Esme - English, First Year
Esme is a first year studying English here at Christ's College, Cambridge and comes from London. She did A-levels in English, History, Spanish and Maths, and took a gap year before coming to university.
Why did you choose to apply to Christ's?
Christ’s stood out on the open days as a really friendly college! The tour guide was the nicest I’d met all day, and I thought that the college was completely beautiful. Christ’s also had a good record for admitting state school students, which was something that I was taking into consideration when choosing which college to apply to.
If anything, Christ’s has exceeded expectations! The college community is extremely welcoming, friendly and inclusive: I feel completely at home here. There is a lot of interaction across the different year groups - mainly through participation in activities such as sport, music, drama etc. – and life here is very vibrant.
I have also been pleasantly surprised by the amazingly extensive support network in college, comprised of both students and academics. The academics at Christ’s seem particularly invested in the experiences of their students and are very efficient at addressing welfare issues. The community in college seems defined by kindness, friendliness and security.
"The college community is extremely welcoming, friendly and inclusive: I feel completely at home here."
What do you think of the collegiate system in general?
The collegiate system can initially feel bizarre, but I have found it to be crucial to my enjoyment of life at Cambridge. As colleges vary in many respects – size, location, architecture - prospective students have the opportunity to choose an environment that they most identify with. Living within the community of a college immediately provides you with a wide pool of people who are of different ages, studying different subjects etc. Your social interaction is not limited to merely the people on your corridor or the people on your course, as it might be at other universities – it is really easy to participate in social activities on a relaxed college level, meet plenty of people in order to find those who you get on with best, and feel at home.
There is always something nice going on in college if you need something to take the pressure off, and there are always plenty of people around who are happy to socialise and help you take a break from working. However, there are also lots of exciting things which happen on a university-wide level – life doesn’t have to be restricted to activities within college. I have found college to be a great way to meet people with similar interests, who can help you get involved in wider activities – it was primarily through people I met at Christ’s that I became very involved with important political campaigns, such as the Cambridge Zero Carbon divestment campaign, that span the entire Cambridge student body.
Have you received any particular support from college?
There is financial support available (I received the first year book grant, along with all other freshers), but there is also really great pastoral support. My tutor, Director of Studies, and even just my subject supervisors, have all been extremely supportive this year when I have struggled with various issues, whether these are related to workload or personal life or both. There is the stereotype of the terrifying and hostile Oxbridge academic, but I have not found that to be the case at all. Anything that is affecting a student’s ability to work effectively – whether it is social, physical, psychological issue – is something that college takes very seriously and works hard to help address. If you need to vent about things which are troubling you, there is always someone to offer great support.
What attracted you to your course?
The way in which humanities subjects are taught at Cambridge was one of the major attractions for me. For me, there was nothing more incredible than having supervisions with academics who are leading specialists in their fields. Supervisions for English are normally two on one / three on one and it is an amazing privilege to be taught by academics who read and discuss your work in such detail. I had always loved English Literature and couldn’t think of anywhere I’d get a more extensive and thorough education than at Cambridge. I also thought it was an incredibly beautiful location to study an English degree and certainly romanticised the idea.
I was nervous about not enjoying certain papers – e.g. medieval! – and feeling overwhelmed by the workload. Neither of these have been an issue. The papers which I anticipated would be less interesting were made extremely enjoyable as a result of the excellent and inspiring teaching, and the workload has proved manageable as long as one is organised. Also – this is terribly cliched – if you’re doing what you love, the work is genuinely absorbing and doesn’t feel like so much of a chore, even if there is a considerable amount of it.
"it is an amazing privilege to be taught by academics who read and discuss your work in such detail."
How did you find the application process?
There is no denying that the application process is long and arduous as there are lots of elements to it. Because it is so drawn-out, you become dangerously invested in the process and therefore the idea of rejection can be crushing. I think it is really important to maintain belief in yourself and give every part of the process your best effort, even if it gets frustrating.
Was the interview what you expected it to be?
There are many horror stories about interviews, but the most important advice I received was that the interviews are essentially about seeing how ‘teachable’ you are for your specific course. In this respect, the interviews sort of mimic a standard supervision. I remember that I was hoping to show the interviewers that I had ideas, which I could communicate effectively, but that I was also receptive to the discussion and challenging of those ideas.
To prepare for my interviews, I made sure that I had read everything on my personal statement and that I had things to say about the texts that I had mentioned, making mindmaps and constantly revising my ideas about what I had read. I found that trying to explain these ideas to other people, no matter how knowledgeable they were about what I was working on, was a really useful way to practice articulating my ideas verbally. I also practised annotating some texts, as in my year, we had been told that we may be given short unseen texts in the interview and asked to comment on them.
If there was an admissions assessment when you applied?
