A level results day: Why my best lessons at uni had nothing to do with my degree

Image credit: PA / Daily Mail (obvs)

Today is A-Level results day, and apart from the mandatory media photos of pretty 18-year-olds jumping up and down clutching their results (above), there will also be many looking ahead to university and wondering what the future holds.

I’ll be the first to admit that my university experience maybe didn’t look that similar to most people’s.

Like it or not, there is a stereotype that students spend most of their time at uni doing as little work as possible, and drinking more on a Wednesday (and Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday) than most people do in a month.

But not only did I not drink alcohol at university (no real reason, just was never that bothered – although all my friends drank, and I do drink now) I also went to Cambridge, which meant that the apparently-usual tactic of doing absolutely sod all until deadline day every three months wouldn’t quite have worked…

With super-short eight-week terms, at least one full-length essay and 15 books to read (if not three times’ that) per week, one-to-one ‘tutorials’ (or, in Cambridge-speak, supervisions) from scarily-learned, world experts every week, discussion and seminars, and more, I really had to work hard to keep up.

Not much of my uni experience looked like this :( (Credit: pexels.com)

Not much of my uni experience looked like this 😦 (Credit: pexels.com)

Not everyone did this, I should add – Cambridge is famous for its extra-curricular clubs, drinking societies, sports, debating, and everything else, so it would be a mistake to think that everyone had to work their arses off and do almost nothing else to get the grades. But I, and quite a few people I know, really had to work at it.

We were the ones who were maybe in the top three or five of our year at school, but never the unrivalled best, so as well as a love for our subject we also carried around the sneaking suspicion that we had only got into Cambridge as a fluke.

Credit: Christian Richardt, Wikipedia

Credit: Christian Richardt, Wikipedia

No matter the evidence to the contrary, we began our university careers feeling like the wildcards, those lucky entrants not from the top colleges or public schools, and that it was only a matter of time before they found us out, constantly. Everything else was juggled around this.

That’s not a sob story or a complaint – it’s just the facts, really.

But while we seem to have worked harder than a lot of people who went to uni (if their own stories are correct) – or maybe we were just a lot more honest about it, who knows or cares? ‒  the biggest lessons I learnt there had nothing to do with History. Sorry, Dr. Supervisor, I guess all your fears about me were correct 😛

On A-levels results day, to those high-achieving students with serious Imposter Syndrome, I have nothing but the following to offer.

  1. You are not your work
(Credit: pexels.com)

(Credit: pexels.com)

When your essay is due in 4 hours and you still haven’t written it, because you’ve still got 50 dense pages of history monograph to plough through before you can write it, and you end up doing it overnight with only coffee and chocolate to help you (AGAIN), and you feel like it’s actually pretty OK considering and almost (gasp) enjoyed it in the end, but your supervisor still puts red pen all over it like she’s drawing an impression of the night sky, you must remember – You. Are. Not. Your. Work.

You can have the most organised week ever, and do your best, and really love it ‒ or you can be nearly killed by the workload and not even remember how you managed to crank out those 5,000 words at 4am and hate every second of this particular topic – but hear this.

There will always be more you could do, more you could have read, a more eloquent or sparse or knowledgeable sentence you could have written. Cambridge (and other great research universities) doesn’t achieve greatness by letting mediocre, or even excellent, undergraduate work slip through the net. You will always, always, be told you could have done more.

So you have a choice. You can let it consume you and break you down, or you can shrug your shoulders, learn what you can from it, try to do better next time if you want, and decide that your self-worth is not dependent on your last essay’s mark.

This can be applied to so many things in life – including office jobs and crap bosses and other similar shit ‒ and is one of the most important things I ever learned.

  1. Friends are the family you choose
(Credit: pexels.com)

(Credit: pexels.com)

When you’re in your friend’s bedroom in halls, crying over a book because you literally feel like you can’t read another word tonight – but deadlines dictate that you must – it is your mates who will pick you up off the floor, tell you that you can do it, and make you tea to get through it.

They are the friends who book dinner for you in the local PizzaExpress (fancy) and get the chef to write Happy Birthday on your plate and light you a candle and give you proper hugs and make you feel loved, even though everything else feels like it’s falling down around your shoulders.

