Guide to University: stress

Let’s talk stress.

The education system these days is built to be stressful, and my particularly secondary school excelled at creating the most stressful environment – and that was just for the end of year exams when we were 12, let along the actual GCSEs or A levels when we were 16-18. You could say that I’ve experienced a lot of stress, just as most people have, but when it comes to university it’s very different – at least, that’s what I’ve found.

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In secondary school, a lot of pressure was put on – and although I am talking from my own personal experience, from talking with people I’ve met it’s usually a guarantee that there is pressure. It was all about getting those GCSEs to get into a good sixth form, then getting good AS results to get university offers, then getting your actual A levels to get into university. There was a lot of pressure, talks about what you should be doing, and over-the-top comments about futures working at McDonalds if we didn’t revise trigonometry.

In university, I’ve found it to be very different. Instead of constant talks about exams and essays, they’re mentioned almost in passing. Oh yeah, you guys have an essay due soon, the essay titles are up online. Boom, that’s it, no more, move along, get to it. The stress isn’t put into you by others – no, instead, you are the one who will get stressed on your own. Personally, I worry about everything. Literally everything. I’m early, even when I’m late, and over-plan everything, double checking with friends about times and places and what’s happened and dress code and – god, it’s a stress just waking up sometimes (especially when I have 9ams). When it comes to exams and essays, I worry slightly in the run-up but the actual fear and anxiety doesn’t start to choke me until a month or so beforehand. It can be overwhelming, especially if you deal with anxiety on a daily basis. There isn’t any hand-holding at university, and dealing with everything on your own can be daunting. There’s no point lying and saying that really it’s all ok and you’ll be fine, because the truth is you need to work your arse off to even do average – at least, that’s how I am.

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The trick? Well, there isn’t one – and if there is a trick, then it’s different to everyone. Maybe you work better being in the library from dawn until dusk every day, or maybe you’re better at doing only half an hour every day for months upon end. I hate the library with a vengeance – even when I don’t have exams or essays coming up, just walking through the silent halls and creeping past people scribbling on paper or typing furiously at a computer freaks me out. I feel stressed whenever I try to work there, so normally I avoid it until I have to go to find books for said essays and exams.

My trick to combat stress? Take it one day at a time. I can’t work with timetables that map out my work for the next few weeks, it just makes me more stressed when I get behind schedule – and, trust me, I get behind schedule. I like to make a few lists of what I need to do for each subjects, and then each day I break them down. I pick one or two things to focus on each day. And if I don’t finish them? Not a problem, just finish it off the next day.

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Also use reward system – trust me, it’s a beautiful thing. You need restraint, yes, but if you set yourself achievable – let me just stress that again, achievable – goals that aren’t stupid like ‘write down the title’, then reward yourself at certain points. For example you could do so much as to say get halfway through an essay, or just write the introduction, yet for me I do it at the very end goal of finishing the essay. For exams it’s a more gradual process, so I of course celebrate when they’re over, but I also set mini goals throughout. Such as work through a set amount of lectures, or make all the notecards, or plan out as many practice questions as possible. Again, it’s taking one thing at a time.

I suppose university is only good for a certain mindset. If you need someone to tell you exactly what to do and when to do it, university probably isn’t for you. Hell, I’m at the end of my second year and I still haven’t been told how to write an essay. I’ve just been told not to write an ‘A level’ one, whatever that means.

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I’m not sure how helpful this guide can be, as really it’s just advice for a younger version of me as these are the tricks that work for me, but trust me when I say I can understand stress. I know how, well, stressful it is. It’s tiring just being stressed, and most days I just want to stay in bed and call in a sick day. But there’s no stopping time, no matter how hard you wish for the hands on the clock to just pause for a moment, so you just need to take it one step at a time. What’s that cliche phrase about how every marathon starts with a single step? You know the one. Think of that cliche whenever you’re stressed, and then laugh at yourself for being so cliche. Cheer yourself up with whatever cheers you up – whether that’s seeing your friends, eating copious amounts of chocolate, watching an episode of your favourite show, playing with your dog – and then tell yourself to just work a bit longer for that day. That’s all it takes. It’s a long haul, but in the end it’s worth it.

At least, I think it is. I’ll let you know next year.

Shit. Next year I finish university. Now I’m stressed. Again. Luckily I’ve just booked a trip home so I can play with my dog and take it one day at a time.

 

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Why the education system is flawed

As a seventeen year old student about to face my final exams that will essentially determine the rest of my life, I think that I have a bit of experience in the education system from when you first learn your times tables up until you’re eighteen trying to get the grades that your university offers are demanding.

I’ve already ranted and raved about how ridiculous I think it is that we have to decide our whole lives before we’re even deemed ‘adults’ (because of course as soon as we hit the age of eighteen we immediately become sensible, knowledgable adults). I have friends who didn’t do so well in their exams and are suddenly stuck because no university wants to take them in, meaning that they have to reevaluate their whole life plan. Another friend of mine has applied to, and received offers from, universities but since she applied a few months ago she’s realised that she doesn’t want to study what she’s applied to do. Instead, she wants to do something entirely different and is currently debating how she’s going to change it now. Luckily someone in my school realised a few weeks before applying to universities that she wanted to take an art foundation course rather than medicine.

So what is it that I’m really ranting about today? I’ll tell you the one word which simultaneously strikes fear into our hearts, makes us groan in frustration and have mental breakdowns multiple times a day: Exams.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get that we all have to do exams but the exams that we have to take these days are bordering on pointless. Let me give you my education for example and I’ll start with my GCSEs. I’m considered to be a ‘good’ student but I can safely say that I don’t remember most of the pointless information I had to remember for my GCSE exams. Yes, I said ‘remember’ and not ‘learn’. We spent more time looking at mark schemes to see ‘what the examiners gave marks for’ than looking things up in our textbooks. It didn’t take skill in understanding the depths of Chemistry to do well in the GCSE exam, but rather knowing what words you had to churn out in order to get those marks. I once dropped a mark by writing the answer ‘fossilised animals from millions of years ago’ instead of ‘dead fossilised animals from millions of years ago’. All we had to do was remember a bunch of information which we immediately forgot a few days later.

