Life at the University of Cambridge
Hello everyone! I am a 19 year old, incoming second year Law student at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. I was born and brought up in London, England, but I am ethnically Bengali. London is a diverse city, and I used to fear that I would feel out of place in Cambridge University - an environment that is stereotypically full of white, upper class people. However, that is not the case, and I found it rather easy to integrate myself into the Cambridge community.
Cambridge, like the University of Oxford, has a collegiate system. This means that, rather than having one main university, it is divided up into smaller colleges all under the main university. Cambridge has 31 colleges, and the first college to be founded was Peterhouse. Peterhouse, the college which I am part of, was founded in 1284, whilst the University of Cambridge itself was founded in 1209.
When applying to Cambridge, you can choose to have an open application, which means that you don’t specify the college you would like to go to; however, most people do specify their college, and you can only choose one college. Deciding which college to choose to apply to is usually based on the applicant’s preferences for various different factors, which can include facilities, appearance, location, reputation, size etc. Ultimately, each college is no better than another college. For example, I chose Peterhouse because I liked the fact that it’s the smallest and oldest college. It’s quite easy to distinguish students from different colleges as we have our own academic gown and our own merch, which we really do like to wear on the street!
It is probably well known that it is notoriously difficult to get into Cambridge - and it really does manifest in the way education is provided here. What makes Oxbridge (Cambridge and Oxford) unique is the supervision system; they call it ‘tutorials’ in Oxford, but they’re essentially the same thing as supervisions in Cambridge. Supervisions are where one student to four students, max, meet with one supervisor, usually a fellow (a senior member of college who is also an academic). They sound great - you get to discuss your work and ideas with some of the greatest minds in the world! However, they are super intense, and I will get into this shortly.
Intensity of academic life differs by subject, but I think it goes without saying that any course at Cambridge is super intense. We have 8-week terms, which differ from other universities which usually have around 12-week terms. This means that the intensity of Cambridge is experienced in condensed periods. Law is among the most intense degrees, as well as being one of the hardest to get a first class degree in (highest grade in the UK university grading system). I can only give an account on how academic life as a Law student is, so here it goes!
Due to COVID-19, my lectures were all online. Per week, I had about 8 to 11 hours of lectures. But on top of lectures, I had supervision work. Supervision work was essentially reading and questions which were set in preparation for a supervision. Law students have 4 supervisions per fortnight in first year, and 5 in second and third year, which correspond with the modules we do. As I had 4 mandatory modules in first year, I had 4 supervisions per fortnight, which worked out to be 2 supervisions per week. Reading for these supervision varied per supervision, but on average, preparing for one supervision takes about 12 hours. Then, bear in mind that we also had questions to do for these supervisions which honestly could take an entire day as they are not easy. On top of that, we had essays to do. We had to do 8 essays a term, but Peterhouse made it so we did 2 a week starting from Week 4. Law essays are independent from supervisions, so we had to do separate reading and academic research for them, which also could take a day or several days. So, combining the lectures, supervision reading, supervision questions, essays, as well as the supervisions themselves, we really had no rest.
There is no such thing as weekends in Cambridge - especially for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) students, who even have Saturday morning lectures.
I think social life in Cambridge has similarities to other universities, but also activities which make it unique. As expected in most universities, most students love to go out at night, go out with their friends, engage in sports, and other extracurricular activities. However, due to our rigorous academic life, our time to actually socialise is very limited. Based on my experience at Peterhouse, I only go out one evening per week, due to the intense workload. Throughout the week, my socialising time usually happens with other members of my course, most likely for academic reasons i.e. studying or preparing for a supervision together. So, honestly you can have a social life if you study with other people; but if you prefer to study alone, you most likely will only see people when eating at hall, or if you minimise studying time to go out.
Another great way to socialise, which is specific to Oxbridge, is our formals. Formals are occasions where we have to wear our college gown and dress formally (it’s in the name!). They slightly differ by college, so I can only give an account on what happens at Peterhouse. At Peterhouse, we have standard formals which occur every evening, from 7:30pm to 9pm. This starts off with two prayers in Latin, followed by a three-course meal. We also have superhalls which are reserved for more special occasions, like Christmas, which consists of a four-course meal.
Social life undoubtedly varies by college too. Peterhouse, being the smallest college, means that everyone in college knows each other. There’s only around 60 undergraduates in my year group, and the majority of us live in the same accommodation. If you like having a close-knit environment, with the obvious downfall being that everyone knows each other’s business, go for Peterhouse I guess! Larger colleges, such as Trinity College, have a much larger cohort, meaning that not everyone knows each other; thus it’s less ‘family-like.’
Another way to get to meet people is by course. Sadly, because my lectures were online, I mainly only socialised with people from my college, as opposed to Law students from other colleges. However, people who had in-person lectures could meet people from their own course who go to different colleges, and hence make friends that way.
“How do I get into Cambridge?”
Being one of the best universities in the world, it is not surprising that recent acceptance statistics show that only 21% of applicants actually get into Cambridge on average; this obviously varies by college and subject.
Getting into Cambridge used to seem like a distant dream to me, but it is not one that is totally out of reach. Nonetheless, it means that you must be academically topping your class starting from your high school years (age 14 - 18). This means getting nearly all A*s and As in your GCSEs and meeting the entry requirements for the course you would like to study in Cambridge - usually A*AA. This, of course, is only the academic side.
Alongside your academics, you need a personal statement that reflects your academic brilliance, as well as a deep interest in your subject. This means a strong focus on super curricular activities - anything that shows wider interest in your degree. In my case, for Law, this would mean that I would have to both mention and briefly analyse books/podcasts/lectures/articles/etc. which reflected my interest in Law e.g. a podcast about how COVID-19 has impacted court proceedings, and I give my opinion on whether this change was beneficial or not. Moreover, it is important to also mention extra-curricular activities - these are activities which are not related to your course, but rather ones which you could mention to demonstrate skills that would be beneficial for your degree. For example, in my personal statement, I wrote about how I toured with my school’s choir as its pianist, and how practising in short-time periods helped with both my discipline and time management, as well as increasing my confidence.
Then comes the trickiest part - interviews and entrance tests. Statistically speaking, many people can write a good personal statement and get good grades. What makes the Cambridge admissions process so notoriously difficult is the interview stage. Entrance tests vary by course, but for Law we had to do the Cambridge Law Test, ‘CLT,’ (which has now been replaced with the Law National Aptitude Test, ‘LNAT’). The CLT consisted of one essay which assessed our skill to think outside the box. Similar to what’s assessed in the interview, it is not our ability to get things right or wrong, but rather the ability to think uniquely and make convincing arguments, especially in times where we are fully being challenged. If you go into the interview with the mindset of getting things right or wrong, you probably won’t get in. If I had to be honest, I probably got most things wrong in my interview, but because I continued to give my arguments and think uniquely - even when the interviewer made me feel like I should give up - I pushed through and got in. If there’s one tip I had to give for the interview stage, it is to think out loud; this is very important, as your ability to think and argue is being assessed! This means that, if the interview asks you a question, don’t think about the answer in your head, but vocally articulate the process you are going through to reach your answer.
Remember - the interview stage is not the make or break. Every single part of the application stage is equally as important, and you are being assessed holistically. If you still want to apply to Cambridge knowing about the overwhelming workload and arduous application process, good luck - you must be a diligent and determined person who really likes a challenge, and I do wish you the best! :)
Note: The author of this article is Lynn, a student of the University of Cambridge.