This winter semester, I have been on exchange at the University of Edinburgh. As a student at McGill, I was heading towards either a breakdown or a new level of being. Two part-time jobs, two extracurricular activities, a volunteering position, and a full-time course load had me sprinting from place to place and spending any free time I had studying. Despite overloading myself with activities, I still felt like I was underachieving and under-participating in comparison to my peers.
McGill students thrive on stress and sleepless nights: They can often be heard on the 3rd floor of McLennan at midnight on a Wednesday bragging about who got the least sleep while getting the best grades. So when I arrived in Edinburgh, I was surprised to find the student lifestyle was entirely different—and exchange students from other North American universities agreed with me. The amount of work that McGill University expects out of its students, without even taking the recommended CV-boosting extracurricular activities into account, takes up all the time that students abroad spend working and partying.
With more limited contact hours between lecturers and students, the education at the University of Edinburgh is less intense than that of McGill University. Three courses at the University of Edinburgh are equivalent to 15 credits at McGill. These courses are each two hours a week, and only have one paper and an exam to complete as requirements. Whether this is a better educational model is up for debate, but six hours of class per week allows for a more reasonable schedule than fifteen. In the Scottish educational system, high achievers thrive, whereas students who put in minimal effort get minimal results—yet, due to the infrequent class hours and minimal workload, anyone can keep up with the requirements. The qualifier for good grades is the time and effort put into creating a single piece of quality work for three classes, instead of trying to come up with multiple perfect papers for each of your five. Students have fewer assignments to complete, and more time to complete them.
The situation at McGill is a stark contrast. According to a recent survey conducted by the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) at McGill, 74 per cent of undergraduate engineering students cite academic workload as the most stressful aspect of their major. Despite students’ awareness of the stress of their programs, they continue to prioritize grades over mental wellness—they say that they have little time to take advantage of the mental health services on campus due to academic demands. This degree of distress about the high workload at McGill cannot be blamed on poor planning and laziness. If 87 per cent of surveyed students felt physically exhausted by their workload, something in the academic system here is flawed.
While there are students struggling to achieve a work-life balance at universities worldwide, there must be a way to find a balance between the low contact-approach at the University and Edinburgh and the high intensity demands of McGill. Surveys, like one conducted by the EUS, bring attention to the problem of work overload at McGill; however, students need to continue talking about this issue. Further, both McGill and students should be aware that this amount of work is not normal everywhere. If it is committed to the wellbeing of its students as well as their GPAs, the university should accept responsibility for the adverse effects of its intense workload on students and work on finding ways to reduce it.
In the meantime, there are some solutions to the problem of balancing work and life. Students should consider taking fewer credits per semester, to ease the mental burden of a full-time student course load while trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This allows more time for non-academic activities, such as a job or participating in extracurriculars. McGill fosters a competitive environment where doing less academically is sometimes viewed as a failure—I have heard people say that taking less than a fifteen-credit course load is basically “nothing.” Feel free to remind these people that it is important to care for your mind and body instead of just your grades.
No number of tips can help some students cope with the sheer amount of work McGill expects from their students and the all-or-nothing environment that the university fosters. McGill needs to reconsider its curricula if it wants to see well-functioning alumni who remember their time at McGill fondly instead of with heart palpitations.