Only the crème de la crème go to Cambridge, my parents always said. Now I had to survive three years without anyone discovering my secret: the university must have let me in by mistake.
To help cover up my imposter syndrome, I also spent Freshers’ Week smiling at all the other undergraduates. Perhaps one of them would later become my best friend.
My room bore little resemblance to the glorious quarters I had imagined when filling in my application form. By the bare 40-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling, I found crumbs in the cupboard, silverfish in the drawers, and a mattress so lumpy that it would rule out most activities, especially sleep.
In the college library, where even new books smelled ancient, I waited to see my Director of Studies. Would she be as intimidating as the Tutor who’d served me a small, sweet sherry? I’d barely uttered a few innocuous words before she pierced me with her gaze and said, “What exactly do you mean?”
On the first day of lectures, I crept reverentially around the physics department. Here, James Clerk Maxwell had been professor, JJ Thomson had discovered the electron, and Rutherford had split the atom. It was a lot to live up to.
In addition to lectures and practicals in each science subject, there were weekly supervisions in small groups. These hour-long sessions had the ability to inspire, terrify, or amuse me – sometimes all three in turn.
By the way, supervisions are what Oxford types call ‘tutorials’. Pah! That word is way too obvious and hardly the way to train spies.
In my first week, I found out that lectures took place on six days a week, Fitzbillies was the place for Chelsea buns, and a bitter wind often blew in straight from the Urals. As a result, my nose was usually cold and wet. It’s a sign of health in dogs. Not so much in students.
Male students were more numerous, but many of them hid away in libraries. Even tough subjects are easier than finding the courage to speak to a woman.
Before mobile phones and internet, the main method of communication was face to face. Obviously, there’d be times when you weren’t in your room, in which case a visitor might scrawl a message on the notepad hung on the outside of the door. I’d get back from lectures to thrilling notes such as the one from the student next door asking if she could cadge some Persil to wash her undies.
By the end of October, I had few illusions left. What exactly do I mean? Only that they must have let in all the other students by mistake too.
That was a long time ago and many things have changed, though I reckon a lot of students (and some staff) still struggle with imposter syndrome. But Cambridge isn’t nearly as scary or as elitist as some people think.
The University and its Colleges are committed to widening participation to higher education. Hundreds of outreach initiatives and events are run each year both in Cambridge and in schools and colleges across the UK. See this about widening participation.
Target Oxbridge is a free programme that aims to help black African and Caribbean students and students of mixed race with black African and Caribbean heritage increase their chances of getting into the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge. The programme is open to UK-based students in Year 12 (also Year 13, in some circumstances).
There’s also the brand-new Cambridge Foundation Year, a free and fully-funded one year pre-degree course designed as a stepping stone to Cambridge for those who have experienced educational disadvantage.
What’s your take on our two most ancient universities – or any other university you’ve been to? Drop me a comment below.