admissions,  mental health

the risk of losing one’s identity… in the chaos

1. I’m scared to accept my offer to uoft for fear of my mental health degrading. Is it truly, truly, as competitive as most people make it out to be? 2. Would it be better to go to Ryerson if I am a student who works hard but tends to overthink my grades a lot? There are many aspects of uoft to love; I wouldn’t want to deny my offer because I’m scared of hard work, because it seems like a cop out. However, at the risk of losing one’s identity in the chaos, I don’t know if it’s right for me.

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hello hello,

i’m glad you reached out. to be honest, these were concerns i had when i got my offer of admission as well. especially if you’re a domestic (Ontario???) student, you’ll probably have heard a lot about how hard u of t is and how deep we are into a mental health crisis. it’s hard not to be scared. i don’t blame you.

without knowing you and your specific circumstances, it’s inevitably gonna be a little hard for me to give you the best advice. but i’ll do what i can, and hopefully after you read this you at least have a better sense of what it’s like here from my perspective. thanks to covid, i’ve got plenty of time on my hands, and can give you a pretty detailed rundown of my thoughts on the matter.

is u of t as competitive as people make it out to be? yes and no.

yes, in that it’s the top postsecondary institution in the country and for that reason alone attracts very ambitious (and often advantaged) students, both domestically and from abroad. is that necessarily bad? i’m not sure. i’ve met some incredibly driven and accomplished peers in my time here, and it’s honestly pretty inspiring. but it does mean that your basis for comparison with your classmates is going to be pretty different from what it might have been at another school. if you don’t acclimatize well to that– and if your identity is super tied to your grades and position in a class– then on average, u of t may not be the healthiest for you.

academically, there’s probably something to be said as well. in some of the humanities classes i’ve taken, the TAs are pretty transparent about the fact that they’re expected to grade you in relation to the other people in your class. even if you’re in a class full of A-calibre work, only a few people will qualify for A’s, etc etc. i’m not sure what the situation is like in programs outside mine, but i wouldn’t be surprised if it’s similar.

but if you’re interested in reading about the grade deflation situation at u of t, this the varsity article does a good job of explaining the “grade calibration” policy. or a better job than i could do, anyway. i’d recommend reading it over believing the rumors floating around.

no, in that the level of competition isn’t standard across the school. and you can definitely make choices to shield yourself from the worst of it.

i will admit that there are some really cutthroat programs– you’ll know which ones they are, because when you apply for a subject POSt after first year they’ll usually be a type three, sometimes a type two. type two and three programs are defined by more stringent admission requirements– for example, meeting a grade threshold in certain classes, completing interviews, or even having your CGPA assessed. they have those stringent requirements because there’s often more student demand for those programs than there is space in them. as a result, it makes sense that they’d be filled with brighter/more competitive students.

so it’s important to be aware of the type of program you’re choosing. a good friend told me that in her professional program at u of t, there is definitely a competitive culture that’s at least borderline toxic. it stems from everyone in the program knowing who’s good and who’s not– the way they’re graded and given feedback is very public, in an unavoidable way. i’ve heard competitive things about engineering and rotman as well.

BUT someone on reddit told me (before i got here) that u of t has some really great niche programs where you’re more likely to find a sense of community than a competitive atmosphere. i’ve found this to be true, both in experience and from talking to other people. i personally went for a type one artsci program over a type three i’d been interested in, and haven’t found there to be any noticeable toxicity. unless i have a close friend in the class with me, i’ll never know what other people are getting. the one exception is in my stats class– my prof LOVES to graph the grade distribution to show you how many people did better than you. thanks, dude. he also writes problems that are coronavirus, mental health, and student debt themed, so… whatever. i’m sure there are instructors like him at tons of schools.

my point is, i haven’t noticed any substantial competition in the programs i chose. but i chose them intentionally, with my own mental well-being in mind. what you choose is up to you, and i get that sometimes what you want to study is going to by nature be a more competitive program. whether or not that’s right for you is an assessment only you can make.

the culture in different programs is obviously going to be different, and it would be impossible to give you a sort of blanket statement for the whole school. i’ve given you the most detailed take on it i can muster.

is there hope? i always think so, yes. outside your subject POSts, you can definitely surround yourself with forms of community that will help cushion you from the competitive nature of the school. whether that’s a group of friends on res, a fun club like the sandwich club, or a choir. or something, i dunno. i’ve met a lot of very supportive people at this school that have helped me get through the day to day of being a stressy student.

the one rumor about u of t that i think is the most misleading is that it’s an antisocial school. i’m pretty introverted and came here knowing a single person– it took time, but i now have a number of very cherished friends. we don’t have the party culture that mcgill or queen’s has, but i’ve felt very supported by my fellow u of t students. we’re all just trying to get through, after all.

i also think that u of t has a number of fantastic resources to help you through your degree. one resource i always, always recommend is the registrar’s office. i’ve heard some pretty unfortunate things about the state of academic advising at other major canadian institutions (wow we get it, aska, you’re well connected) and it’s put some things into perspective for me. at least in my experience, registrars at this school are fantastic.

