So, you’ve left school, achieved straight As for your Advanced Highers, and just gained a place at Cambridge, arguably the best University in the world. You probably think you’re quite a big deal, right?
You could not be more wrong. You’re about to immerse yourself in a place where everyone seems to be smarter than you, and most are. You will meet people who had published books before they arrived at university, people who had already competed in Olympic-level sport, and people who will tell you they started programming when they were five (They probably weren’t lying). You really enjoyed being amongst the top students in your year at school. In fact, you derived a lot of your identity and self-worth from it. Sadly, this feeling is going to dissipate in an instant, and you’ll need to find new ways to identify yourself.
However, not all is lost! There are a number of ways to combat these insecurities, some sensible, and some not so much. This letter includes guidance I wish I had been given when joining Cambridge.
The biggest piece of advice I could give you is this: spend your time wisely. You will be presented with an inordinate number of wonderful and varied opportunities at University, and you’re going to want to do everything. You can’t, and it’s crucial that you realise this early on.
In first year, you’ll be successful in auditioning for an Instrumental Award, and I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that some of your most enjoyable and meaningful musical moments will stem from the piano trio you play with in first year, and your cello quartet in second year. Don’t change this. It’s a great way of spending your time, and you’ll get so much out of it.
You’ll also become a member of the CUMS Symphony Orchestra, and though this will take up around ten hours each week – sometimes more! – with rehearsals, concerts and impromptu pub trips, you’ll meet a lot of really great people through it, and as a member of CUMS, musicians from around Cambridge will start asking you to play in more and more concerts. At first, this will seem fantastic, but your eagerness to boost your reputation in the music circles will be your downfall.
You’ll be invited to play in some really great projects, such as the CCMS tour of France. You’ll love that, and you’ll come back with great stories involving the Chunderbus (“We’ve run out of sponges!”). However, you’ll also be asked to play in a lot of projects that simply aren’t worth your time. There’s no way of writing this without sounding arrogant, but you cannot please everyone, and you absolutely need to learn that saying no to things is okay. In fact, it’s necessary if you want to succeed academically. You won’t realise this until the end of second year after gaining another disappointing result in your exams, and if you had only prioritised your work a little bit more over saying yes to gigs and concerts that you really should have turned down, you might have performed a bit better.
At the end of first year, you might think you understand this, and you’ll tell people that you plan to cut down and take on less. The opposite will be true. Instead of simply limiting yourself to musical pursuits, you’ll take up rowing, start a design business, launch WhichMayBall, join Fitz Barbershop, and become Vice-President of the Fitz JCR. It’s hard to say which one of these you shouldn’t have done, as they were all worthwhile in their own way. Cello quartet rehearsals and concerts will provide you with a release from the stresses of work, as will Barbershop. The design business will help pay your College bills, and combined with earnings from WhichMayBall and your internship, will allow you to go nearly a year without having to ask for money from your parents. Being VP of the JCR will teach you skills of diplomacy, professionalism, and leadership, and to be very honest, it’ll look good on your CV. Rowing, combined with your stupid sleeping patterns, will drain you of a lot of your energy, so perhaps don’t get involved in that. Then again, it’ll be the first time you’ve properly engaged in a sport that’s not running or cycling, and you’ll enjoy the camaraderie of a strong crew.
WhichMayBall will take up a LOT of your time, but it’ll be worth it. It will teach you countless lessons about good web development, satisfying the needs of users, liaising with sponsors and committees, and generally running a small business. However, it’ll be an impediment to your studies, so try to get someone else on board right from the start to help with the general day-to-day running of the site. Ultimately, a project like this will provide you with ample ammunition for job interviews, and will be extremely useful in kickstarting your startup career. If you only do one thing outside of work in second year, make it this.
Towards the end of first year, you’ll discover a website called Reddit. DO NOT GET SUCKED IN. It will consume your time, eat into the time you should have spent sleeping, and will probably be one of the biggest distractions of your University career. Limit yourself. Block it if you have to. Most of it is meaningless.
“Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill”.
That bill will come in the form of bad grades in Part I. You’ll end up having to ban yourself from it for two months in third year, and you’ll get so much more work done. Trust me, just stay away from it.
Academically, you’ll struggle. You’ll think you’re ready for this when you arrive, but nothing will prepare you for the insurmountable amounts of really difficult work you’ll have thrown at you. Most of your peers will rise to this by working harder and spending as much time as they can trying to understand the material, but you won’t. Don’t try to get by on the bare minimum, because you’ll end up pissing off supervisors (“James, stop bullshitting”), wasting an incredible opportunity to learn from the best minds in the field, and only just passing your Part I exams. Don’t run away from difficult work by spending all of your time playing music that you probably shouldn’t. As I said earlier, say no to the projects that don’t matter, enjoy the ones that do, and get into the library! You’ll be told by supervisors that you’re capable of success, and they were probably right. It just takes work, and you need to put the hours in.
Socially, make an effort to really get to know the people in your College. You’ll spend most of your first year in lectures or at rehearsals/concerts in town, so you’ll miss out on a lot of events involving Fitz people. You’ll come to make some truly incredible friends throughout your time at College, but you won’t get especially close to many of them until second or third year. I don’t really regret being so busy in first year, but I do regret not getting to know my best friends sooner. You know who you are.
To be honest, writing this fills me with extremely mixed emotions. By doing as much as you possibly can, avoiding work and leading a relatively hedonistic existence, you’ll fall spectacularly short of your academic potential during your first two years, and this will aggravate not only you, but your family, some of your friends, and all of the people whose job it is to make sure you’re achieving the best results you can.
However, you’ll also have a great time. You’ll meet people from all over Cambridge studying a whole variety of subjects, and you’ll make some truly excellent memories that simply wouldn’t have been possible had you confined yourself to the library. You’ll feel the satisfaction of watching your own business grow out of nothing into something that helps Cambridge students on a daily basis. You’ll get the chance to influence some of the decisions made by senior members of College by sitting in on important meetings as JCR VP. You’ll experience adrenaline like never before as you hear the blast of the cannon at the start of your first ever Lent Bumps race, followed swiftly by the humiliation of being bumped by a Fellows boat within 30 seconds of starting (You’ll bump in Mays, don’t worry). You’ll actually profit from May Week by becoming nocturnal and playing about three gigs every day and night. You’ll play truly awesome music with truly awesome orchestras, and your cello quartet will fill you with joy. You’ll laugh uncontrollably during numerous Barbershop performances, and you’ll awkwardly serenade more women with four-part harmony than you have ever done before. You’ll visit Paris and Zurich as part of Jailbreak, and by dedicating a lot of your time to WhichMayBall and immersing yourself in the startup world instead of your studies, you’ll be flown to San Francisco and introduced to the Prime Minister’s technology advisor at 10 Downing Street.
I think what I’m trying to say is this: I’d be lying if I said I regretted spending my time the way I did. Everyone says that your University years are the best of your life, and I didn’t want to look back on mine with only a First and memories of nothing but the library. By cutting down on my commitments in third year, I managed to redeem myself in my final-year exams, and I’ll make no secret of the fact that I was extremely fortunate with my results.
However, even if I hadn’t done well, I’d still be where I want to be in my career. If you plan to join a sector where good grades are paramount and extra-curricular pursuits mean nothing, then pay no attention to these words. If, however, you want to do something a little different, then seize the day and do as much as you can without failing your degree.
I always got the impression that a lot of people thought I was a bit of an idiot compared to the average Cambridge student, and so in a way, I think I subconsciously wrote this as a means of justifying and defending the way I spent my time. To quote Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way”, and hopefully that makes sense now.