The name of this phenomenon invokes several images: a student who pretends to actually be studying, but rather is focused on their social life, partying, making friends, travelling and hasn’t touched a book in weeks, maybe even months. That’s the cutesy, sort of funny image it can invoke. However, “pretend studying” has gone several levels deeper, moving away entirely from being cutesy and funny. It has become something that is starting to look like a subcategory of anxiety, causing So what is a pretend student?
A pretend student is someone who is pretending to study, in EVERY sense of the word. This genuinely involves people claiming they are following a study, such as medicine, economics etc. whilst not even being enrolled, or are no longer enrolled in that program. They build elaborate lives of lies, tricking their families and close circle into believing they are in fact progressing their studies, whilst doing completely other things! This news article is about a guy named Leon, who convinced his parents he was studying European studies at the University of Amsterdam, but in reality, was playing games, sports and living a complete double life, for 4 years (the duration of the actual degree). The jig was up when he actually was supposed to start his Master’s degree, or which he, obviously, had no qualifications. This story sounds almost funny. Funny in the “wtf, how?!” category. But it can get much, much darker.
First off, I have to mention, this phenomenon isn’t new, but has gotten more attention recently after the very sad story of a 26 year old girl named Dianne Tonies committed suicide. After this awful event, her parents reached out to the university (of Leiden), at which she studied medicine. They thought. The university, however, hadn’t heard of her. And it was discovered after what I can only imagine being a grueling search for her family, that Dianna hadn’t actually passed her first year of medicine, and had kept up elaborate lies regarding her life from then onwards, explaining why she didn’t have to do homework whenever she visited her family, times she had to cancel family plans because of study or work (in hospital), and sending pictures of her in lab coats, to make the story more believable. For the full story (in Dutch), please read this article. The family Dianne left behind (two parents, three sisters and a boyfriend) was, very understandably so, completely baffled by not only the suicide, but the web of lies that unraveled afterwards. The main driver for the suicide, it has to be mentioned, was that Dianne should have graduated and celebrated the graduation, on the day she disappeared.
Suddenly, the term pretend student isn’t very funny anymore. Dianne’s sisters have indicated that she was a perfectionist, couldn’t handle failure well and that their family was very achievement focused (but not abnormally so). This focus on achievement and the increasing pressure caused by it has very nicely been captured in a dissertation turned bestseller “de Prestatie Generatie” (the Achievement Generation). So what is actually going on here? What drives young people with all the world at their feet and all their lives before them to spiral from a small lie into an entire web of lies? And worst of all, feeling like they can’t escape and taking drastic measures such as suicide?
This article outlines the experiences of quite a few pretend students, but is already from 2010(!!!). It mentions Thomas (not real name), who enrolled in medicine, failed the first year, but could continue the study due to family circumstances (his dad had had an accident), then also failed the second year, switched to history (I don’t know how either), told everyone that was progressing so well he could take on law as a second study (don’t ask me how) and got offered a job at a Ministry during this period of time. Because his studies were supposed to be in such an advanced stage, according to Thomas’s tall tales, it wouldn’t have made sense to not take the job. But Thomas knew that once the job ended (it was a temporary job), everything would come out, as he would have missed out on several exams and deadlines, making him fail those degrees as well. His solution to this bombshell? End it all. Just like Dianne. His motivation was rather simple: he was an A+ student in high school, never studied nor had to back then, didn’t learn any discipline and then, as a result, failed university. He also didn’t want to burden his family who was already struggling with the accident, or his friends as both he and them just wanted to have a fun student experience. Like I said, a very simple motivation, with absolutely devastating consequences.
Thomas isn’t the only person mentioned within this article. The article goes through the experiences of several pretend students and their motivations, but what we do see are general trends. The pretend student seems to have failed in their own eyes, doesn’t want to burden their direct surroundings and wants to pretend everything is going as it should be going. It feels like this type of failure is simply not acceptable in their own eyes. If the lying is in fact being driven by embarrassment and a lack of self-esteem in judging yourself important enough to be “allowed” to burden others with your problems, what we’re dealing with is a disorder.
In the case of Thomas, he didn’t actually end his life, it was more like a social suicide, having to come clean about what had been going on. He’s currently (as of the writing of the article), in therapy and his therapist described his condition as dissassociative: “Thomas has created an entirely different persona. He doesn’t feel “its” emotions. He hated himself for not studying, but not for lying.” Several specialists are quoted within the article, emphasizing how the lying is a short-term fix for avoiding social suicide and keeping your social standing. Several interesting things have to be mentioned as well: these pretend students have to be incredibly intelligent people: otherwise the lies wouldn’t work. They’d contradict themselves or wouldn't be able to keep it all up. But they manage it. Several pretend students mentioned managed to forge university documents to keep their lies in place. These aren’t exactly “dum-dums.” Second, it’s not clear whether these people suffered any type of disorder beforehand. Andreas Wismeijer, psychologist at the University of Tilburg, specializing in secrets says: “Lying … can be caused by a pathological urge to lie or a personality disorder. However, even with a normal personality, people can fall into this behaviour. There are psychologically completely healty people who lie about very important things.”
I’m writing this article not as a way of condemning this behaviour: I do not. What I think is going on here is the development of a new(ish) form, or subcategory of, anxiety which is entirely focused on achievement within education. As we continue to demand that everyone goes to university and be successful at it (and that is the general trend!), but give them absolutely no alternatives, and no real way of coping and learning to deal with this type of pressure when success isn't naturally occuring, can we honestly be surprised not everyone comes out on top? I’m also not condoning this type of behaviour (but who cares anyway?). I think there is more that people, study advisors and the like, could and should have done here, because some of them were aware! The victims should have also been more honest to themselves, sought out help sooner and as a result be more honest towards their environment. I can understand being under immense pressure for prolonged periods of time, but to be quite frank, I can’t understand this. Ultimately, I think this is a mess, which warrants some actual statistics and research. If this phenomenon doesn’t properly get looked into, I doubt it will resolve itself. The oldest article here is from 2010, another sad occurrence making the news again in 2020. In those ten years there has been done little to nothing to help these students out. What are we expecting for 2030?