Enough brain to go around?

Eve Hodgson discusses some of the stresses and negatives of Cambridge, and how to combat them

Eve Hodgson

Eve Hodgson

Going to Cambridge is often seen to equate to intelligence. As such, it’s very easy to see yourself as either very clever – which is good, you are – or very stupid, how the hell are you here, etc. etc. I fall into the latter camp, as I think a lot of us do.

Evidently, everyone who made it to university deserves to be here, but imposter syndrome is real and can be quite a damaging thing. It’s by no means wrong to know yourself to be capable, and it definitely is wrong to think yourself to be a fraud. But knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to think that you’re ‘clever enough for Cambridge’, especially when Oxbridge conceptually holds such an elevated spot in the collective mind.

What makes things especially hard is that Cambridge manages, more often than I thought it might, to live up to its mythical status. There are times that it is utterly magical, and just as people imagine it to be. My college has a formal that’s entirely candlelit. I go to chapel every week and see the man who conducted Will and Kate’s marriage. I spent hundreds of pounds on May Week, basically just to get obscenely drunk in a ball gown or appropriate garden party garb.

"What makes things especially hard is that Cambridge manages, more often than I thought it might, to live up to its mythical status"

This raises the question of what we do to deserve these privileges— they’re still a symbol of financial elitism – but, arguably, also a ‘reward’ for the really tough work we undertake at Cambridge. But it’s hard for them to feel earned when your place here feels like some kind of admissions mistake anyway!

So, how is it possible to function in an environment where you feel like you don’t belong? When despite all the positives—I have the best time at university, I love my friends, I have a lot of good days with my work, I think the extra-curricular possibilities are amazing— there is always, for me, an underlying sense of panic.

It can feel as though there’s a lot of pressure here, primarily from yourself but also the weight of expectation from your DoS, tutor, parents and others at home, who want you to love it and thrive. If the transition is difficult for us, knowing the often impossibly big jump from A-Levels to a degree, no doubt it’s weird for them to watch too – especially seeing you struggle to enjoy work or do well when it seems you always have done.

It’s especially hard to self-motivate when all the work you put in seems to go nowhere.

I don’t want to say to ‘give up’ on trying academically – we’re all here because we love what we do (or at least did love it, a bit), we were quite good at it, and we want to be in one of the best places in the world to learn about it. I have to remind myself of this all the time – had I not loved history, I wouldn’t have applied for it, had I not been right for Cambridge, I wouldn’t have got in.

It’s difficult, though, because perhaps a pre-Cambridge lifestyle that was so orientated towards achievement is not naturally suited to the frequent challenges, and even failures, of Cambridge life. A 2014 Tab survey found that over a fifth of Cambridge students had been diagnosed with depression, with a further 25% thinking they might be depressed, with this combined total of nearly half of all Cambridge students being much higher than the national figure of one in six.

Cambridge can make us stressed (and everyone experiences stress), but it can affect the way we see ourselves as well – basically, it’s hard to feel special or even adequate when everyone has a full run of A*s.

It’s entirely crucial to realise that, although you love(d) your subject, you might find other things that make you happier and that you think are more worthwhile, and that’s great, too. Cambridge offers so many opportunities outside of academic learning – theatre, journalism, sport, and even just going out. While it might feel like work suffers when you get involved in these, they can be invaluable in improving your mental health and Cambridge experience.

An experience which is often fabulouseve hodgson

Additionally, while you have to be clever (ish) to be here, that’s a very different thing to becoming a revolutionary in your field. It’s fine to go to Cambridge, just do enough work to get out your essays or supervision work at second class level, and not come out the end of it as the next Stephen Hawking. That’s fine. It’s also fine to do basically nothing else – you don’t have to have rowed in the boat race or performed with the Footlights to have had the full Cambridge experience.


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It’s perhaps more important to ask whether you’re happy enough here rather than clever enough to be here. Someone will always be able to do more, or better—welcome to the world. Cambridge should do its best to look after you, and in my experience, it tries. The UCS, college counsellors if they’re there, and your tutor are all good, available resources.

While Cambridge is still an awful lot of pressure, educationally and personally, there will be something here that can alleviate that pressure for everyone – even if that’s just doing nothing at all