Fred is from Trørød, near Copenhagen in Denmark, and wrote this at the end of his first year studying Human, Social, and Political Sciences (HSPS) at Christ’s College, Cambridge. At school, Fred took the Danish Studentereksamen, studying Danish, History, English, French and Social Sciences.
What attracted you to your course?
I actually never had any intention of applying to a university abroad, far less to Cambridge. Nonetheless, when a friend of mine told me about the HSPS course I was struck by the multidisciplinary nature of the course and the combination of fields of study it allowed for. Being able to combine Politics with Sociology and Social Anthropology sounded too good not to apply. HSPS is a unique degree - I’ve never come across a course that offers the similar quality and combination of subjects at another university.
I also think the HSPS course is quite an international course which was a very pleasant surprise. The diversity this creates in perspectives, opinions and contributions from students and professors alike is fascinating. Some people might not think of the UK as the easiest country to live in as a foreigner, but I have been very happily surprised by the international character, open-mindedness, and tolerance both of Christ’s and of my course.
And why did you apply to Christ’s?
I visited Cambridge for the Open Days in the summer just before I applied, and as soon I walked through the gate into Christ’s I knew that I was going to apply here. For me, it was quite important to find a place where I felt at home and where the atmosphere was relaxed, friendly and open, and Christ’s just gave me that feeling from the moment I walked in. It’s such a warm and welcoming place filled with so many kind and interesting people.
My favourite thing about Christ’s is definitely its close-knit nature. Christ’s is the ideal size - small enough to create an intimate atmosphere, yet not so small that you feel cramped. You very quickly get to know people around College, from the porters to the gardeners, and the College cat Rocket! I remember coming back to College after my first term and being met by smiles and ‘welcome backs’ by everyone I met - Christ’s really is a very special place to study and to live.
The collegiate system was another thing that attracted me to Cambridge. I think for many people, and certainly for me, having a College is a bit like having a family and a home away from home. Being in College provided a sense of security and belonging, which helped me a lot in settling in and starting university life. Your College will inevitably become a big part of your life very quickly. However, the important thing is not the specific College, but that you have a College. I think most people, before arriving, worry about whether College life will be everything they’ve hoped for, but it’s really my impression that almost everyone feels at home very quickly in their College and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. For this reason, I don’t think you should worry about choosing a College too much.
"Christ's is such a warm and welcoming place filled with so many kind and interesting people."
How did you find the application process?
Very confusing and a bit stressful. I was the first at my school to apply to Cambridge, so there wasn’t a lot of help or information to get from my teachers. The UCAS application form in particular was something I found very confusing and a bit complicated. However, I quickly realised that there was a lot of help available from current and former students and, of course, from the Christ’s admissions office. I would recommend reaching out to the Christ’s admissions team if you have any questions concerning the application process.
I had to sit a two-hour-long admissions assessment as part of the application process. The first hour was a multiple-choice test based on some reading you had to do, and the second hour was essay writing. I prepared for this by finding past papers online and doing one or two of them timed. This helped me to feel a bit more comfortable about the assessment I had to sit. It was harder to prepare for the essay writing section, as you won’t know what the questions will be until you sit the assessment. Also, I didn’t have any experience writing essays in the British way at the time. However - without knowing for sure, of course – I don’t think that mattered that much in the application process. Not because the assessment wasn’t important, but because the structure of my essay, at the time, wasn’t what they were looking at. Rather, what they were looking at was the arguments made, and the thoughts expressed.
Were the interviews what you expected them to be?
I made the mistake of reading some of the weird stories you find on the internet about Cambridge interviews – so to be honest, I hoped for the best and expected the worst. However, looking back on the interviews now, I primarily remember them as super interesting and enjoyable conversations. I had two interviews, in my case one on Politics and International Relations, and one on Sociology and Social Anthropology. During the interview days, I stayed in College. I remember feeling afraid that I looked a bit too relaxed in my t-shirt and knitted cardigan when some of the other people in the interview waiting room wearing suits. Yet in hindsight, and since I’m here now, it must have turned out fine. To be honest, I think the interviewers don’t care at all about what you’re wearing – they’re only interested in your thoughts and way of thinking.
You never quite know what the interview is going to be about, so I actually found it a bit hard preparing a lot for them. I made sure I was confident in the reading that I talked about in my personal statement, and then I talked a lot with friends and family about my subjects. Many students taking A-Levels or the International Baccalaureate can get mock interviews from their school, but unfortunately this isn’t an option for a Danish applicant. However, for me, the number of oral examinations I’ve had during my years in the Danish educational system was a huge benefit in the interview. I think preparation for the interview is largely about being comfortable talking about your chosen subject(s) and showing your passion for what you want to study. You can get that by having mock interviews, but just as well by having done oral examinations before or by talking to your friends and family about your subject.
"Looking back on the interviews now, I primarily remember them as super interesting and enjoyable conversations."
What advice would you give to prospective applicants?
I think the most important advice for prospective applicants is only apply to study something you love. The application process is stressful, and studying here is hard work, so it really makes all the difference if you are passionate about what you study. Don’t study something because you think it will look good on a resumé or give you a sweet job afterwards. Study something because you really love it - whether it’s poems, particles or politics.
