For most young people, university is the natural next step after college or sixth form. But it wasn’t always this way. When did university become the place you have to go to when you’re 18? When there are so many different options out there, why do so many people plan their futures around university?
I graduated two years ago (although it feels like it was a century ago now!) and if I could go back in time, the truth is that I would. There are a lot of things that nobody tells you about going to university. About the experience, the workload, the money, the debt and the outcome. If I could have taken a glance into the future, I can say hand on heart that my experience after leaving sixth form would have been very different.
I finished my GCSE’s with A*s in English and picked up A-Level English as a sort of natural next step. I took English alongside Music, Psychology and Sociology. The fact that you have to pick four subjects at A-Level is difficult in itself. I had no real passion for Psychology or Sociology, I just thought I might find them interesting. English and Music were the two things I was 100% sure about. They had given me my strongest GCSE results and I had a genuine passion for them.
As is the way when you’re in Year 13, our teachers began pushing us to make those UCAS applications. To start working on personal statements and thinking about what courses we wanted to enrol on at university. There was lots of talk about how great university is and how much it would open doors for us when we finally entered into the world of work. But how are you supposed to know what you want to do at the age of 17? My friends and I are 23 and most of us are still figuring out what we want to do with our lives. It’s almost impossible to make that kind of decision at 17.
It might have been easier if the education system set you up a little better. Gave you the opportunity to take a year in industry at sixth form in addition to a week’s work experience in secondary school. Talked more to you about the type of industry work you could expect to be doing after studying certain subjects. But you don’t really get that. The most I ever heard about was ‘transferrable skills’ and in reality, you don’t even have those yet because you haven’t properly worked anywhere! Working a full time job is very different to studying and the experience that employers want you to have is not the kind of experience that you can get at school or at university.
How many of you chose to study something at university because you really enjoyed it or because you were good at it? In reality, those are not good enough reasons to spend £27,000 (plus three years of maintenance loans) getting a degree. It probably would have been more productive to do something like an internship for a year. Just because you like studying something, doesn’t mean you’re going to enjoy the job opportunities it will afford you – if any at all. It’s important to figure out exactly what you want to do, as early as possible if you can and I think that getting practical experience in an industry for a year or two is a great way to do it. Before 20, most of us are still living at home for free, so you don’t have to worry too much about the low pay of internships and apprenticeships. It might not seem like a lot at the time, but the experience you have on your CV is often more of a deciding factor in whether you get a job these days, than a qualification. That’s the truth.
As I am sure you already know, I ended up taking a degree in English Literature, American Literature and Creative Writing. I really enjoyed my course. One of my favourite modules was Victorian Literature and a module that I took in my final year about the Brontes. During my first year, I was given the option to take a wild module – a module not related to my course. I chose Classical Mythology. Why? Because I thought it might be fun. Again, if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t take that module. It has done absolutely nothing for me.
At so many points throughout your education, you are asked to make decisions. Decisions that you can’t properly make because you just don’t know. Even by the time I was in my second year of university, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I’d heard that getting an English degree was an obvious route into the world of editing and publishing. But the largest part of me just wanted to be a writer. News flash Tanya – you don’t need an English degree to be a writer. I remember a meeting I once had with one of my favourite university lecturers. He asked me what I was planning to do when I graduated and I told him that I was thinking of going into publishing. He laughed and told me that that’s what writers say when they don’t believe in themselves.
The same lecturer then organised for me to undertake a two week work experience placement at The Guardian, an experience which you can read about here. Now this was useful, because although I loved the offices and the idea of being an editor, I quickly realised that I didn’t enjoy my time there as much as I thought I would. Granted, The Observer is not a very young newspaper. The offices were filled with middle-aged writers and I couldn’t see myself slotting comfortably into that kind of world. But if I hadn’t done that work experience, I would have left university under the impression that that was the sort of job I wanted to do.
By the time I graduated, I was questioning what sort of writer I wanted to be. I had this blog, which was doing really well at the time. I was wondering, do I want to write for someone else? Or do I want to write for myself? I’d written a few articles for the university newspaper (obviously – all English students do) and I had also spent a short time writing for a website aimed at students. I didn’t enjoy either of those too much. But once again, I was out of time. I’d managed to land myself a graduate job and it was at an estate agent. This seemed good enough for the time being. I had a huge interest in property and it seemed like a good job to take while I figured out what I actually wanted to do.
Did I want to stay in property? Did I want to be a writer? I always want to be a writer, even now. But it’s pretty difficult to find the time to focus on being creative when you have a full time job. Not only this, but the thought of writing for a job worried me a little bit. Would I still find it fun if it was something I was having to do everyday for work? What if the novelty wore off? Writing is like my little safe haven, my little talent. I didn’t want to take that and make it into something mundane.
I started thinking this year about what I actually might enjoy doing as a job and that’s how I came across interior design. When I thought about the things that I do in my free time, I realised that if I wasn’t writing, I was designing. Whether I was making inspiration boards on Pinterest and Instagram, begging my mum to let me re-decorate the house or building and designing houses on The Sims, interior design was something I was always doing. While I was working at the estate agent, I would search for the least expensive houses on the system and imagine how I would re-design the space. Or, I would look at the most expensive houses on the system and admire their interiors.
I’m 24 now – almost. It’s taken me from the age of 17 until now to figure out what I would like to do as a career. And that’s after working in 4 different jobs and studying for 5 years. I’m not the only one who is in this position. There are plenty of people I know, older than me, who still haven’t figured it out yet. So how, at the age of 17 or 18 are you supposed to know what you want to do with the rest of your life? It’s impossible. You don’t have the experience or the insight to know what you might enjoy doing. These are the things they don’t tell you when you’re applying for university. I can barely name any friends that are working in a job directly related to their degrees.
If you look at the statistics for English graduates from last year, only 57% are employed. Of that 57%, the retail, catering and bar work industries have hired the most English graduates. Meaning that most of the students who got English degrees last year, got them to go and work in shops, restaurants and bars? Really? Compared to a degree like Chemistry, where the largest percentage of graduates have been hired as technicians, science or other professionals. The truth about university is, that unless you’re planning to study a degree in the Sciences, Maths or Law departments, your job prospects are not going to be boosted as much as you think. Getting a degree in anything else is, lets face it, just for fun. And it might be fun for three years, while you’re partying and making the friends of a lifetime. But it’s not going to be fun once you’ve graduated, are in debt and realise that every job description you look at is asking for a minimum of 2 years experience in…
If I could go back in time, I would spend time looking in to different career options. I would search for some job descriptions and look at what they’re asking for. Some of them do ask for you to have a degree but a lot of them don’t. With that in mind, I can’t think of a single interview I’ve had where I’ve been asked to talk about my degree. Employers don’t want those transferrable skills that your teachers are always talking about. Nobody cares that I’ve memorised lines from The Great Gatsby and Frankenstein or that I can write a First class essay about the role of women in Victorian Literature. They want to know that I can do the job they want me to do and they want proof of it.
Am I saying that university is a waste of time? No. What I am saying, is that young people need to think more carefully about why they’re choosing to study at university. There are too many of us going to university because we feel like it’s the right step, without having properly researched what we want to do or what the right steps might be
What are your thoughts on university?
* statistics obtained from http://www.prospects.ac.uk