Alys is from Cardiff, in Wales, and wrote this at the end of her first year studying Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic here at Christ’s College, Cambridge. At school, Alys sat A-Levels in Welsh, Chemistry and History.
What made you choose Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic?
I had known I wanted to do ASNC since I found out that the course existed during my GCSEs. I’ve been really into reading medieval literature since I was twelve, loved learning languages (but not particularly speaking them), and am also interested in the history of Wales. There was also a course at Aberdeen which I really liked but it wasn't quite as thorough. That made my choice very easy. I applied to do Classics everywhere else, but realistically I’m not sure I would actually have gone off to do Classics had I not got onto an ASNC course at Cambridge or Aberdeen.
Did you choose a College?
I didn’t go to any Open Days, or visit Cambridge before applying, so the first time I came here was for my interview. When filling in my UCAS form, I felt that agonising over a College was a waste of time, and so I did an open application so that I'd be allocated a College rather than choosing it (in the knowledge that each College only takes one or two ASNC students per year anyway). In hindsight, I think doing an open application could have ended really badly for me because I do very much prefer the smaller, older, central Colleges. I was therefore very lucky to end up at Christ’s. Just to be clear, the open application process is not the same as being pooled. I was allocated to Christ’s at random before my application began and my application was handled exactly the same as if I had applied here.
I quite like the collegiate system, as it provides you with a smaller group of people to live and work with and helps create varied communities of College and course friends. It can sometimes feel isolating when studying ASNC, as all of your course mates are at different Colleges. At the moment, I am the only ASNC student at Christ’s, whereas other subjects have ready-made friend groups. But the flip side of that is that I get to go round and have a look at other Colleges. There are lots of ASNC students at Newnham, so I know it pretty well along with having friends at St Catherine’s, Pembroke, and Sidney Sussex, so I sometimes spend time there. I have also attended supervisions in other Colleges, which can be stressful to find the first time but fine once you’ve done it. Outside of that, I don’t really spend that much time at other Colleges.
How did you find the application process?
The application process for me was okay, if a little stressful, especially preparing the essays to send off, as I had a lot of pressure from teachers at my school (a state comprehensive) to write new ones specifically or to improve old ones which would have gone directly against the Cambridge guidelines. Generally, I remember feeling like the application process was really annoying with all the required forms and admin. Although my school teachers were lovely and definitely had their hearts in the right place, they were not all that well informed, and I felt extremely lucky that my older sister had gone through it all so my parents knew what to expect.
At the time, there was an Admissions Assessment for ASNC (Admissions edit: there isn't one now). My preparation involved looking at past papers and working through them, then making bullet points for the essay section (although I’m not sure how useful that was). I got my teachers to go through some of them with me and that helped a bit, just to know I wasn’t making completely silly points. Honestly, my main advice for application is to have fun with it. Read translations of the literature as widely as you can, and maybe some historical sources too (Bede, Gildas, etc.). None of it is really a test and they’re certainly not expecting anything specific, so talk about what you’re interested in, have some fun and you’ll probably end up being a more interesting candidate.
"Talk about what you're interested in, have some fun, and you'll probably end up being a more interesting candidate."
What was your experience of the interview like?
The interviews were pretty much exactly what I expected them to be. However, I did know various people who had been through the process and I’d watched the interview re-enactment videos on the Cambridge website. If anything, I would say it was a bit more fun than expected. I came out feeling like I’d rather enjoyed myself.
My interview preparation basically consisted of rereading the books I had discussed in my personal statement (Gantz’s Early Irish Myths and Sagas, along with Gwyn and Thomas Jones’s translation of The Mabinogion) and attempting to pronounce Old Irish, just to avoid humiliating myself. I had also read Beowulf and a load of Icelandic sagas (Njal’s, Egil’s, Volsungs and Laxárdalr) but didn’t actually reread those.
How was your first week at Cambridge?
Before I arrived at Cambridge I was really looking forward to making some new friends and learning the various languages. I didn't have a pure Freshers’ Week as such because I also had the ASNC induction course to do. This is an intense course over a few days at the beginning of first year where the faculty introduces you the various papers to help you make an informed decision (there are no compulsory papers). They then attempt to get everyone to around the same level with grammar; people will have come from different backgrounds and learnt different languages in school and so will have different levels of grammatical knowledge. There is a particularly obvious divide between state and private school here with some people having done Latin and Greek and others not. But I wouldn’t worry about that at all - I had never learnt a language with cases, or been taught any grammar at school, yet still got a first in all of my language papers this year.
Unfortunately, having to attend the induction course meant that I missed both the College and the university freshers’ fairs and I think it also slowed down making friends in College a bit - I have to say I was a bit disappointed. Having said all that, though, I have made many brilliant friends both in College and in ASNC - it just took a bit longer. I made friends with my "College wife" during Freshers’ Week and I know lots of people really enjoyed it.
My favourite parts of Freshers’ Week were probably the formalities to be honest. I found settling and making friends quite difficult, but I enjoyed lining up with everyone in alphabetical order to have our Matriculation photo taken (quite a good bonding session for all the W's!). I liked meeting my personal tutor and going for drinks in her room. The first bop (disco) was quite fun, although the music was awful, and I found it helpful getting to know the other Freshers in choir.
