20 things I wish I knew as a 2020 Cambridge fresher
The year of COVID, chaos and all things Cambridge
Reaching the end of my first year at Cambridge, and currently being in isolation with far too much free time, has given me a chance to reflect on the past year.
Spending Lent at home, never attending an in-person lecture and not knowing what my department building actually looks like undoubtedly makes this year a strange one. But despite this, I know that gaining some independence, and all the classic cliches that come with starting Uni, have helped me develop and change in the short space of 10 months.
Reflecting on my first year, and in an effort to keep my mind from completely frying in isolation, I have compiled a list of 20 things I wish I knew as a 2020 Fresher. Let’s get into it!
1. Everything happens on Facebook
Don’t ask why Cam students chose Facebook as their go-to – I really don’t know. This social media platform’s demographic seems to consist entirely of university students and middle-aged Karens. Don’t question it. Just give Camfess, Kindbridge and Crushbridge a like and watch the chaos unfold from there.
2. Don’t expect everything to fall into place – these things take time
Your life at Cambridge will not be set in week one. You won’t stay on top of your laundry or cook organic gourmet food for every meal. This is probably the first time you have truly been left to fend for yourself away from home so be kind! You will eventually get into a routine but even now I barely remember to buy groceries.
3. You probably won’t meet your best friends on your first night in college
Of course, put yourself out there and be kind to everyone you meet during Fresher’s week but keep in mind that realistically, you won’t meet your best mates during this time. Especially with the good old pandemic and social distancing, the odds are against you! Cut yourself some slack and don’t be afraid to allow yourself to build friendships over time. It may feel lonely at first but you will look back in your final term and be thankful that you didn’t force friendships. I didn’t meet some of my closest friends until Lent!
4 . But you will find your friends!
When I first arrived, I remember being terrified that I wouldn’t make friends – but I absolutely shouldn’t have worried! Firstly, your ability to make friends doesn’t just stop as soon as you get to uni (although it may feel like it!). Secondly, I would argue that unlike school, fresher’s week is one of the easiest places to make friends. All freshers are in a new environment with A LOT of new people. You just have to remind yourself that everyone is feeling exactly like you are. If you’re keen to meet others then chances are they are too! So start that conversation with the person next to you at matriculation. They will likely be very thankful that you initiated it so that they didn’t have to!
5. Say yes to everything you can!
Speaking of making friends, try and say yes to as much as you feasibly can. Your flatmate is going out for drinks with people they know? There is an event on in the marquee? Someone has asked you to go punting with them? Yes! Yes! YES! These interactions will allow you to meet new people and make friends with their friends and so on. I met the vast majority of my friends by saying yes to impromptu plans. At first, the thought of this is terrifying but I promise you, the awkward small talk is worth it.
6. But likewise, learn when to say no
At the same time, Fresher’s week is incredibly overwhelming. Especially when we have become so used to being behind our screens, social interaction can really drain you. So if your body is telling you that your social clock has run out then listen to it! Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is to take the night off. Do not be ashamed to have a Netflix night alone in your room. You’ll feel better for it in the morning!
7. Get into other colleges when you have the chance
As you meet people during Freshers, you will realise that an easy ice-breaker question is “what college are you at?”. After you reply (and your college probably gets insulted) an even easier follow up to this question is “would you like a tour sometime?”. A great day out is showing people around your college and getting them to do the same in return. Doing this means you get to meet more people, see new colleges AND make your Instagram increasingly aesthetic will doing so. Win win.
8. Your first essay will not be good
I remember pouring my heart and soul into my first supervision essay. I spent hours crafting the perfect sentences in an effort to make a great first impression. I got the feedback and my essay was ripped apart (alongside a piece of my heart). Looking back now, my first essay was BAD! The step up from school to university is a big one so I was never going to hand in an incredible first piece of work! This is not something to be sad about at all. In fact, expect it! Take your feedback on the chin and use your first essay as a spring board for bigger and better things. Your first submission is scary but it is only the start of your Cambridge journey and something you just need to get out of the way – a rite of passage if you will.
9. Embrace the formals!
I remember being terrified that I wouldn’t have the social etiquette and knowledge of posh things to be able to handle a formal. When my first one came around in Easter term (thanks COVID), I was so scared that I would feel incredibly out of place. But my lovely household showed me the ropes and made it a night to remember! A formal is a very Cambridge thing to do and you definitely just have to embrace it as it is. Yes, you wear a gown, someone recites some Latin and bangs a gong but that’s not the bit you remember! You remember the people that you spent the night with and the laughs you had together! Everyone loves a formal but be prepared for the food to be so fancy and small that you require a trip to McDonalds afterwards!
