University Challenges: Mental Health and Academic Pressure

So, you excelled at A-Level? Great, now a course place secured. How about the feeling of being put with one hundred other passionate students who appear to have read an extensive course guide you have not seen? Welcome to university academics!

Do not panic – academic pressure is a challenge we all face at some point in our study. It has been something I have felt a lot throughout my education, I found my A-Levels exams to be an incredibly stressful time considering all that was at stake – a place at my top choice University. Endless hours chained to a table, early mornings to late nights, trying to absorb as much information as I could. After my last exam, I vividly remember racing home and sleeping the entire afternoon away.

The first year at university I envisioned would be entirely different. For my course, English and History (plus the majority of others), the year is taken as a time to build up your academic skill and therefore is not taken into account of your overall degree grade. So, it can be a slow time taken to relax into your learning and try your hand out at a new academic area. I obviously did not get the memo.

I immediately seemed to hit the ground running, everything all seemed too difficult for me. I had my seminars and lectures in the week, then spent hours of my days around it trying to prepare and make sense of my work. The university requires their students to take on self-directional study outside the course to get the additional work done. This can mean re-watching lectures, going over seminar notes to consolidate theory and extra reading for example. I tried to do it all and failed catastrophically. It would take me hours, no I am not joking, to read through ten pages of seminar work. I found it a challenge to critically read and understand the dense academic theory, it often frustrated me to the point of throwing books and jumping on my bed to nap.

Seminars in the first year felt equally as mind-boggling. Even with my texts read and lectures watched, I felt hugely unprepared. I would listen in awe as my peers came up with fascinating and insightful points on our seminar work to wonder how in the world they had come to these thoughts. At times, I was convinced I had blacked out and missed a week where they had told us all the answers. Speaking up in seminars I have always found difficult, I tried to partake but mostly I believed my points were at best subpar. I loved these seminars with the fantastic students, however, it felt like I the only one who was completely clueless.

My academic situation had clearly changed, but my mindset had not. That, my friends, is called a lack of self-confidence! I had almost been at the top of my A-Level class – now I had a whole horde of students who did just as well and better than me. My negative mindset was swayed by jealously for how easily excellent ideas seemed to come to them, but not to myself. I felt quite alone and focused on myself in this challenge, the feeling of imposter syndrome and inadequacy in university academics was difficult. My first realisation came when chatting to a friend about our first comments in our seminar, I told her how insightful I thought it was and in response, she told me that she saw it more as word vomit. It encouraged me to speak to fellow students, who I found out that most felt similarly about their explanations and points. Communicating with other students on how to confidentially embrace your ideas, without fear of judgement is a lesson we could all learn.

Path in the Botanical Gardens
Botanical Gardens, where I would often go for walks with my friends to clear my head.

I am not saying that we should not attempt to succeed academically, more so, I could have gone about it in a wholly better approach. I started to speak more to my personal and academic tutors about the issues I struggled with and vent my frustrations to my peers. What was most important was that I try to accept my working ability and academic ideas without comparison to others. It is still something I struggle with going onto the third year, I continue to take hours to read up on my seminar work – but I have learnt it is better to come at your struggles with compassion. Go on, you can sign me up for a TED Talk now – it would still take all my temperamental attention span to muster up a speech.

Another place to direct students towards when facing this challenge or any other mental health struggle is the University’s ‘Student Access to Mental Health Support’ (SAMHS) centre. They are a wonderful set of people who have helped improve my wellbeing in these strange times. https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/mental-wellbeing

What is important to point out is that the pressure to achieve academically was created entirely by myself and the almost desperate need to succeed. I am lucky to have a supportive network who do not require and push me to achieve, I am aware this is not the case in all student’s situation. To those people, I want to reiterate that is so important to know your worth is more than academia!

Good luck with starting your courses!

– Hannah (English and History)

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