PEARL CAO/THE VARSITY

It’s not unwarranted to call U of T a pressure cooker, especially around this stressful time of year. Below, students reflect on how their experiences with competition at the university have shaped their lives, for better or for worse.

Dreams of med school bring out the best and worst in students

As a first-year Life Sciences student, I feel like U of T is much more competitive than my high school, and probably most universities in Canada. In general, for any program, the standards needed to excel are quite high — you’re expected to maintain 85 per cent averages for all courses if you aim to achieve a 4.0, irrespective of the nature of the course. This can be very difficult depending on the courses you take; while I breeze through biology courses, I struggle to do well in organic chemistry.

There’s also the fact that many people in Life Sciences are gunning for medical school, which often requires maintaining averages of 90 per cent or higher as well as a full course load every year. I’m not surprised to find many of my classmates frantically studying overnight at Robarts on a regular basis, or plowing through stacks of past papers the night before an exam.

The competition that comes out of this environment can also spawn a sense of self-importance. I was initially quite baffled when I heard friends complaining about “only” getting an 85 per cent grade. However, given that perfect grades are not merely an asset for them to get into medical school — they’re a requirement — I eventually came to understand their discontent.

Nevertheless, I don’t think that the rigorous academic culture at U of T is necessarily a bad thing. The environment has forced me to adopt better study habits and manage my time more effectively, but I’ve still managed to enjoy some free time to pursue my hobbies now and then. Plus, U of T has more opportunities in terms of research and internships compared to other universities, so I think the extra effort comes with its rewards.

All in all, what you put into a degree is what you get out of it. While it may be harder to do well at U of T or in certain programs, it certainly isn’t impossible, and being surrounded by people of equal or higher calibre can make it all the more worthwhile.

Jeffrey To is a first-year student at University College studying Life Sciences.

An emphasis on grades pits overachieving peers against one another

University is the first experience that many students, including me, have with living independently. As such, the university experience can be daunting to begin with. Add to this the spectre of responsibility thrust upon us: our lives depend upon the grades, extracurriculars, and work experiences that we can cram into our résumés within the time it takes to complete a degree.

Since I entered the Biochemistry program with expectations of getting into medical school — perhaps the most coveted aspiration in Life Sciences — my grades were always in the background of every decision I made, often waiting to jump out into unrelated conversations. The pressure to make the cut for the limited positions in a highly competitive field led me to compare my stats with others, always wanting to outscore them. Examinations, quizzes, and assignments were regular topics of discussion, as I was surrounded by friends and peers reaching for the same golden ticket.

Their scores became a measuring stick. When asked about my grades, being able to retort with a higher mark than the ones they had achieved became a target in and of itself. There was great joy when I did well and greater misery when I did not — and my disappointment would be further compounded when I heard about others’ successes. Gleaned from their reactions to my results, it was often clear that their experiences were not too distant from mine.

Despite the significant knowledge and experiences provided at university, the markers of quality are partly implied by our grades. Among my group of friends, the implicit understanding of the competition and its rules was left unspoken, as if such thoughts were taboo. Reflecting back, such competition seems to me to be a natural product of high expectations and the quest for success.

Vaibhav Bhandari is a graduate student in the Department of Biochemistry.

Competition is conducive to survival in a brutal job market

Undoubtedly, U of T has a highly competitive environment. Rigorous academic standards and seemingly neverending piles of coursework are the main staples of student life at this university. The prestige of attending what is, by many accounts, Canada’s top university also breeds competitiveness, with students pressured by intense expectations to do well. At the same time, many students work hard in the hopes that job offers will line up once they take their first steps outside Convocation Hall post-graduation.

Unfortunately, it’s a cruel world out there in terms of job prospects, even for U of T grads. As of the Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey conducted in February 2017, the unemployment rate for people aged 15–24 is twice that of the general population. In a job market saturated by graduates holding bachelor’s degrees, more than a quarter of them are underemployed — people who hold degrees often end up in jobs that don’t require them. The fear of not scoring a job post-grad generates even more competition, as students must dedicate more hours to filling up their résumés while maintaining good grades.

From my own experience, the competitive environment at U of T only made me more zealous. To outcompete other students, I spent my summers working internships and gaining job experience. Similarly, my peers spent their summers working for different companies. With everyone grinding and hustling, the desire to compare and ‘beat’ each other becomes toxic. I have friends complaining about other people’s successes while berating and putting themselves under more pressure. I have also known overly eager students who have put their academics above all else, sometimes at the cost of their friendships. It is not uncommon to hear about probation periods slapped onto underperforming students or of students dropping out of school altogether.

At the same time, this exposure to competition — and to the realities of the job market — was a useful experience. It made me mentally tougher and more equipped to deal with pressures after university. In this way, the competitive environment at U of T is a double-edged sword. Staying ahead of the game is not easy, but given the state of the job market, a certain level of competition is a necessary reality.

Arnold Yung graduated from St. Michael’s College in November 2017 and holds a degree in History.