10. You cannot afford to be a perfectionist
The Cambridge workload is intense – this is a fact. Our terms are condensed into 8 weeks and supervisors don’t always remember that we have lives outside our degrees. My first few weeks in Michealmas were stressful as I was trying to hand in work that I was proud of. I stayed up far too late perfecting essays and pushing myself to read entire reading lists. Honestly, this kind of pressure is not worth it! Especially in first year! As soon as I started to write essays in the library at a normal time of day, the quality of my work actually improved! I started to read the things that actually interested me and this passion started to come across in my writing. Supervision essays aren’t marked anyways so you can afford to experiment and try out new things! It doesn’t have to be the best thing you’ve ever written but be bold and brave with your work by handing it in despite this.
11. Fail forward
My DoS said this during my first term here and it has stuck with me ever since. We write so many essays and submit so much work that statistically, at least something isn’t going to go well! But this isn’t something to be afraid of. Take the feedback and use it to make your next piece of work even better. Unlike other universities, our constant deadlines give us the chance for constant improvement. Supervisions give allow us to get advice from top academics and “failing” something just means that we have more to learn from them!
12. You won’t be the smartest
Everyone here is likely used to being top in their schools and getting the best marks. Most people are used to being the “smart kid” so when we come to Cambridge and realise that everyone is the “smart kid”, we’re forced to find our niche. This environment means that Cambridge allows you to find other things that you’re interested in and other things that you’re good at. So at the Fresher’s fair, sign up for everything and anything that vaguely interests you. Find out who you are outside of academics.
13. You should row at least once
It’s a Cambridge staple and novicing during first year is the best way to meet people. Most of your crew won’t have done rowing before so you will all (literally) be in the same boat. Spending time with the same group of people also means that you form a close bond with them – especially when it comes to moaning about early outings. If you decide that competing at the end of the year is your thing, then you will get to experience the supportive atmosphere at the River Cam! Crews cheering each other on from the banks and cycling alongside the boats. You will catch the rowing bug and never look back.
14. Imposter syndrome is inevitable
Very suddenly, you may find yourself sitting between someone who knows David Attenborough personally on one side and someone who is world champion of whatever sport on the other. Don’t be intimidated! Chances are that these people are just as intimidated by you but for different reasons. You will quickly realise that everyone feels the same way and that talking about it may actually help you overcome what you’re feeling!
15. Speak to everyone
Don’t dismiss people based on what they look like. Talk to everyone you can and try to stay in contact with the people that you really vibe with. Make an effort to ask people you haven’t seen in a while to go out for coffee – this will make your time in Cambridge so much more pleasant! Passing people on King’s Parade that you can wave to is an awesome feeling and will really make you feel at home. Plus, the people you meet whilst at Cambridge will likely go onto make a massive impact on the world. Be the cool mum that casually mentions to their kids that they went to university with the author of their favourite book or the main character in the Netflix show they’re binge watching.
16. Aromi is low key better than Jacks
When it comes to gelato, I would much rather get a scoop from Aromi than Jack’s. The line is usually much shorter and the gelato flavours never disappoint. Fight me.
17. Get a bike
I really didn’t think that I’d need a bike but the number of times it has come in handy this year has surprised me! Mainly because I managed to somehow befriend a group of geographers at Girton (I know!). If you’re getting a bike, look for a second hand one online. There are loads of Facebook groups and finalists looking to get rid of their bikes so you will probably find one for pretty cheap but PLEASE TEST IT OUT BEFORE BUYING IT. I didn’t do this and have ended up spending more money fixing this second hand bike than it would have cost me to buy a brand new one that actually works. Learn from my mistakes.
18. It’s okay not to be productive
It’s very easy to think that at Cambridge everyone is working around the clock. People may put on a group chat that they’re doing loads of work or might talk about how productive they are in an effort to make themselves feel better. Just ignore this and focus on yourself. Sometimes procrastination actually helps you work better in the long run. If you embrace and accept that it’s happening by giving yourself a well-deserved break, you will likely work better at a later date because you’ve been kind to yourself now. Plus, a little bit of time pressure always helps.
19. Get college married fast
You don’t want to become the creepy unmarried uncle that third wheels all your friends.
20. You will love it here
Your time at Cambridge will fly by – I have no idea where my first year has gone but I miss it already. You meet the most amazing people and get to study under the guidance of some of the most intelligent people in the world all whilst living in a stunning city. This type of experience doesn’t last forever and we need to savour every last bit of it. No matter who you are or what you identify as, you will find your place at Cambridge – trust me, there is a Facebook group for everything.
So say yes to as much as possible, meet new people and try new things like rowing. Make memories with your housemates at formals, people on your course on Kings Parade and random Girtonians you meet on impromptu night outs. Go to that coffee place you’ve always wanted to try, go swimming at Grantchester and try to visit every college in Cambridge before the end of your time here. Study hard but play harder. You’ll love it here.
Feature image credit: Author’s own