Going to University?

Here’s what you need to know…

Photo by Haneen Krimly on Unsplash

Wahayy! A-level results are out for another cohort in the UK.

Students up and down the UK now mostly know what they’re doing next year, though uncertainty remains for many. It’s been a weird time to be a student — most of those getting A-level results this morning didn’t do “proper” exams and have had two years of being almost totally in the dark about their future, thanks to the pandemic.

Now, that’s almost all over. We seem to be climbing, slowly, out of COVID-19 and into whatever comes next. (COVID-21?)

Going to university is the biggest step in many people’s lives, and the next three, four, or ten years will often be defining for you, your career, your social circles, and so on. But don’t stress. It needn’t be scary.

I went to university two years ago, and I’m still here. I started off as a chemistry student, but I switched to biology (ecology & evolution) before specialising finally in a course called the History and Philosophy of Science, which you can read about here and here.

If the idea of university felt like it would never materialise, but has hit you this morning like a tonne of bricks, you’re not alone. Here’s some lessons I’ve learnt.

University isn’t for everyone. Don’t feel forced into it.

A pet peeve of mine is that Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister from 1997–2007, promised to get 50% of students to university. That target has now been reached. But why was it ever set? Obviously, social mobility is an excellent thing and something we should always aim for — but universities are not the only way that people can move up in the world. And why 50%? It’s a nice round number, but not based on anything. Universities don’t suit everyone — people learn differently, have different goals, different wants and needs and aims in life. That’s totally fine.

If you got your place at university and you’re actually not feeling it — maybe your teachers or your parents pushed you into it — don’t be afraid to say no. Talk to them and tell them it might not be for you, and encourage them to ask you why. Wear your heart on your sleeve. I know plenty of people who came to university and regretted it, and plenty who have loved it.

For myself, I love being where I am, but coming to university made me realise I don’t want to stay forever. Education is a privilege, undoubtedly, but people suit it differently. My brother left school at 16 and now runs a successful marketing business in the fitness industry, giving a presentation last week in cahoots with a Google executive.

Do give university some thought: don’t just go to university because others want it for you. There are plenty of other options. That said, if you do want to go to university, don’t let this dissuade you: as I said, I love being where I am, and so do many others. To use a cliche, follow your heart.

Your subject choice doesn’t have to be final.

As I said, I went to uni as a chemist, became a biologist (after a flirtation with geology), and ended up in history & philosophy. At school, I was mostly into maths, chemistry, and physics. I always wanted to be a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, or perhaps an astronaut — now I’m a writer, a thinker, a philosopher, a historian. I do essays, not maths problems. I love my subjects now, and I’ve loved the route I took to get to the humanities.

My course was designed to be broad, admittedly, but wherever you are and whatever you’re studying: if you don’t see yourself doing your current subject in the long-term, just ask somebody about it! Go to a member of academic or tutorial staff (whatever they call them at your university), email the admissions department, and ask. Don’t be shy: you’re not alone.

Just write these words: “Dear X. I’m really excited to have been accepted into this [Course/University]! However, I’m not totally sure that the subject matter is right for me, and I’m curious about Y. Is it possible to explore this further, or could you pass me onto someone with more information? Thanks! [Name].”

It doesn’t have to be scary — especially as you’re not alone.

Excitement is just fear plus breathing.

Okay, I got that from a Tom Daley interview (I love Tom Daley) during the Olympics, but it’s true.

I was nervous about going to university sometimes, excited other times, and there were many days when it didn’t feel real that I actually achieved what I’d been trying to do for so long. It’s definitely an emotional rollercoaster, so know you’re not alone in feeling whatever it is you’re feeling.

Definitely join Facebook groups, Instagram pages, Reddit threads, and TheStudentRoom forums if you want to either bask in your successes with your future co-students or share in uncertainty and information. It can really help to do so before you join. I still have friends that I made in groupchats from long before I actually stepped through the doors of my uni digs.

Everyone has impostor syndrome. EVERYONE.

Impostor syndrome (n.) — the unremittant feeling of being a fraud and of not really belonging where you are.

I don’t want to brag, but my university is ranked as one of the best in the world. But that isn’t really a brag because rankings really don’t mean an awful lot. University is about challenging yourself, experiencing new things, picking up new skills and hobbies, expanding your social circle: you can’t put rankings on that. All I mean is that my university is a hub of good researchers, most of whom are irrelevant to the daily lives of most students, and that many good schools want to send their students to my university just for the sheer sake of the name.

I have not met a single person at my university who does not have impostor syndrome.

And I’m not exaggerating.

