What Valhalla is to Vikings, Cambridge is to budding scholars. Namely, it’s heaven. According to QS Top Universities, Cambridge is currently ranked the 3rd best in the world (or the universe for all we know)—and why not? It has millions upon millions of books stashed away in old, dusty libraries; it has historic dining halls that put Hogwarts to shame; and it boasts thirty-one different colleges which are as unique and interesting as the centuries worth of students who have inhabited them. If you want to live the life of the mind, Cambridge is the cerebral cortex.
For those who are interested in applying, the statistics for admissions can appear daunting (but don’t worry, Think Tutors can help). This year 22,788 students applied to the university, but only 4,245 offers were given. But for those with the intellectual ambition to run the gauntlet, the prize is more than worth it. If you’re a mathematician, you’d be studying in the footsteps of Newton, Ramanujan and Turing. If you’re a scientist, you’d be joining a pantheon that includes Bacon and Darwin, Watson and Crick, Oppenheimer and Hawking. If, like me, you’re more into the arts and humanities, you’d be rubbing shoulders with the legacies of alumni such as John Milton, Lord Byron, John Maynard Keynes and Stephen Fry. Nor is it all dead white men! The university’s alumni include Dame Emma Thompson, Academy Award winner Olivia Colman, renowned zoologist Jane Goodall, and noted author Zadie Smith. Indeed, the university has put a much greater emphasis in recent years on diversifying the admissions process so that there is much wider degree of representation than ever before.
Once admitted, students become a member of a college (in fact, students apply to a specific college and not to the university as a whole). These colleges are a bit like the different houses that comprise Hogwarts in Harry Potter, but they are even more self-contained. Your college is the main hub of your time at university. Indeed, it is your home. College is where you live and eat, study and socialize. Though you may leave for lectures at the faculty or do things like lab work elsewhere (not to mention going to pubs and clubs), your college is the main point of contact within the Cambridge community.
There are thirty-one colleges in Cambridge and each has its own unique history, cultural identity, academic focus, and student experience. Don’t be alarmed by the array of choices, however, as there are no ‘bad’ colleges. Some are large and spacious; others are small and quaint. Some are especially well suited to sports, while others are known for their advanced academic rigour. The best way to find out about them is to visit their websites (https://www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/colleges) and watch their admissions videos—or better yet, visit them. Likewise, Think Tutors is always happy to talk things through with you.
My college is/was (you become a member for life) Sidney Sussex. Founded in 1596 by the Countess of Sussex, Sidney is situated in the centre of the city. It’s slightly smaller in size, with roughly 350 undergraduates on about five-to-ten acres of land (including beautiful gardens), which makes it a much closer-knit community. Some colleges are massive by comparison, but that only makes for increased variety.
My favourite parts about life at Sidney were the weekly candle-lit, waiter-served formal dinners, where everyone dresses smart and wears black robes; attending evensong at the stunning, ornate college chapel; and the fun of seeing friends in the college library and the JCR bar. That said, I also deeply enjoyed activities outside of college. While studying for my master’s degree I became active in the Cambridge Union (where internationally renowned figures come to speak) and got involved in the university’s various wine societies. I also greatly enjoyed visiting other colleges’ events and dinners, which is quite easy to do once you’ve made a few friends from outside of your college.
Naturally, it’s not all socialising at school. There is a lot of work to do and the short terms at Cambridge (3 x 8 weeks), coupled with high academic standards result in some very intense periods of study! That said, there is something exhilarating about studying at the pinnacle of higher education and being surrounded by like minds. The course work that you do is highly gratifying and it pushes and expands your mind in so many interesting and unexpected ways.
In short, Cambridge is more than worth the challenge.