Varsity

The day I received my offer to study at Cambridge was surreal. I was so excited – I’d been given a chance to study at my dream university, a goal that I had been working towards for several years. However, in the build up to leaving my hometown, and the relative security of my sixth form comprehensive, small anxieties about studying at Cambridge slowly began to creep up on me. As people talked on Fresher’s chats, they seemed so confident and clever, and I wondered whether I would fit in.

I was intimidated – how had everyone managed to read Leviathan already (HSPS students, you understand) when I still didn’t really know who Thomas Hobbes was? I remember confiding to my friend at home how worried I was that at Cambridge I’d be ‘‘left behind.’’ My original anticipation was replaced by this pervasive anxiety that I wouldn’t be bright enough, that I hadn’t read enough classic texts or that I had absolutely no idea how to write an essay. I hadn’t even arrived at university, yet I was so apprehensive already that I wouldn’t be good enough for it.

Although I made brilliant friends in my first term and had an amazing time, I still couldn’t shake these worries I felt about not being ‘‘enough.’’ I recall the anxiety I felt in my first supervision, terrified that what I said wouldn’t be intellectual or intelligent enough, and how when I got my first CamCORS report; I felt disheartened – because I’d had a predicted grade lower than a friend’s. As much as I told myself that this was ridiculous – I’d worked hard, and this was the best I could do – I still felt a sense of failure. I’d never quite experienced this level of fierce academic competition, which, for many of us who did not attend a high performing school, can sometimes be a completely alien concept.

"I hadn’t even arrived at university, yet I was so apprehensive already that I wouldn’t be good enough for it"

There is no doubt that anybody in Cambridge did not perform well prior to meeting their Cambridge offers – but what needs to be taken into account is the stark contrast in the teaching that helped to achieve those grades, and the education received at university itself. For those of us who only voiced our opinions in classes of thirty students, to an intensive supervision environment, this experience can be jarring to say the least.

Cambridge has a competitive culture – there is no doubt about that. From ranked class lists to supervisions, we are constantly aware of how we perform compared to others. This can be good – healthy competition can be motivating – but when it gets to the point where it can impact your mental health, it becomes dangerous. The first term at Cambridge was incredibly academically stressful for me. I don’t doubt that Cambridge is a stressful environment for anybody – but upon reflection, I realise just how much of that pressure came from myself. Instead of seeking help, I became trapped in an unhealthy cycle.

For example, if I didn’t understand something on the reading list, I would believe it was because I wasn’t intelligent enough. If a supervisor offered me constructive feedback on an essay, I would immediately jump to the conclusion that I had written a terrible essay. After every supervision I had, I would spend hours thinking about what I had or hadn’t said, comparing myself to literally anybody else. As somebody who had often tied my identity into academic success, this had a profoundly negative impact upon my self esteem. I had never experienced an academic environment anything close to Cambridge but instead of allowing myself time to learn and adjust to this new style of learning, I remained in this constant, unhealthy state of comparing myself negatively to others. 

Why should we allow these internalised, often unhealthy aspirations of academic success to impact our emotional wellbeing or our self-perception, when in many cases we are in a completely foreign academic situation to begin with? For students who are not used to small group teaching, or not familiar with an intensive level of academic pressure, this situation can be even more alien. Although it’s almost an unspoken truth that nobody expects anyone to be completely perfect, especially in their first year at Cambridge, I think it’s time that we speak about this far more directly.

"Allow yourself to enjoy learning again – and do not allow these internalised notions of ‘‘success’’ to change your own self-perception"

Away from the whirlwind environment of Cambridge, I’ve had some time to think about how my relationship with myself has been changed by notions of academic success these past two terms. If I could travel back and tell myself one piece of advice, as cliché as it sounds, it would be not to compare myself to anybody else. I was told this at an event before I came to Cambridge, but it is only now that I truly realise how important that advice is – and I wish I’d paid more attention to it. To be thrown into an entirely new academic environment is difficult – and I realise that the constant cycle of competitive negativity I pushed upon myself was not only unrealistic, but harmful.


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It’s important that people, especially first years, are able to recognise that: your best is enough. Instead of damaging our relationships with ourselves through unrealistic notions of perfection, I think it’s time that we were kinder to ourselves. So, ultimately, I implore everyone to remember that nobody expects academic perfection, especially at first. Tell your college children, tell first years in your subject, even tell people in the Wednesday Cindie’s queue – but let’s make sure that people do not forget. To have your self-esteem damaged by some unrealistic notion of academic success is a serious issue – so let’s speak out and challenge it.

Looking back on my first year at Cambridge, I’ve come a long way from that anxious fresher, desperately trying to be ‘‘smart’’ enough. What I’ll remember from first year are the good times – not the time spent obsessing over academic achievement. Remember that adjustment can take time, and for people not used to this environment, this can be a difficult experience. Allow yourself to enjoy learning again – and do not allow these internalised notions of ‘‘success’’ to change your own self-perception.

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