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A bright future awaits: An open letter to IB students feeling burned-out

Soon-to-be doctor and student mentor Aaron Goh has seen it all. He has this timeless advice for DP students who are in the midst of the final stretch of the Diploma Programme (DP). Each year we invite IB alumni to share their experiences, interests and advice with our global community in the graduate voices series. Aaron is a DP graduate from the Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), Singapore.

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Photo courtesy of @chuttersnap

By Aaron Goh

Dear burned-out IB student,

I’m not sure where you are in your journey now. Perhaps you’ve only just begun the 2-year long Diploma Programme (DP), or are in the midst of scaling the infamous Mount EETOKIA. Or maybe you’ve overcome said mountain, only to come face to face with the terrifying final papers! Friends ask you out for a meal but you politely decline, you’ve got a date with someone new (her initials are I.A.) and your Whatsapp status has been changed from “available” to “drowning”. Being busy seems to be the new norm ever since you stepped foot into the IB.

I get it, IB’s tough. You’re done with all this madness. You look in the mirror, swear to yourself that you’ve aged more over the past year than you have in the first 17 years of your life, and swiftly conclude that the IB programme is indeed a health hazard. Goodness, why are my eyebags so thick, you ask yourself. And the most plausible explanation that comes to mind is that you’ve stayed up past 12 midnight the whole of last week to churn out that Extended Essay draft. And subsequently you drink an unhealthy amount of coffee that would raise serious questions of a caffeine addiction (you’re not addicted, you’re an IB student…) yet all the caffeine in the world could not stop the all-powerful “Z Monster” from sneaking up on you during classes.

Feeling ‘lost’ is your new status quo – you think back to your first day of classes; once the fanfare of orientation had died down and classes started proper, you soon realized that a subject in ‘HL’ did not stand for ‘Higher Level’ but was an abbreviated form of spelling out what actual, living, H**L meant. No amount of pre-reading would have prepared you for your first Physics class on “Measurements and Uncertainties”, following which you promptly walked out of class, the only uncertainty you’re sure of being your own. Nights are spent catching up with work, yet thoughts of self-doubt start creeping into your mind: I don’t think I’ll be able to meet this deadline. I’m not smart enough for the IB, I think I’m in the wrong programme. I don’t know how I’ll ever get through these two years.

Maybe those thoughts sound familiar. But that’s why I’m writing – because you’re definitely not the only one who feels this way. And if it’s any encouragement, I know how all of that feels. Perhaps you may be surprised how many graduated seniors have shared similar thoughts – we’ve been there, and we know it’s tough on you. And if we could do it all over again (God no), here are a few of the things we’d tell ourselves, just to keep everything in perspective.

1. You’ll graduate with a ton of soft skills you can be proud of

The demands of the curriculum force us to be excellent at handling multiple projects simultaneously, and we all leave the DP with juggling and balancing abilities only rivalled by full-time circus monkeys. Did I mention those hours of intense reading and research too? It made us all too comfortable with producing reports (the night before the deadline, whoops!)

2. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t understand something. Instead, embrace the uncertainties and be comfortable with your foray into the unknown. Yet we too must appreciate that we cannot ever learn all there is to know in a single lifetime! Perhaps we all need a dose of humility to acknowledge our limits and to be honest with our shortcomings, and that these shortcomings are what make us, truly, human.

3. Self-Care!

Yes, you are still human, even if the workload seems inhumane. By all means, work hard; but not at the expense of meals, sleep, and a social life. I came across this post and perhaps it’s a good reminder for us all: “your best” doesn’t mean pushing yourself to your breaking point… “your best” is better when you are happy and healthy.

4. You will get through this.

Most importantly, we seniors have lived to tell the tale, and you will too. It sure doesn’t seem like it now (not when your EE word count stares blankly back at you), but the two years will pass by quicker than you think. Rather than simply wishing to get it ‘over and done with’, be present in every moment and enjoy each day for what it brings – joys, challenges and all. Because while our struggles seem pointless in the moment, they are best appreciated in hindsight; and someday you might look back and realize that there was a reason for it after all. I can confidently say that the difficult moments have made me a better person today.

And it may not make you feel better right now, but when reminiscing with my friends about our days in the IB—we all agreed that those were the most challenging 2 years of our education (two exceptions for friends who pursued medicine or law, undaunted by the IB or sparing few thoughts for self-care. Ha!) Yet we recall those days as being the best days of our lives. Perhaps we look back on the past with rose-tinted lenses, you might argue; instead I choose to believe that difficult moments bring people together. Hold on to your friends in the IB, for there is something truly special about the relationships you form during such a formative time in their life. The friends I’ve made through the IB are friends I hold on to till this day, and I’m sure that it will be the same for you as well.

Struggle well, and I await the day that you too step out of your school gates with memories of the past and bright hopes for your future, when you’ll be able to recall your days in the IB with fondness. In the meantime, we’ll be cheering you on, with full confidence that tough times won’t last. We’ll see you on the other side.

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Aaron Goh graduated from the IBDP at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), Singapore, in 2015. He reads Medicine at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, Singapore, and holds a deep sense of wonder when considering the human condition. In his spare time he volunteers with the Boys’ Brigade, an organization dedicated to mentoring and developing youths. He survives by 7 hours of sleep and the occasional shot of caffeine. You can connect with him here and @aarongohqy.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at alumni.relations@ibo.org. We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and now Instagram!

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