Olivia attended Queens’ College, Cambridge from 2011-2014
I applied for Archaeology and Anthropology, which is now the Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS) course.
I studied Mathematics, English Literature, Geography, Biology and General Studies. My courses were quite diverse and I think this came across well to the admissions tutors, as HSPS is quite a diverse course that requires analytical skills in addition to the primary need of having good comprehension and written ability.
If I could sum it up in one word it would be intimidating. In retrospect, I can see it really didn’t need to be – but I’d worked myself up with nerves that each question seemed a lot more difficult than it actually was. They asked me questions that I didn’t need to have prior knowledge for – for example, what would be left of the interview room in 200 years, and what could I discern from that. The questions were really intriguing and fair, and I didn’t feel that they were trying to catch me out.
For me, I found it difficult to know what I should and shouldn’t be reading. I looked at first year reading lists and ended up reading some of the more obvious or standard texts for the course (namely Veiled Sentiments and Guns, Germs and Steel). This made the application process difficult for me as I felt like I was reading for an exam rather than pleasure ,which I wouldn’t recommend! I would always suggest reading texts in your subject that appeal to you, rather than texts you think are the ‘right ones’.
I most enjoyed my interview, despite how nervous it made me feel. It was the first time I truly explored my college and got to wonder about Cambridge as an institution, and it was a great experience to be able to talk about my subject to people who were experts.
My course was very skewed towards independent study. On a heavy day, I would have two hours of lectures and a supervision – on a light day, one lecture and nothing else to do but use my free time to study or socialise! An average day would be a morning lecture or two, then a few hours of free time seeing friends and having lunch, and three or four hours in the evening reading for an essay. The benefit of this was that if you manage your time well, you can get your work done without resorting to late night library sessions, though these will most likely happen on a semi-regular basis. If you’re not the kind of person who can manage their workload and prefers more contact time, a humanities subject might not be best suited to your learning style.
My academic experience was incredibly fulfilling. It’s an oft-repeated cliché, but it truly is one of the most fantastic experiences to be able to learn from the greatest academics in the world, often in a one-to-two or one-to-one basis. I had my mind completely expanded through some of the discussions I would have in a tutor’s office, gaining the opportunity to consider things I had never entertained before. At times, it was intense – and I wouldn’t want to relive third term anytime soon – but the value of it easily surmounted how difficult the workload could be at times.
I was very fortunate to be in one of the more social colleges, in one of the more social courses. I came to Cambridge from London, and despite the relative downsizing of the city, I never suffered from a lack of things to do and found it a richer experience because of how concentrated everything was. I was a representative on my college’s JCR (Junior Combination Room – essentially the board that represents students within the college to fellows and the members of staff who run the college), ran social events every week in and out of college, and never lacked for plays to see or concerts to attend. I was more into the arts side than the sports side, but equally, Cambridge wasn’t lacking in things to do for most of the people I knew. If I had to pick downsides, though, it would probably be the absence of things to do on the weekend. A lot of my friends outside of Cambridge would most often be free to visit on weekends, and weekend nightlife in Cambridge isn’t the most dazzling thing. You’ll also have to adjust to things shutting at 5pm on a Sunday, so my advice would be to amend your ideas of a week as 5-day, 2-day, because the weekend isn’t particularly vibrant relative to what is on offer throughout the typical working week.
I wish I had known more about the interview process, in terms of my application, and as for actually being there, I wish I had known more about the societies. My interview was unnecessarily nerve-wracking because I was so concerned about being caught out, or of getting the right answer. In hindsight, I would have been so much better off had I just practiced being interviewed. As for the societies, it took me a good few months to try some societies I had ignored, thinking they weren’t for me, or wouldn’t accept amateurs. I quickly found that for most interests I had, there was a corresponding society (in total, Cambridge has more than 200 different societies!). I wish that when I applied, I would’ve known just how much was out there to try, and to try early.