What university really teaches you: the exam paper of the life of a 21-year-old

“University will be the best 3 years of your life”, they say. “You will learn lots, and it’s so good because you don’t need to study all the subjects you don’t care about, you just study the one you love really in-depth.”

It is an early Saturday morning, and I am on holiday in Toronto. Two weeks have passed since my last exam and there are exactly four weeks left until graduation. For the first time in a very long time, I allow myself a chance to just breathe after another manic year, and the thought that I am finally done with education is starting to sink in.

My mind drifts backs to when I first started applying to universities and courses all those years ago. Prospectus after prospectus, each one will tell you how amazing their course is and how you get to “apply the knowledge you learn in the classroom to the real world”.

You stop for a few moments to test the validity of that statement. Exam after exam later, essay after essay later, you’re wondering what actually you can apply. It’s true: having studied economics, I can (arguably) critique a little better Theresa May’s policies, or understand firms’ behaviour better.

But I try to think in more abstract terms. Because really, the degree isn’t even half of the learning you’ll do at university. Were there things you learnt, but were not necessarily taught? In which case, do you wish you were taught it? It’s so ironic that you will sit so many exam papers, testing your knowledge on the various topics, but life is the biggest – and most difficult – exam, and yet there was no question paper to sit on how to handle all its respective topics.

I turn 21 today. As my friends will know, one of my biggest life principles that I follow is:

“If you’re lucky enough to do well in life, make sure you send the elevator back down.”

My time at university is done, and I’ve had an truly amazing time. This is a post for those about to start. An ‘exam paper’ about what to expect – what you won’t be taught, but what you’ll most definitely learn. In the same way you’d prepare for a school exam, you’ll need to prepare for a life exam. Treat this as a past paper:

The past paper will be split into sections. You quickly scan your eyes down the opening questions to get a feel of the paper, and before you even start, you’ll have learnt something: that first impressions count. In the same way you’re casting a quick judgement on the overall difficulty of the paper, over the three years you will meet so many people and people will form quick judgements on you, as you will form them on others. For the impressions you set, do your best to set good ones. It is so much easier to maintain a relationship than salvage one. For the impressions you form of others, know that whilst your judgement may not always be helpful, 99% of the time it is highly accurate so trust your gut feeling. By now, you will have interacted with enough human beings to know which types you get along with and which types ring alarm bells.

The paper begins. Section A is a section dedicated wholly to the topic of yourself, because throughout these three years, you will come to see your own strengths and weaknesses. You have some tremendous weaknesses, so many things you know you are so bad at doing. But don’t use that as justification that you will never become good at it. Work on those weaknesses and invest heavily on the continuous personal development.

When a child learns to walk and falls down 50 times, he never thinks to himself: “Maybe this isn’t for me?”

You’ll also be tested heavily on your own life principles and your own personality over a critical period in your life where everyone is trying to form who they are under the influence of phenomenal social pressure. Over these three years, become someone your 10-year-old self will be proud of, and your 30-year-old self will thank you for. Become a man of integrity. Strive to be the nicest person you know, the most helpful person you know, the most hard-working person you know, the most genuine person you know. All you can ever be is a better version of you, so embrace your uniqueness because everyone else is taken.

Hence go about your ideals quietly. Treat everyone with respect because we are all human beings, doing the best with what we have. Karma is real, so be pure in your intentions and treat everyone well even if they have nothing to offer you. People care too much about reputation – the external public persona of what you show. Worry more about your character – the internal value system of who you are and what you do when no-one is looking.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The exam paper hasn’t started too well and you’re losing confidence in your ability to pass this exam, but one of the biggest things you’ll learn is to dig deep and believe in yourself. There will be so many times where you will want to quit something, but you will also know that every time you make it through, you will get one step closer and one ounce stronger. There’s always going to be moments – and people will have it at different points – where you start to think “What are you doing, just quit!” but if you keep going, you realise that when you come out of the other side, each time you get a little bit stronger and each time your sense of achievement gets that little bit greater.