In terms of reading, I would recommend, especially as an international applicant, getting a general overview of British and European political history. Otherwise, read what interests you. In my interviews we spent quite a while talking about some of the reading I’d done that really sparked my interests. The interviewers could feel that I was genuinely interested in it and consequently that we could have an interesting conversation about it and they could push me in my argumentation.
Did you take a gap year?
After leaving school, I took a gap year where I worked and travelled. I worked as a substitute teacher at a local school before travelling for three months to Kenya and Togo, where I worked for a Togolese NGO focused on education and children’s rights. Taking a gap year was a highly needed break from the educational system, and gave me the chance to think a bit more about what I wanted. I made a post-qualification application to Christ's in my gap year, which worked really well for me since I had more time to read, think, and focus on my application.
How did you find coming to Cambridge?
I found it surprisingly easy to settle in. Especially in the first couple of weeks in Michaelmas (the first term), you’ve got so many things to do and events to attend that before you realise it you’ve settled. Both socially and academically, you’ve got nothing to be worried about as you are so well received in freshers’ week and beyond. That being said, as an international student, it was initially a challenge adapting to speaking English all the time and having a very different everyday life than what I was used to. Further, I think one shouldn’t underestimate how different the assessment of your work is here. Before coming here, I’d never written a proper essay, and in Michaelmas last year, handwritten exams sounded like a nightmare. But Christ’s is such a welcoming place – you’ll get all the help and support you need to thrive here academically.
As soon as I arrived, my DoS (Director of Studies) offered me some talks with the College’s study skills co-ordinator to get a more solid grasp on British essay writing, which was a massive help for me in the beginning. I think this says a lot about Christ’s, and Cambridge in general; everyone really wants you to succeed. It really doesn’t matter how many essays you’ve written before, or how much you know about electoral systems in Southern Europe, what matters is your thinking and your effort. I actually ended up writing to the study skills co-ordinator in exam term, to get some advice on exam preparation and revision.
How does studying at Cambridge differ from school?
I’m definitely more structured and diligent in my studying and academic work now than I used to be. The very first week of studying HSPS at Cambridge you have to read this iconic work - ‘Leviathan’ by Hobbes. I remember feeling it was all a bit too demanding and daunting and spending hours and hours trying to grasp Hobbes’ thoughts. In hindsight, I spent way too much energy trying to figure out how to read it ‘properly’. In reality, it’s about thinking carefully about the works you are engaging with, and coming up with your own arguments and analysis.
The course here is definitely more theory-based than I expected. The first-year politics module, POL1, is far more about history of political thought and political theory than political science. Out of the six topics I’ve covered this first year in POL1, four of them (Hobbes, Fanon, Gandhi and Arendt) were predominantly in the history of political thought category. This has been quite different from the way in which politics is studied in the Danish educational system, which focused more on political science. However, engaging with these thinkers has been one of the most rewarding things about my first year, although probably also one of the most demanding. Even though I certainly didn’t think that before coming here, there is a lot to learn about contemporary politics and international relations from scholars of a different time. Engaging critically with their thoughts has made me think about my own assumptions and opinions in a way that I never imagined I would.
"Engaging critically with earlier theorists' thoughts has made me think about my own assumptions and opinions in a way that I never imagined I would."
How does your teaching work?
I have about two supervisions per week and eight hours of lectures per week – two per paper. Throughout the term, I also had a handful of extra sessions with my DoS. This is one of the great things about Christ’s: that your DoS and supervisors actually plan and offer some extra sessions to help you develop your academic work and skills. In Easter term, I had further revision supervisions, on topics we’d covered throughout the year. The number of revision supervisions you have varys a great deal, but I was lucky enough to have quite a few (at least three per paper).
What are the best, and hardest, things about your course?
The hardest thing about my course, and this goes for most courses I suppose, has been finding a good routine to get the enormous amount of work done to a satisfactory standard, whilst still having the time to go out with friends and relax. I have often spent too much time reading about a single topic and then ended up not having time to write my essay as a whole. On top of that, there are loads of interesting events and extracurricular activities in Cambridge so finding a good routine and a healthy balance has been the hardest thing so far.
The best thing has, without a doubt, been the number of fascinating supervisions, lectures and debates I’ve had this year. When you take the appropriate amount of time to do your reading thoroughly and really think critically about a topic for a supervision, you really have the most exciting discussions. In Lent term, as part of my revision, I did quite a lot of reading and thinking about ‘empire’ as a concept within international relations, exploring some of the more specialised reading on the reading list and beyond. As a consequence, I had the most rewarding and thought-provoking supervision. It’s those kinds of experiences where you really make the effort and are pushed academically, that makes you realise things you’ve never thought of before and makes all the hard work worthwhile.
Looking back over the year, what do you feel you have got out of it so far?
My first year reading HSPS has been very rewarding. To engage with and expand your knowledge on what fascinates you every day is really such a gift, and for me, it makes all the difference in getting through work and being positive. Secondly, I have been pleasently surprised by how much insight the other fields of the HSPS track has to offer. Sociology, and especially Social Anthropology, should be studied by everyone interested in society.
