Class lists: a symbol of the intensity of academic pressure here at Cambridge?Louis Ashworth

The home of Newton, Keynes, and Stephen Fry, it goes without saying that Cambridge is a prestigious place. As well as being one of the top-ranked universities in the world, our history and traditions make our university stand out. Arguably, so does the difficulty of getting in. In the 2017 admissions cycle, only 27.8% of applicants received an offer, with 33% of these not meeting the conditions of their offer. A BA or MA from Cambridge undoubtedly looks good on a CV. On a personal level, with my mother’s family being poor immigrants to Australia and my father having never attended university, I certainly felt like I had “made it” when I got in.

With the weight of these facts and personal experiences on our shoulders, the assumption is that we should step up, compete, and certainly not bemoan our fortune. The notion that studying here is a blessing is something that we’re reminded of almost constantly, both from our peers within the University and those outside of it. Every time a new university league table comes out, we’re reminded of the University’s status. It’s hard to evade the chorus of “wow, that’s impressive” (or, alternatively, “what a nerd”) when talking about attending Cambridge. In the popular imagination, it would be nothing less than bizarre to complain about our lives here.

“Of course Cambridge was going to be difficult, but that does not mean that we should just accept every unreasonable thing that is expected of us”

But mythologising the University in such a way is a dangerous thing to do. Prospectuses don’t mention the brutal workload. To consult the memoirs of famous Cambridge alumni, such as Clive James, is to read about Bacchanalias of theatre shows, spirited romantic adventure and honing one’s prosody. They don’t mention the culture of intense competition amongst the students. And they certainly don’t mention the prevalence of stress-related mental health issues. Actual life at Cambridge is often ignored for its supposed upsides, and even those who love it here have to acknowledge that everything isn’t always rosy.

Despite this, it can often be difficult to feel that it’s okay to ask for help. As someone who ended up intermitting at the beginning of this year due to a pretty severe bout of depression, I certainly felt this way. The fact that their son was studying at Cambridge was a source of pride for my parents, and I didn’t want to let them down; I was pooled, and I didn’t want to disappoint my Director of Studies who had specifically chosen me; There was the difficulty of knowing that everyone else was grappling with the same deadlines, which often leads many of us to invalidate our own genuine anxieties and exhaustion. I’m not the only person to feel this immense pressure and stress - Why can’t I keep up?

All these feelings are obviously unhealthy. It is perfectly valid to acknowledge your privileged position as a student at Cambridge whilst also acknowledging that the University has many issues. The amount of work we cram into an eight week term is, quite frankly, ridiculous. University is supposed to be a time where, while studying for a degree, you’re able to really discover who you are as a person and form connections that will last you a lifetime. You can’t do that if you’re spending 14 hours in the library every day of the week. How many people have been forced to give up their own personal interests due to time constraints and stress?

Some people may argue, fairly reasonably, that this is something we signed up for. No one forced us to come here. Of course Cambridge was going to be difficult. One can’t expect to attend an elite university and have it be a cakewalk. Even as that is true, it does not mean that we should just accept every unreasonable thing that is expected of us. Just like everything else, Cambridge isn’t perfect. It’s not right to get “yeah, but you go to Cambridge” as a response to valid criticisms of our experience. Over my time at Cambridge, I have realised that complaining is not an admission of weakness, or of defeat, or a lack of gratitude.


Mountain View

Cambridge must improve its mental health support

Cambridge may be a special place and studying here an opportunity to be seized. But you shouldn’t let it get in the way of your own mental health and wellbeing. If you’re struggling, you shouldn’t just accept it. Talk about it with your friends, your supervisors, and your DoS and tutor. In other words: Complain. It’s good for you.

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