Diana, in a green dress, leaning on a stone wall looking over the sea, at sunset.
         Diana, first year

Diana is from Piaseczno in Poland, and wrote this at the end of her first year studying Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS) here at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Diana took the International Baccalaureate, with Higher Level French, English Literature, History and Biology, as well as Standard Level Maths and Psychology.

What attracted you to your course?

The main reason I applied for HSPS was because it gave me the opportunity to explore multiple disciplines. While applying I was pretty certain that I wanted to study Politics and International Relations, but I also felt that I was interested in a wider range of subjects which were fairly well encompassed by HSPS.

No other university really gives you the opportunity to study the same array of subjects (sociology, anthropology, politics, international relations and potentially psychology). There are combined courses in other universities but none of the combinations really appealed to me as much as the one in HSPS.


You got your offer through the pool – what was this like?

I originally applied to Clare College and was interviewed there. However, when I found out that I had been pooled to Christ’s I honestly didn’t mind. During the process of choosing a College I had been able to narrow it down to a list of around five Colleges, including both Clare and Christ’s. Additionally, everyone that I got emails from in Christ’s seemed so friendly, so I really didn’t have an issue with the fact that I hadn’t gotten into the College I’d originally applied to.

I’d never been to Christ’s before starting university, so I didn’t really know what to expect. It definitely feels smaller than Clare, but I think that’s an advantage because the community feels more tight-knit. Perhaps the biggest thing that I didn’t realise initially was how convenient the central location is.

"The biggest thing that I didn’t realise initially was how convenient the central location is."

Diana and two friends in a park in Cambridge
Diana (centre) and friends on Jesus Green

What do you think of the collegiate system in general?

While I think the collegiate system has both advantages and drawbacks, I quite like it. I think the main drawback is that it makes it a bit more difficult to meet people outside of College, and that if you didn’t really like the College you were in you might have a hard time adjusting. However, you can also make up for that by getting involved in lots of societies and activities outside of College. I think the main advantage of the College system is the sense of community within Colleges, and that it gives you an easy way to meet people.

How did you find the application process?

Compared to other universities in the UK, the application process seemed a lot longer. However, once I started going through it, I realised that it was a step-by-step process. It was quite nerve-racking, but also reassuring every time I found out that I’d managed to get through another step. 

At the time I applied for HSPS, applicants were required to take an admissions assessment (this is no longer part of the process), which included both a reading comprehension section and an essay writing section. To be honest, this was the aspect of the application process that I was least prepared for, mainly because there weren’t many resources available. My main source of preparation was doing all of the practice tests available online. This is a bit more useful for the essay section, as you can write multiple essays from the same assessment. Other than that, I just continued reading related literature.


Were the interviews what you expected them to be?

The Stevenson building, in Third Court at Christ's College, Cambridge.
       Diana lived in the Stevenson building (right) in first year

I thought that the interviews would be scarier than they actually were. I was worried that I would get stuck part way through, and have nothing to say. However, the people who interviewed me were quite encouraging and at no point did I feel like they were trying to trick me. It was definitely challenging, but not in a bad way. I actually enjoyed the interviews because ultimately, I got to talk about something I’m interested in with experts in the field.

I firstly made sure that I was familiar with everything that I’d mentioned in my personal statement. It doesn’t always happen but one of my interviews was very centred on my personal statement, so it was good to have read through it a few times. My main form of preparation was doing mock interviews at my school. I did them with the school counselor but then also got teachers in the humanities to come in.

"I actually enjoyed the interviews because ultimately, I got to talk about something I’m interested in with experts in the field."


Before you came to Cambridge, what were you looking forward to and what were you most worried about?

IDiana and two friends attending a formal dinner at Christ's College, Cambridge. was really excited about starting university, and getting to study a course that genuinely interested me. I also wanted to meet new people, and just experience the atmosphere of Cambridge. On the other hand, this new environment seemed quite intimidating given that I’d been at the same school in Poland since I was seven years old. 