Thirdly, I have definitely become more critical in my thinking than I used to be. Before coming here, I was far more opinionated than I am now after my first year. The great thing about this course is the enormous amount of attention focused on assumptions and arguments. You quickly realise that even the most fundamental rights and wrongs you have can, and should, be questioned and discussed - nothing is ever as black and white as you imagine it to be. I think the HSPS approach is a great way to study all areas of society we seek to understand.
"I think the HSPS approach is a great way to study all areas of society we seek to understand."
What has been your favourite supervision from this year?
I have had so many great supervisions this year so I don’t think I can choose just one! However, I found my Social Anthropology supervisions especially inspiring. Social Anthropology deals with the different ways of living in and perceiving the world, and therefore, also one’s own way of living in and perceiving the world. It really makes you think about things you would otherwise completely take for granted, such as family, blood, ethnicity, or money. Consequently, as a newcomer to Social Anthropology, this year’s supervisions have been extremely inspiring. I think once you really get the sense of how to think anthropologically and see the worlds in which people live, it stays with you for life – you can’t help but think anthropologically wherever you go. That has been an amazing experience.
How do you manage your workload?
Finding a good balance has definitely been one of the more difficult things for me. Not only because the amount of work is quite extensive, but also because when you are interested in what you study, you can easily end up spending too much time on reading about a certain topic or going over your essay again and again. The consequence of this is of course that you don’t have enough time for your next essay and for seeing friends and extracurricular activities. I think that quite often a good balance isn’t something you have from the beginning, but something you gain throughout the year – this has certainly been the case for me. Although I’m now way more structured than I used to be, I would still like to be better able to structure my time in order to have more time, both to do my work and to relax and spend time with friends.
Where do you typically like to work?
It differs quite a lot actually - I’m not very good at sitting behind the same desk for an entire day. So, during a typical day, I work in different places, preferably places where you can go out to have some fresh air or grab a cup of coffee. In the mornings, I typically work in my room before going to lectures. After lectures, I often go to the Sidgwick Site or another library in town where books (and coffee!) are easily available. Then I head back to College and, after dinner, either work in the College library or in my room. Of course, this doesn’t happen every day, and I do think it is important not to drown in work, but it works out great for me having different places to study in. Often, it’s actually on the way home from Sidgwick Site or when I’m going for a coffee that I think the clearest, and get my best ideas for essays and arguments.
"Often, it’s actually on the way home from Sidgwick Site or when I’m going for a coffee that I think the clearest, and get my best ideas for essays and arguments."
What do you do when you’re not working?
Spend time with friends and sleep! One of the best things about Britain is the pub culture, which I have enjoyed to its fullest this year. Of course, there are clubs as well, but I tend to prefer going to a pub instead as it’s way more relaxed and a super cool way to get your mind off work and just talk and laugh with your friends. Also, I have joined a couple of societies in Cambridge, including the Scandinavian Society where I’m currently the events officer.
Where have you lived this year?
I have lived in the ‘typewriter building’ in New Court this year. The building itself, at least from the outside, is quite hideous in my opinion, but I really liked my room. There is a massive window which covers the end wall of typewriter rooms, which is great as it gives you lots of natural light. I really liked living there, especially as I brought way more posters and stuff to decorate my room, so it felt more like a home. Also, during this year I’ve become good friends with my ‘bedder’ (a Cambridge term for a college cleaner who works within a particular accommodation block). I often ended up spending a couple of minutes in the morning talking with them in the gyp room over my morning cup of coffee, and especially during exams this was the best start to the day one could wish for.
How do you spend your holidays?
When I’m at home I try to relax and turn off my brain for a couple of days. Otherwise, I spend a lot of time with family and friends. I always borrow some books to take back home that are relevant to my course, but also really interesting and stimulating. This summer, I’ve had an internship at The Danish Foreign Policy Society, which is a small NGO working on spreading information about international relations and politics. This has been really enjoyable, as it has allowed me to apply some of what I’ve learned this year.
What are you most looking forward to in the coming years?
For the two remaining years of my degree, I look forward to specialising a bit more in my reading, and in particular to writing a dissertation in my third year. Next year I’ve taken a paper assessed by two long essays, so that’s going to be a nice chance to spend some extra time on a topic and have a bit more depth and breadth in my reading. I’ve chosen to do the Politics and International Relations track, so next year I’ll be taking:
- POL3 (International Organisations)
- POL4 (Comparative Politics)
- POL5 (The two long essays)
- POL8 (History of Political Thought).
I would have loved to do some of the sociology papers (especially SOC3 - Global Social Problems and Dynamics of Resistance) and some of the Social Anthropology papers as well. But in the end, I landed on the POL and IR track because Politics and International Relations interests me the most. I am really looking forward to the POL4 paper, where you specialise in regions, and next years’ modules look very interesting.
After Cambridge, I’m quite torn between what to do. I definitely want to take a master’s degree, preferably in the development studies, international relations, politics, diplomacy category. After that I hope to travel and work around the world for some years, ideally for an NGO or in an IGO – and then, who knows?
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.