A Level Results Day: One Year On

A level results day is fast approaching; there are university guides and advice on Clearing appearing in the papers, some of your more confident friends might be preemptively joining Freshers’ groups on Facebook and there’s that slight anxiety in the air when asking any recent leaver where exactly they’re going in September. (I was always overly deliberate when answering that one, “Well hopefully I’ll be going to Exeter, but it could all change!!” – just in case anyone got the wrong idea and started assuming things.)

For the millions out there with conditional offers for places at university, that awkwardly placed day in August (following an entire summer of deliberately not thinking about the whole thing) can feel like a life-defining moment, a major turning point in your academic career. The exams are over, the coursework is in, the UCAS form long since submitted; at this final hurdle it’s as simple as a yes or no answer, in or out, and there’s not a lot you can do about it either way.

My experience of A level results day was an overwhelming one, just as I imagine it is for most people. I can vividly remember the low-grade nerves that built up in the week before, which manifested themselves in carefully constructing plans B, C and D if my grades weren’t enough for my History offer. Up until the night before I was trying to distract myself by making notes on how exactly to go about navigating the Clearing website, and writing down numbers for people to contact in Exeter if needs be. Even the best friend, famously chilled about academic drama, later admitted she had to go for a late night stroll to try and walk off some of the tension. We’d already been warned (read: lectured on multiple times by teachers and received numerous emails about) that UCAS would absolutely not be accessible at midnight, and that we might as well sleep through. Needless to say, it was not a great night’s sleep. More like Christmas Eve as a kid again, but without the guarantee of any presents in the morning.

When morning did come it was at the leisurely hour of 8am, just as I was getting ready to head to school to collect my results, that an email and a text arrived from Exeter confirming my offer. That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day – I was absolutely thrilled and intensely relieved that the hard work had paid off, and that plans B, C and D would not be needed. I didn’t quite cry, but my Dad certainly did – loudly and shamelessly down the phone from work. Arriving in the school car park I met the best friend (whose place had been confirmed at Manchester) with a hug so violent I think we gave each other mild concussion. The sixth form centre was a sea of emotion, crying, both happy and sad, from teachers and students, and a whole lot more hugging.

I can’t really remember the rest of the day, but I know it passed in a never-ending series of congratulations and condolences, of yelling at classmates across the street in town and sending friends cautious texts along the lines of “is everything alright?” in an effort to be as tactful as possible in case of the worst. I quickly realised as happy as I was to be set up with my first choice of university, I was also very lucky to be in that position. Close friends I’d been through the whole 7 years of secondary education with had just missed out on offers and were second-guessing insurance options, and some had missed out completely. Painfully, one friend who’d been in the coveted position of getting an offer for medicine just missed out on her grades, while those aspiring medics who had received 5 rejections were delighted with multiple A*s that pretty much assured them an offer in the coming September. It was a long and emotionally-charged day, and as much as I tried to tone it down for those for whom things hadn’t gone as well – I literally spent the next 3 weeks on cloud nine. A friend several years into uni told me somewhat cynically “this is a great time, enjoy it while it lasts before the real work starts” and I definitely did.

There was no room for feeling worried about leaving home and moving 200 miles away in and around the dorky happiness and sense of pride I felt about now being officially a ‘university student’. In the coming weeks by day I raided Wilkos for bathroom bins and bedside lights (I could write odes to what a fabulous student shop Wilkos is) and Tescos for an all-inclusive crockery set; by night I was buying tickets for Freshers’ events (with mixed results – see my first post on advice to Freshers) and shamelessly stalking the Facebook profiles of people in my halls. As my older and wiser friend advised, it really was a great time – and for those of you whose place in September is a sure thing, enjoy it. Make the most of seeing friends before you all go your separate ways up and down the country, feel proud of yourself that you’ve made it past the final hoop-jump of our education system and if you’re feeling über keen, maybe have a look at reading lists or advisory prep material so it’s not too much of shock come your first lecture (she says, despite that being something I certainly didn’t do.)

