Do you regret coming to Cambridge?

Students reflect on the ups and downs of the Cambridge experience.

*names have been removed to preserve anonymity*

Today thousands of students will be finding out whether they have an offer to study at Cambridge – a stomach-churning experience current students are sure to remember. I was over the moon when I received that email, and didn’t question accepting it for a moment.

Looking back now I have slightly more mixed feelings about that decision, and I wondered if others felt the same. I asked some current Cambridge students to reflect on different aspects of their experience here – would they have made a different decision given what they know now? 

Making friends; the bubble struggle

The social side can be variable – colleges are often really supportive communities, but can also be filled with cliques and gossip. Sometimes it does feel a little like boarding school – although if that makes it more like Hogwarts then I am not complaining.

With all the jargon and weird traditions it can be cult-like and make you feel like you have less in-common with your friends from home. Try using the word ‘bop’ around a non-Cambridge friend and I guarantee you will become an object of ridicule.

“The Cambridge bubble is defo a real thing, due to the city being fairly small and everyone seemingly knowing each other.”

Trying to maintain something that could vaguely be described as a social life alongside your degree, extracurriculars, and the basics of keeping yourself alive is an extreme sport.

“There’s not really the time for things like going home, having visitors or going to stay at other peoples’ Uni cities… I find that even when I do have visitors come to stay, I have to rush to get my work finished and still have to do work while my friends or boyfriend are staying over.”

You can, however, forge some incredibly valuable and close friendships here, and the sheer volume and variety of societies means you are guaranteed to find people who share your interests.

“The college system does create more of a closer feel where you do feel like you know the people in your year at college, and also the whole college family system means you get to know the years above and below well too.”

Just some of the societies featured on the SU Societies Directory. Image credits: Screenshots via Cambridge SU Societies Directory

Finance – Cambridge is spenny

“The train home for me is mega expensive and takes over around five hours of traveling door to door, so even if it was economically viable I still don’t have the time to go home during term, something some of my house mates from London etc. can. It also means that people can’t visit me either.”

College accommodation is not the cheapest, and the city is one of the least affordable places to live in the UK. However financial support like bursaries can be pretty generous (for home students anyway… ), and shorter terms mean you are usually paying rent for fewer weeks of the year.

“There is such a massive wealth disparity from student to student (this is not just imposter syndrome talking) –  I hate the strange bourgeois culture of the university but I get that for some that is the appeal. The financial support available here can be a real positive though!”

Unfortunately being an international student is simply extortionately expensive and there is not the same level of financial support available, which has led some international students to feel they are being taken advantage of.

Cambridge as a city

“I do have to work in all my holidays, but term time is so worth it – the expanse of societies, extracurriculars and general vibrant atmosphere is amazing here… college communities help social interactions rather than hinder. So currently very positive, no regrets from me.”

There are always a million and one different events running here, so you won’t struggle to fill your time. It is on the other hand arguably less lively compared to big cities like London or Birmingham. Whilst a lot of people love the smaller-city vibes, the nights-out are not necessarily something to write home about.

“The clubbing scene is quite honestly pitiful… Not enough clubs, not enough range, and so expensive.”

It is an unusual academic system – and a lot of pressure comes with it

Lady Mitchell Hall Lecture Theatre, Sidgwick Site. Image credits: Vedika Mandapati.

Whether or not you think it should, the ‘Oxbridge factor’ does open doors. It is debatable, though, whether that is worth the excess stress that tends to be involved. The concept of a 9am lecture ON A SATURDAY is entirely foreign to some of my non-Cambridge friends (as it should be frankly), and the workload here is far from light.

“I don’t think the pressure always produces good essays,  just lots of them really fast.”

You could argue that the intensity is part of what makes Cambridge special. But the academic pressure, as well as the fact that you’re surrounded by people who are often unusually ambitious and hard-working, can create a toxic environment.

“I think there is an enormous pressure to do well here, in a way that even though we are all extremely clever they can still make you feel inadequate with things like the Subject ranking, scholar’s dinners for students who get Firsts… you are constantly being compared.”

Student mental health is… not good

Student mental health is declining across the UK – especially since the pandemic – but one scroll through Camfess is enough to show you that Cambridge students are not always the happiest bunch.

Image credits: Author’s screenshot via Camfess

“The mental health provisions that Cambridge has kind of just proves that there is an issue…. Having regular meetings with a personal tutor and your Director of Studies who check how everything is going is probably just born out of the excessive academic pressure here and it’s understandable…  intermission is fairly common here and it’s kind of just accepted.”

The emphasis on hitting deadlines and the urge to add yet more committees and clubs into your life (note to self: stop saying yes to everything) means you can lose all sense of perspective and balance if you’re not careful. The fact that every term the ‘Week 5 blues’ rolls in without fail shows that burnout is a serious issue here.

In summary, Cambridge is amazing – but also kind of awful

“Cambridge was the city [that] the me I knew died in, and I am still trying to recover some sense of who I am.  So, in a way, I definitely regret coming here even though it is more that I regret the associations I made with people I should have known to avoid.”

Cambridge isn’t going to be the best environment for everyone – there’s often an attitude that if you’ve done well academically you apply to Oxbridge as a default. That’s unhelpful. It’s a unique place and you need to make your decision based on whether it is a good fit for you – just like for any other University offer. 

“As someone who came from a state school who rarely gets more than one or two people into Oxbridge, I was hesitant as to whether I would fit in, or if I’d get in at all. I set my sights on UCL –  a big city, non-campus uni. However, coming here was definitely not a regret and I am extremely grateful I got in!”

Image credits: Author’s screenshot via Camfess

“Cambridge is an amazing place and I wouldn’t want to study anywhere else (except maybe Oxford), but it is also the city I have been the most unhappy. I have met some wonderful people and forged friendships that I hope will last a lifetime.  But I have also experienced the most harrowing and terrifying experiences of my existence.”

This piece isn’t meant to rain on your parade if you received an offer today and are planning on accepting it – but if you do choose to accept, you should go in with eyes open.

Cambridge can become an incredible period of your life, but it won’t be perfect – or straightforward. 

Cambridge University Press Office have been approached for comment. 

Featured image credits: Sarah Swift

Related articles recommended by this writer: