A fascinating Cambridge experience, although certainly one to avoidSIMON LOCK

Whether you are a fresher reading about Cambridge, or a returner doing your dissertation this year, I urge you in all seriousness not to repeat this experience, or to write it in anything like the circumstances in which I did mine. But this will offer a huge serving of Schadenfreude over the folly of my former self.

For a long while, I’ve wanted to pursue a career in theatre and film – especially theatre; there’s nothing like acting in front of the live audience and seeing them respond in laughter or tears to comedy or tragedy – and the ADC was a huge attraction for me when I applied to Cambridge. Consequently, in first year I became very committed to it. Then, as I got more and more into it and realised just how much I loved pretty much every aspect of Cambridge student theatre, the amount of it I did intensified in second year. The only problem was that this was at just the point when the workload for my subject ramped up. Keeping up with weekly essays was one thing: it was hard doing eight hours of theatre six days and then bashing out an essay on the back of very little reading the day before it was due in. But we were supposed to work steadily through our dissertations as well, in order to complete them before the deadline at the start of exam term. Considering my routine, of course I didn’t do that.

Thus, I ended up staring at my diary entry ‘DISSERTATION DEADLINE’ – and this was in black permanent marker, beneath a date just two days into the future. I had written none of the 5,000 words required. I had made no notes. I had done zero reading. I was fucked.

In this situation, there were two options: give into the panic, accept a fail on this part of my degree – or work flat out with only brief stops for food, cigarettes and sleep until I finished it in time for the deadline. Either way, I was in mad, bad and sad territory. I went for the latter option. I thought, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “We can’t stop now – we’re in bat country.”

As I got going – coming up with responses to extracts chosen at random from my primary texts – I realised that there was no time for sleep. The first all-nighter was grim; I sat in the library and frantically bashed out as much material as possible with the goal of finishing my first draft before 6 in the morning. The panic made me procrastinate a lot. I went out for cigarettes every half an hour. I remember spending twenty minutes Facebook-stalking my GCSE Geography teacher, despite having zero interest in him at all, never mind his posts such as: “Got a new iPhone and loving it”.

I finished that first draft at 8, went for breakfast in the college bar and got 6 cans of Monster Energy while I was at it. I then guzzled away at them as I leafed through the books and typed, typed, typed. By the afternoon, I was editing it into a second draft. I was almost overcome by the profound desire to go back to my room, climb under the covers and enjoy the bliss of the sleep I needed, but I’d just take several gulps of Monster and type on.

Around 3.30 a.m. during the second all-nighter, I felt a flush of confidence that I’d produced a passably complete dissertation. All I needed to do was the footnotes and bibliography. Do them and I’d maybe scrape 60. I got too confident and spent an hour talking to my best friend on the phone (she lives in America and it was evening there) while chain-smoking. I went back and found footnoting more annoying and time-consuming than I’d envisaged. I started to feel the time pressure like a horrible burn – it was nearly just hours until the deadline and the bloody footnoting was interminable. The whole business belonged in Dante’s vision of hell in the Inferno. Just after I had that thought, I had a hallucination in which one of the books I had lying about developed arms and legs and started doing handstands on the desk. Watching this, I had a feeling like I’d taken a wrong turn into a very, very bad part of town.

I downed some more Monster and hugged close to the fact that if I didn’t think about anything else but the footnotes, ignored the tiredness and carried on doing these footnotes as quickly as possible, I could print the document off, hand it in to my DoS and sleep soundly and happily. Somehow I did that, and slept for 19 hours straight.

It wasn't a great start to exam term – which was later full of its own stresses. I felt shellshocked and all over the place for the next few days. I now think of it as an amusing anecdote and as an example of something not to do, for myself and others, but there's no getting away from the fact that it was deeply unpleasant at the time.

Don’t do it. I learned my lesson for finals and worked through my degree more steadily – especially the dissertation.

However, at this point you will, dear reader, want to know what I got for that second year dissertation. I don’t know how: but I got 67.

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