‘Socialising = procrastinating’: 84% of students have felt lonely at Cambridge
Many attribute this to “cliquey” colleges and an “isolating” high workload, with 78% of students surveyed reporting that exam term makes loneliness worse
In response to a recent Camfess, I decided to investigate the extent of loneliness at Cambridge, the reasons behind it, and ways we can look to resolve it – all in the words of Cambridge students.
Of 654 Cambridge students surveyed via The Tab’s Instagram, 84% report having felt lonely during their time at Cambridge, with 56% of students reporting that they “often feel lonely at Cambridge”.
Why do so many students feel lonely?
While only 35% of Cambridge students report that they find it “hard to find people with similar interests” to them at this university, 78% report that exam term makes them feel more lonely, and 80% report that the pandemic made them feel more lonely.
When asked why they think lots of students suffer from feelings of loneliness at Cambridge, our respondents had varied responses.
The Cambridge Workload
By far the main culprit students pointed to is the notorious Cambridge workload, with one student suggesting that it reduces the time they have to see friends: “Very very high workload [means] more time at your desk and less to socialise”. Another commented on the “isolating nature of rigorous academic study”.
One student pointed out that the comparatively high cost of socialising in Cambridge contributes to the problems caused by high workload, “Workload means not seeing friends often and social spaces can be very expensive (May Balls)”, and a follow-up survey via Instagram supported this, with 73% of 343 students saying that they “find socialising expensive in Cambridge”.
Another student noted the difficulty of balancing high workload with both hobbies and a social life – it’s “hard to make time for just hanging out with friends with this much work, especially if you have other hobbies.”
Some indicate that ongoing academic pressure makes students feel guilty for taking time away from work in order to socialise: “Pressure of feeling like you need to work all the time. Socialising = procrastinating.” Some imply that Cambridge students take studying too seriously, “Everyone is competing/revising all the time”, “They take studying too seriously and don’t get out enough to see people”, or they “spend too much time stressing in their room and not enough time interacting with people”.
Superficial Relationships & the Collegiate System: Causation or Correlation?
A number of students suggested that the high workload and limited chance for socialising leads to superficial friendships: one student says it cultivates “insufficient intimacy/depth in interpersonal relationships”. Many find this made worse by the famously close-knit collegiate system, which some call “cliquey”: “Colleges are good for getting to know people at first but can definitely get cliquey very quickly”, and “The college system makes it cliquey and creates unnecessary socialising boundaries.” Another respondent adds, “The college system isolates rather than unites students – we all go to Cambridge!”
A follow-up study saw 66% of 330 students say that they feel their college is “cliquey”.
Several respondents feel that “friendships are so dependent on accommodation, especially in first year” and “friendship groups are almost set in stone from day one”, all while the “College system can exaggerate the amount of friends you feel you ought to have”. Small course sizes make this even more difficult for some, one student blaming “isolation in small courses”, and another pointing out that colleges often only accept one or two students per year for certain courses, “I’m the only one in my subject for my year in college.”
Drinking Culture & University Life
Some note that the drinking culture in Cambridge contributes to this, one student saying there’s “nothing to do apart from drink for fun”, and another pointing out that it’s “hard to find non-clubbing/drinking socials”. One student notes that this isn’t helped by the fact that they feel that there’s “No central hub for people to congregate, outside the central colleges, sometimes [the] college bar can be empty”. This is especially true in exam term when bars often shut entirely or have earlier closing times than usual.
In a follow-up survey, 76% of 332 students said that “most social/fun activities in Cambridge involve drinking”.
However, some others say the opposite – that there are lots of things to do in Cambridge, but that this creates a fear of missing out if you’re not involved in everything all the time: “It feels like there’s so much going on around you so it’s very isolating if you’re not involved.”
Some culprits for loneliness are less specific to Cambridge and more to the “University experience” in general, it seems, with some students blaming the “first time away from home, difficulty making new friends”, one student saying, “Sometimes it’s hard to navigate such vast and new surroundings”, and another commenting that, “Work isn’t a 9-5 schedule so people have different free time that often doesn’t match up”.
How to cope with loneliness at Cambridge – according to students
The results of our poll also indicated that 63% of students in second year and above found that their feelings of loneliness got better after first year, indicating that perhaps an adjustment period is required by many at this university. So, what advice do they have to give in hindsight?
Clubs and Societies: “Join a society!”
Many were quick to point out the benefits of joining societies, which can help students make close friends, socialise often, and maintain old hobbies all at once – and, as they say, there’s a society for everyone, whether you’re into sports, music, gaming, or journalism.
Students suggest, “Join a club or society, chat with someone from your staircase or supervision,” and “Try to involve yourself in societies where possible and speak to people.” Find a list of all registered societies here, and if you can’t find what you’re looking for on the list, why not found a society yourself?
You’re Not Alone: “Reach out to those around you”
Others noted that you should always reach out to the people around you if you’re feeling lonely, because – as this survey proves – the majority of them will have felt the same way at some point, and over half of them probably still do. “Let others know! My household were all so lonely last year but thought we were the only ones!”
We were also advised against limiting your social life to other Cambridge students, especially if you feel overwhelmed by the fact that so many conversations revolve around the workload. One student said, “Meet up with non-student people!!! The cam non-uni community is amazing.” It’s also important to keep in touch with friends and family from home, which many forget to make time for during term-time.
Study & Socialise with Friends
If it’s inevitable that a lot of your time will be spent studying at this university, be sure to make it a less isolating experience by studying with friends where possible – if you think it would help you, arrange to walk to lectures with supo partners, get brunch with friends on Saturdays in between productive work sessions, do flashcards with mates, and make sure you spend as little time alone as possible.
Many responses supported this: “Get your friends to join you at the library, workouts, meals, morning walks, etc”, “Balance your work schedule with meeting friends – if you feel stable your work also benefits.”
Take advantage of college-run events
It’s to find yourself losing touch with friends you don’t live next-door to if you never make full use of College spaces. Many respondents suggested that you might find it useful to “go to college events”, “hang out in college spaces like the hall, bar, and JCR”, and if your College or Faculty has a café or other kind of social space, be sure to take advantage of that in between lectures and supos.
There’s no rush: friendships take time
It’s common to hear stories from people who didn’t find any close friends the second they got to College – but ultimately, it didn’t matter, as they found their people in the end. “It took me all of first year to find friends, don’t rush (still my BFFs 4 years later)”, “Get out there, meet new people until you find ones you like”, and, “Don’t get caught up in the hype to be part of all possible groups. Have a select few good friends.”
Seek Expert Help
If you find that feelings of loneliness are affecting you in your daily life, do seek further help. Even speaking to your Tutor, DoS, or College Nurse can help you find solutions or point you towards the right people – and the University Counselling Service has a document with tips for dealing with loneliness, available here.
The bottom line: if you feel lonely at Cambridge, you’re not alone. Our findings indicate that not only will most students experience loneliness at some point during their time at Cambridge, but that over half often feel lonely here, with this feeling exacerbated by exam term stress and workload.
If you often feel lonely, reach out to friends, family, and others around you, and seek expert help if your loneliness is affecting your daily life.
Feature image credits: Keira Quirk, edited with author’s own screenshot via Camfess