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A letter to freshers: what one year at Cambridge has taught me.

By Pollyanna Hopkins

I clearly remember the moment I opened my emails and received an offer to study HSPS at Cambridge. I was filled with two competing emotions: joy and surprise. I had managed to convince myself that despite sending in written work I was proud of, writing a personal statement I was passionate about, and coming out of three interviews happy, I still would not have done enough to earn a place at Cambridge. 

After surprise came concern. It seemed to me implausible that Cambridge would want me, particularly as I sat crying in a meeting with my history teacher about coursework on the same day I was given my offer. At that moment it felt like there had been some kind of mistake – but I clung to the email that contained my offer for reassurance. As implausible as it seemed, Cambridge did want me, and all I had to do was get the grades. However, after working hard and getting the grades, on results day I was still surprised to log onto UCAS and see that Cambridge had accepted me. 

In the run up to arriving at Cambridge, friends and family started to express concerns that I would not fit in. I had picked a college that had a reputation for taking on private school students, and had not accepted women until 1981 – slow even for Cambridge. This meant that my excitement was tempered by a voice in the back of my head that made me question whether there had been some kind of mistake.

Now, having completed my first year at Cambridge, it’s safe to say that I have been taught many things. I learnt how the modern state was founded; how to make it across town for a supervision in five minutes when google maps says it will take fifteen; and why vermouth isn’t normally mixed with orange squash.

But the most important thing Cambridge has taught me is to trust myself. 

Cambridge is an intimidating place. I once complained to a friend that it felt like even the architecture was designed to make me feel small. However, it is the people and the experiences behind the spires and the buildings that make university life so wonderful. Now the Bridge of Sighs only takes my breath away when I am pelting across it to get to a lecture in time. 

The truth is that there had been no mistake. That quiet voice in the back of my head, that got louder as my move in date grew closer, knew nothing about me, and even less about the reality of studying at Cambridge. I deserved my offer and my place, and I always had.

So, for incoming freshers, I would like to offer you some advice that will hopefully smooth your transition to Cambridge, and combat the imposter syndrome that I felt so keenly when I first arrived.

I started to feel at home in Cambridge when I realised that nobody was going to judge me for asking questions. I slowly realised that almost no freshers are fluent in the complicated Cambridge jargon. That it was normal to be unsure about what exactly matriculation entailed, and to find the Latin graces odd. That everyone gets confused by the pronunciation of ‘Caius’.

I have always been confident and extroverted, and it was terrifying to feel that slipping away from me as I didn’t immediately know and understand everything. However, I felt much more at ease when I built a sense of camaraderie with my course mates and allowed myself to see that they were all just as nervous as me. This realisation allowed me to relax back into myself.

I also found it useful to take myself out of what is commonly known as the ‘Cambridge bubble’, and return to environments where I felt completely relaxed. In my first term, I went to a couple of concerts in London, and in my second term I started swimming again. I intentionally carved out spaces to do things that I loved that were totally disconnected from my course. This reminded me that even when I was feeling a little suffocated by the intensity of a Cambridge term, there were still activities that brought me joy and gave me the time I needed away from my desk.

Give yourself permission to do activities that you enjoy, and you will soon find that you are working in a more sustainable way, and that your degree isn’t all-consuming. You may not enjoy swimming, or live music, but I would recommend you find at least one activity that allows you to remove yourself from the Cambridge academic bubble for a while – whether that is a film with friends, a visit to the Fitzwilliam, or a run around Jesus Green.

The transition to university would be so much easier if we all stopped pretending to know what we’re doing, and recognised that it’s okay to ask for help. As you begin your first term at Cambridge, be kind to those with questions they’re hesitant to ask, and most importantly, be kind to yourself.

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