It's mid-October. The leaves are turning, you've upgraded to an actual winter coat, and the pile of books on your desk has increased to the size of a small house. Gone are the days when you have time for that raging social life of Freshers' Weeks past, and there's barely a student out there with no big deadlines beginning to loom. If you look carefully around campus though, you will see another - more specific - breed. This particular species is most often to be found somewhere in the depths of the library, wearing an expression that alternates between wearied and manic, and even outside its usual haunt, is rarely to be seeing without either a book or large coffee in hand. This, my friend, is the fourth year undergraduate.
Ask any fourth year how they're doing right now and I can guarantee you one of two answers. The first, generally coming from acquaintances rather than close friends, is accompanied by a tired, semi-glazed smile and an attempt not to sigh: "Oh, yeah, it's going fine. Busy, but fine". (There's a distinct undertone of 'might as well be paying rent to the library'.) The second, more commonly exhibited amongst close friends and flatmates, tends to be something to the effect of: "Oh my word, I am dying".
Yes, we fourth years are melodramatic creatures, but there is at least some foundation to our despair. As we begin to tackle the hip-high pile of seminar readings, we fondly remember the days when we thought first year - with only a few measly chapters to read each week - was hard work. Nowadays we scramble around the library in search of books we have no time to read for the dissertation we have no time to write. We have meetings with tutors who finally expect us to know something, and are coming to discover that we may actually need to learn how to swallow books if we are ever going to ingest enough information to satisfy their demands.
In the meantime, the threat of the real world is fast encroaching. Bombarded with emails about grad schemes here and careers fairs there and application deadlines, well, everywhere, we are all beginning to get a taste of the career fear. Talk of 'next year' is as almost as ominous as it is omnipresent - with friends, parents, tutors - and yes, even the careers advisor you've finally been to see. Each of us is wondering where and what we'll be in a year's time: for the first time ever, we're facing the prospect of being real live grown-ups with real live jobs and a real live suit we've no idea how to even shop for. It's a scary enough prospect, without even mentioning the terrifying number of engagement rings and wedding invites appearing in our vicinity - potentially the ultimate testimony to the fact that, like it or not, we really are growing up. Really, it's no wonder the fourth years are freaking out.
For all this stressing though, it has to be said that fourth-year-dom has its perks. Knowing your uni, your friends, your city and the run of its cafes like the back of your hand definitely beats the overwhelmingly lost feeling of Freshers' Week - and I for one feel more ready to take on the world the other side of university than the wide-eyed Fresher who entered it three years ago. And even when the panic hits, such as right now when I realise just how an alarming amount I have to do before I leave the library this evening, it's at least a small comfort to know we're all in the same boat.