The thing I was most worried about was being unable to settle in, and it did take several weeks before I started feeling comfortable and at home. I think the thing that helped most was going out of my way to meet new people. During the first few weeks I was intimidated at the prospect of having to talk to people I didn’t know. However, once I started being more open to making new friendships it became so much easier to get to know people. I found that joining societies also helped me feel more comfortable and enjoy my time more.

Academically, I was nervous about two things. The first was that some of the courses were very theory-based and I’d never really studied theory in much depth before. The second was that the topics incorporated under Sociology seemed very foreign and intimidating to me. I still find theory challenging but I’m taking two theory papers next year. I’m now planning to specialise in Politics and Sociology so I’m glad I continued with the subject even though I was worried about it.  


What was your first week at Cambridge like?

To be honest, Freshers' Week felt slightly underwhelming. It went by very quickly and I felt like I hadn’t really gotten to know a lot of people. At the same time, I think that’s also partially my fault because I could’ve been more outgoing. Regardless, my favourite memories were probably the opportunities that I did get to talk to people and get to know them. For example, I distinctly remember sitting on a new friend’s balcony and chatting for hours over coffee.

I think the most surprising part was how quickly everything starts to happen. As an international student, I arrived a bit early and there was a bit of a lull before the majority of the students arrived but, once they did, it seemed like everything was moving in double speed. I also found it surprising how quickly lectures passed and how much material could be covered in a single lecture. Supervisions felt intimidating at first, but I grew to appreciate them with time - you can enhance your knowledge and get extremely valuable feedback from them.

How does your teaching work?

A group of students on a punt on the River CamEvery week I have two hours of lectures for each of my papers, which amounts to eight hours of lectures per week. For every paper I also have an hour of supervision time every two weeks. This usually means that I have two hour-long supervisions a week. During Easter term my schedule looked a little different because revision lectures and supervisions are more scattered.

The workload for HSPS is probably the most difficult part of the course because you need to grasp fairly complex material in a limited time frame. I try to plan out approximately how many days I will need per essay and stick to that plan but that doesn’t always work. If my supervisions are equally spread out, I can usually afford to dedicate around three to four days per essay. I do also try to do extracurriculars when possible and while I felt a bit overwhelmed in Lent term, I’ve found a few I’m hoping to stick to next year that I think should be manageable alongside my degree.

I prefer to work outside of my room because I find that there are too many distractions otherwise. I also prefer it when there are other people working around me because, that way, I feel more encouraged to be productive. Throughout the year I worked in various libraries and during exam term I made use of the various available study spaces in College.


What is different with your work now, compared to what you experienced at school?

My work for the International Baccalaureate at school was a lot more varied – I did problem sheets for maths and sciences courses and wrote multiple types of essays for my humanities courses. In Cambridge, my work consists mostly of 1500-2000-word weekly essays, and practice essays during exam term. Because terms are only two months, the workload is definitely a lot more concentrated. On the other hand, the way work is assigned through supervisions is a lot more tailored because you get to decide it one-on-one with a supervisor.

The course is definitely a lot more theory-based than I expected. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it wasn’t something that I was used to before. One set of theories I found particularly useful this year was the concept of nationalism - particularly in regards to how it arises and persists. This idea can be applied across all four disciplines that I study so knowing some theoretical background on it was really helpful. The course also allowed me to delve into four distinct subjects that have a significant amount of overlap between then. I had never done anything related to Anthropology and Sociology, but I was pleasantly surprised by both papers this year.


The History Faculty of the University of Cambridge, on the Sidgwick site.
The Seeley Library is part of the History Faculty,
on the Sidgwick Site. (Credit: Sir Cam)

What are the best and hardest things about your course?

The hardest thing is definitely the workload. This year for HSPS I was given twelve essays every term which is around 1.5 essays a week. However, it isn’t always equally spread. It is manageable but you definitely have to be on top of how you plan your time, which is something I struggled with this year. 

On the other hand, the best thing is just the course content itself. There are so many interesting subjects that we cover, and enjoying the content definitely makes the workload more bearable. Thinking back on the year, I’ve definitely gained a lot more knowledge related to my course. Not only have I studied subjects I’d never covered before, I’ve also expanded my knowledge in areas that I already felt I knew a bit about. I think this breadth of knowledge is extremely valuable and foundational for my next two years of university and is also very applicable to my understanding of the real world.

