OK so you have done your A levels, got exceptional grades and will be heading off to a top university. Seems like a dream come true to be in with the best the country, and even the world, has to offer. However this is not always the case, in fact you’d be alarmed at what could actually happen. So today we’re going to look at the story of Morwenna Jones, a Cambridge University student. She told this recount in the Guardian:
“I had always been what they call a good student. In 2011, aged 18, I had two A*s and two As at A-level, various sporting successes and plenty of friends. I was president of more clubs and societies than the school needed. I was going to Cambridge University to study English. By most measures, things were going OK.
There was a problem, however – I had also developed an eating disorder. Over the two years before I started university, my body fluctuated and metamorphosed constantly. One week I would be a size zero, and my skeletal form would be found hunched scribbling notes instead of eating lunch. The next, I would look “normal” and hide the seemingly endless piles of food I would consume and then bring up again afterwards. Eventually I told my parents, and after six months I was referred for counselling with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. Once a week I sat in a bleak room and explained to a woman called Lucy that my condition was connected to an obsessive desire to be the best. She listened politely, told me to keep a food diary and then discharged me eight weeks before I started university.
Eighteen months later I was in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, the colleges of Cambridge disappearing into the rain behind me. For a year and a half I had felt completely out of my depth, and finally cracked. No longer was I thought “talented” or “gifted” because I could work for eight hours or read an 800-page novel in a day. At Cambridge everyone I knew could do that. I was no longer special.
I know this might not sound like the world’s worst problem. What did I have to complain about? I was at a top university, with support – in theory – everywhere I looked. But misery has a way of finding you in the most unusual places, and for reasons that can seem incomprehensible, not least to oneself. Inside that bubble, where perfection was the norm, falling short of my own expectations tormented me. I wasn’t a size eight. I wasn’t on track for a first. I wasn’t a sporting Blue.
I dropped out in January 2013. When my parents collected me, I hadn’t left my room in two weeks. For two years I had been killing myself in the name of perfection, unable to enjoy being anything less than the best. As a result I had developed depression alongside severe bulimia.
The fact is that I am by no means unique. Suffering from an eating disorder and depression made me hardly more special among the Oxbridge student population than the A-levels that got me there. Last year a survey by student newspaper The Tab revealed that 21% of Cambridge students have been diagnosed with depression, while a further 25% think they may be depressed. At my all-girls’ college, Murray Edwards, 28% of students have experienced eating disorders. The numbers are reflected more widely – the National Union of Students surveyed 1,200 students and found that 20% believe they have a mental health problem, while 1 in 10 experience suicidal thoughts. Welfare teams at Cambridge alone anticipate 50 to 60 suicide attempts per year.
What I have seen in my time at university is an epidemic of students struggling with mental health difficulties. Every term more students “intermit” – the Cambridge term for taking some time out.
Katt Parkins, a fellow English student in her second year at Churchill College, understands the burden of expectation well. “It has been affecting me my whole life,” she says, recounting how she developed an eating disorder when she was just 11 years old. “I’d always either want to do something perfectly or not do it at all.” She intermitted in February this year, no longer able to cope with the prospect of a low grade. “I was obsessed with perfection. I think one of the reasons I intermitted was because I still really wanted to do well and get a high 2:1 or a first,” she says. “If I’d achieved less, my health would probably have become even worse.”
At Britain’s universities many students crumble as they realise they are only average-sized fish in a much larger pond. Part of the problem is that while we are used to praising or criticising students, it is unusual to sympathise with them. Even to themselves, the whining sounds like “poor me”. But the reality is that the pressure is putting thousands of bright young people at risk of serious mental illness.
Oxbridge is a close-knit collegiate system. Within this system, small communities of extremely motivated individuals live together in the intimate confines of an environment characterised by centuries of academic achievement. Katt Parkins likens it to an Etch-a-Sketch. “You know when you just have to slide off what’s already there and focus on a new drawing?” she says. “It’s like that. You have to focus on your work, so you suppress personal things that you should actually work through. Eventually it builds and builds.”
Students like her are the reason why Oxford academic Nicola Byrom founded the charity Student Minds five years ago, when she was a graduate student. Having suffered from a mental illness herself as a teenager, she wanted to provide students with support.
“There’s certainly historical data that suggests that there is greater prevalence of mental health difficulties in Oxford and Cambridge,” says Byrom. “Living with a small group of competitive people isn’t easy, and you also then have a competitive environment. I think Oxford and Cambridge are probably happy to admit that they pre-select people at high risk of developing mental health difficulties, because they’re taking high-achieving perfectionist young people, who come to be the best.”
But things could be changing. Judith Carlisle, headteacher of the independent Oxford High School, has started a scheme to combat the rise of “unhelpful perfectionism” among her students. It’s called The Death of Little Miss Perfect. Teaching students that “it’s fine not to get everything right”, the scheme includes tests that get progressively harder within a time limit, preventing pupils from answering all of the questions. Its goal, as Carlisle recently stated, is to teach students that “perfectionism is only captured in a moment” and is “not achievable long term”. As well as encouraging students to embrace phrases such as “Have a go” and “Nobody’s perfect”, she’s urging them to avoid “going for something that, if they don’t get it, will destroy them”, and that includes universities. Her advice? “Don’t aim for Oxford if not getting in will destroy you – or if going will destroy you.”.
