What is it really like to study at Cambridge University?

You’ve made your offer, now you’re wondering what it’s really like

It’s likely you have an idea in your head of what a typical Cambridge student looks like. Maybe it’s the uber-intelligent mathematician with no social skills, or the obnoxious public school boy studying Classics at a college his family have attended for generations.

While I can’t deny that you will bump into these people at some point while studying at Cambridge, you’d be surprised how much there is to Cambridge life that the stereotypes don’t encompass.

In case you’ve ever wondered what it’s really like to study at Cambridge University, here are some observations I’ve made after completing my first year of undergraduate study.

Punting by Magdalene Bridge (Image credit: Esther Knowles)

1. 72.5% of offers are made to state school students

While this figure might be low when you consider that approximately 93 per cent of children in the UK attend a state school, many people would expect it to be lower. If you compare this to Durham’s 61.6 per cent, it doesn’t look too bad.

The majority of friends I have made at Cambridge are state-educated, something that doesn’t fit with the image in many people’s heads of Cambridge as a private school breeding ground. While ex-private school students still exist here, so do people from a range of backgrounds. Do not be put off applying because of your social background, it is not an indicator of how much you will ‘fit in’!

2. Not all colleges look like Hogwarts

First of all, I am sorry to inform you that it was actually in Oxford, not Cambridge, where parts of the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Needless to say, if you’re lucky enough to attend Trinity or King’s, your studying experience might feel comparable to Harry, Hermione and Ron’s. This is not the case for all Cambridge students though, as there are multiple colleges with very modern architecture.

I study at Fitzwilliam College. While its brutalist architecture might not be what people picture when they think of Cambridge, it gives a feeling of normality, something that is hard to come by here. I spent my first year in halls with a shared kitchen, and I will spend my second year in a shared house, so not exactly an out of the ordinary uni experience!

Fitzwilliam College Gardens in Spring (Image credit: Esther Knowles)

3. Everyone is a nerd, but not in the way you might think!

In many casual conversations, I have caught myself thinking ‘This is the most Cambridge conversation ever!’ Why has the topic of global politics somehow found its way inside the pub walls? Why are we discussing whether bread or the internet was a more likely invention? All my friends have their own intellectual quirks, but they wouldn’t be at Cambridge if they didn’t!

Cambridge students have other passions too, such as dressing cool! If you’re unfamiliar with Cambridge lingo, you might not have heard of the ‘Sidgwick Girlie’; a humanities student who makes the lecture site her catwalk, never to be seen without an iced oat milk latte and a Simone de Beauvoir book in hand. Read Emily McDonagh’s Sidgwick spotting: The nine types of people you’ll find to learn more about this Cambridge phenomenon!

4. You MUST work hard, play hard

If this isn’t your motto, you aren’t doing Cambridge right. It is not a myth that Cambridge students battle an intense workload. But, even as deadlines are piling up, there will always be a student who will drop everything when the word ‘Pub?’ is sent to the group chat.

Not to mention, St John’s May Ball wasn’t named the 7th best party in the world for nothing. When it comes to May Week (which confusingly is in June), Cambridge students go feral. However, it is easy to forget that this glamorous world of black tie balls only exists for a week – the rest of the year is spent waiting!

Trinity Hall June Event 2023 (Image credit: Esther Knowles)


If you’re a prospective student who has made their offer to study at Cambridge, prepare to have preconceptions broken down. Cambridge is what you make it so no two experiences of it will be the same.

While you may find yourself fine dining at King’s College, you’re just as likely to be at the pub with your mates like a normal student.

Peterhouse Bar (Image credit: Esther Knowles)

Featured image credits: Elizabeth Naylor

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