The study spaces I used most throughout the year were probably the Christ's College Library and the Seeley Library (which belongs to the history faculty but is very close to the HSPS building). I enjoy using various libraries around the university, depending on what is most available. During exam term specifically I used the Plumb Auditorium a lot, which is a big room in the Z building. I liked it as it was usually a quiet study space which allowed me to concentrate but the Sosnow room next door could be used for socialising, making tea etc. 

"There are so many interesting subjects that we cover, and enjoying the content definitely makes the workload more bearable."


What has been your favourite topic from this year? 

It’s difficult to pinpoint my all-time favourite topic across all four papers! In Sociology my favourite topic had to do with race and ethnicity and the topic also transferred into Anthropology. The two papers both looked at the social construction of the concepts though in very different ways. For Politics my favourite topic had to do with the effects of representative democracy on prosperity. I really liked the variety of literature available and it also allowed me to look at a book I’d read for my personal statement from a much more critical perspective. Finally, in International Relations my favourite topic was probably climate change, an issue that I think is extremely important today - it was interesting to read some of the more academic literature on it.


What do you do when you’re not working?

Diana and a friend at a protest march calling on the University to divest from fossil fuel investments.
      Diana at a protest march calling on the University to divest 
      from fossil fuel investments

When I’m not working, I try to split my time between doing work for societies and meeting up with friends both in and outside of College. I am on the University's Unicef on Campus Committee, in the role of Awareness Officer. In this role I am in charge of shaping Unicef's campaigns in Cambridge and in general raising awareness about the different causes we are fundraising for. I am also on the Christ's May Ball Committee, in charge of security and staffing for our ball next year. Other than that, I take part in the Christ's Climate Justice Campaign, occasionally produce plays and I have written for Varsity (student newspaper) in the past and am hoping to continue next year. I also like to occasionally go to talks offered by the Cambridge Union Debating Society or other societies.

This year I lived in the Stevenson building in Christ's Third Court. I quite liked my room and, while it wasn’t ensuite, the bathrooms were shared by very few people so it really didn’t matter. I was initially kind of intimidated because there wasn’t anyone in my year living in my building but that also wasn’t really a problem because most of my friends lived really nearby. Perhaps the only issue was that the kitchen was small and I found that there was not enough space in the fridge for all nine people living in the corridor.

How do you spend your holidays?

During holidays I go back home to Poland to see my family. During the short vacations in my first year I also visited some friends in other universities around the UK. This summer I am back home in Poland to see my family and school friends, but I also plan to travel around Europe a bit and meet some friends from university. 

From personal experience I can say that at first glance it seems pretty intimidating to move to a foreign country, away from everything you know. I think it's really important to not be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone to meet people. Everything about life and studying in England seemed a bit foreign at first, so I think it's important to ask if you don't understand something - even if it's just a pop culture reference. People are happy to help, so you shouldn't be embarrassed!


A shot from an upward-looking angle of six students sat on the 'typewriter building' in New Court at Christ's College, Cambridge.What are you most looking forward to next year?

I’m really excited for my second year in Cambridge. I’m looking forward to seeing my friends again and getting back to College life. I am also excited to continue my course, as it will be more specialised in the subjects I found most interesting this year. I will most likely be taking the Politics and Sociology track in HSPS. For Sociology, I’ll be doing Social Theory and Global Social Problems and Dynamics of Resistance for Sociology. For Politics, I’ll be taking History of Political Thought from 1700 to 1890 and Comparative Politics. I would also like to continue being involved in the societies I enjoyed most this year and maybe try out some new ones.

Next year I'm living in a house with five friends on Jesus Lane, which is two minutes' walk away from College. My room is quite a lot bigger than the one I lived in this year, and I'm excited to be living with people I'm good friends with. I think it will be a slightly different experience from this year, as everything in College will be a bit farther away - I may want to cook for myself a bit more!

August 2019

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.

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