For anyone already feeling anxious about making friends and being homesick, it’s best to embrace the fact you’ll inevitably encounter those issues at uni at some point. What’s important to remember is that time-old cliché that every other first year is in exactly the same boat. Everyone wants to make friends as soon as possible, and everyone will have a night or two where they wish they could be back home – though most will do their damnedest to try and hide it. I’ll admit to being guilty on this front; to any of the friends I wasn’t in regular contact with, my Facebook/Instagram/Twitter probably gave off the impression I was enjoying a seamless transition from school to the ‘#studentlife’ experience. The reality of course, was far from it. I don’t think it would be too much of an assumption to say that nobody’s transition is ‘seamless.’ Be wary of social media in that respect, particularly when it comes to starting university; everyone wants to project the freshers year they want other people to think they’re having, not the one they’re necessarily experiencing.

May your results day be worthy of a cheesy photo op

May your results day be worthy of a cheesy photo op

To come back to the subject of this post however, while it’d be nice to wish you all an A level results day worthy of the cheesy High School Muscial-esque jumping photoshoots that appear on the front of The Times the following day, I know that realistically that won’t be the case for everyone. While I can’t speak from experience and am therefore probably not best placed to be giving advice, I can say that from following others’ experiences I do know that as awful as it can be not getting the offer you dreamed of and the results you wanted, in the end, it really does all work out. Promise. Friends who went on unexpected gap years have truly had amazingly enviable times, and for some it has completely changed their life plans – who wants to do a business degree at Leeds when you can be a fully-qualified ski instructor in Austria? Likewise, for those who really did want to do the uni thing, they re-applied in September and are no worse off for it. On a sidenote, everyone will tell you (and I’m happy to join that number) that age isn’t a thing at university, and it really isn’t. No-one asks how old you are. People might assume, but if your birthday comes around and it’s an iced 20 on your dodgy student-kitchen made cake as opposed to a 19, no one thinks any differently of you for it.

And with that, there’s nothing left for me to say other than good luck (as redundant as luck might be at this point!) I’ve got my fingers crossed for you all x

Things I’ve Achieved in First Year

The library is packed to the rafters with harassed looking students in various states of dress, the Market Place is selling post-its, pens and vodka at discount prices, and everywhere you go people are talking wistfully about the holidays.

Yep. It’s that time of year.tumblr_no3aattKfk1s7fm11o1_1280

Currently most of the student population is slap-bang in the middle of revising for exams, so of course I find myself spending my afternoon writing a blog post instead of memorising essay plans. Obviously.

Coming to the end of first year with increasingly terrifying rapidity, it’s reached the point now where I feel able to look back on the whole experience and see just how far I’ve come. September feels like a lifetime ago – so much has happened since then, the awesome and the atrocious, I’ve learnt so much (although judging by the state of my revision you wouldn’t know it) and I feel like I’ve grown up a lot too.

In the vein of this somewhat cheesy nostalgia, I’ve decided to compile a list of 10 things I think I’ve achieved this year. Especially during exam season it’s easy to get hung up on final year averages as a gauge of ‘how well you’ve done’, but I think especially in first year there are a lot of other challenges to get over beside the academic; and no matter how small these ‘achievements’ might be, I think they deserve a little recognition:

1. Survived Freshers’ Week

It was just as intimidating arriving to a campus of complete strangers as I feared it would be, but through all awkward introductions, over-priced Freshers’ events and hideous flu, I made it through without a single homesick breakdown.

2. Lived Off Something Other Than Beans On Toast

Self-catered and I have had a love/hate relationship of sorts, but over the last term especially it’s gotten much easier to throw edible meals together. No longer do we avidly stick to student recipe books, bemoaning not having that clearly vital piece of student kitchen equipment; a lemon squeezer, or spend ridiculous amounts on Dominoes ‘discounts’. Instead, I’m actually now reasonably capable of constructing a variety of meals for the week and not suffering from vitamin deficiency.

3. Lived Away From Home For 3 Months Straight

I was always a little worried about being away from home for such extended periods of time, but no matter how tough it might seem at first – time really is a healer. It’s amazing how much easier it’s gotten to be away from my family, and no one was more surprised than me when after a month-holiday over Easter, I was actually desperate to get back to Exeter. ‘Home’ home will always be where my family is, but I feel like I’ve officially adopted Devon as my ‘uni home’ too.

