Considering studying at Cambridge University? Here’s what to expect

University can be a daunting, dizzying experience, and studying at Cambridge is especially unique. Knowing what to expect will help bust some common myths. Read on to be let in on a few gems the city contains, and find out what it might actually be like to study there. With all its ups and downs, there is no denying that Cambridge is a truly inspirational place to live and learn. 

Here are the highs and lows of five cornerstones of typical Cambridge undergraduate life.

    1. The University Library

      Positives: Contains practically every book ever published. Looking for Hollingsworth’s The Newgate Novel: 1830-1847? No problem. In fact, they’ve probably got two copies. And once you’ve found its location (in the North Wing, Floor 3, 730.c.96.544, obviously) you can sit at a mighty oak desk surrounded by ornate chandeliers and pretend to yourself that you are a proper academic. This effect is enhanced by frequent sightings of famous actual academics, like Mary Beard. It’s pretty cool to have people like her using the same resources as you.

      Negatives: While reading The Newgate Novel: 1830-1847 is likely to make anyone’s day, you may be barred from the dizzy joys of academia by the fact that it’s almost impossible to obtain. Sure, the library might have two, but I challenge any student to find just one of them. The UL is so labyrinthine that any attempt to borrow a book becomes an elaborate orienteering exercise, about as time-consuming as doing Gold D of E. Just to add to the challenge, you have to operate the lighting yourself, presenting the added danger that at any minute you might be plunged into darkness. It might lead to an exciting encounter with Mary Beard. It might not.

    2. Bops

      Positives: Three times a term, the Great Hall is cleared of squashed peas and other remnants of dinner. It is then transformed into a low-budget nightclub. These in-college parties are usually accompanied by a miscellaneous theme, from ‘Once Upon A …’ to ‘All I Want For Christmas’ to simply ‘Emojis’. Some people go all out (I once saw a towering beanstalk) and some people hardly look like they’re going out at all (they just turn up in black). But the best thing is, you get all the benefits of going out without leaving the building. In second year, my bed was literally metres away from the dancing.

      Negatives: Occasionally DJ Tim will play something you vaguely recognise from a car advert, but most of the time nobody has a clue what is going on. As the evening progresses, you find yourself sipping your single over-priced drink and bopping vaguely in time to a beat which has been steadily pulsating for at least three hours. You look down. A single bean remains Sellotaped to your T-shirt. Your costume has fallen apart – and so, at this moment, has your life.

      TOP TIP: For cheesy music you’ll definitely know the words to, go to Ballare (known to Cambridge students as ‘Cindies’) for the Friends theme tune, Titanic and more.

    3. Societies

      Positives: From Ceilidhs to Caving, there’s a society for pretty much anything. This is a chance to venture beyond the beautiful but confining walls of your college and meet other students. They’ll judge you for being at John’s (too high-brow). They’ll judge you for being at Homerton (too low-brow). But they are probably lovely – and there’s nothing like bonding with someone over your shared appreciation of whisky.

      Negatives: Swaps. Most societies have swaps. ‘Swapping’ involves going to a terrible food venue with your society in order to engage in drunken revelry with people from another society. This can be great fun. But it might not be everybody’s thing. Menus are laminated. The crockery is plastic. Food fights ensue. But nobody really cares because the food looks so disgusting anyway (what is that quivering gelatinous mass in the middle of my curry?). And this is all if you have time for societies and swaps: the workload is so consuming that you may never be placed in this perilous position.

    4. The actual work

      Positives: You cover an enormous amount of material. Studying Jane Austen? You’ll only need a week to cover all her novels. John Milton? Paradise Lost is a quick read; why not study his other work, too? After all, you’ve got seven days. This means that you can claim superficial knowledge of pretty much any topic related to your degree during future dinner parties.

      Negatives: This is a serious one. The courses are high-intensity for three years. That’s three years of knowing your friends at other unis are having pizza and film nights while you haven’t even sighted your friends for a week (they’re in their Study Rooms – that’s right, they’re not called bedrooms but Study Rooms). Candidates applying need to be aware of the mental health problems at Cambridge. 46% of Cambridge students are depressed or think they are depressed: the national average prevalence of depression is 6.7%. There are support teams and welfare assistance, but you’ve got to be alert to anxieties in case they creep up on you or your peers.

  1. May Week

    Positives: After a year of toil, this is an incredible week. You’re with your friends in an amazing city, with nothing to do but gorge yourself on May Ball food and try not to fall off the punts. Some of my favourite eateries exclusive to Cambridge include Nanna Mexico, Taste of Cambridge (they do the best falafel and pizzas), and The Rainbow Café, which serves ‘Globally inspired Vegetarian, Vegan and Gluten-Free Food’.

    Negatives: Partying is pretty exhausting. It’s easy to spend all day sleeping – which is great, if you’re somewhere rubbish, but it’s not great when you’re missing out on cardboard boat races because you’re unable to move from your bed. But there is a solution: whether or not you choose to actually go to Cambridge, or get offered a place, it’s a fantastic city to visit. Even better, stay with a friend who goes to Cambridge. You can enjoy the UL, the bops, the societies and the balls – and then dash off before the library session starts again.

The best thing about studying at Cambridge is the chance to be who you want to be and delve into your subject like never before. You can learn more, see more, do more – all right at your door step. You’ll meet a diverse range of undergraduates and the academic and extra-curricular opportunities are vast. If you’re considering applying to Cambridge, have a chat with one of our tutors: they can tell you what life at university is actually like, and give you hints and tips on how to maximise your chances of getting in.


Written by Bryony G.

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