Student life has never been more pressurised, particularly at exam time. Lucy Hodges investigates the extra stresses on students
May means exams. Hours and hours of swotting - reading, memorising, testing yourself, drinking black coffee, ringing your friends to compare notes, reading some more, taking a break to watch Neighbours on TV, pacing the room, hoping that something is lodging in your burnt-out brain cells.

It has always been like this, only now exams seem to mean that much more to the mass of students. Thirty years ago, they were content to be layabouts. Yes, they revised for exams. But most of them didn't bust their guts to get a first or a 2:1. It wasn't that big a deal. A university degree would get you a graduate job regardless of its classification. The difference today is that students are desperate to get good degrees because otherwise they think they won't get good jobs. And they are sometimes right: the big accountancy firms and management consultants are looking for graduates with 2:1s. If you want to do research - and get funding for that research - you need a first.

"The culture is changing, not because of the universities but because society has changed," says the Rev Dr Ernest Nicholson, provost of Oriel College, Oxford, and chairman of the university's student health committee. "When I went to college, you knew what you wanted to do and the sort of career you would like to enter - and you did it. Today, young people face a world in which they will be doing short-term contracts. It brings a certain insecurity. They know there are very many more people getting degrees these days and therefore they have to do pretty well. If you want to go into the professions, if you're thinking of going into the City, you want to get a good degree."

In other words, students are under pressure because life outside the ivory towers has become more competitive. They're going out into a very different marketplace from the one their parents entered. When they're worried they might not meet the high standards they're setting for themselves, they can go to pieces. Oxford University, for example, has had a dozen student suicides since 1990. A report from Dr Keith Hawton of Oxford's psychiatry department concluded that the number was "greater than would be expected on the basis of national rates for people in the 18 to 25 age group."

Although Dr Hawton also found that exam pressure - as opposed to pressure from other causes - was less of a problem than people thought, it undoubtedly exacerbates the stress on students. Sarah Napuk, a student at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, who hanged herself in April last year, had had a history of depression since childhood. But her father was certain that his clever daughter killed herself through fear of failing her third-year exams. Her torment was compounded by the fact that her tutors repeatedly said she would obtain a first, as she was considered "one of the best history students at Oxford", he claimed.

His assertion that exam pressure was the factor that pushed her over the edge was given some support by one of Sarah's tutors, who wrote to her parents after her death. "I am wondering whether Oxford puts really inappropriate pressure on our young people and whether the support and sustenance is there to see people through properly? During the past five years, three of my pupils have taken their own lives... one wonders what can be going wrong?"

According to Dan Hawthorne, vice president (welfare) of the Students' Union, Oxford is pretty stressful academically at the best of times. Because an Oxford degree still depends largely on marks in finals, an awful lot is riding on how you perform over a few days in the summer term of your final year. The university could help students by adopting continuous assessment, he thinks.

But it's not only a university's practices and expectations that can put pressure on students. Parents may also - and perhaps unwittingly - cause their offspring to feel they will fail if they don't do outstandingly well. Lesley Parker, a counsellor at Cambridge University, says some students feel they need a 2:1 so as not to disappoint their parents. "Parental expectations can be transmitted in a very subtle way," she says. "Certainly a lot of students here are concerned about not disappointing their parents."

This is especially true of very academically able students, according to Nigel Humphreys, senior student counsellor at Leeds University. They have been used to receiving plaudits from family and friends when they do well. If they fail, they fear not receiving this acclaim.

The pressure may be intense at high-flying institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge, but it is also evident at new universities such as Westminster in London. Its counselling service finds the number of students asking for help goes up just before exams. "A 2:2 is not valuable in quite a lot of students eyes," says counsellor Viju Patel. "They may think that a 2:1 is a pass and anything else is a fail, but that's often not the reality with employers."

Relieving such pressures, whether real or perceived, is not easy. Universities that have adopted modular systems or coursework - whereby performance during the degree counts towards the final mark - dispute the notion that doing away with big bang finals necessarily reduces stress.

