"Film likes The History Boys, Starter For 10 and The Theory of Everything had filled me with fantasy and anticipation for what awaited beyond the drudgery of A-levels"Vivienne Hopley-Jones

I remember coming to university with the expectation that it would be nothing like school. I was finally away from my tiny town in Kent and in a real, if equally tiny, city. I had my own key for the first time. I had a kettle. I no longer had to register my presence with anyone at any point during the day. Yes, I had finally entered the realms of both social and academic freedom. 

Film likes The History Boys, Starter For 10 and The Theory of Everything had filled me with fantasy and anticipation for what awaited beyond the drudgery of sixth-form and A-levels; I would be totally in control of what I did and when I did it and who I did it with. I imagined I would drink a lot of red wine and leisurely sit reading eighteenth-century poetry, which I would later discuss with my DoS; who had obviously, become both my friend and mentor. 

Rather disappointingly, this was not the case. The red wine I drink is pretty filthy because it’s usually the cheapest option in Sainsbury’s, I don’t actually think my DoS likes me and, as it turns out, the first two years of university are suspiciously similar to school. 

‘Well’ he said, ‘the first two years are kind of like eating your peas; and now you’ve done that, you can get down and play.’

Fine, not in a social sense; socially it was now acceptable to be clever, rather than deeply uncool, and I had to spend relatively less time secretly smoking in a graveyard to avoid Saturday detentions. But academically the stricture and obligations of a school curriculum seemed to still be there. 

The first two years of my English degree were filled with compulsory papers and time periods which, quite frankly, didn’t interest me at all. Spending eight weeks studying medieval literature (which actually isn’t very good – consider the fact that there really isn’t a lot of material to choose from: what you get given is broadly just what’s left, rather than what’s genuinely good) didn’t exactly stimulate me.

In fact, I was so wholly disengaged with this particular paper that it was only two days before my Tripos exam that I made the unfortunate discovery that I was required to complete two set text sections in the paper, rather than the single one I had been anticipating. Luckily, a friend of mine gave me her notes. With these and 48 hours of frantic revision, I was just about able to fake a reasonable understanding of Troilus and Criseyde. (The spelling of whose name I have just had to google.)

But, when third year suddenly appeared, the rules of the game had changed. I went into my first supervision of term, and after the obligatory ‘how was your summer’ conversation, my slightly wacky supervisor started expressing his excitement for the year ahead. He said something which has stuck with me over these last six weeks and I think aptly describes most arts students’ experience with the first two years of Tripos, ‘well’ he said, ‘the first two years are kind of like eating your peas; and now you’ve done that, you can get down and play.’ 

I’m currently drowning in work, but in a strange way I’m kind of enjoying itVivienne Hopley-Jones

While I wouldn’t exactly say that the past six weeks of studying Tragedy has been an experience entirely synonymous with child-like playing, I get the point my supervisor was making. Once you’ve gone through all the compulsory-canon the university puts on your plate, you can broadly do what you want with the rest of your time here. 

And what’s more is, by the time you are allowed to pick your own texts and questions and be let loose on the unsuspecting faculty library, you’re essentially equipped to do justice to what you’re genuinely interested in; rather than butcher it, as you no doubt would have done in first year. 

Obviously I hate Tripos, in the way that everyone hates Tripos: it’s stressful; there is a ridiculous amount of content; some of the questions you get given are a joke; no examiner’s report has ever been encouraging in any way at all, and at least half of the time you don’t really know what you’re doing but you keep doing it because you don’t have time to stop and figure out what’s you’re really meant to be doing. But, if you think about it, the Tripos system is actually pretty ingenious.

It probably takes about two years to bash out all of your bad habits, iron the creases out of your writing style and get you to think expansively, forgetting the concept of learning objectives which you were no doubt inundated with at school.

Very rarely in life do things turn out as you hoped they would, but I feel like third year is ultimately fulfilling my aspirations for my academic experience at university 

And you go through this massive learning curve in terms of how to be a good and interesting student, someone with something relevant to say, by testing yourself out and making your mistakes on the really old material that you don’t care about, the stuff that sits gathering dust at the back of the library. Only to arrive in your final year, with an enriched contextual catalogue, specific interests, direction, conviction, improved ability, a honed skill set – and only then, are you allowed the academic freedom you’ve been yearning for. 

It’s ingenious because it’s conditioning. By your third year, yes, you’re a much better student, but also you’re incredibly grateful. Grateful to finally be relinquished from the clutches of ‘compulsory’ and able to swan about indulging in you academic interests; the things you really care about. 

And although third year is much harder in terms of your work load, because it is always teetering on the edge of actually being enjoyable, of playing, you really don’t resent it half as much as you would if it was something which didn’t interest you. 

As usual, I’m currently drowning in work, but in a strange way I’m kind of enjoying it. Being submerged in thoughts about my dissertation and questions about how best to break into my weekly tragedy essay, potentially doesn’t make me the edgiest person in Cambridge, but it does make me feel like I made the right choice in coming here. Very rarely in life do things turn out as you hoped they would, but I feel like third year is being made bearable by ultimately fulfilling my aspirations for my academic experience at university.

Sponsored links