The last statement might sound confusing, but it sums up some of the ambivalence I feel about Cambridge. If my school had offered a similar scheme, perhaps I wouldn’t have wound up taking a painful, expensive and disruptive year out from university. The pressures of Cambridge broke me but also gave me a whole new perspective on my academic life. If Carlisle aims to teach pupils that “real failing is failing to have a go”, then she also needs to teach them to “have a go” at Oxbridge, and, if necessary, learn from their mistakes.
Byrom is also unconvinced that schools should be warning pupils off Oxbridge altogether. “Schools ought to be thinking about what environment is going to best support a student to thrive through their degree,” she explains, drawing on her own experience of completing an undergraduate course at Nottingham before starting a postgraduate degree at Oxford. “Even for the ‘bad’ perfectionist, Oxbridge could still be a great environment. It’s very difficult to tell someone that a certain atmosphere isn’t going to be right for him or her.”
Meredith Leston and Elise Morton, at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, also identify with the challenges and opportunities provided by Oxbridge. “I knew things were bad when I tried to read my neuroscience textbook and I may as well have been starring at the phonebook,” says Leston, who is about to enter her second year of experimental psychology. “My passion to learn about the brain is what got me into Oxford and it’s what I am dedicating my life to. The things that mattered most to me and defined who I was as a person suddenly barely registered. I felt completely lost.”
Morton agrees. “I remember in the second year just suddenly realising that I was feeling really, really down but without a cause,” she says. “It was when I actually realised just how good my life was that I suddenly went: ‘Hang on, why the hell are you feeling like this?’ I took stock of everything that was good in my life and yet noticed that I was still crying every day. I had to ask myself why I was doing that. I don’t want to say: ‘Oh it was Cambridge’, but I feel like the intense stress of a Cambridge degree has to have an impact upon your mental health.”
Despite all this, however, neither of them has any regrets about their choice of university. Morton graduated this year with a degree in modern and medieval languages. Now studying in Los Angeles, she is also a part-time mental health activist, campaigning for awareness charity Time to Change. She says struggling at university helped her gain perspective. “At first it was difficult to accept that I wasn’t going to be the best. But once I did, I felt able to be more creative and take more risks.”
These issues are problems across all universities, of course. It’s just that they can seem most concentrated where the pressure is greatest. “University is a tough time for a lot of people, whatever university you’re at,” adds Georgina Aisbitt, who works for Student Minds in Oxford. “Your informal support systems, like friends and family, and your formal support systems, like therapists and GPs, are left at home. You add pressure from the university to achieve and you’re putting students in a situation where they are going to be comparing themselves to others. That’s a pretty hefty combination, and it creates quite a tough environment. It’s important that schools try to help their students and promote discussions about mental health.”
When I returned to Cambridge in January I was nervous. I felt that I had tamed some of the anxious, depressed teenager who had struggled before, but would I be able to cope with the isolation? I took a book out of the library and sat in a café on King’s Parade working on my essay for that week. I sat in that café for four hours until long after the sun had set and the bikes had stopped speeding along under King’s College. For the first time since I started Cambridge, I read a book and enjoyed every page.
Eight months later, the perfectionist in me is dead and I don’t miss her. I was discharged from mental health services at the end of last year, and I stopped seeing a therapist in June. The eating disorder will probably always be at the back of my mind, but in many ways it has been a full recovery. I still have to be careful – I don’t drink to excess or sleep in, and I try to avoid environments which I know might be tricky. I feel I now have the mental equipment to deal with life. Excellence is fine, but nobody’s perfect.”
I think lessons can be learnt from this. It is very easy to get sucked in to going to the top universities like Oxbridge or other members of the Russell Group for example, but if it is not right for you, scenario’s like Morwenna’s can and probably will happen. So if you are looking to go to university, here is my advice for you:
- Think very carefully about the course you want to study before looking at universities. Not all universities offer every single course and sometimes universities may not offer the course at all.
- Once you’ve decided on what you would like to study, then start to look at universities. Think carefully about where you would like to go, and have a browse of the league tables, not just for the current year, but previous years gone by so you get an idea of where they are going. Yes I know league tables don’t necessarily reflect every single part of the university but if the university is slipping down the league tables for the course you want to study, then it can be quite off-putting.
- This one is probably the most vital. Before you apply to any of the universities, you MUST go on at least one open day at the university to get a feel for what to expect. If you don’t, then you might find yourself winding up at a university and dropping out pretty quickly as it’s not what you wanted. Remember you are going to be committing anywhere between 3 and 5 years of your life to this course, as well as an awful lot of money with tuition fees alone at £9k a year. Don’t blow that sort of money on somewhere that isn’t right for you. Go to the open days, get as much information as you possibly can out of them, including information on support networks and other options should things not work out, because you never know if or when you might need them.
- When applying to universities, remember that universities only want the best candidates. Not all courses require an interview, but for education you do. These interviews are either grouped or paired or individual interviews so be prepared for a variety of situations. In my experience, universities tend to like those students who can use their learning from their A levels and apply it effortlessly to the particular field. In my case, I made reference to a lot of psychological theory, particularly developmental psychology, in my interviews to back up my beliefs. Worked for me as I applied for 5 universities, and got 5 interviews and 5 offers.
- Don’t be too down if a university doesn’t pick you. Remember that thousands of other people are competing with you for that place, and you are potentially applying for 5 universities. Do your best to stand out from the crowd, but be true to yourself.
- When you do go to the university that you have chosen, if you’ve taken thorough enough care of it, you should feel at home, so make sure you build up a social group, maybe join a few societies that the university’s student union offer you, and maximise your time there. Honestly the years will fly by, so make the most of them.