4. Written An Essay On A Topic I Previously Knew Absolutely Nothing About With A Bibliography Of 18 Bookstumblr_naaw572FBO1ry1izso1_500

I now know so much more about the Great Irish Famine than I thought humanely possible. I guess this is a standard part of university life for humanities students, but my goodness it’s a long way from the standard expected at A level. The independent research was intimidating at first, but it’s also hugely satisfying to become a mini-expert on an obscure topic of your choosing, and after scouring the library for all and any books that could possibly help you out, submit an essay you’ve spent 2 weeks constructing.

5. Managed To Get A 3 And A Half Hour Train From Leicester To Exeter With 2 Ridiculously Over-Packed Suitcases, A Rucksack Full Of History Textbooks And A Guitar

I think this one speaks for itself as an admirable achievement.

6. Kept On Going

This one has been particularly important for me, even though it’s taken me a while to recognise it as an ‘achievement’ as such. To cut a long story short, when things got tough and I thought that maybe university wasn’t for me, I sought out all the support I could and managed to stick it out. I’m really grateful for that now looking back, and am proud of myself for keeping my head above water when it was all getting a little overwhelming.

7. Was An Adult-y Adulttumblr_nn83pohkGL1rmegquo1_1280

Aside from feeding myself, independent living has also brought a number of other jobs I’d never even really thought twice about that I’ve had to get to grips with as an ‘adult’. A non-exhaustive list of these includes: booking my own doctors’ appointment, making weekly shopping lists, going to the Bank for Serious Conversations, making restaurant reservations over the phone, picking up prescriptions, sending relatives Birthday cards (as opposed to signing the family card) and buying my own loo bleach.

8. Didn’t Miss A Seminar

I am pretty proud of this one. Arguably 9am lectures are very tempting to miss when you can catch up online at a more reasonable hour, but if I’m honest I’m quite happy to turn up to be spoken at for an hour. It doesn’t exactly require much effort, aside from making notes. Seminars however, are a different ordeal entirely; intensive 2 hour sessions which require reading and preparation and, horror of horrors, interaction. Far more daunting, and unfortunately far more essential to attend.

9. Found A House For Second Year

Some might not class this as an achievement seeing as all first years have to find themselves accommodation, but seeing as this was without a doubt the MOST stressful aspect of first year for me, I can’t not include it. Dozens of house-viewings and depressing phone conversations with various landlords (“Oh, so sorry, that one went 10 minutes ago”) later, I am in fact not living in a cardboard box in September, and frankly that’s all I really care about.

10. Made Friends

thumb_IMG_3714_1024 2Spending 7 years with the same group of people at secondary school, it was more intimidating than I thought having to suddenly branch out and make new connections all over again at university. It was like being 11 years old again and having that whole ‘first day at school’ feeling, except we’re all supposedly infinitely wiser and cooler now that we’re over 18. Fortunately, I’ve found a pretty great bunch of people who I’ve met in all kinds of situations throughout first year and I’m grateful to all of them for putting up with me and making me laugh on a daily basis.

The Universal University Issue: Dealing with Stress

Stress is a popular topic at the moment. Everyone seems to be constantly stressed; jobs are stressful, deadlines are stressful, thinking about the future is stressful. We crave weekends and the holidays for a brief respite from it all, and dread the workload starting again.

Stress and anxiety seem to be a ruling norm in student life especially, and certainly at the moment with Term 2 coming to an end, and essay deadlines and exams looming. Either you’re stressing too much at the detriment of your health, as evidenced by the long waiting lists at the Wellbeing Centre, or you’re not stressing enough at the detriment of your grades. At the moment though, I’d have to say I see far more of the former. With increasing competition for university places driving up the offers and expectations, I’m sometimes acutely aware sitting in the back of lecture halls how hard everyone in the room has worked to get here. And how hard most of them are working to stay on top of everything.

Personally, I’m no exception to this. I’ve had high standards for myself since I was 13, and feel pretty crushed if I don’t meet them – so I angst, redraft and stress over every piece of written work up until the deadline so I feel like I can say “I’ve done my best”. And when the essay comes back and it’s a 2:2 instead of a 2:1, I spend my time pouring over the critiques and red biro question marks in the margin, berating myself at where I so obviously went wrong.

