Cambridge may look perfect, but it will quickly dismantle ideas of your own perfection ALEX PARNHAM-COPE WITH PERMISSION FOR VARSITY

I’ve always been a perfectionist. I’ll never forget my mum suggesting I was obsessing too much over my written Food Tech work in Year 9 at the detriment of my prospective GCSE subjects. This pursuit of perfection extended to my mock grades, coursework and, of course —following fourteen drafts of my personal statement — my UCAS and Oxbridge applications. And to my standards at least, they were as perfect as they could be.

As someone who suffers from OCD, perfectionism is mainly how it manifests. While my messy bedroom might not show it, OCD is (or at least was) evident in my approach to work. I liked being cautious when handing in pieces of work, meticulously combing through every argument I made.

But then I got to Cambridge. My fresher self naively tried to impose my perfectionist regime upon the Cambridge workload. My first essay, albeit bad in Cambridge terms, was finely researched and curated. Every book would be properly read cover to cover, just as the Saltburn tutorial scene poked fun at. And fearing the possibility of overlooking information, I’d occasionally revisit texts.

Yet, the attempt to apply this routine on a weekly basis eventually led to a downfall. By the second week, it was safe to say I had understood the workload everyone was on about. I had to resist the urge to read the whole reading list, instead extracting the most key quotes and basically getting on with it. If I really wanted to write every essay how I wrote my first essay, I think I would still be completing first year work now. And all of this is even more ironic when I realise no work that I ever produce at Cambridge will ever be as bad as my first A-Level inspired university essay.

Unfortunately, Cambridge is not built for perfectionism. While I would love to sit and make every single piece of work perfect, the reality of the Cambridge timeframe imposes strict limitations. Balancing one to two essays a week, derived from extensive primary and secondary readings alongside other academic and personal commitments, means acknowledging and accepting that, at times, an essay has to just be good enough. I remember speaking to academics, counsellors and my parents, and the recurring wisdom they imparted was that 'sometimes good enough is good enough’.

“The perfectionist within me still wanted to refine every piece of supervision work”

The perfectionist within me still wanted to refine every piece of supervision work. While I could dedicate eight weeks to perfecting one essay, the reality was that there were seven others due in Michaelmas. Achieving perfection within the constraints of time became a daunting task.

All I could do was to try my best — yet parting with a substantial part of my identity has proven to be difficult. My entire prospect of getting into Cambridge was predicated on perfectionism: how could I throw something away that played such a pivotal role in ensuring my place here? And by Cambridge’s nature, the demand for heightened perfection was prevalent, but I seemed to be met with a reality where I was proving less capable.

Something else also took me aback: 70 was the new 100. With fear of sounding too much like an American at a British university, I can’t help but wonder what the point of the remaining 30 is. Experiencing the joy of receiving my first piece of work back with a 70+ grade was fantastic, but there was a sense of something missing. It’s all too eerily reminiscent of the new GCSE grades when the introduction of a 9 as the top grade left even those achieving A** feeling subconsciously like they were missing something because they were still not a 10.

The foundation of coping with my OCD, as well as that of many others, lies in complete detachment. Since I knew that I could never make my work perfect, I had to distance myself from the tight grip of perfectionism. I traded success defined by perfectionism and quality, for success defined by quantity. I found satisfaction in ticking off to-do lists, even if it meant completing numerous mediocre pieces of work, rather than the gratification of producing a single exceptional piece. Another manifestation of my OCD is the fear of running out of time — I never trust myself to meet a deadline, even though I always do. I find myself rushing to complete work, knowing it was never my best effort, but at least I could move on to the next.

“I traded success defined by perfectionism and quality, for success defined by quantity”

I first became aware of this issue when my supervisor pointed out typos in my work. My detachment manifests in that way; once I finish an essay, I feel the need to be completely finished with it. If I don’t put an end to it, my old habits take over, compelling me to thoroughly inspect the essay again. By concluding and clicking 'send', I can consign it to the past.

This approach worked for a while when I was proud of the work I was producing. But slowly, I became less satisfied with its quality. It was decent (or perhaps good enough), but it never represented my best work. Ultimately, I missed being a perfectionist. Others handed in late work, but that of which supervisors sang the highest praises; I handed in my work early, but it didn’t elicit any special reaction.

And yet, I don’t think I can fully resurrect this perfectionist part of me, or at least healthily, because finding a balance between the two has proven strenuous. Perhaps if I sacrificed some of the things I enjoy most about Cambridge, I could assume the role of perfectionist and still get all of my work done — but what sort of life would that be?


Mountain View

Cambridge is just London 2.0

My mantra for the new year is as such: to partially return to my perfectionist roots. While this might initially appear counterproductive and potentially unhelpful for managing neurodivergency, I’ve made a compromise: taking the time that I need, within reason. I’ve come to realise that Cambridge is more of a marathon than a sprint. In my experience, supervisors would prefer receiving work that is slightly late but that represents your best effort, rather than being early to the deadline with rushed pieces of work. However, it remains to be seen whether Cambridge will allow for this delicate balance between quality and quantity, and whether I’ll ever be able to bring myself to not reach a deadline.