I applied before the introduction of the ELAT (English Literature Admissions Test) and had to take a college-specific written test instead. It turned out to be a commentary on a passage of previously unseen text, which is basically what the ELAT consists of now. I think they ultimately look for originality of ideas and good writing style, which is something that you can practice with past papers online.
What advice would you give prospective applicants?
Make sure you have things to say! They won’t be impressed with general comments on what you’ve been studying at school, they are interested in the reading that you have done outside of the syllabus and the way you think about what you’ve read. Don’t be afraid to express your ideas – treat the interview as an intellectual discussion about what you’re interested in which actually has the potential to be enjoyable (sounds crazy but it’s true!! although I’m not sure if the same could be said for all subjects). Criticism in the interview itself is not a bad thing and should not put you off, as your ability to respond to it is an indication of your teachability. There is no expectation that you will apply to Cambridge knowing everything there is to know – that’s why you’re applying! Interviewers want to see how your brain works, so focus on practising the articulation of your ideas, both verbally and in writing, in the knowledge that this is what they will be interested in. A teacher of mine who had been to Cambridge gave me a useful quote: they want to see that you are ‘interesting and interested.’ I think this quite nicely sums up what the interview process tries to assess in regard to its applicants.
Before you came, what were you looking forward to and what were you most worried about?
I applied for deferred entry, so had a gap year before starting at Cambridge. Although I had an amazing year off, I was really excited about getting back into academic study. I was slightly worried about who I was going to meet and whether I’d find people I really got on with. Also, I was a bit apprehensive about feeling inadequate – it is a strange transition from being smart at school to being completely surrounded by high-achievers.
What was your first week like?
Settling in was made slightly easier by the fact that I’d already spent time living away from home, but it is so much fun to be living in a completely new environment surrounded by people your own age. My advice would be to do everything and anything! See what you like, meet lots of people and go from there. College life makes initial socialisation really easy and accessible – getting to know people is the most efficient way to feel at home quickly, I think.
There is always a lot of hype surrounding freshers’ week but it is definitely never going to be your best week at uni. Nights out with a load of people you’ve never met are weird and slightly awkward, although you do find yourself bonding over the strangeness of it all. It was the social activities during the days – sports tasters, freshers’ fairs (a collection of stalls advertising activities in college and uni), barbecues, college parties – which made the week most enjoyable for me, as they allowed me to meet people properly. The process of 'matriculation' (formally entering the university) was our introduction to the more formal traditions of Cambridge: we dressed up in gowns to sign the register, took photos and then had a dinner in formal hall to celebrate. This was extremely memorable, with everyone united in their awe at the amazing yet strange nature of the ceremony. Although the customs are weird at first, you find yourself getting used to them worryingly quickly and even enjoying them!
"College life makes initial socialisation really easy and accessible – getting to know people is the most efficient way to feel at home quickly, I think."
How did you find starting lectures and supervisions etc.?
I’ll never forget my first supervision. It was far more informal than I expected: we were ushered into our supervisors’ rooms, which were decorated mostly with pink items, and promptly offered a cup of herbal tea. This was the first hint that the medieval paper would be more fun than anticipated! Each supervisor and lecturer has a distinct style (and mode of decorating their rooms, apparently) which makes studying for each paper a very different and unique experience. Whilst we eventually learned that not all supervisors will put the kettle on for your classes, we found that each academic brings something new and unique to your educational experience. Our first supervisor was the most incredibly friendly yet rigorous teacher and made our introduction to the supervision system really enjoyable.
Did you take a gap year? If so, what did you do during the year and how did you find it?
I did take a gap year – I thought it was important to take a break from years of hard work and exams. I wanted to cultivate other skills and exercise my brain in different ways. I applied at the beginning of Year 13 for entry to Cambridge a year later, which was accepted – although my interviewers did ask me to justify this request. During the year, I worked towards taking a violin exam and a driving test, working various jobs at home in London whilst I did so, before living and working as an au pair in Spain for six months and then travelling around Cuba with a friend. All of these experiences were really important for me and I cultivated a lot of different skills, from childcare and working in retail to improving my skills at a foreign language and being self-sufficient. I loved my gap year but also came back with renewed excitement about starting life at university.
What is different with your work now, compared to what you experienced at school?
There is a lot more reading, a much quicker turnaround for essays and the work is expected to be of higher quality. However, supervisors understand the difficulty of the transition and their feedback takes this into consideration. You are definitely not expected to be suddenly producing work of a completely different standard, it is a gradual process.
I think that the open days provided a pretty accurate idea of what studying English at Cambridge would be like. The intense level of interaction with academics is even better and more rewarding than I expected, though.
What are the best and hardest things about your course?
The range of papers and texts which are studied is amazing – you also have a fair amount of autonomy regarding the texts you choose to write on, within a certain framework. The quality of the teaching is incredible: you can feel yourself improving steadily because essays are set and marked so regularly. Whilst this workload is quite heavy, there is a high return for its completion and it is ultimately pretty enjoyable and rewarding.
