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.

The Cheat’s Guide to Cambridge

Whether you’re about to start your studies at Cambridge or just want to know a bit about this ancient university, here’s the low-down in 7 easy steps.

View of Clare from King’s Bridge

1 Cambridge is a collegiate university and, no, the 31 colleges are not all the same. The oldest is Peterhouse, founded in 1284, while Robinson only dates from 1977.

Inside Caius College (full name: Gonville & Caius)

There are postgrad-only colleges (Clare Hall and Darwin), four colleges specifically for mature students, and two only for women (Newnham and Murray Edwards).

Newnham College

Mixed colleges are a fairly recent introduction. Until 1972, the vast majority of colleges were all male. With a sex ratio of 10 to one, it was much harder for a woman to get a place. If she wanted male company once she got into Cambridge, however, all she had to do was show up and breathe.

Each college has a bespoke woollen scarf in college colours. Whichever college you attend, the scarf is very scratchy.

Newnham Bear in college scarf

2 There are no mountains between Cambridge and the Urals, so winters can be chilly. Thanks to the easterly winds, most students sport a cold wet nose by November. It’s said to be a sign of good health in animals, though not in undergraduates.

3 Geography is generally ignored. Most people still call Cambridge a town though it’s actually a city. Although it is very flat, one still goes UP to Cambridge and DOWN to London. Nobody ever mentions Oxford, or they simply call it ‘the other place.’ Should you be forced to write it down, it’s traditional to use a lower case O for its name. This petty snobbishness is totally misplaced because Cambridge University was founded by scholars who fled Oxford.

Outside Great St Mary’s Church

4 The Cambridge Union is not a union. It’s a debating society. There was no students’ union at all until 1971, and even then it had no premises for its members, just a tiny office for those who ran it. It was in Round Church St, an address many dossers knew well as they turned up regularly for handouts.

5 You’re here to learn? Oh, right. Well, in that case you need to know that the Faculty or Department arranges your lectures, seminars, and lab work. Your college arranges small group sessions called supervisions which take place in the college, or in university buildings. And accommodation is almost always within college.

Where the atom was split

Each broad subject area is called a Tripos, eg Economics Tripos, Natural Sciences Tripos (which includes subjects from Physics to Cell Biology). These are divided into parts and students complete a number of parts in one or more Triposes to qualify for the BA degree. Yes, the basic degree is BA Hons whether you’re reading sciences or arts. Hold on to it for another few years, and it upgrades to an MA without any further study.

The word Tripos is so popular that end of year exams are also called Tripos. The name comes from the three-legged stool exam candidates used to sit on.

In BA gown & hood on Degree Day

6 From April to about October, cattle graze on picture-perfect common land within the City of Cambridge. It’s all very well wandering about with your nose in the air and your mind on higher things, but watch where you put your feet. Best look behind you now and again too, in case you’re being followed.

This cow wandered into a stream to cool off and she’s now munching watercress while a man serenades her with his violin.

7 Pets aren’t generally welcome in College, though, especially not dogs. When Lord Byron was forbidden to keep a dog, he got himself a bear for his room in Trinity. More recently, the Master of Selwyn was only allowed his basset hound when the College Council ruled that Yoyo was, in fact, a very large cat. I don’t know what they thought of its ears.

Welcome to Cambridge!

King’s College Chapel seen from the Backs on a frosty morning