Moving on to A-levels, I’m going to focus first on my English and Classics exams. My first point to rant about? Time limits. We’re tested on how much we can write in a small amount of time and yet still expected to produce a high quality, thought-provoking essay that demonstrates our ‘flair’ to the examiner. I was told in one of my lessons today – another ‘exam prep’ lesson where we looked at mark schemes – that I needed to talk about what other people taking the exam won’t. I need to come up with something unique and original that no one else will think of so I stand out instead of stating the points that everyone will mention. My skills in mind reading and seeing the future aren’t up to scratch, so it’s going to be really difficult to know whether the points I make in my essays written in an hour will be made by anyone else. Not only that, but for English I have to memorise as many quotes as possible for a Shakespeare play, a Jacobean drama and one of the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer – quotes that aren’t in modern english with, to the ‘untrained eye’, a load of wacky spellings. I know I sound like a whining teenager – living up to the stereotype here – but I’d rather be tested on my analysis skills rather than writing incredibly quickly and churning out a load of quotes that I’ve been memorising, most of which I will write down just to show the examiner how many quotes I can remember.

Next, and final, subject on the list? Geography. To give you an idea, one section of my geography exam is the ‘physical geography’ section where I will answer a few questions on the topic of ‘plate tectonics’. It’s taken over a term – a long time if you think about it – to learn everything we might be asked on in the exam. I’m talking plate boundaries, plate movements, landforms, volcanoes, hot spots, volcanic eruption types, different types of volcanoes, earthquakes, ways of measuring earthquakes, the history of plate tectonics AND MORE. I will spend hours and hours and hours learning all of this information – as well as refining my skill to be ‘synoptic’ and a bunch of case studies which I must know facts and figures for – but in my exam I will be tested on a minuscule part of my knowledge. I could just be asked about earthquakes, which means all my knowledge on volcanoes will be made pointless, or I could even just be asked on ways to measure earthquakes and how they vary, in which case everything else I know will be, you guessed it, pointless.

Now don’t go taking this rant the wrong way. I actually adore all of my subjects and I’m one of those abnormal teenagers – again, fighting the stereotype – who actually enjoys school (well, to an extent, anyway). I’m planning on going to university this september to study English and Classics and I can’t wait, but what I really want to get across to you is that I think the way we are examined doesn’t best demonstrate our knowledge. So many students will be doing exams this year and will do badly – not because they’re dumb or didn’t revise or had bad teachers, but because they couldn’t write fast enough and ran out of time, or couldn’t remember that one word the examiners are looking for to award a mark. Maybe their ability for memorising information isn’t fantastic at the moment or maybe they’re just so stressed out that when they walk into the exam they can’t remember a thing and spend the whole exam time writing meaningless detail which will just receive a big, red cross.

I want the way teenagers are tested in schools to change – and for the better – so that we can all have a better chance to show how well we can do.

Anyway, if you’re facing exams this year then I wish you the best of luck and, if you want, leave a comment to tell me what you think about exams, pressure or anything of that variety. I’ll just be sitting here revising some mark schemes so that, when summer rolls around, I can walk into my exam and write exactly what the examiners want to see. ~Eleanor

Life Choices

By the age of just 17, you are expected to decide what to do with the rest of your life. It is your responsibility to decide your career path, university, where you’ll live, your finances and so much more. It’s decided that you are old enough to do all of this, but apparently you’re still not responsible enough to legally drink alcohol.

This is something that has annoyed me for longer than I can remember (the deciding your life part, not the age limit for alcohol consumption). As I’m now in the situation where I only have a few mere weeks to decide what to do with my life, I thought that I should (of course) rant about it online. 

I’m privileged enough to attend a top school (that isn’t private) which has done so much to help me with ‘The Future’. Yet I’m here, still stressed out so much that I feel that maybe I should just drop out of school and work in a bakery so I can happily eat cake all day and roll off into the distance. I’m supposed to have a unique, original personal statement which suddenly isn’t original as my teachers tear it apart and instruct me to talk more about how singing in choir has improved my teamwork skills. It’s stressful enough actually working towards my A levels, let alone all this malarkey. 

Oh, and to all of those MPs who declare that ‘A levels are too easy’, I challenge you to come to my school and survive a week. I bet that you would crumble under the pressure with the long intense lessons and the workload that piles up so much that you crack. On top of that, write me a personal statement, fill in your UCAS form, find a job to earn money for next year, do extra curricular activities (inside AND outside of school, to ensure you seem to have variety) in order to have that extra flair, learn how to play an instrument, do your homework, research EVERYTHING, read around your topic, try to get interviews for university, do interview prep and freak out and, not to forget, go to school. 

Let me know how all that works for you.

Some of you may argue that pretty much everyone has to do it, so why complain about it now? Well what I’m really trying to say is that so much pressure shouldn’t be put on 17 year olds as the stress can be too much to handle. The expectations of our generation are too damn high – I repeat:

It’s about time we change this. No more ‘A levels are too easy’ talks as, I promise you, if you make them harder then you’ll just have a domino effect of teenagers dropping out of school or having a massive decline in grades. You think the students rebelling about money is bad – try to face a mob of angry, stressed out teenagers going through puberty. It’s not a pretty picture. 

I’m not someone who has all the answers but I do like to ask questions (the week long journalism course is to blame for that). So let me know what you think and, until next time, I’m out. ~El