"You are definitely not expected to be suddenly producing work of a completely different standard, it is a gradual process."
How does your teaching work?
Each term, we study one period paper e.g. Medieval, Renaissance, Eighteenth-century etc. For this, we will have an assigned supervisor and meet with them in groups of two/three once a week to discuss essays we have written. There is also the Practical Criticism paper, which tests close reading skills, which we work towards consistently throughout the course. For this, we have a different supervisor every term who we also meet with once a week in small groups. In these supervisions, we will normally analyse a section of text, or multiple texts, in close detail, occasionally producing written work for these classes too. There are few lectures compared to other subjects, perhaps about six or seven per week but often less. Lectures are also pretty optional, you can decide whether they are the best way for you to learn. Some students prefer to do more reading rather than attend lectures. In Shakespeare term, we also had classes at the faculty which resembled seminars at other universities – classes of about fifteen people met every week to discuss the set text for the exam, often giving presentations etc.
How do you manage your workload? Have you been able to manage a reasonable balance of work and other things?
I manage to be pretty organised. I mostly achieve this by doing a lot of other activities: this motivates me to organise my work properly and get it done, so that I can also enjoy participating in things aside from my degree! I do a fair amount of music, college sport, writing and political activism alongside my degree. I’ll probably have to cut this down a bit in second year, but generally find that it is more than possible to fit extra-curricular activities and socialising into your schedule.
I prefer to work in libraries, and there are plenty to choose from in Cambridge: as well as the college library in Christ's, there is also the University Library as well as libraries for every faculty. You can work in any of these! Sometimes I work in my room, but generally I like to keep my work and living space separate. It is less easy to get distracted in the library!
What has been your favourite topic from this year?
Studying Shakespeare in summer term was a particular highlight. It was incredible to be completely immersed in his works, not only studying the plays themselves but also how they are consistently revised, performed and edited throughout history and in contemporary society. Sunshine and Shakespeare proved to be a pretty heady and romantic combination – an English student’s dream, really.
Looking back over the year, what do you feel you have got out of it?
I have got so much out of my first year studying English! The teaching has enhanced the way I think, read and express myself: these skills translate to so many areas of my life apart from my course. The course really develops critical thinking skills, which are widely applicable to so many aspects of academia, activities and life in general. Engaging with literature has given me a great platform to explore other pursuits this year, such as writing theatre reviews for the student newspaper and even assistant directing a play in summer term!
What do you do when you’re not working?
When I’m not working I’m often socialising with friends – either going out to Cambridge’s rather weird selection of nightclubs or staying in and watching TV – or participating in a range of extra-curricular activities. Being in an orchestra is a really nice break from work as it requires completely different brain activity, and the same goes for sport. College sport is very all-inclusive and a lot of fun! I lost my interest in sports at secondary school but have regained it at university, where you can participate in so many different sports at whatever level you feel comfortable with. There are so many amazing opportunities to do activities outside your degree and trial things you never imagined – I had never considered directing before and had a great time last term putting on an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale with a friend from my course!
"I had never considered directing before and had a great time last term putting on an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale with a friend from my course!"
How do you spend your holidays?
I use my holidays to unwind after the crazy terms, to see friends and spend time with family. I do a fair amount of reading for the term ahead but in a fairly non-stressful way. I work when I can, although it can be tricky to hold down a job if you are only back sporadically. It is really useful to have a job back home before uni which you can easily get shifts for when you are home for the holidays! I spent two weeks of my holiday before Easter term working at Christ’s on the Telephone Campaign, where I was a member of a team of students ringing alumni asking for donations to the Student Support Fund, which the college uses to fund bursaries, grants and scholarships etc. This summer I have a fair amount of reading to do for next year but I am fitting that around holidays with family and friends.
Where have you lived this year?
I lived in the New Court Building – dubbed ‘the typewriter’ – and really liked it. The rooms were small but that didn’t bother me particularly and it was useful to have an ensuite. I also ended up becoming close friends with people on my corridor and it became a social hub for our wider friendship group!
What are you most looking forward to next year?
I am excited about living in a house next year! There is a street of college-owned houses close by, where a lot of students live in their second year. It will be nice to have a more independent accommodation experience, although I did love living in college this year too. It’ll be great to experience something different, especially as I’m lucky to be in a house with a lot of my close friends.
I am also looking forward to my course, particularly Paper 7b. This covers literature from about 1870 to the present, including some of my favourite writers and poets – Hardy, Woolf, Carter, Auden etc. Writing a dissertation should be interesting too, as we write a dissertation (basically an extended essay, 5,000 words) in second year as well as third.
It’ll be nice to come back for second year and be able to dive straight in, now that I am fully settled!