When I was a kid, summer holidays seemed to stretch on forever, and the wait between birthdays or Christmases felt like an eternity. As I get older, however, I spend my time constantly surprised at the speed that months and years are flying by. I remember my first day in St Andrews just like it was yesterday. Now, halfway through my very last semester here, I hardly believe it’ll be all over so soon.
Having spent my third year abroad, I was happy to come back to St Andrews last September, as I looked forward to making the most of my experience here. However, the words “stress” and “procrastination” have been said more times than I’ve genuinely enjoyed myself. But what do they mean and how can you deal with them?
The NHS defines stress as “the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure.” Stress does not affect everyone in the same way as a source of stress for someone can be a source of motivation for someone else. Moreover, stress in small amounts can be useful, as it pushes you to work hard and do your best in exams or assignments. Although stress appears in different forms and for various reasons throughout the years, a student’s final year at university is often considered the most stressful.
In a report concerning stress and student mental wellbeing, NUS (National Union of Students) Scotland conducted a series of surveys to determine the leading causes of stress in students. According to their findings, the primary sources of stress for final year students are exams, assessments, and big projects such as dissertations, which all represent sources of stress for 90 per cent of final year students. These are followed by concern about career prospects after graduation, which preoccupies 75 per cent of final year students.
The majority of my friends in their final year at St Andrews confirm these statistics. Most report their assignments as their most significant source of stress (especially those writing a dissertation), followed by looking for jobs or figuring out what to do after St Andrews.
Andrea Mariani, a fifth-year student in Mathematics, states, “I have fewer lecture times but a lot more independent work, which means that I have to manage my time more effectively in order to meet all the deadlines successfully and plan times to work on my dissertation.” Therefore, time management is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of writing a dissertation. Because it’s a year-long project, you can feel that you have a lot of time in the beginning, only to become overwhelmed during the second semester as you sense the deadline approaching faster than ever. On top of that, many of us have to deal with figuring out what to do after St Andrews. Graduate school? Full-time job? Travelling? Gap Year?
Kenalyn Ang, a fourth-year student in Comparative Literature and International Relations, shared her worries about her future after graduation. “After St Andrews, it will be the first time that I won’t be a student anymore, and therefore it will be the biggest change that I will encounter in my life so far. Being unsure about what to do next, especially when deciding about career paths, can be an additional source of stress. Personally, I’m torn between a few options for what I want to do, and I know it would be a whole lot easier if I had a specific route to take. However, at the same time, my stress is diminished by the fact that going back home to the US for me is not the worst thing that can happen, even if in the near future I’d like to stay in the UK.”
The thought of career prospects is indeed stressful for many of us who are unsure about what path to take. There is no denying that some have more resources available than others when it comes to looking for internships or jobs. Mr Mariani points out, “Doing an integrated masters in my Mathematics degree was convenient as I don’t need to worry about graduate school, but I do feel stressed concerning my career prospects nonetheless.” He adds, “Although I believe that it’s a great exercise for students to look for jobs on their own, I do think that the University needs to invest more in the Careers Centre, which, in my opinion, lacks much-needed resources for students.”
Therefore, completing final year assignments, applying for graduate schools, or thinking about careers prospects can really take a toll on you mentally, physically, and emotionally. Nevertheless, if you’re struggling with a lack of motivation, some tips can come in handy in moments when you’re feeling on edge.
You’ve undoubtedly heard all the generic tips repeated by your lecturers, supervisors, professors, books or guides: eat healthily, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, meditate, stick to a plan, etc. Although there’s no denying that they are important, the worst thing you can do is pressure yourself even more to achieve every one of these tasks. Stick to what helps you the most, create your own routine, and organise your work schedule accordingly.
Alice Borsatti, a former Neuroscience student who graduated from St Andrews last year, shared her experience overcoming stress whilst juggling her dissertation and her masters applications. “There’s no denying that some days are harder than others, especially when you’re dealing with a lot at the same time. However, what really helped me was to assign days dedicated to my dissertation and others for my applications so I could concentrate on one task at a time instead of getting confused, frustrated and mixed up in my work.” For those applying for masters, she adds, “Pay attention to deadlines and organise your time accordingly. For example, some deadlines in the UK are pretty late, such as July, which means you can deal with them after you’re done with all the work you have to do in your final year.”
Additionally, Ms Ang emphasised, “Focus on yourself, and don’t let yourself get too affected by what you hear from others and what they tell you about their dissertation, graduate application or jobs. Remember this happens to fourth years everywhere, and that they all survive whatever happens.”
Therefore, even though talking about it with friends or classmates can prove helpful at times, don’t fall into the trap of measuring your success against the success of others and don’t feel obliged to answer questions that add unnecessary pressure to your current concerns.
There’s no denying that many of these tips are easier said than done. How can you truly relax when all you’re thinking about is finishing your dissertation, working on that very last essay, or waiting for the results of your masters or job applications? These were my thoughts exactly. However, something that truly helped me was thinking of my time off not as time deducted from my work, but as an opportunity to be more effective, overcome writer’s block, or keep scrolling through job offers. As long as you’re balancing your tasks, an activity like taking a long break, going for a walk on the beach, having dinner with your flatmates, leaving St Andrews for the weekend or partying with your friends will give you the much-needed energy to work harder afterwards.
Some level of stress, or even burnout, is inevitable during the final year at university for most. While this is something you just need to get through, you absolutely need to make up for it with a large period of fun afterwards. There’s no denying that jobs or graduate school are a priority for many, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reward yourself, perhaps with a present to yourself for these last four or five years. In my experience, knowing that I would get to see people that I love after I’m done, and trips and activities I want to do afterwards, keeps me going. Plan some time for yourself for after your exams, dissertations or assignments are done, and guard that time fiercely.
As a final point, Ms Borsatti adds, “Do a bucket list of all the things you want to do in St Andrews before you leave and try to do as much as you can as a reward when you’re taking breaks.”