Advice to (Cambridge) Offer Holders

Somebody somewhere thought that I was qualified to give a talk to the Corpus offer holders yesterday. I spoke last, and I’ve never been in front of a more inert crowd. But that’s not too surprising: they’d had a long day in a strange place hearing strange people give long talks.

I was conscious that all of the other people they’d heard speak were fellows or members of staff, so I hoped to give a different, more introspective talk. I didn’t want to trot out the same trite you hear all the time at these sorts of things (“oh yes, everybody works hard but we’re fun too, honest” etc). I got a few laughs, but I hope that a few more serious messages got through too.

Here’s what I said:

No matter what you think when you go home this evening, the truth is less extreme. If you absolutely loved Corpus, it’s probably not as good as you think. If you hated it, it’s not as bad.

So many factors influence how you’ll feel about today. The sun’s been shining; I promise you that Corpus is more miserable in the rain. Some of you got up at the crack of dawn to be here; you probably enjoyed it less. You all had different tour guides. If yours was charismatic, that probably made you feel better than if you’d had one who focused on things that you don’t identify with.

It’s a pretty hectic day. You meet so many strangers and hear so many words. Take everything with a pinch of salt.

Consider coming back to Cambridge later in the year, by yourself, and at a slower pace. See the museums and the surrounding area. You’ll be more informed, and arriving in September won’t be such a shock.

When I was in your shoes, I wish somebody had told me that Cambridge is not the silver bullet, that there are other options. The assumption that Cambridge was the panacea remained unquestioned for me even throughout most of my time here, before I realised that the world is actually a fairly big place. There are so many other experiences that I could have had, some of which would be better, some worse, some unimaginable, and all unique.

I advise you to take some time to think, truly, about whether Cambridge is for you. Ignore your teachers, parents, and friends. This is hard, but it’s important. Either you’ll conclude that somewhere else would be a better fit for you, in which case, that’s fantastic! Or you will conclude that Cambridge really is where you need to be, and that’s brilliant too. It gives you autonomy and validates your decision to accept your offer. It’s the difference between resolution and submission.

There’s an important caveat. Feeling that you’re “not smart enough” for Cambridge is a terrible reason not to come. Everybody feels like this. The inordinately experienced admissions tutors are sure that you have the academic credentials. Everybody makes mistakes, but the probability that you’ve slipped through the net is very low indeed.

Imposter syndrome is normal. Nobody is perfect. I sleep in more than I’d like. I miss deadlines. I was pooled and I missed my offer. Yet somehow I’m privileged enough to be speaking to you today. My degree is plodding along nicely, and I have some fantastic friends. Everybody is a startling blend of characteristics and contradictions. Accepting our flaws is the first step to being happy and accomplishing anything. Don’t beat yourself up.

University has a lot to offer besides academic life. Over lunch, I chatted to some current students and asked them what I should say to you. They all had a different answer.

Everybody in this room would prefer that I spat out a different combination of words. So while I’ve said the two things I wish that I’d known – to consider my options and not to sweat the work – I won’t try to give any more advice.

Everybody in this room has had a unique experience in life so far. And this, I think, is perhaps the most magical part of university. For the first time in your life, you’ll be thrown into an environment with so many different people. Not only that, but a group of people who are just growing into themselves, just on the cusp of maturity. A group of people who are just learning to articulate their thoughts and feelings in ways that they never have before. You’ll learn as much from the people around you as you do from your lectures.

Everybody says that university are the best years of your life. I’m afraid that I can’t testify to that – I haven’t had the rest of my life yet. But it’s not bad.