You're at university to learn and grow, so there's no point in forcing yourself to do work which you aren't going to gain anything fromLouis Ashworth

The University of Cambridge does a lot of self-mythologising. Within the wider higher education sector, ‘Oxbridge’ is supposed to be an entity unto itself, steeped in tradition and history and an exceptionally soul-crushing workload. It’s nice, then, that it’s basically become the norm to consider the gowns, prayers, and annoying sitting-standing rules of a college formal and think: why the hell are we doing any of this?

I ask you to consider this approach and take it a step further. In the three years of my undergraduate degree, the single most precious lesson I learned was that you don’t actually have to do all of your work. You don’t, in fact, have to do much of it at all.

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Let me take you back to a darker time in my life — the beginning of my first year in October 2015. Having been a somewhat lackadaisical student in high school, I was determined to turn over a new leaf and do things ‘right.’ The twelve supervision essays we were assigned per term was an amount of work that was difficult for me to even conceptualise, but I tried to remain undaunted; I was convinced by the particular register, the heavy weight with which people both inside and outside the university spoke of ‘Cambridge’ and ‘work’ that this was something you just had to do to survive here. Supervisions, as had been relentlessly marketed to me, were the particular cachet of Oxbridge. Writing supervision essays was what it meant to be a Cambridge student; anything else was a waste at best and a failure at worst.

My supervisors that year were all very nice people, and there was one who was particularly caring and clearly invested in my academic success. She was very adamant about me writing all my essays, and when she noticed I was struggling she would sometimes book a room for me to come and try to write them while she was there. I would go and sit but still couldn’t really do it, and also formed some highly unfortunate Pavlovian conditioning response of spontaneously crying every time I spoke to her. She remained undeterred, and emailed me before my exam to tell me it’s ok to get help (and if I didn’t I would probably fail).

I ended up passing the exam (and did better than in any of my other papers, in fact) but that isn’t really the point. There are always stories about people ‘not studying’ and then still doing well, and they’re reassuring to hear but not much more. My point is that the real waste — of time, effort, anxiety, and misery — is in trying desperately to fulfil some idealised student role that might not actually help you to learn or grow. If your course guide, your Director of Studies, your mum — whoever — tells you that studying at Cambridge means reading fifty books and writing twelve essays in two months, ask yourself: why the hell should I do any of this? What will I actually gain?

You’re here to learn about things that interest you, develop and grow as a person, and hopefully do all right in your final exams

Don’t get me wrong — the answer to this might be because you want to, because this system allows you to learn to the best of your ability, and that you’ll gain the intensive educational experience your mind and body crave. But if it’s not, then you don’t have to do it. Supervisions and supervision essays are formative work, which means they are not assessed as part of your final grade. It also means that their sole purpose is for the benefit of your learning, so if they’re not helping you: accept it, let it go, and do things a different way (and this includes doing ‘less’). You aren’t at university to go through the motions of submitting every essay on time; you’re here to learn about things that interest you, develop and grow as a person, and hopefully do all right in your final exams.

If you go by ‘deadlines met,’ first year was my most successful by far; I submitted almost half of my essays, which dwindled to an average of about one or two per year for the rest of my degree. It was also my most stressful and unhappy year, the time when I felt everything was spinning out of control and my degree was a massive rock I had to push up a never-ending hill.


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That year also prompted me to seek diagnosis for ADHD, which at the time I was kind of surprised to find out I do have. But it wasn’t a diagnosis that changed my life, nor did any such change take place overnight. Rather, looking into ADHD and the general discussion about how different brains function began my slow realisation that there’s just no point trying to do things that don’t work for you. That applies without having to have some clinically diagnosed justification, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it or like you’re doing things ‘wrong.’ 

I did end up graduating, and did well enough that I’m returning this year for an MPhil. This wasn’t in spite of the fact that I didn’t write most of my essays, but because I was able to shrug off the strict academic expectations placed on me — enough that over two years I started to figure out what I wanted, what I needed to get there, and how to assert my own priorities. So I’m also a fresher again, and kind of scared again, but this time I’m going in with my eyes open.

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