In my graduation gown and subfusc, I tensely stood before the vice chancellor of Oxford University. With both my parents proudly looking on, the dean of my college held up my hand as she led my graduating class through the ceremony. A few sentences in Latin later, we all solemnly declared, "Do fidem!"
As those two words echoed through the majestic 17th Century hall, we had all sworn an oath binding us to the university and its interests. We had graduated... I had graduated.
Donning on my fur hood as confirmation and walking back into the hall to a raucous round of applause, I recalled with some strange fondness the difficult parts of my four years at that remarkable institution. From feeling deeply inadequate and undeserving to working and worrying relentlessly; every single bit of it was worth it at that moment. With the first class degree held tightly in my clutch, it was all worth it... Or was it?
You see, I had graduated with first class honours from one of the best universities in the world and was even placed in the fourth percentile in my year, but at what cost?
I often look back, as many people do, on my years at university and realise that there was so much opportunity back then that I failed to grasp; my vision clouded by my unwavering commitment to work.
I wish I had:
- Spent more term breaks travelling, not revising.
- Said 'yes' to more nights out and meals with friends.
- Ditched revision for my college ball despite it being two weeks before my final examination.
- Slept more and spent more.
- Worried less and complained less.
- Made the time to meet new people and widen my circles.
- Taken a step back from the chaos to truly appreciate how fortunate I was.
Put simply, I wish I had worked less and played more. This is a piece of advice I dispense liberally to my undergraduate friends who during the middle of term, lament about their umpteen deadlines and unforgiving schedules.
Life at university is about finding that balance between work and play. Indeed, mastering the art of doing this is a tricky and delicate affair, and very few people ever manage to do it. But quite honestly, very few people even try. Many, like me, get so thoroughly absorbed into the work at university that it is the only thing we see and value. We score brilliantly (or die trying) in the written exams and forget that academic results are not everything. University is a place of learning and learning takes place in all shapes and forms, often beyond the classroom.
The people you meet, the contacts you make, the activities you do and the fun you have - all of them pay higher returns in both the present and the future than your textbooks ever will. So, to limit yourself to just the taught curriculum, as vast as it may be, is to severely short-change yourself of the true university experience. After all, the real final exam is not the one you sit for at the end of your course but the one you take the moment you leave (i.e.; the real world).
Yes, of course a first at university is still undeniably valuable for what it is worth. It almost grants you an automatic pass from round one of job applications to round two. It attracts oohs and ahhs as your proud parents show you off to their friends. And perhaps most importantly, there is a tremendous amount of pride and satisfaction that comes with a first class degree.
But also, a first class degree is to a certain extent just a number on a fancy (and expensive) sheet of paper. Self-development and academic success don't always come hand in hand. In fact, in some cases, they are mutually exclusive.
Your worth and talent are not defined by this number. They are instead largely determined by your experiences in life. Entering the real world after the bubble that is university will expose this and you'll soon realise that not much separates a first and a 2:1 in an employer's eyes.
I almost have a second chance to do it all over again with my postgraduate degree. But if you are in the position I was a few years ago, I hope you take a few steps back and put things in perspective. Study hard but play harder and make the most of your university experience.
After all, what's the use of education in the classroom if it only prepares you... for the classroom?