Colin Lago, director of the counselling service at Sheffield University, says: "For some people, the complexity of sustaining exams every six months on the semester system also leads to its own strains. We're aware of mature students being under pressure to be with the family at Christmas, to do the revision for January's exams, maybe to look after elderly parents or earn a bit of money. That often means that for some students, there's a period of strain over the Christmas/New Year period."

The modular system means that exams are a way of life in universities, according to Caroline Hall, head of counselling at York University. At York, students now have exams every term. The university has also found students under severe pressure from writing extended essays when the mark counts towards their final degree result. It causes some of the worst stress. Students are often given a term in which to write such an essay without any structure to support them. "It can build up into something quite awful, which in some ways is worse than exam nerves," says Ms Hall.

University counselling services are doing a busy trade, meting out help and advice for stress. Since last summer, Oxford's counselling service and student helpline have been expanded. And the Students' Union has introduced courses in yoga and massage to help students relax. Attendance at the courses held last week was good, according to Dan Hawthorne, with the massage course completely full. At Cambridge, students are offered individual counselling as well as participation in an anxiety management group, an exam anxiety group and, finally, a group for people who suffer from work blocks.

It may sound as though students have become soft in this age of free access to counselling services. But the universities I spoke to said most students had suffered for some time from stress. It had been part of their lives since GCSEs and most came to university straight from the high- pressure world of A-levels. "They have gone through a hell of a lot of pressure and some are quite burnt out by the time they get here because the pressure continues," says Caroline Hall of York University. Roll on the summer vacation.

Two students and their revision schedules

Lucy Anscombe, 20, is doing finals in English Literature at Kingston University next month. She drew up a revision timetable one month ago and revises for three hours a day. Last week she finished lectures. Now she is devoting herself entirely to revision. She has just moved to a new flat which she shares with two older people in work.

"I was living with a group of six other people, but it got a bit out of control," she says. Lucy finds she can't do more than an hour's revision without a five-minute break. During her time at university she's had two jobs, working in a pub one night a week, and in a health food shop. She hopes to get a 2:1. "Initially I was concerned about getting a high grade. But I've worked in the same two jobs for two-and-a-half years and people have said to me that experience is more important than the degree classification, so I'm not so worried now."

Lucy Anscombe's timetable:

8am Wakes up 8.30am Has breakfast of toast, cereal and coffee 9am Goes out to buy a paper 9.30-10am Starts revising 1-3pm breaks to cook lunch of jacket potato. Watches Home and Away, Neighbours and Jerry Springer 3-6pm More revision 6.30pm Eats supper - whatever is in the fridge. Sometimes works in the evening.

Yvette Essen, 19, is in her second year of a degree in ancient history at University College London. She lives at home in Edgware, Middlesex, and started revising two months before her exams. "I get really, really stressed," she says. "I spend whole evenings on the phone stressing to friends and the whole morning cramming.

"My tutors have predicted I will get a first. I have been working so hard to get that. It's quite easy to get a 2:1, I think. But a first is much harder. I've been working throughout the year and doing a lot of revision for my exams. I feel I need to get a good degree because I want to get onto a postgraduate journalism course at City University or Cardiff."

Yvette Essen's timetable:

8am Wakes up. Does one hour's revision. 9am Goes back to bed 10.30am Wakes up again for another hour's revision. 11.30am Has a shower 12 noon Does another hour's hard slog 1.45 - 2.45pm Watches Home and Away and Neighbours on TV and has lunch of stir fry or omelette 2.45pm Another one hour's revision 3.45pm Takes a break 5pm Starts cooking supper for the family 6pm Eats supper with her parents, washes up 7pm Gets on the telephone to her friends for long moans about revision. (Phone calls on her mobile phone are free after that hour) 8pm Does another half-hour's revision 8.30pm Plays the violin 10.30pm Goes to bed.