"I wish you could go back and tell yourself what you know now" — Taylor Swift
First year is coming to a close and, yes, it has gone incredibly fast. Next year’s batch of freshers-to-be are already sitting their final exams and congregating on Facebook to swap tips, interview stories, and slices of the personality they’ve decided to project to their peers, and as they do I want to take the time to offer the advice I wish I’d had before starting at Cambridge.
You don’t have to survive the workload.
A Cambridge student’s work is never done. There are always more items on the reading list, more research, more past papers that you could be doing: you could spend twelve straight hours a day working and barely scrape the surface of your weekly topic. So don’t even try to get through it all, you will learn to prioritise and spend a reasonable amount of each day on work.
Try to plan (timetable if you’re keen) based on how many hours you think it’s reasonable to do in a day, not on how much work you want to get through. It will take weeks, maybe even a term to get into the right rhythm for you, but you will get there and it will become easier. This is something I wish I could tell third-week-me who burst into tears in the University Library when the realisation that I’m going to have to spend the next three years under extreme pressure suddenly hit me; yesterday’s me that spent several hours in bed on Netflix wants to give you a hug.
Time management is the most important skill you can learn: that and pretending to have read books you haven’t read. Sparknotes is fair game, although obviously a back-up plan. Make the most of supervisions – take notes even if others don’t –and go in ready to listen, learn, and have your ideas challenged (not unlike during your interview). If you go in with the agenda to impress or impose your own thoughts, you won’t get much out of them. Your lecturers and teaching staff want you to do really well so don’t be afraid to ask them stupid questions: I’m yet to meet one who has been unreasonable or shown a lack of understanding for the amount of pressure we’re under.
Don’t worry about making friends.
It’s impossible not to worry, and the advice to "just be yourself" is completely unhelpful because you’re a million different people from one day to the next (The Verve, 1997). But seriously, you will become an interesting person because you’ll be absorbing new experiences and meeting new people every day and with hundreds of other freshers in the same boat as you, you will make friends. Don’t try too hard to show off but don’t dumb yourself down either, you deserve to be here and you’ll be surprised by how down-to-earth the vast majority of people are. Freshers’ week is not the be-all-and-end-all for making friends, either. There was a point for me where it felt like I was too late and everyone had settled down in groups, but I still make new friends after being here for nearly a year.
You have loads of opportunities to find people you click with, so don’t worry if it doesn’t happen immediately. I was also worried that others would be really competitive or judgmental: these are made-up stereotypes, probably by The Riot Club and the Daily Mail. A bit of ribbing about the lack of sunlight in the north is the most I’ve ever had to deal with, and whether you went to a state or private school is completely irrelevant.
Do you guys think I should take up tiddlywinks or Buffy the Vampire Slayer society?
Both exist, by the way. My advice for clubs and societies is similar to that for your workload or friendships: experiment, then settle down. It can be tempting to immediately throw yourself into one society to start climbing its ranks, but this is a mistake. After spending the entirety of Michaelmas trying to become Emma Thompson and not getting a single call-back to one of the hundreds of auditions I turned up to, I finally faced the fact that I’m actually no good at acting. By all means take up something new – I’m currently learning the basics of ballroom dancing and really enjoying it – but it’s also a good idea to play to your strengths: hence, I have taken up writing and decided to become a journalist off the back of it. I wouldn’t try to commit to more than two or three societies (maybe even one if it happens to be rowing) but don’t neglect them altogether even if your attendance has to be sporadic. Studying may be your priority, but through a society you can make more friends, learn new skills, boost your CV, and even settle on a career. Also, do try to get some exercise, whether running, at the gym, or through a sports club: I don’t think I did any exercise at all during first term and that plus delicious canteen meals = early death from heart disease. Look after yourself.
Finally, the most important advice of all: make time for yourself. Because you could spend all your time studying, it’s easy to ignore your mental health, but if you neglect your wellbeing you will burn out from working anyway. The worst offenders are stress and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Unchecked, FOMO will snatch your sleep, your alone time, and eventually your happiness: fight this monster by learning how to say no. No, you’re not going clubbing tonight, or staying up until 2 am playing Articulate (as is more usual in Cambridge), tonight you’re going to phone your Mum then go to bed.
It’s hard to do, and you’ll feel like you can keep going on adrenaline alone, but the moment you leave Cambridge exhaustion will wash over you like a big old wave (can you tell I’m an English student?). You are going to make mistakes during your time here and probably embarrass yourself once or twice, but you’re also going to have the time of your life and achieve loads, so go easy on yourself. It’s never too late to find out what welfare services are available, and don’t underestimate the power of a deep chat.
Don’t take advice too seriously, even this article. Everything is only a suggestion and each person will figure out their own way of coping with, then excelling at, being a Cambridge student. This was yet another mistake I made: trawling through advice for starting university and reading hundreds of articles telling me that you MUST start university single or you’re WASTING THE BEST YEARS OF YOUR LIFE must have eventually taken its toll, because I neglected my relationship in the first term then ended up seriously regretting it. There are no cheats for how difficult the transition from being looked after all of your life to having to make your own way (to an extent) at university, and if there were you’d be tricked out of a necessary learning curve.
Only you can determine what the right choices for you are, so take the advice of your parents, siblings, second-years, and random journalists with a pinch of salt. Also do your primary reading in the holidays. Like seriously, don’t actually read the Bible because it’s on the secondary reading list. I hope my experiences are of help to you, and that you have a fabulous first year: feel free to get in touch or leave a comment if you have any questions for a current Cantab.