One thing about Freshers’ Week is that it isn’t a week. Some people had supervision work set within the first few days and had to get straight to it, so I would definitely be aware of that. They threw us in in the deep end a little bit (I was up until 4am finishing my first supervision work because it took a lot longer than I expected), but it was all fine in the long run. What really helped me to settle in was reminding myself of the friends I had made, focusing on them and also making time to talk to friends and family from home, along with listening to Welsh folk music and decorating my room to make it feel more like my own. Watching TV on my computer, reading books and realising that I was allowed to take some time for myself was the clicking point where I started to relax into life here a lot more.
How does your teaching work?
I have one supervision per week, for which I prepare a 2000-word essay. Also, each paper I take has one hour-long lecture per week, so that’s six lectures. Each of my languages has two language classes a week, apart from Welsh (which only has one). so I also have five language classes a week. I went to almost every single contact hour this year but in hindsight, I probably could have missed several of the literature lectures.
How did the course compare to your expectations?
I had researched the course in detail on the department website before arriving, along with the ASNC society website, so I knew what I was getting myself into. Nevertheless, like all Cambridge applicants, I was quite nervous that it would be really hard and everyone would be cleverer than me. Since studying the subject here, I’ve realised that it’s such a diverse course that there is really no way of telling how I rank. It isn’t a competitive atmosphere at all, as everyone has their own particular interests within the large corpus of things we study, so we all just plough through and get on with it.
My workload now is a lot higher than school I think, although to be honest it is difficult to compare because the work is very different. I would have been horrified at the idea of writing an essay every single week at school, even without all the reading we have to do in preparation! Work now makes up a much larger proportion of my life than it used to, and I find it becomes something I have to schedule around rather than schedule in. It can be a struggle to balance the supervision work and the work from the language classes and lectures, but that’s something which I found just came with time and also doing as much work in the holidays as possible to avoid stress later on. But work is something which you get used to, and if you like the subject then it’s not too painful. I’ve really enjoyed all the topics I’ve done this year - I don’t have a particular favourite, although I generally prefer the language and literature papers.
"It isn't a competitive atmosphere at all, as everyone has their own particular interests within the large corpus of things we study."
What do you do when you’re not working?
On top of my ASNC studies I am also in the College choir, which rehearses three times a week in the chapel. The choral scholarship is £100 per year, but just being in the choir does come with some great perks. For example, we get two formal meals every week for free and after evensong on Sundays we get free wine and orange juice. We are also given free singing lessons, a massive privilege, although this can add to stress once you realise you have to practise for them. However, I really enjoy singing and it's a good choir so I would definitely do it anyway. The main perk of choir really is the annual tour, an extremely cheap three-week exotic holiday in the long vacation.
I've found the time commitment difficult to manage at some points throughout the year, but singing in rehearsals and services is always really fun. Choir was also a real life-line during the exam period when it felt like all my friends disappeared to revise and social interactions became more of a rarity. How quiet it goes in College in exam term is definitely my least favourite thing about Cambridge. There's an official a 'quiet period' while revision and exams are going on where the College is shut to tourists and visitors so that students can study in peace, but I personally found it a bit too quiet - it made it harder to maintain friendships and it felt a bit lonely.
As well as singing, I'm also on the committee of the ASNC Society, which organises social events to help everyone on the course to get to know each other. I'm currently the Welfare Officer, which involves helping people to stay calm and happy within ASNC, and looking after the freshers when they arrive. I am also joint Yule Play Officer, which means I am in charge of rehearsing a sketch show we write and put on every year near the end of Michaelmas term (just before Christmas). I thoroughly enjoyed being involved in the Yule Play this year - it was really funny and I’m so excited to do it all again next year.
The society organises a lunch every week in the ASNC common room, usually a relaxed social occasion with lots of chocolate cake. There is also a formal meal every term and a black tie dinner once a year in which the quire (choir!) performs. This quire is organised on a more ad hoc basis, as and when we can fit rehearsals in. The society also organises trips to the pub every Friday, and every Christmas holidays there is an ASNC trip. This is usually a weekend away - we went to the Isle of Man in my first year. So, there’s plenty going on in the ASNC society to get stuck in with! I usually go to the lunch every week but don’t tend to bother with the pub simply because it starts at 9pm and by that time on a Friday I’m much more interested in going to bed!
Every now and then I also manage to make it to a Welsh society gathering. I joined the societies at the beginning of the year, auditioned for the choir etc. and have just kept it up really. I always go home for my holidays and spend time with my family.
What are your favourite things about Cambridge?
My favourite thing about Cambridge is definitely the course, along with how beautiful the Colleges are. The supervisions, although they can be stressful, give you the opportunity to investigate topics in more depth on your own terms rather than just breezing through them in a lecture. I love how Christ's is super central so it’s so easy to get everywhere. I haven’t needed to own a bike, and Sainsbury’s (supermarket) is about three minutes’ walk away, but conversely once you’re in College it’s really peaceful and I completely forget that I’m in the centre of a city.
"The supervisions give you the opportunity to investigate topics in more depth on your own terms rather than just breezing through them in a lecture."
What are you looking forward next year?
Next year I’m really looking forward to living on Jesus Lane (a street of College-owned houses a couple of minutes away from College) with my friends. I didn’t live with anyone I knew this year, which I felt was an important uni experience that I would have been at risk of missing if I had stayed on the main College site. I’m also looking forward to doing my dissertation (an option in second year) and picking up Medieval French (a borrowed paper from Modern and Medieval Languages). I chose to do those papers mostly because they weren’t examined, meaning hopefully my second year won’t involve too much more work than my first.
Please be aware if you're considering an application that our student writers describe their experiences. Although the majority of the information stays the same, some details may change from year to year. Do read the student profiles in combination with our undergraduate admissions pages for full information.