With growing numbers of students now going to university, the pressure on young people to stand out in an increasingly competitive workforce appears as a rising issue. Since 1960, the UK undergraduate population has increased almost tenfold, with around 40 per cent of students currently pursuing higher education. Alongside this, apprenticeships are also gaining traction, whilst immediate entry into full-time work is falling overall.

On my gap year, my primary means of understanding and accessing the university experience has been via social media. Through pictures and videos, students are able to curate an idealised image of college life, focusing on the highlights, with many choosing to keep the low points to themselves. I am regularly reminded of this when speaking to friends about university, as many admit a far more challenging, and sometimes isolating experience than their posts and stories let on.

Of course, social media is known for its lack of nuance, and we as young people recognise the false images and experiences social media perpetuates. A lack of ingenuity on social media could partly explain why in recent years, drop-out rates at UK universities have risen. But these honest chats got me thinking: If I was feeling pressured by what I saw online, what must it be like for students already struggling at university?

Following this concern, I decided to lead a series of interviews with students at universities across the UK, in 1st to 3rd year. From art school to Oxbridge, I spoke with a mix of people, hoping to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of the ‘average’ university experience. It is key to note that the satisfaction rates varied across those I interviewed, with some describing ‘growth’, ‘happiness’ and ‘fresh starts’ as defining their university experience. However, what each student also shared was the recognition that the way they presented their life online did not match their reality. Many admitted hiding their ‘stress’ or ‘struggles’, with some even keeping this truth from their friends and family.

Another commonality was the difficulty experienced in ‘settling in’, with some describing ‘loneliness’, ‘extreme homesickness’, and ‘exhaustion‘ at the start of term. Again, these negative feelings in and of themselves are not necessarily a bad thing, as we all face a mix of ups and downs. The challenges that university brings are recognised as part of its value, but the absence of the portrayal of these experiences on social media risks stigmatising such emotions — quite normal for many people in any new environment.

It may be that such feelings are so common that students do not feel the need to address them any further. But until I have experienced university for myself, I don’t feel able to fully comment on this.

Recognising the difficulties students can experience throughout their study, universities have developed support networks. In their interviews, most students who had reached out to such services felt relieved after doing so. The process of adjustment from school to college is one that takes time. I wonder whether the craving for immediacy that social media generates, makes this process all the harder.

As part of this, many interviewees described how academic pressure wove its way into social media. Online, comparison and competitiveness is facilitated by the constant ability to communicate with course mates. Again, the process of academic development is under scrutiny, learning requires time, yet the modern desire for speed does not leave much room for this. Of those I asked, art school students especially focused on the pressure of perfection, as their often deeply personal work was subject to the paradox of more open, as well as more anonymous scrutiny.

Despite the burden of social media, most continue to find university a rewarding period of personal and academic development. To preserve this means shifting our use of social media. Perhaps replacing glamour with honesty, where social media offers a platform for truthful communication, rather than competition.

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