From stress in academia to success in student journalism

I came to U of T believing that I was going to become an English professor and an important asset to English scholarship. I had little knowledge of the competitive nature of the institution as a whole.

In first year, my self-esteem plummeted. The high school literature nerd had somehow received a C+ on her first paper in ENG150 — The Literary Tradition, while my friend had received a B. It seemed as if I was the only student performing below average on assignments while my peers were receiving As and Bs. Truthfully, even by my second year, I wasn’t able to handle the rigorous competition in my classes because of the ‘trauma’ of receiving bad grades on essays, pieces of writing in which I had always prided myself.

During my initial period of frustration at the university, I joined a few extracurricular activities that shared one commonality: student journalism. Writing for various publications became my safe haven from the low points in my classes, and I started to prioritize my journalistic work at the expense of my schoolwork. I fell in love with the fast-paced newsrooms, the daunting deadlines, and the editors with their endless comments on pieces I thought wouldn’t get published, until to my surprise, my work ended up on newsstands a week later.

I realized that I was not suited to the intense competition of getting the highest mark among my peers that I experienced inside the classroom. But competition in the journalism environment was not only addictive, it was empowering. I stopped feeling a sense of defeat from academic failures and started to thrive from competition I experienced in the newsroom. Perhaps this preference was fueled by the fact that my English peers praised me for my journalistic work, or that many of them thought they were simply not cut out for the fast-paced environment of journalism. I came to realize that competition was exciting and liberating in an environment where I felt recognized and acknowledged — feelings that I had not experienced within the classroom setting.

Reflecting on the four years I have spent at U of T, I realize that my initial career path was irrelevant to my true passions. U of T is a highly competitive school. But sometimes, that competition helps you figure out what you really want to do with your life.

Carol Eugene Park is a fourth-year student at Victoria College studying English and Renaissance Studies.

The climb to the top can come at the expense of mental wellness

The competitive environment at U of T has definitely had an impact on my own mental health. There is an inherent hypocrisy evident within the competitive attitude that the school espouses. We know that talking to others, developing a more open school environment, and sharing our problems are surefire ways to alleviate students’ mental health problems. However, the way that competition at the university manifests itself is often through the creation of cliques centred on accomplishment, which are present everywhere from upper-year classes to course-based student unions.

Within these groups, the discussion is often dominated by the most experienced students: those who are involved in research projects or those who have valuable internships or jobs on their résumés. It can be hard to break into a conversation in a class or at an event when you don’t have the requisite experiences to keep up with others in the group.

Not only does this create a crushing sense of anonymity as you go into your upper years, but it also has a damaging effect on mental health. When the community on campus is centred on individual productivity as opposed to solidarity, feeling excluded or unworthy can cause self-esteem issues and does not do much to help against the forces of isolation that drive depression and anxiety. Just as importantly, this kind of social environment is incompatible with the university’s efforts to improve mental health among the student body. It is difficult to build communities focused on unity and equity when we are pressured to talk about inherently stratifying subjects like grades and work.

If we want to work to improve our collective mental health, we have to consciously steer conversations at university away from the idea of productivity — even if that means moving the higher-achieving ones among us away from the centre of attention for once. Yet if we continue to prioritize competition, ongoing mental health crises will become harder and harder to beat.

Arjun Kaul is a fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Neuroscience.

Overwhelming responsibilities sometimes become too much to bear

I often tell my friends that I could never attend Harvard, if only because of how competitive it is. It is ironic, then, that I am a student at U of T — an institution that is sometimes referred to as the ‘Harvard of the North.’

Yes, U of T is competitive. Probably thanks to U of T’s incredible PR team, I thought the competition would be healthy instead of harmful before I started at the university. Healthy competition is good; it is what pushes me to participate more in class, enables me to stay motivated, and encourages me to study harder so I can use my good marks as an excuse to treat myself.

The kind of competition I find at U of T, however, is the opposite of healthy. Students at U of T are implicitly expected to balance five courses — one of which might be a research or independent study course — and to not only finish all of their assignments and tests but also to get good grades on them. Further, students are expected to balance their academic careers with volunteering in clubs or organizations on campus to build their CCR records. Many students also work part-time because the transit fares required to get to and from campus, let alone the tickets to pub nights and socials, are not going to pay for themselves.

Juggling all these responsibilities while also trying to preserve my health, ‘networking’ in search of professional opportunities, and maintaining a social life outside of school have caused my shoulders to sag permanently under the weight of the workload. My eyes are haunted by dark circles, and my face is dotted with pimples born of the heady concoction of too much stress and too little sleep.

The pressure to be well-rounded is daunting and can take a toll on your mental health. It is hard to feel good enough, and it is easy to feel guilty for burning out when it seems like no matter what you do, someone else is doing more and doing it better.

I don’t regret my decision to study at U of T because the opportunities and resources it has to offer put other universities to shame. However, while I do think that the pressure U of T puts on me is the cause for much of my stress, the university should — through improving its mental health services — also provide the solution.

Zeahaa Rehman is a third-year student at UTM studying Linguistics and Professional Writing and Communication.

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