So don’t quit. Have confidence that you will succeed. You’ll realise that the human spirit can do anything it sets its mind on, so believe in your abilities. If you have confidence in yourself, others will too. If you don’t, others won’t either, and this will further make you not believe in yourself. It’s a vicious circle, so feed this competence-confidence loop positively before it takes controls of you.

The exam might be going so badly that you’re wishing you didn’t do this module because you knew it was a push for you, but set challenging goals, deliberately test yourself and push your boundaries. Challenging your capabilities is what expands them. Without the struggles, you wouldn’t know your strengths. The skills you feel you are lacking in, commit to strategies to improve them. University will teach you a lot of skills, such as time management and team-work, whilst summer jobs you do in-between will undoubtedly teach you a lot about leadership and communication. But there will be some skills missing which it is down to your own initiative to fix up.

So work on them. It’s important to have the right mind-set, but without the right skill-set to match, you’re not going to get very far. So invest time in learning and improving above and beyond the degree. It’s what will separate the good from the great, and it starts with you wanting to be the best you can possibly be every single day. If you feel you are a poor public speaker, for example, throw yourself into a few presentations. Or if you feel you are a bad leader, volunteer to be the group project manager next time.

Test yourself at every opportunity because this is the time to do so. You’ll realise one of the quickest ways you will learn is just by throwing yourself in. It’s not about feeling confident, or knowing it will work out, or having the most detailed plan of how it will happen. It’s just about doing it. No matter how terrifying the situation is, I can guarantee you the short-term nerves is insignificant compared to the happiness you will feel from eventually conquering it.

You’re onto the next question which is split into parts (a), (b) and (c), and whilst you’re not sure how to answer the small 5-marker in part (a), you reckon you can tackle the bigger 20-markers in the other parts. Except you can’t really, can you, because they all lead on. You’ll realise that the small things in life are really the big things. You treat yourself right, you’ll be able to treat others right. Or the fact you’re not going to master your life in just one day – you need to relax, master the day, and just keep doing that every day. Do the little things right and the big things will take care of themselves.

You pause writing for a moment as you think you may have answered a question wrong, but you’ll come to realise that your greatest fear isn’t being wrong, or making a fool of yourself or anything like that, but your greatest fear is a fear of fear itself. The unknown. How do you behave at a wedding, for example? I don’t know, I haven’t been to one before. How do you deliver a presentation? How do you referee a football match? How do you write an invoice? One of your friends is going through a really difficult patch in life, what do you do? You will be thrown into so many unknown situations where you will not know what to do or who to go to. You don’t actually care if you look stupid, but you care if you feel stupid. In these instances, knowledge is power. Educate yourself on all possibilities by gaining more life experience. As soon as you have one such situation under your belt, even if it went terribly, you’ll know what went right and what went wrong to make a better second attempt. (Or, in this day and age, just Google it.)

And if that fails, rely on hope. Spread positive vibes and don’t be defeatist. Sometimes you’ll do something but you’re not sure if it worked. You’re scared. You’ll wish you can see more progress, but just trust that you’ll succeed. You’ll want to know that you’re on the right path, but just believe and have faith it’ll work out. It usually does.

But not always. Bad things will also still happen, and it is a test of your mental character to see how you handle it. The paradox of life is that you need to know the complete opposite to know the true feeling of something. You need less to appreciate more, bad to know good, sad to feel happy, grief to appreciate, toxic friends to know good friends, suffering to know strength, failure to know success. So when something bad happens, realise that that is a way to make you actually feel happiness when the next good thing comes round.

You’ve finished Section A, which focused on yourself, and are moving to Section B, which focuses on the other people in the rest of the world. The biggest test will be to see whether you can hold your own in a world of people desperate to fit in. Don’t aspire to be like the wrong people and don’t lose yourself in the process of trying to please others.

One of the best pieces of advice you will ever get is:

“People are people.”