Perhaps there are a lucky few who really think “Wow, I’m here, and I deserve to be.” But the rest of us are fairly sure there was a fluke somewhere along the way, that we got lucky through the admissions process, or that everyone around us was more intelligent and more successful.

To be blunt, if everyone has impostor syndrome, then everyone is wrong. It simply can’t be true logically that everyone is more intelligent than everyone else. You are good at being you, you sold yourself successfully and honestly to the admissions team who reviewed your application, and you deserve to be here as much as anyone else.

If you feel like you don’t belong, remember that everybody you live and study with feels the same (at times, at least) even if they do their best to not let you know that.

Academic grades are significantly less important now than they have ever been.

I don’t want to emphasise this point too strongly — hell, I don’t want you to fail your degree because some guy on the internet told you it wasn’t important.

But honestly? Your academic graft is over unless you want to carry on. University work is hard, for sure, and you’ll probably want to do as well as you can.

But if you’re the sort, like I always was, that spent their entire secondary school career trying to be the best in every exam (I know, it was a sad time) — you can relax. University grading is so very different to secondary school grading, and far less important. It is far more important than it has ever been to balance your time well and to engage in extracurriculars.

Most graduates don’t work in the field in which they graduated, and most employers just want an average grade in your degree plus relevant experience/relevant skills/good social skills/a likeable personality as an employee. You will get so much more out of university, and likely do better in life, if you go to university with the mindset of “I want to perform well enough in exams, and smash the ball out of the park when it comes to engaging in societies and clubs and volunteering opportunities”.

I know plenty who went to university with the approach of “I just want to ace every exam, and I don’t care what happens to my social life, or how else I pad out my CV.” And you know what? Fair enough. Each to their own. For some people, especially those dead-set on academia, this is the best way forwards — but it can take a toll on your mental, social, and physical health to do so.

Just know that studying overtime to do exceptionally well in your academic studies is now a choice you can make of your own volition. I made the choice to sacrifice at least some academic performance in pursuit of many other things (writing, student politics, sports), and I have absolutely no regrets. I’m pleased with my results, but I’m thrilled with my life.

University is not for the rich.

When I was 11, I asked my mum if I could start delivering newspapers in the morning to save up money for university. My siblings and I really grew up with very little money, to the point that I remember my dad apologising for not being able to go and buy anything fancy from the local supermarket when I turned 16. Money hasn’t been hot for us, to say the least.

Going to a pretty prestigious university, I know many students in totally different circumstances. Some of my friends left for the summer to go on yachting holidays. Some live in sprawling, luxurious houses in the best real estate areas in the country. Some have parents in the highest echelons of societies in countries right around the world, either as politicians or financiers or businesspeople or journalists.

But I’m not alone. So many university students come from backgrounds similar to my own, even where I study. In fact, universities are increasingly opening their doors to people from foster families, from disadvantaged backgrounds, to refugees and migrants, to the lower socioeconomic strata of society.

One thing I want you to take away from this is not to be fooled by the price tag. Yes, university is £9250 per year in the UK —it seems elitist, on the face of it. But do you know what happens when university is free? Poor people end up paying for the rich to attend university through their taxes, and the then-limited number of higher education spaces would go only to those from the best schools. Only the rich would go into higher education. The fact that we pay to go to university paradoxically opens up the way for social mobility.

Plus, the way that we pay in the UK is that we pay only a small percentage of whatever we earn above a certain threshold after graduation, and if we have not paid off our student loans by the age of 50, they are wiped clean entirely.

Think it through. Get in touch.

If you’ve got your results today and they aren’t what you want, you will prevail — life is a topsy-turvy path which throws random curve-balls every which way. If you have your results and you aren’t sure what to do with them, take your time. Gap years or not going to university at all are both fantastic options. If you have results that you are utterly delighted with, then I am utterly delighted for you and wish you all the best with whatever you have chosen to do with them.

The important thing for now is that you make choices you are happy with in the present moment and that you can see yourself continuing to be happy with.

Going to university is not something that should be done lightly, but nor is it something that should be avoided at all costs out of terror or uncertainty or both.

Honestly, the best thing you can do is to talk to people. Reach out to your university admissions department if you have any questions. Scour social media sites for other people going to the same place as you, or in your position. Put out forum posts looking for people who might be able to help you. Send out that risky email — they almost always pay dividends.

Just don’t sit there by yourself.

Hi! Thanks for reading. Drop me a message in the comments, on Instagram, or on Twitter if you want to get in touch or need to run anything past a neutral voice. All the best on your results day. :)

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