Press START to continue - Starting life at Cambridge
The only matriculation photo I could find... sorry! Try to work out which one is me.
University is defined by unique experiences, making lifelong friends and a sort of interface between education and the real world, and Cambridge is no different. I applied a little bit less than a year and a half ago, with glowing eyes ready to take on the significant challenge and then use what I’d learnt to do good in the world. I still consider myself extremely lucky to have got a place here, and even more fortunate to have made my offer! I know a lot of people talk about the demanding workload we face here, and that’s certainly true - although I’d say that it depends on your course and expectations (it’s less than you expect if you were expecting hell, but more than expected if you wanted to party every week). However, something people often overlook at academically elite universities is what student life is like: it’s a massive shift from what you’re used to at sixth form. It’s probably going to be the first time you’ll face true independence, and I’m here to tell you what that’s like.
The first few weeks
Moving out is an exciting but very difficult affair. If you’re most people, you’ll have a tear in your eye as you leave your parents, siblings and cat behind to make a new beginning in your life. I was excited but I missed my parents significantly less (sorry!), as I knew I would see them again very soon. We called each other quite a lot for the first few weeks, but that gradually slowed down until I now send my parents a few messages every few days.
The first few days away from home are much scarier than they look: I had fears ranging from making new friends to having to cook for myself and feeling overwhelmed by the sheer grandness of St John’s College. After a few days, none of those seemed to bother me anymore, and the JCR team were really welcoming and really helped me feel at home. Fresher’s week is definitely chaotic, as every minute of your week is decided by the JCR, with compulsory talks and other events (they actually monitored attendance). The fresher’s fair is optional, but you’re definitely going to want to go there! I signed up for the Assassins’ Guild, Quiz Soc and a few others which I promptly forgot about. (I’ll talk more about societies later…)
My first few lectures almost seemed normal once they started happening. As per my Director of Studies, I began on the lecture content before the lectures so that I would keep up to pace with them. They start slowly while they cover content you already know, before slowly picking up the pace. Obviously, you’ll spend your first few weeks heavily motivated to do the best you can do, and supervisions will start coming soon after. They will also be okay, but they will slowly wear you down. But what really got me was week 4. That was when I started questioning my newly acquired friends, and whether they truly cared about me. I started to isolate myself a little from everyone, until I suffered a complete mental breakdown right before week 5. Fortunately, I managed to pick myself up after that, and I started to realise who my true friends were. I was able to start ignoring the presence of people who were having a negative influence on me while making new friends. People would judge me for it, but it did wonders for my mental health.
Fast forward to now. My day-to-day life is going really well, and some of the friends I’ve made since then are the people I feel closest to. However, having seen what other people have been up to, I definitely prioritised academics way too much in my first term, even though I thought I hadn’t. Thus, one of my resolutions this term was to involve myself in more extracurricular pursuits and give myself as many opportunities as possible. So far, I’ve participated in a BAE Systems CTF (coming 3rd in the whole event) and I got accepted into a Model UN in Singapore (though that’s at risk due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak) The other thing I really want to get right this term is getting to truly know other people. I’ve mentioned my friends, but I want to get to know them better. When we speak, it’s often to talk about our subjects or complain about the workload. Getting to know more about people’s lives, their hopes and dreams, and the things they hold dear is something I’m really interested in, but sadly Cambridge really doesn’t give enough time for that. The people I speak to most often, I talk to in the Buttery Dining Room (our college canteen) on roughly half of all evenings.
Last point but I thought I should add this - the supervision system is actually really fun! Well, actually, it can be hit-or-miss depending on your supervisor, but that’s not the point. The core concept is that you do an examples sheet, or write an essay, or something similar, in order to find out how well you know a certain topic (this feeling is different from homework which felt more like a test of sorts) and have it marked for the supervision. In the supervision itself, you discuss the concepts in the work, often with very in-depth examples that they guide you through (by getting you to the stage where you’re able to solve the problems yourself). Some supervisors are legends (shoutout to our Foundations of Computer Science/Discrete Maths supervisor!!) and really make sure you know everything, while others are meh and only discuss the bare minimum that was asked in the examples sheet. Overall though, the supervision system is definitely worth it, if incredibly demanding and time-consuming at times.
So what would I say is different?
I hope you’ve gathered a good idea that life at university is pretty different from school! I’ll try to summarise the most important ones here:
- You’re required to be a lot more independent. You have to remain motivated to study as it’s easy to fall complacent, and it’s up to you to realise when you’re falling behind or when the lectures aren’t covering enough content. (Strikes are a serious nuisance here…) That said, there is no more obligation to go to lectures. In fact, I liberally dispense the advice that, if you think lectures are a waste of time, it’s okay to skip them! (But be very careful if you do)
- You have to live real life on your own. You’re responsible for your own laundry, your own shopping trips, and eating and drinking enough to stay alive. However, this does give you the option to go as rogue as you like with your life. If you want a working day from 7pm til 11am, go for it! It might not please your supervisors, however.
- Neighbours are a crapshoot. Sometimes you’ll end up living next to someone who holds massive parties every few days and you’ll have trouble sleeping. I was extremely lucky in this regard.
- You’ll have a clean slate in terms of social life. You’ll have new friends to make in a new environment and it’s up to you what to make with them. Going out is fairly common for some people, and getting into relationships is much easier if you start to really like someone (so please be outgoing about it as the other person may appreciate it!). At the same time, everyone will be really engaged, passionate and talented and that’s a brilliant thing about university.
- On that note, get involved with societies! Have at least one or two to take your mind off work, for the sake of your physical and mental health. You’ll likely make some good friends from societies as well! There are societies for just about everything you can think of, so get stuck in and see what works for you! If you don’t like one, there’s no pressure to continue going.
- Because you no longer have the support or pressure your parents once gave you, it’s much easier to discover new things about yourself, such as activities you really enjoy or personality traits.
- The stuff you learn is actually interesting and useful. In Computer Science, while some lecture courses are fairly useless without accompanying courses, the first- and second-year courses will make you a brilliant software engineer (with some experience with ML, Linux and other buzzword paradigms) while the third year will make you a brilliant researcher. If you want to go on to the fourth year, it’s largely research-oriented too for your added pleasure.
- It’s okay to fail. There will be people who are much better than you. There will be IMO people. There will be stuff that you’ve never seen before which you’ll feel like you have no hope at. That’s because those questions are designed for the best of the best - you! If that didn’t happen, you wouldn’t learn anything! If you dedicate enough time to solving these problems, you will one day find that you can do them. I find that one of the scariest things about Cambridge.
- Networking becomes a thing! Some people in your year will already have substantial work experience, and you will get the opportunity to meet incredibly famous and/or promising people. Use your time well to develop career capital by making friends with the people who are (or will be) incredibly successful in the particular fields you go into.
- You’re going to graduate a lot sooner than you think. If you haven’t yet had a think about what field you want to go into, that’s okay, but it’s definitely a good idea to make use of the many opportunities offered to get ideas.
University is exciting, and for good reason. It’s the first time most people get to live as adults, and so I’d advise you to truly rejoice in that excitement - it’s a great opportunity that you’ll never get again. It’s where you’ll get to become a member of society in two senses: learning to become useful and contribute something, and developing yourself and your relationships with other people. This is the last time you’ll have so much freedom and yet be in such a tight bubble: once you’re out in the real world, you’ll be working 9 to 5, making money in order to pay the bills and aware of how public policies affect you. University is like a sandbox, and you’re free to experiment with yourself and with others, safe in the knowledge that the you’ll be picked up again should you make a bad mistake. That’s probably the most important thing about university - though I’m sure most people live relatively normal lives.