Entering Year 12 this year has already had its difficulties: learning how to go to school whilst dealing with the pandemic, the immense workload (which feels especially daunting after 6 months without proper education due to the pandemic) and making new friends.

But now something else has been added to this ticking time bomb of stress and anxiety: university searches. 

Talking with my peers, it is no secret that this extra weight added to the load has exerted extra pressure on us all. It is almost expected for us to know, at the ripe age of 16 or 17, exactly what we want to do with our lives for the next 50+ years.

But guess what? So few of us actually know what route we want to take. Listening around the sixth form block, I’ve heard people change their minds about what course they want to do almost every week. It’s like we’re in a room with a million unlabelled doors – so many opportunities, yet we have so little idea about what one is the right one. Of course, this is a very privileged thing for me to say; the options I have are so much more than others, and I am truly grateful. But sometimes, with so little guidance, the immense number of options can make my head spin.

We have had very little advice on what to look for in a university, despite that seeming to be the mould they want all of us to fit in to (the muddled and uninformative websites don’t help either). I think the lack of guidance on the issue has added to the feeling overwhelmed. I know no one can tell me exactly what to do, I don’t want them to, but sometimes I wish future me could go back in time and tell present me to calm the heck down and just tell me where I’ll be in 10 years. 

Not only is there a lack of guidance on what to do at what university, some students feel that there is almost no discussion about apprenticeships, internships and other further education that is not a £9,000 university. We seem to be blindly ignoring all the alternative options so fortunately available to us. Miss F Vamos, a student who has been looking at both psychology and criminology courses, states that she does not think that there has been enough discussion at her school surrounding alternate routes to university: “I feel like teachers always talking about university first, and other options second.” Meanwhile, Miss Watkinson, who plans to study classics at university, argued that “I feel like some people feel pressure to go to university when actually there are so many different ways into a job other than university”. I can imagine how isolating it must be when the life you want to lead has not been even discussed in talks about the future. The way we discuss universities at school can make some students feel inadequate if they are thinking of taking another route.

I similarly think there are not enough suggestions for gap years, not only for those who are still unsure of what they want to do but also for those who want to travel and experience some freedom before continuing with their education and then entering the workplace. A gap year can be a great opportunity to meet new people, learn new life skills for the future, and take a break from years of hard work. But it can also help develop your knowledge surrounding the subject of which you hope to study/job you hope to enter. I want to do zoology at university, and for the past few years have been so excited about my gap year; I plan to work for most of the year, but also go to South Africa for 3 months volunteering with a wildlife conservation group. This will help me broaden my knowledge and provide me with more experience to help in the future. I found this from my own research. I think if gap years and the opportunities that present themselves to do during them were talked about more, so many people would take them, and in doing so gain so many important skills and experiences. And just give them a chance to live life outside of the privileged societal bubble we live in.

I think the main way we can reduce stress on students is to encourage them to start thinking about their futures earlier in the years when it is far enough away that they have time to think without being under pressure. There needs to be more discussion at schools about various career opportunities and university courses, particularly before students pick their A levels as the course you choose will most likely require certain subjects. There needs to be a greater focus on informing students of ALL the opportunities available to them, including internships and apprenticeships, and opportunities during gap years. And there also needs to be more support from schools, perhaps providing students with league tables for their current preferred courses so they can start looking into them early.

Of course, I know a lot of this is on us individually because, well, it’s our lives and we have to decide. But I think a lot more support and guidance would honestly be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely, all A level students