For so long you will have no clue what this means, but in truth, if you boil it down, everyone is the same. The same wants. The same desire to be a part of something. To feel loved. There will be some cultural differences, but everyone has the same basic values, dreams and aspirations. Bear that in mind in every conversation you have, that the person right in front of you that you’re talking to, stripped back, is basically the same as you. It’ll open your eyes about how to treat people.

It’ll also become very clear that people gravitate towards people they’re similar to. In light of this, focus on yourself and become the type of person you want to attract, because I can guarantee you that they’ll find you.

At the same time though, it’s so important to embrace diversity. Gel with people of different cultures and appreciate everyone’s differences. People stick to what they know, yes, but make as many friends as you can from all corners of the world and this will allow you to understand a broader range of people – everyone has a beautiful life story.

And because of this, you will make some unbelievable friends, some proper soul connections of people you have connected deeply with rather than superficial light chats. In a society where real-world human connection seems to be disappearing in favour of the quick Snap or quick gif, these people will hands down be the most valuable asset you take away from university for life going forward.

You look up and see two students talking, and this will remind you of another real-world applicable lesson: people will gossip. So choose your friends wisely because you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and there are some clear no-go’s. Bin the gossipers very quickly. If they can do it to others, they can do it to you.

But it doesn’t mean you have to be completely put off by it. Leave them to it, don’t bow down, stick to your principles of integrity and loyalty and just get on with your life. People love gossip, people love drama. One of the biggest tests of university is to learn how to not give a care in the world about others’ gossip. Focus on yourself – your self-worth is not found in the opinion of other people.

You’re half-way through the exam and you quickly tot up how many marks you think you have got so far with the questions you have answered. It doesn’t sound pretty, and you’re starting to hate the lecturer for setting a nasty exam. Except you’ve come to realise that nothing in life is personal. Someone hates you for no apparent reason; and what? Over the course of the three years, learn to detach what others do and your feelings. If you live off someone else’s compliments, you will die from their criticisms. Some will hate you, some will love you, but nothing is personal. Again, focus on yourself and what you do. Inner confidence is not “they’ll like me”, it’s “I’ll be fine if they don’t”.

The next few questions are multiple choice. For these, be as instinctive as you can. If life gives you a dilemma and a couple of options, don’t drown yourself in thought. Trust your gut – if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t – and hone your decision-making skills by building up as much knowledge as possible. The more decisions you make, the easier it will be to spot a terrible one. Good decisions come from using experience, but experience can only come from making bad decisions. But definitely don’t dally and don’t fret – worrying steals all your mental energy, keeps you busy doing absolutely nothing but does not allow you to make a better decision at all.

You see the student on the seat next to you powering through the exam, requesting more and more sheets of paper and you’re struggling to write even two lines. You’re worrying some more, but learn to never compare yourself against others. So what if they’re racing ahead? You can go nowhere very fast. Take your time and follow your own pace. Plan what you need to, organise your answer of how to tackle this problem and then write away. Compare only to yourself: “Is this the best possible answer I could have written?” Life is a game of you versus your former self only, so don’t over-think who you’re competing against. There is no pressure – that metaphorical student is not intending to throw down a challenge about how much you can both write. But you’re taking it that way, which means the only pressure really is the pressure you put on yourself. This will be your greatest motivation but also your greatest stress. Embrace the stress. Use it to strive for better.

“Never stop pushing yourself. Some say 8 hours of sleep is enough. Why stop there? Why not 9? Or 10? Strive for greatness.”

You’ve finished Section B and you see that Section C only requires you to answer one question from a selection of questions, which by definition means you get a choice – hooray!

Except that choice is between good grades, sleep and a social life. The more you want to achieve in life, the more sacrifices you will have to make. There will be so many distractions – you will want to work, but equally isn’t it cool to do a (totally scientific) quiz to see what your favourite flavour of crisp says about your personality? But when you realise that all that life is is the time we are afforded, then you will learn to be super disciplined with time. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything, so it is all about priorities and staying organised. (N.B. Smoky Bacon and no-nonsense, in case you were wondering.)