They are the friends who will later come to you in unwashed tracksuit trousers having eaten nothing but pasta for days, asking you to please restrain them from possibly murdering their supervisor with a sharpened pencil at their next supervision, and asking for the strength to read that 18th century doorstop of a book before Thursday.

They are the friends who will come and get chips with you from the van in the town centre at 2am and make you feel like everything in life can be solved by a good dose of salt and fried cheese.

They are the friends you still speak to ten years’ later, even though you live in different towns and countries, and go to first for advice and love and whenever crisis hits.

  1. Getting the work done, no matter what
(Credit: pexels.com)

(Credit: pexels.com)

Cambridge teaches you one thing – You. Will. Get. The. Work. Done. Whether propelled by that ‘Cambridge guilt’ (the feeling that you should always be doing something more) or by the looming supervision; whether you have two weeks, two days, or two hours to get it done, there is one certainty. You will.

When you really have to, you will somehow summon the power and the clarity to find that book in that massive library, to finish that article, to write that essay, to ace that exam. Which is nice to know in life, sometimes.

Procrastinators of the world, unite! See also: Learning to function on one hour’s sleep when necessary.

  1. Balancing life and work


It might not sound like it, but I promise you, I did actually manage to escape my sad work-obsessed shroud and HAVE FUN sometimes. I know! Surprising, right?!!!

There were the few ill-advised plays, including the one that required me to speak in a southern American accent and whose lines I didn’t ever know (even during the actual stage performance), and the fantastic musical we put together in just one week, and the food and drink section of the student newspaper I edited for two terms.

Plus, I managed to get to Grantchester, pubs, quite a few restaurants, sunbathe outside, maintain relationships, and spend a significant amount of time in coffee shops and the History Faculty ‘toastie room’ café above the library too, counting down the minutes until we HAD to go back to work (and then choosing not to).

As an extension of the ‘You. Will. Get. The. Work. Done.’ rule, learning how to manage social life with work life and still not fail my degree was one of the most useful things I ever did at uni.

  1. Comparison will get you nowhere
(Credit: pexels.com)

(Credit: pexels.com)

Sorry, but there will ALWAYS be someone better than you.

Someone richer, more beautiful, sleeker, doing more difficult papers and subjects, with more family history of Cambridge, more Eton or Cheltenham Ladies College cred, more extra-curricular achievements, more clout in the various societies.

They will have more (or, endlessly louche, less) ambition, more friends, more chill, a more tragic life sob story, a more impressive academic record, a more amazing ‘my school was shit and I shared a shoe with my five siblings but I still got in’ story, a better singing voice, more sports trophies, better gap year stories (I didn’t do one, fyi), and more Grades from the Royal Academy of Music.

They will speak a wider array of fluent languages, write more eloquently, found more companies and write more books and plays before they graduate, chair more debates, have better relationships, get more sex, and get better results.

And a few people will do all of the above while appearing to be doing absolutely nothing, with ease. ALWAYS.

The secret is to literally stop giving a shit, and just do what you can the best way you know how. Takes a while to learn this one (and should ideally be learned regularly), but believe me, it makes all the difference when you do.

  1. Home is a state of mind
(Credit: pexels.com)

(Credit: pexels.com)

When you’ve moved all your stuff in and out of your hall room at least two or three times’ a year and into different rooms every year for three years, surrounded by different friends each time – and if you’re like me, and your parents lived abroad and most of your stuff got put into storage over the holidays or you just stayed in college over Easter ‒ you quickly learn that home is where your most-used stuff is.

Which, when the next five years post-uni are an equally mad dash between flatshares in increasingly dilapidated rented houses in London, is good to know.

  1. Natural light and beautiful surroundings = life
(Credit: pexels.com)

(Credit: pexels.com)

Once you’ve lived in the ground floor bedroom of a tall 18th century building with old-fashioned English windows with rattling glass next to an alleyway, that lets in precisely no light, with a lone streetlamp that sometimes turns itself on at 1pm in the winter, you know that the secret of not wanting to throw yourself in front of a car simply for its headlamps, is natural light. Forever. Habitat halogen uplamp – you will never know how much you mean.

And if you ever need confirmation of the marvellous, awesome, liberating and totally-insignificant transience of your life, walk past King’s College Chapel every day for three years and then look up the achievements of former alumni through the centuries.

Trust me, it works.

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