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The university exit essay: A grand idea?

We invited IB diploma graduates to reflect on post-IB life and offer perspectives on topics of their choosing.  This is the third article in a series by Sunniva Midtskogen, one of this year’s cohort of alumni contributing authors.


By Sunniva Midtskogen

I just applied for a masters degree a few weeks back, and thankfully I didn’t have to enclose a personal letter. I remember writing one for Lancaster University when I applied for my Bachelors, and it was so hard. The essay comes with a lot of pressure, and you want to make yourself sound interesting, smart, like you’ll stand out and contribute to a varied, dynamic student body.

My last post for this blog let me reflect back on my bachelors degree, and in doing so I realized that a lot of what I had learned had not really been that obvious to me. I realized that, despite not feeling this way while I was doing all of the work, they taught me to trust my own voice, my opinions and my discoveries. For this article I was prompted to consider the idea of an ‘exit essay’, imagine an essay that would reflect back on your university time and that you had to write before you were awarded your degree.

This caught my interest because I did find it useful to sit down and think about what I had learned, and how I have changed, as a person and an academic, since I began my BA. It also felt, I think, as an opportunity to be entirely honest. In a personal statement for an application you write yourself up, you focus on the good qualities, but in an exit statement you can be transparent – you don’t need to make yourself out anymore, rather you want to employ those critical, analytical skills you learned during your degree and think about the past three years.

In applications you get asked to define challenges in your life that shaped you. I always thought of these as massive changes in your life, like a parent or sibling dying, having your home burn down, or suffering a near-fatal accident. I lived a blessed and sheltered life, and never felt like I had any experience that drastically changed my perspective or lifestyle. Not until I moved, and for many youths their first time living away from home is at university.

Have I changed much since I moved to university? Certainly. Was it due to university or to the fact that I was leaving everything familiar to live abroad? Probably it was more the latter, but perhaps that is part of what you must learn at university. Perhaps this is something that the university often forgets?

We had plenty of support systems around for those who struggled with the transition of leaving home, but I don’t think they offered a lot of thought on those of us whose transitions went flawlessly. There was always a focus on welfare and a healthy, social campus, but too many of the employees thought only of the academic. We all graduate and for many it means leaving behind the best years of their lives. My father still talks about his time at university, and I doubt that I will even feel the same longing for a place as I do for Maine where I spent a fantastic year studying abroad, travelling, meeting friends.

When you apply to university you are asked who you will be as a student, how you will face up to challenges, attack problems and prove yourself smart and innovative. Some do ask you how challenges in your personal life affected you, but what about when you leave? What about after those three years, when you know if that person you promised to be when they admitted you became true, when you know who that person turned out to be. Was it a lie, was it too ambitious, was it the entirely wrong idea all along?

I realized that my reflecting back at my BA and what I had really learned from doing an art degree, I found an unexpected answer. But what about me, how am I a different person now and how did I live up to my own expectations? I’m lucky because I’m a writer, and much of what I do is reflect on my life this way – indeed, both of my previous articles for this blog have been reflections of my student days. But what about the biologists and the engineers and the accountants? When will they sit down and think, not about what they learned in their degree, but what university taught them about themselves? I think that universities should care about who you are when you leave, more than who you are when you arrive.

More and more I believe that this exit essay is a grand idea. The personal statement you write before university mounts to nothing but an offer or a refusal. I never offered it a second thought until now, and I went back to have a look at it and found it gone from my folders. Yet I know that I didn’t turn out at all like I had intended, and life rarely is that way. What big, massive occurrence in my life changed me? It wasn’t a single thing, it was a multitude of them and I’m not even sure I’d credit university for it. Yet it definitely came as an effect of my time being a student, that environment, those places and the other students.

Sunniva Midtskogen studied a BA in English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University, UK and graduated from the IB Diploma class at Sandefjord Videregående Skole in 2013. She likes to escape her daily routine through literature and travel.

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