On top of that, arguably what is more important is learning how to manage your energy rather than your time. Time is irrelevant when you are out of energy. So don’t burn out and understand that your body needs rest instead of pushing through the day with more coffee. If you’re tired, just slow down, but don’t quit. If you can’t run, walk. If you’re that exhausted, sleep some more. But don’t give up on the dream or life ambition.

“University is a vicious cycle of staying up late to catch up on work and taking naps because you stayed up late and then being behind because you just took a nap.”

You move on to answering the next question, but you’ve made a mistake. You’ll realise you will make a ton of mistakes during these three years, beyond belief, and time and time again you think you will have learnt, but time and time again you will keep on making the same errors. Some mistakes will be written in pencil and can be easily erased, for example you do something wrong, or answer something incorrectly. Apologise, correct yourself and move on. But you will also make some more catastrophic errors of judgement, mistakes written in permanent marker and the more you try to scribble it out, the more of a mess you cause. In these instances, rip the page out. Bin it. Start again.

“I never make the same mistake twice. I make it 5 or 6 times, just to be sure.”

You’re near the end of the paper and your mind drifts back to the revision you did. You remember the next question was something you were definitely taught, but, in the rush to cram, you skipped over that topic when revising as you were running out of time. “I wish I had just one more day’s revision”, you think. Except life doesn’t work like that. In fact, do things before you think you’re ready to do them. The truth is you’re never going to be ready if you just keep waiting. You have to go seek it. In all honesty, I don’t feel ready to leave university. I keep thinking that I could probably do with one more year before adulthood. But that’s the exact moment when I know that I have to move on. You can only have so many more “one more day’s revision” or so many more “one more year at university” before life moves on, and you just have to move with it.

So embrace the unpredictable flow of life. You know that you’re not ready, but you also know that you’ll get the biggest wake-up call of your life, and then that will get you ready exceptionally quickly. Learn to not fear change. Be comfortable being uncomfortable, and conversely, know that as soon as you feel comfortable then that should make you feel very uncomfortable.

You’re at the end of the exam paper! You’re pleased to finish but the overwhelming feeling is one of relief, one of “well it could have been a lot worse”. You’re grateful for the things that did happen – the topics that did come up – but even more so, subconsciously, you’re even more grateful for the things that did not happen – the topics that did not come up. You could have easily fallen into the wrong crowd, lost your moral compass, done things you forever regretted, gone off the rails, or lost your sanity with the degree. So whilst a lot of celebration will be on the positives that did happen, appreciate the negatives that did not happen, and equally be forever grateful. It’ll be an amazing three years.

My mind comes back to the present moment. You’re done! You’re at the end of the exam paper, and you realise that university really did teach you a lot and you actually have been able to apply a lot into the real world, just as the prospectuses promised, but not quite in the same way. You will have achieved a lot, become a lot, done a lot, and your pre-university self would have been very proud of the post-university self that came out.

But whilst this particular ‘exam’ has finished, it’s now time to prepare for the next stage of my life and my next exam paper.

Except life has no practice run, and I have no map to know how to navigate graduate life and adulthood. I try to study for it by getting the notes from adult friends. I ask for advice, and someone helpfully tells me that:

“A big part of adulting is unlearning the rubbish you were taught by people who didn’t have a clue what they were doing either.”

And that’s the thing. In this sense, you’re pleased you can’t revise for it, or take a copy of anyone’s notes. Everyone’s question paper is different. It’s a clean slate for you. Write your own path.

My degree graduation may well be in four weeks, but the real graduation is from childhood to adulthood and to leave behind the student life bubble.

Mature, but not yet an adult.

Running out of time, but my whole life is ahead.

I’m terrified, but I can’t wait.

I don’t have a clue, but I’ll figure it out.

I’m not ready, but that’s exactly why I am ready.

Happy 21st.

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