hasn't been great! Sounds like you're being proactive about improving your situation though, so I really hope London works out and the rest of your three years are much more enjoyable. And thank you!

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  2. An interesting piece of writing. Whilst I totally agree that university isn't for everyone, some form of further educational qualification absolutely is. Whether one becomes an electrician, bricklayer, weather person or university don, simply having good school results will not get you far in today's globalised world.
    Try to look to the future, say 20 years time, and with hindsight I am sure that you will be able to see that these three years, whilst perhaps a little dull and empty, will have stood you in good stead.
    Your degree, any degree, gives one an instant head start on others and for prospective employers it shows an ability and commitment that they really do value. The opposite is also true; without a degree or formal qualification life is just so much tougher; salaries are that much lower, you are competing with one hand tied behind your back.
    The good news is that you are almost finished and that the world then really does become your oyster (given your previous blog re oysters this may be a bit of a misnomer!)
    Enjoy your final year, you have the finish line in sight. Do not leave with a negative feeling of time wasted but rather with a positive feeling of achievement, of sticking in and seeing things through, of being a winner. You certainly deserve that.

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    1. There's a lot in here that I agree with but I would take issue with the assertion that some form of further educational qualification is absolutely necessary. I realise now that I both went to, and stayed at, university for all the wrong reasons, doing it firstly to prove people wrong who said I couldn't, and then because I didn't want to let anyone down, and felt it was what I 'should' be doing.

      Although I may be glad of a degree in 20 years, I don't think this is set in stone in the slightest and I do maintain that it isn't necessary for everyone. The way my life looks at the moment (which of course is always able to change), I don't think a degree is necessary for me in order to get to where I want to be.

      I think the main point is that these three years can't just be summed up by 'dull and empty'. The whole experience has made me so unhappy that, in my view (which is the only one that can fully appreciate where I stand on it all), a piece of paper validating my time spent there doesn't really make it worthwhile.

      I don't see it purely as time wasted, as it has taught me some valuable lessons (although not so for the education itself), but rather as time better spent elsewhere. At the end of it all, I'm sure (I hope) I will feel proud that I managed to push through, but I do wonder if three years of un-enjoyment are worth it for that.

      Nevertheless, the lease is signed and my guilty conscience of disappointing people around me has made me stay. I will of course continue to make the best of it, as I have endeavoured to do thus far, but I really, truly cannot wait until I can finally leave. Thank you for reading, and also for believing in me.

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  3. I love that you shared this, and I also love your advice that you should go for what you want, even if people say that you don't deserve to. My school tried as hard as they could to stop me from applying to Oxford because "they didn't have contacts there who could get me in". ... I didn't care about their graphs and charts and statistics about where I was a good numerical fit.

    When my decision letters came in, I got into the universities I liked (and loved), and got rejected from the ones I was only applying to because I was told I should. Regardless of how good the uni was. The applications I put my heart into gave me success, and the ones I slogged through did not. (In the US you have slightly different applications for each uni, and on my UCAS I made the bold decision to only apply to Oxford, and therefore tailored the personal statement).

    This is just one example of doing what I knew was right, and it working out for me. It is so so so important to learn and know for yourself :)

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    1. Thank you, really glad you like it! I completely agree that, even subconsciously, we try harder at achieving things we are passionate about and really care about, and a lack of genuine enthusiasm will always show through (as with your various uni applications). We're always more likely to succeed at things we put our heart into, simply because it shows much more obviously than we might realise. The sooner we get our heads round that, the sooner we can start pursuing the things we want!

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