Dealing with Academic Insecurites
For me, sixth form a time of determination and high aspirations. I was often profiled as ‘gifted and talented’ because I pushed myself and was adamant on not settling for anything less than the best. My overarching goal was to get into a Russell Group university. I never really had people around me to aspire to, so the notion of getting into a good uni was a dream which I was willing to work super hard for. So after months of ridiculously long hours of revision, exam practice and nagging my teachers for mocks, A-level results day came and I had done it. I was one of the highest achievers across the Harris Federation in London and exceeded my offer for UoB.
It was now September 2015, and time for Freshers’ Week. I was now surrounded by heavily competitive course mates plus friends and peers who all seemed to have ’side hustles’ in student politics, the creative industry and other non-academic sectors. I felt alienated because academia was really all I knew. I felt like my love for learning was no longer enough and that I too, had to have a side hustle. I went from being the highest achiever to being just one of many high achievers and quite frankly, this change was shocking. I quickly began to compare myself to others.
Many people had told me that “first year doesn’t count, so have fun.” I took this literally and my naivety led me to prioritise my social life over my academic life. It was fun, I met a lot of amazing people, who I still call my friends. I got involved with societies I was passionate about and was on the founding committees for two support groups at the SU for causes I strongly advocate. I was also a research intern and a GCSE English tutor at a local secondary school. But in the midst of all this, I neglected my studies. I’m happy that I got involved in so many cool things, but this also made me lose a dominant part of myself. I no longer had any long-term academic goals. I was doing coursework to meet a deadline rather than seizing the opportunity to master a topic. I put unnecessary stress on myself by doing coursework less than a week before the deadline and I stopped nurturing my love for academia. Because after all, first year does’t count, right?
Towards the end of the academic year, my mental health started to crumble. I broke down, withdrew from social situations and started going to counselling. I was still functioning, but not healthily. I soon realised that I couldn’t do it all and had to step back from some of the extra responsibility I had taken on. What was interesting about this time however, is that it revealed the extent to which I was trying to make other people happy at the expense of my own. I started to take more care of myself, really focusing on self-love and rekindling my love for learning. Despite bad anxiety and depression, I refrained from comparing myself to my peers and rather focussing all my efforts on doing my best. These efforts were recognised, and the department praised me for producing work that was very original. It was these grades which heavily contributed to me achieving a solid 2:1.
In an environment where everyone seemed to have a side hustle, I took me a very long time to accept and publicly admit that academia was my passion. For example, I always felt like I had to dumb myself down (especially with boys) to avoid coming across as a nerd. But looking back retrospectively, I am thankful that none of those relationships worked out because in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “the type of man who will be intimated by me is the exactly the type of man I have no interest in.”
First year taught me the importance of staying authentic to your true self. It took me the whole year to fully accept that trying my best is what is most important, not being the best. I have learned that it is crucial to nurture your craft by making time for your passions. Comparison truly is the thief of joy and arguably, a form of self-hate. We all have differing strengths and we must use other peoples’ achievements as inspiration rather than competition.
And, first year does count! Anyone who says otherwise is an enemy of progress. These grades are needed when applying for internships and other competitive programmes. Freshers should use this time to practice and perfect the writing style that is expected of them at university.