I’m glad you didn’t get a spring week

How easy is it to sell your soul? Whether you’re a fresher or a returning university veteran, I’m sure you’re aware of the gilded highway of spring week to summer internship to graduate scheme. Careers service emails implore you to think of your future, buff your CV, and apply, apply, apply. Prospects for the 18 year olds that genuinely enjoy browsing LinkedIn have never looked so good. 

Recruiters and firm representatives are open about the way the system works. Get on the spring week, get on the summer internship, get a very competitive and desirable job with their business. At a recent careers fair, for example, recruiters from Bank of America were clear that if you do not get a place on their Easter programme, you are at a disadvantage in their internship application round. As for the actual job, they only recruit from their interns. Many other financial and legal firms operate in the same way. 

If you are able to get onto this path, it gives you a clear route to the corporate world – something that realistically many Oxford students both want and will ultimately end up doing. But this mechanism for career ambition is flawed. It rewards those with tunnel vision, and punishes students with a broad range of interests and goals. The exclusionary nature of applications boosts demand for these kinds of jobs – even though it is becoming increasingly obvious that in return for a high salary, firms demand your entire life.

This clearly benefits those who arrive at university with set career goals. Applications for spring week programmes usually close in Michaelmas, and given how busy your first term at university is, it makes sense that the majority of people who apply had it in their minds before leaving home. But what room does this leave for a first year spent exploring other opportunities? Acting in student plays, joining the niche sport you never got to do at school – even writing for a university newspaper – are all wonderful ways to learn new skills and meet new people, but they don’t leave much time for applying to every law firm on lawcareers.net. 

Many students come to university to explore their options in life. I know part of the reason I chose to study PPE was because I wanted to study a whole variety of things that interested me – not because I wanted to be Prime Minister. Many students who come to study history, or maths, or English, don’t necessarily dream of going into academia. 

This speaks to a wider problem with the UK education system. The rapid narrowing of subject choice as you progress through school, generally culminating in only three A-levels or equivalent, forces young people into choices they may not want to make. The vast majority of English students stop studying key subjects like maths and languages at 16. Students are funnelled into making their learning more and more narrow – and it doesn’t stop when you get to university.

We have a generation of students who have been forced to narrow their academic interests, and now have to decide their corporate career path immediately. The results of this system are not desirable. It rewards students who are fixed on a sole outcome and punishes those who take the time to pursue the vast opportunities available to them. Days can be filled with talks from world-renowned experts, a huge variety of sports, all kinds of societies, a whole range of musical opportunities, chances to get involved in student drama – and this doesn’t even include the academic life we are all privy to. 

Yet firms seem unable to see that their system chooses the people who start university and immediately start acting as if their life’s ambition is corporate servitude. Maybe they enjoy hiring corporate robots, but they should value well-rounded individuals who care about things other than a fat salary and a 100-hour working week. That’s who I want to be, and who I want to spend time with as well. It’s one thing to have a friend that only talks about rowing – another to have one that only talks about their summer at Goldman Sachs. 

It can be hard to avoid the corporate trap. Career anxiety has plagued me, concerned that my first year, where the closest I got to networking was having a class with some people that did E&M, just hasn’t cut it. But a careers system that cuts you from the running if you make the mistake of being 18 years old and not knowing you want to be an investment analyst is one that should be changed. Firms are prohibiting themselves from hiring people with interests that extend beyond making money and getting power. 

The drive of some ruthlessly corporate baby-faced freshers shouldn’t exclude the rest of us. Admittedly, internships and spring weeks provide invaluable experience. But in times of economic uncertainty, this system creates even more panic. It’s an unreasonable arms race that places unnecessary pressure on students before they’ve even had their first collection. There is nothing wrong with the rest of your life being unwritten.

Image credit: The wub at commons.wikimedia.org

Image description: photo of Canary Wharf