Students compete for the perfect CV
‘If I take a day off to relax, I feel lazy’
‘Pimp your CV!’ the UG Career Services poster loudly proclaims. It’s almost like it’s advertising a contest: the best curriculum vitae wins. First prize is a job.
Students spend their free time doing committee and board work, joining associations, working extra jobs, and volunteering. Everything goes on their CV. But that list of achievements hides a multitude of burnouts and disappointments. There’s always someone who’s just that little bit better than you. Where does the need to have the perfect CV come from, and how does all that hard work affect students?
‘Other students look down on you if you don’t engage in any extracurricular activities’, says Emma Smith, a bachelor student of minorities and multilingualism. ‘There is so much peer pressure to be successful; it’s like everyone else is working harder than you.’
Emma, who’s from the United Kingdom, thinks students in the Netherlands are overly competitive. But it still has its impact on her. ‘If I take a day off to relax, I feel lazy.’
She does extracurricular stuff, too. ‘I’m on a committee and I’m the contact person in my building. Both positions are voluntary’, she says. Her position as contact person has no set hours: her fellow residents can come to her day and night. ‘I’m not doing that for the fun of it.’
UG pedagogy expert Laura Batstra says we live in a demanding society. ‘We always have to be better than others in order to get ahead, which is why students take on so many extra tasks.’ Those extra activities no longer feel like they’re optional, she says. ‘I’ve coined the term ‘forced optionality’. There is so much to do, and it creates expectations. Students almost feel like they’re being forced to do extracurricular activities.’
Some students are afraid to end up under a bridge
This is causing issues. ‘We’ve seen an increase in anxiety disorders, depressive issues, burnouts, ADHD’, she sums up. ‘It could be due to individual causes, like someone being depressed because they don’t produce enough serotonin, but I think the increase has to do with the way our society focuses on achievements. Some people just aren’t made to live in a society where they’re always pushed to do better.’
Psychologist Bart Oosting sees students who’ve hit rock bottom through the Student Service Centre at the UG. He knows that the stress to have a great CV is a part of the problem. ‘Some students can’t handle the uncertainty and they worry about the future. They worry about ending up under a bridge, having to beg for money. To prevent that, they’ll do everything to pad their CV’, he says. ‘But that’ll lead to a burnout before you know it.’
History master student Kathelijne de Vrijer thinks social media plays a role in the phenomenon, too. ‘Students can compare themselves to everyone they’ve ever known. It makes them think they’re behind everyone else.’ She knows she suffers from the issue. ‘When I was student-assessor for the board of directors, I met really interesting people with really interesting jobs every day. I had no idea how I would ever get to where they were.’
Sjors van Ooij, study adviser at the Faculty of Arts, regularly sees students who don’t have enough time for all their extracurricular activities. ‘It’s like the students are trying to compete with each other. They figure if someone else is on two committees, they should be able to do it, too.’
He thinks the competition to build a good CV is part of this. ‘This one student once asked about doing a language course, so he could put it on his CV. He didn’t need it or anything; he just wanted to add it to his list of achievements.’
Van Ooij thinks students feel they have to choose between their academics and their future. ‘Like they’re worried they’ll miss out on their future dream job if they don’t join a committee right now.’
Coming up short
Professor of behavioural biology Bauke Buwalda thinks he can explain this. ‘Human beings have a large brain, which means we have the capacity to worry about what will happen. That leads to stress; the suffering we fear is actually what causes the most suffering. Some people just always feel like they’re coming up short and that causes physical illness.’
Not everyone is susceptible to this, Buwalda says. Some students actually enjoy the extracurricular activities.
Students can compare themselves to everyone they’ve ever known
Dylan Gerding, law student and university council member, is one of those students. He doesn’t get stressed out much. ‘Last year, I combined an internship that took up two days a week, a board membership, a sixteen-hour job, and my studies. Sure, I’d get tired, but I go home to my parents every weekend to recharge. I leave everything relating to my studies at home, which means I’m almost always looking forward to Monday.’
Another important thing, he says: ‘I never do anything just to put it on my CV. And I’m from a family that’s always worked hard. My parents are like, don’t complain, some people have it much harder than you do.’
Dylan says the fact that students have different capabilities is nothing to worry about. ‘We already live in this bubble and we’re really fortunate to be able to study at the university.’ Some people doing better than others is a simple fact of life. ‘I think we just have to accept that. We can’t all be CEOs.’
Batstra also wonders how useful it is to compare your CV to that of your fellow students. ‘I think the idea that making people compete reveals the talent in them is outdated. People who succeed in society aren’t necessarily the most talented ones. They’re the people who can meet the demands for the job.’
For law student Myrthe Spijkers, extracurricular activities are a normal part of life. ‘What’s more, you basically have to do committee work. And if you want to set yourself apart, you’ll have to do much more than that.’ The pressure is multifaceted. ‘Students encourage each other at student clubs, lecturers advise extracurricular activities, and people from the field tell you everything they did when they were students.’
It wasn’t always like this, says Batstra. ‘I was a student in the nineties. It was enough to just get your degree. All that stuff about committees and honours colleges just wasn’t really a thing back then.’
Buwalda agrees. ‘I enjoyed my studies, did fun stuff, had a nice time. I also worked hard on my studies. But I never worried about whether or not I was meeting other demands or whether I’d be able to get a job.’
We’re all trying to be the very best worker bee
The world might look a lot different now than it did then, but the university should really set students’ minds at ease about the future, says history student Kathelijne. ‘I’d love it if they told us that our academic capabilities really are enough to succeed.’
She found this out for herself when she read up on the statistics and stories told by alumni when she worked as a student-assessor. ‘Practically every academically trained student finds a suitable job within a year after they graduate. That was such a relief that I’ve just been doing things I enjoy since then.’
Batstra feels this is the right mindset. ‘We’re all just trying to be the very best worker bee, but that’s not how human society works. Sure, we can all work hard to get the very best CV, but then what? It’ll just make the average CV better and then people will have to work even harder to get noticed. I’d rather we just get rid of the idea of having to be the very best.’
This article was written before the Covid-19 crisis broke out in the Netherlands.