I’m not so naïve as to realise that this sort of perfectionism isn’t a healthy attitude, but in some ways, ‘stress’ has been useful. For a start, the excessive revision and work I put into my A levels were what got me into Exeter in the first place, and I’m certainly grateful now for those unpleasant weeks in June I put myself through. Stress is also what kicks me into gear to get reading done before seminars, or essays submitted the night before deadlines. In moderate quantities, it can be pretty helpful. But then again, there’s a dark-side to stress.

Stress can build up to a level where you feel crippled by it, where the to-do list is so long it’s impossible to know where to even start, and can leave you curled up in a ball dreaming of your days at kindergarten. At the far end of the scale, stress can cause panic and anxiety attacks, and is often strongly linked to depression.

So stress can go both ways – the good, and the very, very bad – but if I’m honest, I’m a bit sick of fixating on it. Stress takes up so much of my time and thought processes, and if talking to older students and adult relatives is anything to go by, it’s set to take up a lot of my future too- and that’s a bit of a depressing thought.

It can sometimes feel like we’re constantly seeking the perfect equilibrium of a work-life balance, and once we reach that seemingly unattainable goal, we’ll finally be happy. In reality though, everyone knows that the ‘grass is always greener’ idea is just a dream. What we’ve got is what we’ve got, and what we need to learn is to not just survive our lives, but to live them. But I don’t want to live a life that’s dictated by meeting my own ridiculous standards, that’s focused around just making it through to the weekend or to the next holiday. I want to be able to accept that there’s work to do, and sometimes quite a lot of it, without building this whole huge mental block around it and spending more time complaining and worrying over it than actually getting down to it.

So, what options are there available to combat stress?

I’d consider there to be two approaches:

1. Change the situation

This can mean a lot of things, whether it is taking time out of your job for health purposes or asking for deadline extensions. The stigma around mental health is slowly being combatted, but society still isn’t quite there. Despite what judgements you might be worried colleagues or friends might make, you wouldn’t go to work with a broken wrist or without your glasses, and dealing with stress or acute anxiety can be just as disabling. We shouldn’t feel ashamed to take a little extra time for the sake of our health to take a break and to regain a sense of perspective.

This approach however isn’t always the best for the long-term, and when coming back to the ‘stressful situation’ or dealing with stress in general, it might be worth looking at another approach:

2. Change your attitude to stress

Now, this of course is easier said than done, but it really doesn’t have to be as difficult a mental task as it sounds.

Dr Mike Evans is a Canadian doctor renowned for his media-based approach to communicating public health information and advice. His Youtube video entitled ’23 and ½ hours’ on exercise has almost 5 million views, but I’d consider his 10-minute lecture on The Single Most Important Thing You Can Do For Your Stress to be pretty inspirational advice.

Dr Evans considers that just changing the way you think about stress, from something that happens unavoidably to you to something that you actually create is a key step in reducing anxiety over stressful situations.

Most people think stress is something that happens to us…(but in reality) stress passes through a 2 pound piece of tissue on the top of your face called your brain…

We say things like, my job is stressful, or my friend Sylvia is stressing me out, but in fact, we create the stress in our brains… it’s your thinking that brings the stress.”

Dr. Mike Evans

It seems like a simple idea, but personally it was the simplicity of it that affected me so much. I don’t think changing your thinking style and attitude to stress so drastically is going to happen overnight, just as a life-long pessimist can’t suddenly see the glass as half full, but Dr. Evans puts forward a strong argument that such an approach can be learnt.

I’d like to think that in trying to approach things in the past few weeks that would normally stress me out (such as intimidating essay titles, page long to-do lists and long put-off phonecalls) with a different attitude, I’ve already noticed a difference. Similarly to how I talked in a previous post about tackling exercise at university, although it’s hard-work at first, it’s got to the stage now where I actually enjoy taking a positive approach to previously stressful situations. I try and remind myself that the stress I’m experiencing is in reality all self-generated, and try and change my approach to whatever the situation is that’s making me anxious.

For instance, whereas before I might think “Oh God, I’ve got so much work to do I can’t possibly manage it without pulling multiple all-nighters/having no weekend”, I now try and change that thought to “I’ve got a lot of work but I’m capable of doing the best I can in the time I’ve got.’”

Different things work for different people, and I can appreciate that many are not in the position to be able to work on changing their mind-set, but it’s certainly something I think is worth thinking about. And I’d recommend giving Dr. Mike Evans’ video a watch too 🙂