Final year: Passion-driven or Game Plan?

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Final year brings with it a looming deadline: Graduation. This summer, a piece of paper will be handed to me, in a very fancy and slightly over the top ceremony, in front of proud friends and family. My parents will probably be weeping with joy and pride. I’ll probably be focused on not tripping up in front of everyone. A fabulous, sunny day in July to work towards.

This does mean it’s impossible to ignore the question of results. Suddenly, it feels like everything I’m doing is impacting directly on my final mark. This has caused an interesting division between my friends; do you focus on picking subjects that inspire you or do you stick to your strengths? With ever-increasing student fees and morally questionable retrospective changes to interest rates, attending university now has a tangible economic effect. At this stage, it can be easy to see completing your degree as a juggling act of module marks, to get the best degree possible. Simply, some students feel what interests them may not be as straight-forward in comparison to another module, with the end result outweighing the enjoyment.

Eager to understand the division amongst my friends, I’ve spoken to two students with opposing views. To be sympathetic to their ongoing job searches, they’re referred to as students A and B. I promise they’re real people.

“Choose something you’re passionate about”

A is a joint honours student and has found herself this year choosing modules which inspire her. She told me several of her friends have dropped modules or changed their mind on a subject choice because they feared it was too hard – rather than continuing because it’s an area which interests them.

“I get why people want to do well, it’s our final year so has the biggest impact on our degree result. But I’ve chosen subjects I’m passionate about because if I have a genuine curiosity, it’s definitely going to help my mark”, A explains. “It’s a lot easier to study for something that interests you than trying to commit to something boring”. Changing modules is common, normally at the very start of a semester, and I understand that it might be very different in reality to the brief module description available when submitting your choices. Given students now pay so much, there is a real desire to ‘tailor’ your choices and education to a specific area you wish to study; rather than choosing an option which seems easier.

A is determined that her approach will pay off. Having secured good marks for her assessments so far, she believes this interest in her studies will ultimately benefit her. “University is hard and final year can feel like a marathon. Why not take the opportunity to study something fascinating?”

“You need to be strategic”

B is also a joint honours student with a completely different approach. Hers is focused on the fact that so far, she has worked very hard. In her fourth year, she wants this dedication to be reflected in the end result.

“There’s no way this isn’t strategic”, B explains to me. “I’m definitely conscious when choosing essay titles not to pick something I’m too passionate about, so my personal opinion doesn’t cloud my engagement with academic discourse”. She has even gone to the trouble of calculating how many credits she needs in order to secure a first, planning carefully where she thinks she can be most successful in comparison to her existing marks. A strategic approach might also take into consideration how well you know a lecturer’s preferred style or even when deadlines fall to manage your workload, rather than choosing modules based on subject matter.

“At the end of the day, you’re paying a lot of money for this education. You’re already doing a degree in something you want to focus on. Why not choose modules you think you can do well in?”

Classroom Impact

Beyond a student’s individual choice on how to approach their work, this mentality is having real effect on class experience. A recent lecturer expressed her dismay in the dropping attendance to her class. In Monday’s lecture, out of around 20 students taking the module, 5 of us showed up (myself included, not to brag about it). Basically, people have already chosen their desired essay question. As the assessment for this module is just this one essay, students aren’t motivated to attend a lecture they see as irrelevant. My lecturer wasn’t angry with the students who didn’t attend. Instead, her opinion is one of concern that the attitude of universities is less and less on academia. She believes students are feeling the pressure to be high achievers due to the mounting cost of attendance. “This is perhaps your one chance in life to fully immerse yourself in your studies and the process of learning. Universities need to stop seeing students as cash cows and more as individual pursuing their interests”.

It’s increasingly hard to see where money is being invested to the benefit of students. I’m not entirely sure how spending a considerable sum on a campus hotel or green space is justified when half my classrooms lack functioning projection equipment. The University’s Counselling and Wellbeing team, for students with disabilities or mental health issues, even stopped taking new registrations over Christmas due to demand hugely outweighing their staff and resources available. With this in mind, I can understand why some students are so focused on achieving the best mark possible, regardless of their personal interest in a given subject. If you’re going to graduate with an overwhelming student loan, the majority of which is unlikely to ever be fully paid off by the individual,  the sense of competition and ‘getting your money’s worth’ is natural.

I’m not sure where I stand on this and I find my approach varies wildly on each module. For instance, this semester sees me studying visual culture in the interwar period in Germany as one of my art options. Despite how fascinating I find this subject, I quickly discovered in the first week I was the only one without pre-existing knowledge on the subject. I have never studied German and I didn’t even take GCSE History. Although prior knowledge isn’t essential, most students have chosen this subject to build on an existing foundation of curiosity. They want in-depth analysis and lively debates on a subject they are already invested in. My reason? I was excited to try something new. It does feel like a gamble, though – to choose a subject in which I’m completely clueless, at a time when everything is so heavily weighted towards my final degree classification.

“It definitely feels like some of the fun has disappeared”, added B during our chat. “But I know what sort of job I want and that’s my goal right now. The modules I’m taking are simply a way to get there”. The growing feeling of university being a means to an end may simply be rising from the general final year panic. Or, it might be indicative that more and more students are undertaking the ridiculous fees but only to reach a dream job.

Aged 18, I chose university because I didn’t know what job I wanted to do; I simply loved studying about art and learning French. Four years later and my passion for these subjects hasn’t disappeared but the pressure of final year is definitely affecting it. Now, I’m finding a whole heap of jobs I’m keen to do and I’d much rather write an application than edit my dissertation. To some extent, finishing final year just seems like a mandatory hurdle to get there. You can’t deny the reality that a degree takes a lot of effort, time and money, so I want to be proud of the end result.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on studying and whether you’d rather choose a subject you love or one in which you’re confident you can succeed. Is university and its assessments a question of strategy?

Ps: Brunch really, really helps the stress levels x

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