i do agree that a lot of our resources need more funding/staff/improvement, and will happily throw my support behind anyone pushing for that improvement. but it’s not a total lost cause. i’ve written more about our mental health awareness/resources in this post. 

one last hopeful thing to throw into the mix– if you’re worried about your grades dropping massively, i should note that it is possible to do well here. i and many of my friends have found that to be the case (i don’t feel weird saying that because no one knows who i am anyway, lmao). it takes work, dedication, and sometimes a bit of luck, but it is possible.

i’ve learned that intentionality and awareness are super important. this last year, i’ve suffered most from surrounding myself with people i love dearly but who very much buy into the hustle culture of u of t. i was constantly comparing myself to people who were excelling in their fields, but barely sleeping and eating. cause yeah, those people do exist here, in numbers.

whatever i was doing to myself felt fine because they were doing worse. but i’ve since learned that i can continue to spend time with them AND still care for my well-being by going to therapy, taking space when i need it, and checking in with other friends who have healthier lifestyles. it’s all about finding a balance, and shifting my focus.

and anyway, something i’ve realized this year is that even when people seem to be thriving, when you get to know them better you realize it’s probably because they’re sacrificing important elements of their wellbeing. don’t set unrealistic benchmarks for yourself. it’s more important to take care of yourself, and slow things down if you need to.

i guess you could say i’ve learned a lot from weathering u of t culture on a personal-relationship level.

i guess the point of having mentioned this all is that there are ways to mitigate the level of stress that u of t students experience. for me, this has included choosing my programs very intentionally, being mindful of my headspace and wellbeing, and teaching myself healthier ways to think. i think i would’ve needed to learn these things no matter where i went, just u of t forced me to learn them faster. i’m not ashamed to say that i’ve struggled here. but at the same time, i’ve also been supported very well here. it’s not a one-dimensional story, i guess.

should you be afraid of your mental health degrading? i’m not sure.

i think that’s dependent on a myriad of factors, like where you are now with your mental health, what kind of supports you have in place, what types of things trigger you, and what facets of this school you immerse yourself in.

is health and wellness as bad as it sounds? 

admittedly, it wasn’t the easiest for me to get help for mental health concerns. i wrote up a previous post with a more in-depth take on how i was feeling about mental health awareness here, in which i mention struggling to get a health and wellness appointment. it was hard enough to admit i needed help, and when my first effort to get an appointment didn’t go through, i really had to push myself to keep trying. i ended up needing to go in person, at which point i was offered an appointment in a week’s time.

but hey, when i made it to that appointment, i managed to start cognitive behavioural therapy with my college’s embedded counsellor. at the end of the day, i thought it was helpful.

of course, i’ve heard stories about much longer wait times from friends. so it’s a bit of a hard thing to gauge. i don’t know. i think health and wellness is trying. it’s definitely not perfect, and it’s definitely failed a lot of people. it didn’t fail me, so hey, there’s that.

with everything considered, would i still choose this school? yes, time and time again. for me, it’s worth it. that doesn’t mean i think the state of things here is okay. all it means is that i’ve done my personal cost-benefit analysis and while i recognize that being at this school (as opposed to someplace less rigorous) takes a toll on my mental health, it has also given me access to opportunities i could only have dreamed of. maybe that cost-benefit would look different for you. i dunno. i don’t know if that’s wrong. it’s the most honest assessment i can give you.

would it be better for you to go to ryerson? i don’t know, i’ve never been to ryerson and can’t make a fair comparison. i can only tell you what my experience has been like at u of t.

anyway, here are a few tips from me as you make your decision:

  • read reddit with a grain of salt. i feel like thriving students are not very well-represented on reddit– they’re too busy to be dropping things in threads. be mindful of the sample from which your results are drawn, or whatever.
  • assess your support network. if you’re one of the people who falls through the cracks of u of t’s system, will there be other people there to catch you? for example, in the time between first reaching out and actually getting a health and wellness appointment, my mom spent many hours listening to me cry. mock me for that all you want, i don’t care. my mom is great. and i had other options, as well– good friends to lean on. if i’d already felt isolated in my current life situation, i may not have weathered that gap as well.
  • decide whether or not you’d be able to weather disappointments in your academic career– not getting into your desired subject POSt, watching your GPA drop, etc. in my personal experience, it’s better to come to u of t bracing yourself for a fall that never comes than to show up with high hopes and have them crushed.
  • weigh your priorities. u of t is a great school, but it will demand a lot from you. only you can decide whether or not the tradeoff is worth it.
  • make a pros/cons list, if you think it’ll help you! always good to get those thoughts out of your head and organized.

i hope this post has been helpful, and gives you a better sense of what it can be like to be a student here. if you know any people at either u of t or ryerson, i’d encourage you to reach out to them as well and get a couple different takes on the situation. i’m also happy to answer any followup questions you have, if you’re not already sick of reading my heckin’ long posts. sorry ’bout it, i’m talkative and in quarantine. gotta do what you gotta do.

be Boundless,

aska

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