'Make the most of every opportunity' or enjoy not doing it all?

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Before stepping into my very own Bildungsroman, my ‘coming of age’, my transition into adulthood, the first chapters of my novel had already been written for me; it was a collaborative work written by friends, family members, social media, teachers, the list goes on. “University will be the best years of my life”, they said. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience”, they wrote. “I must make the most of every opportunity”, they urged. There I stood, suitcase in hand, waiting in eager anticipation for the so-called ‘best years’ to begin (only after a five-hour car journey). From the very moment I laid eyes on the place I was practically cradling stacks of books in aching arms and feeling completely swarmed by the intensity of it all. Early morning start, run to lectures, dash back for supervision, fifteen minutes to go, missed lunch again, must collect that essay. Was there any time to pause? You see, there is! I just wish somebody had told me that from the start.

It often comes as a surprise when you start to notice a tear, so to speak, in the university fabric, which was so neatly woven by those around you. No matter how hard you try to patch up each hole, the cloth is once again pulled taut under the strain of university life, tearing your high expectations in two. I have spent my first two terms searching for permanent patchwork solutions, so here are a few things I wish that I had known before starting university.

Reading lists are exhaustive; it is an impossibility to ever truly feel ‘on top of it’. Even if you do manage to make it through your list, there is always another one waiting to be handed straight over to you, with a pat on the back, and a ‘get back to work’. There is no such thing as being ‘done’. Here, it is clear to see where we are going wrong. Of course, stress is going to build when we are already setting ourselves up to fail. Instead of looking at it as a ‘To-Do List’, look at it as a ‘Can-Do List’. Pick out a select few books which seem interesting to you. The liberating nature of most Cambridge courses means that we, as students, can unlock new dimensions of learning, understanding, creativity and exploration. It is about pursuing our own passions and tailoring our degrees around what we are drawn towards. Approaching reading lists more selectively also lessens the heavy work-load, and consequently reduces stress-levels, by allowing you to look at a smaller amount of material in a closer manner, rather than forming broad conclusions from a more extensive amount of reading. This is not to say you should stop working completely; evaluate whether your method of working is allowing you to really think about the material you have been recommended, or if you are actually just reading for the sake of ploughing through the list and impressing your supervisor.

We often find ourselves scanning the library shelves for recommended books, must-read supervision material or reading-list suggestions, but do we ever have time to pursue interests, books or hobbies outside of our courses? It is no secret that university can be lonely, stressful and work-heavy, even if such aspects of university are avoided in discussion when auntie Sue asks how it is going. Recalling my first week in college, I was continually blasted with the encouragement to ‘sign up to as many societies as possible!’, assisted with the occasional rowing leaflet thrust into my palm or free pen stuffed into my bag. At the time, I probably scoffed or shied away from the opportunity or lowered my head and uttered a ‘no thanks’. Now I really wish I had signed up to more societies. It is seemingly difficult to step outside of the much-discussed ‘comfort zone’, but university is all about new opportunities, as much as I hate to parrot the cliché. A great way to manage stress is to create a healthy work-life balance (yet another cliché). Whether you join that society you always promised you would, or audition for a play, or attend a talk at the Union, you should always make time to truly experience Cambridge. And most importantly, ask what Cambridge has to offer you. Here are just a small handful of tips, although I could certainly go on. If I can leave you with at least one thing today, it would be to make next term that little bit less stressful and a little bit more fun.

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