Exeter, Personal, Pre-departure, University Blog

Livin’ in a check-box world…

(I now have ‘Uptown Girl’ stuck in my head thanks to this title. I hope you do too.)

Throwback to late May, and second year was drawing to a close in a leisurely fashion, with the final weeks of post-exam freedom passing in haze of sunny day trips and chilled nights in.  The end came quickly, and brought with it a mad rush to try tidying our house and the horrifyingly prospect of having to completely empty our fridge and freezer (some interesting lunch combos transpired as a result of this.)

My final weekend in Exeter coincided (just as it did in first year) with the University’s summer Open Day. Bizarrely enough, my brother is just finishing year 12, and with UCAS looming he’s repeating the same process I went through and traipsing round said-Open days. We’re definitely peas from the same pod, the lil bro and I, so it was no real surprise that with me having raved about how much I loved Exeter as a university and a coastal city, that he fancied a look around too.

So it was an early start on my final day down South to take him to his tour of the Physics building, dodging harried looking parents clutching campus maps and weaving around student ambassadors offering help (“thanks ever so much but uh, I actually go here? So we’re alright, honest.”) Campus was heaving with people oohing and ahhing and it was with the slight satisfaction I always feel when around pre-Freshers (I so remember being where you are now and I am SO glad I am not still there) that I got to play tour guide for the day.

I may know next to nothing about Physics (my brain neatly destroyed all memories of GCSE Physics to make space for A level cramming) but I do feel I know a helluva lot about Exeter at this point. So it was with quite a lot of pride that I showed the brother round, taking him through DH1 and past Reed Hall in the sunshine, bypassing the over-sized tour groups and skipping out the boring bits.  It brought back more than a few memories of doing the tour for myself the first time I visited Exeter when I was his age, and though rose-tinted now, I can still remember the overwhelming conviction that this was somewhere I wanted to be.

Who knows what the brother really thought of it (I mean he liked it, but that was about as much as my Mum and I could get out of him) but that didn’t stop us quizzing him on the car drive home, the boot packed to the ceiling with my student wordly belongings. The conversation inevitably turned to the process of applying to university, and the dreaded personal statement. He’s a talented kid, so Mum and I were offering up extracurricular things he might want to get in there alongside his obvious, burning passion for Physics which had been harbouring since the womb. We ended up listing off his involvement in theatre production, his musical talents, D of E and sport as exactly that; a list.

“You’ve just got to show you tick all the boxes, jump through all the loop-holes. It’s not enough to just be good at the subject anymore. It’s tragic but it’s true,” was my advice.

Because it does seem a bit tragic. My brother is a smart cookie, he’s always liked school, and he does well at the subjects he enjoys, even though up until now it’s all seemed a little easy for him. He’s an obvious candidate for university and Higher Education, but it really isn’t just enough to be good at your subject in this day and age. The personal statement fracas was not something I enjoyed, partly because it all seemed a little false. Here I was, condensing and drafting everything ‘noteworthy’ about me as a person into one side of A4.

I wrote an open letter to my teenage self on the eve of my 20th birthday last month, and in my closing statement I made an important point that teen-me had never quite understood.  ‘You don’t need to measure everything in certificates and achievements. Life is worth so much more than schoolwork (though hard work pays off), and fun things can just sometimes be for fun.’ Partly because of my schooling environment, I really did constantly feel the need to categorise my extracurricular pursuits by ‘value’. It was whether I passed my clarinet with merit or not that mattered, not the joy of the instrument; whether I’d completed Gold D of E to an extent that ‘determined’ was an appropriate adjective I could use to describe myself; how I could best sell my years involved in GirlGuiding in a way that would make university admission staff like me.

Since becoming a student I’ve no doubt experienced a backlash to this way of thinking, as evidenced in my open letter. Now, the thought of doing something purely because it’s ‘useful’ for the old CV or Personal Statement seems like the worse kind of falsehood. “It’s not you you’re then selling,” I decided, “it’s a version of you you wish you were and want to present, but it’s not the real truth.” Telling my brother that he’d just have to get used to the idea of reducing the things that gave him enjoyment in life to a series of cliched, buzzwords like ‘dedication’ and ‘commitment’ and ‘teamwork’, I felt like some wisened old postgrad, bemoaning the hard truths of the loopholes of our higher education system.


Except the more I’ve thought about it, about how young people are advised to show participation in things and activities that allow them to tick off demonstrating their well-roundedness, the more I’ve realised that perhaps I’m just approaching it with the wrong attitude.

Writing my personal statement was a horrible task; a task that the entire year group enjoyed mutually complaining about. It felt artificial after so many drafts and re-writes, it felt false and hollow. But although the way I’d condensed and employed cliches in order to reference the pursuits I’d had outside academia felt artificial, the experiences themselves were not.

I hadn’t gone into Guiding or applied for a Prefect position with my personal statement in mind, but I won’t lie that I hadn’t thought about in relation to my music grades and in deciding to submit my feet to more trench foot in the form of D of E. University applications was in the periphery of my decision-making since I was 14; I inevitably made some decisions about what to do outside of school on the basis of ‘this will look good.’

But really, though perhaps not the ideal motivation to get involved in these things, does it really matter? Whether it looked good or not, and as cliched as it may have been to have opted for things like D of E, the experiences themselves were hugely valuable. ‘Teamwork’ may be a prime checkbox word, but in being able to say I had experienced in that, I had to go through the worst 4 days of my life in sweltering heat on Welsh mountainsides. In putting down ‘dedication’ I spent blood, sweat and tears practicing and practicing horrendously hard Clarinet exam pieces until I could get through the first 8 bars without a mistake. ‘Volunteer’ may look great, but the title had to be earned through weekly trips to the Guide hut in the village, through running games and befriending the girls, even through exams and stress.

I guess I’m trying to say that, my experiences aside, if people sign up for things like D of E or take up a sport or start volunteering in pursuit of a well-rounded personal statement, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It might feel a little false in your motivations, that you’re pandering to the tickbox system we find ourselves in, but the experience is going to benefit you. It might not be you don’t enjoy, or it might be something you end up loving more than anything else – but either way you will learn something about yourself. There is no harm at all in being motivated to try new things and gain new skills, regardless of said-motivation. So while I might be making a case to convince my brother to try basketball to ‘demonstrate teamwork’, although it will do just that, I also think it’s a sport he’ll really enjoy.

Personal statements and CVs may create a culture in secondary education in which we feel like we’re just checking boxes, but they also encourage us to pursue the experiences that allow us to claim these buzzwords as our own. We might prefer the romantic notion of being instantly an attractive candidate of our own merit when applying to university – but pursuing the idea of being ‘well-rounded’ can never be a bad thing. You will inevitably become just that as a result – as long as you don’t get too caught up in compartmentalizing experience, and keep your mind open to the fact you’re trying new things.



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