University sacrifices: choosing between the first or the fun

The initial realisation that it was unlikely that I would be getting a first class degree was one of despair. How would I get a job? How would I explain what appears to be an absolute failure to my expectant family? How could I possibly have not spent every spare moment in the library or doing secondary reading? Or the primary reading, even?

Academia. It’s what we all come to university for in the first place. Yet soon enough, the allure of various activities, nights out, and the simple fact that there are over 13,000 other students to befriend and party with takes over. First year: it doesn’t count, everyone reassures one another. Second year: it counts a bit more, so work to meet the deadlines and turn up to the exams. Third year: the apocalypse dawns. It’s a natural cycle of desolate panic, yet academia is not the only thing that ‘counts’. Some people like to reassure themselves with this fact, without carrying much conviction. But it’s true: university is not just about obtaining that coveted first. There is almost a sickening number of opportunities available to students – and they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t intended as beneficial additions to academic study.

Whether it’s taking part in something that relates to what you want to do when you graduate, or volunteering to plant trees in local parks, everything is a ‘useful’ experience. If not at university, when else? It’s hard to envisage many people in the working world who have the time, inclination, or funds to go on a night out, direct a play, and partake in competitive squash matches all in one week.

The figures from the NSS showing that more Electronics students at York get a first class degree than those studying Archaeology are admittedly puzzling. Unlike popular and biased stereotypes, this doesn’t mean that Electronics students are more focused on their studies, go out less, have less of a ‘life’ than Archaeology students.

Perhaps the reason for the disparity is that Electronics students have more contact hours than Archaeology students, and different methods of examination. What worries me isn’t the difference between the numbers of firsts from students doing different subjects at my own university – it’s whether students from different universities doing similar subjects, who I will be competing against in the big bad world of employment, are having an easier time getting a first. This, sadly, isn’t something we can do much about, other than making the Harry Fairhurst building your second home.
This leads to the next worry about whether employers recognise that York is a good university. It fluctuates up and down the league tables on a yearly basis, it’s not part of the Russell group, and it doesn’t have a reputation for being ‘the’ university for any particular subject. On paper, being a York graduate might say absolutely nothing, so using individual experiences as evidence that you’ve made the most of being at university (regardless of the institution) become necessary to set students apart from the job-hunting rabble. Maybe this is where York is a winner: there’s college sport and BUCS sport; there’s some extremely niche societies; there’s even academic societies for those with scholarly inclinations.
Employers know these opportunities exist, they’ve heard the plugs from universities and unions about the glorious ‘student experience’ as many times as we have. They know ‘how it is’ for students, so in some senses, turning up to an interview proudly waving your first but having nothing else to say about your time at university is a bit of a death trap.

There’s a healthy balance to be found, and it’s a juggling act. It’s hard to work out which to sacrifice, the fun or the first? I’m personally happy to settle for a 2:1, and I’d like to think it’s not entirely because I’ve been happily duped into believing all of this ‘well-rounded person’ business.


  1. 11 Oct ’11 at 5:55 pm

    Accepted my 2:1...

    This article is ridiculous and demeaning to those who got firsts, there does not have to be a sacrifice between gaining a first and having fun at university. I know many people who gained firsts, were active in societies and went out partying, they just worked hard at the other times or did essays earlier if they knew they would be busy near essay due dates!

    A far more pressing issue for the university is students who for financial reasons need to work extremely long hours to support themselves or their families, those students might have to make a choice between work, studying and societies!

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  2. 11 Oct ’11 at 7:41 pm

    Jonathan Frost

    I think you missed the point of the article. It was more about getting a full, rounded experience at uni, and saying that, perhaps, a first isn’t everything.

    It’s not demeaning to those who got firsts, but university is a balancing act. Hats off to those that manage it so successfully- I doubt they feel demeaned.

    I agree that there are more pressing issues, but they wern’t being addressed here. Stop overreacting, and stay on topic.

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  3. 12 Oct ’11 at 12:16 am

    Accepted my 2:1...

    @ Jonathon Frost.

    I understood the point of the article; read the headline, “Choosing between the first or the fun.” All I said was that I don’t believe such a choice exists and stating “first OR the fun” clearly implies the writer thinks you can’t have both!

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  4. I completely agree with this article. It is perfectly acceptable to spend every night in your room studying for the next three/four years. It is perfectly acceptable to gain a first at the end. In fact, it’s a fantastic achievement. Obviously. However, at the end of the day, most jobs won’t look twice at you (journalism, medicine, management) if you fail to show that you’ve done anything other than study. University is about meeting new people, having new experiences and adding to your CV. If you finish university and only have to add one achievement to your CV, then it is pretty likely that you won’t be considered to have done as well as someone who gained a second and volunteered/planted trees/gained useful contacts in the working world. The author never criticised people who were lucky enough to get firsts. All that was said was that you need more than just a degree to get anywhere/anything out of this experience. Don’t waste it.

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  5. Well i think this article is an excuse for those that fall short of a 1st. The ranking system helps the better and more brilliant students to shine out from the less interested students. Competition exists in class and nobody likes to come 2nd in a race :o)

    University can be fun and this is down to the individual to determine what he/she finds fun ?! The job market require the highest degree and that usually just to get the interview these days.

    Constantly improve and forever the system :o)

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