Chris at the 2024 CUMTS GalaPaul Ashley with permission for Varsity

“I didn’t know you sing!” These words struck my ears in the Varsity office at some point last term. The conversation had turned to theatre, and I brought up the fact that I’d previously sung a musical theatre song at an ADC ‘Bar Night’. That short outburst — “I didn’t know you sing” — suggested that the student I was talking to had placed me firmly in a mental box labelled ’Varsity’. This didn’t surprise me: most of my time outside my degree has been devoted to Varsity, so when she found out that I had done other things outside of writing articles, her immediate reaction was surprise and excitement — I now belonged in two boxes instead of one.

“All too often, life at Cambridge involves putting ourselves into boxes”

However, the pride I felt at being considered multi-talented quickly gave way to a feeling of phoniness. The ‘Bar Night’ in question had happened over a year before, and since then I hadn’t performed in front of an audience. I didn’t sing, I had only sung. I felt like a liar. By contrast, one of my closest friends is a fixture of the Cambridge theatre scene, and I’ve been watching him dance, sing and act to an arguably professional standard throughout my entire degree, all the while wanting to take part, yet doing nothing about it. I allowed myself to stay in the box marked ’Varsity’, clutching the doubtful accolade that someone thought of me as a ‘singer’, yet no longer experiencing any of the joy that comes from actual performing.

Some Cambridge students seem to bring the Midas touch to everything they do, juggling several hobbies and very high grades. This article isn’t really for them. It’s for people who, for a number of reasons, either only focus on work or pick one extracurricular activity, think “this is my thing”, and stick to it as if there’s no room for anything else.

All too often, life at Cambridge involves putting ourselves into boxes — boxes which become increasingly restrictive as time goes by. We’re made to narrow down our interests, our identity, even before we reach Cambridge, as we begin by studying many GCSEs, then three A-Levels, then just one Tripos subject, leaving parts of ourselves behind at every stage. (No wonder that 17-year-old took 28 A-levels.) If you do a humanities degree, it’s likely that dissertations and further study will narrow your focus even more. Directors of Studies don’t help here. If you mention that you’ve done more than one thing outside your degree this term, expect to be met with at least a raised eyebrow, or a pointed reminder that you’re “here to work”. Some don’t want to hear you mention extracurriculars at all.

“When we treat extracurriculars as just another means to an end, they lose all their joy”

Many students just treat extracurriculars as CV boosters, and nothing more. There’s no shame in this; a Cambridge degree no longer guarantees a good job, and part of the reason I’ve spent so much time with Varsity is that I’d quite like to make a career out of journalism. But that isn’t why I started. Essentially, I joined Varsity because I wanted to interview famous people. Extracurriculars are supposed to provide this kind of fun, an escape from a Cambridge degree which, for most students, is a necessary hardship, a means to an end. When we treat extracurriculars as just another means to an end, they lose all their joy.

For the best part of my degree I would tell myself that I was constantly lagging behind, that I shouldn’t make time for myself because I had too much work, or that I couldn’t do anything extracurricular outside Varsity. Sometimes I’d even forgo exercise, just to churn out that extra hour in the library. So, at the end of Michaelmas term, I finally said “fuck it” and signed up to audition for three musicals. I ended up doing one, and my only regret is that my eureka (Greek for “fuck it”) moment didn’t come sooner.


Mountain View

The importance of making Cambridge home

I’m a finalist, so my first musical at Cambridge will also be my last. I also know that I’ll never have the acting ability to pursue theatre as a career, and that’s okay — that’s not why I did it. Most Cambridge students grew up being constantly reminded that they were ‘smart’, or very good at one specific thing. Many cling to that, afraid to try anything they’ve not had years and years of practice in, in case they fail. So now that we’re at the end of Lent, and applications are open for extracurriculars in Easter, my advice is this: go and sign up for something. If it’s the only thing like it that you ever do, it will have been worth it. They probably won’t have a Korfball society at whichever London office you end up in.