For many young people in the UK, today is results day – long-awaited and much-anticipated, futures are potentially steered in totally unforseen ways because of the letters that appear from within those envelopes on this notorious Thursday. Dreams, and hearts, are seemingly made or broken.
The amount of pressure put on eighteen year olds, by themselves and perhaps also the adults in their lives, can be immense. The idea that this is your one shot at having a ‘successful’ life, that grades are the be all and end all. The thought that time is running out and if you’re not on the starting line for the marathon that is conventional adult life (uni, working your way up some kind of career ladder, finding ‘the one’, moving into a flat and then a house with a mortgage, having a couple of kids, etc.) then you’re going to be left choking on the dust of everyone else’s victories.
Frankly, I think these concepts are terrifying. Not to mention very restrictive and one-dimensional. Yes, this model works brilliantly for some people. But no, it does not have the ability to make everyone happy. And the first step of it, going to university, encompasses so many big decisions. It definitely made my brain hurt at eighteen (and to an extent it still does now, at twenty).
Decisions such as choosing one subject path, commiting to having a big debt, moving to a new city… None of these should be taken lightly, yet I feel that’s how they’re often seen. My experience of this whole system was that it was almost like choosing to take the university path in the first place is the most important thing, rather than if the individual elements of this decision actually gel with the person you are and want to be.
But I wasn’t ready to make such solid decisions then. I applied to five universities in the autumn of my last year of college like everyone else, even though I knew I was going to take a gap year (my application was for a deferred place, which would allow me to take a year off with a confirmed uni place for the following year). Because for me, although I had a visceral feeling that university was not the right next step for me at that point, it felt reassuring to have something lined up for the year after my gap year.
Every university I put down gave me conditional offers, yet I didn’t feel excited about that. Even so, I chose one as my top choice and the confirmation that I was going to be attending that university came through on results day. I was staying in a tent in Hawaii at the time I found this out, at the beginning of my gap year travels, and so all of the university stuff felt incredibly surreal and distant. It kind of got swept to the side, in the stormy winds Hawaii was throwing my way and I shelved the whole situation for later.
But even when I was back home and working a sweaty summer job serving ice cream a couple of months before university was due to begin, I still couldn’t get my head to think about it all. I had avoided applying for accommodation and student loans and I wasn’t trying to connect with other freshers on social media like everyone else seemed to be doing. That’s how I came to the conclusion that university really wasn’t the right next step for me at that point.
Changing Your Mind
Even though I thought I had pushed away from the pressures of the conventional route by taking a gap year, I hadn’t really allowed myself to truly consider what I wanted and how I felt about where I was going in life because I had a specific course and university set up for me from the start. It took me withdrawing my application completely and experiementing with other paths and options to seriously reconsider what I wanted to do next.
I’m at a completely different point in my thinking about my future now than I was last August, and even though I really don’t have it all figured out or solidified in concrete, I feel a lot more positive about what I’m going into next. The important difference between me now and me a year ago is my attitude. I’m taking control of my decisions this year, rather than letting myself be pulled into different things relcutantly.
And That’s Okay
So I am going to university this year, but this time it’s because I want to and can see a pencil outline of a potential future I like through this route, rather than because it’s just the thing to do. And for me, this is a much better reason to choose university. But it’s also why I think it’s totally okay to change your mind about uni or choose not to go at all. For example, Mia is absolutely killing it and she didn’t go to uni. She’s worked hard to get to where she is now and I think that it is this ambition to do well, even when you’re pushing against a conventional system, that is inspiring.
The point of all of this is that your motivation to ‘succeed’ does not have to be built on a typical model of success, or other people’s expectations of you. That’s like walking three miles to hang your laundry on someone else’s washing line just because that’s where they put their clothes out to dry. You’ve got to put up your own line, and no one is going to do that for you, that is your work to do.
If you know what you want to do, and that involves uni, then great! If you know what you want to do, and that doesn’t involve uni, that’s also great! Go for it. But if you feel unsure about uni or whatever other future people are expecting you to fall into? Then maybe step back a bit, ask yourself some questions and try to get to the bottom of why you’re making the choices you’re making.
You don’t have to go to university at eighteen. That’s honestly fine. Take your time to come to that decision, spend a year working, travelling, getting to know yourself away from educational systems. Because the chances are, you’ve never had to confront that person before: who you are without school to attend. It’s scary, but can also be pretty enlightening.
Sometimes you have to allow yourself to get lost a bit to really know where you want to end up. And having a university place lined up for three months after you’ve finished college doesn’t necessarily give you the space to do that. So if you’re wavering on your uni decision, whether that’s related to your grades that you receive today or not, then just remember it is okay to do something different. This is your life to live, not anyone else’s.
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