Overheard at Cambridge: Becoming a Student

An insight into the bizarre and intriguing things said at the No.1 university in the UK

Published: Aug 27, 2023  |  

Modern & Medieval Languages student at Cambridge University

18 months ago, I received a letter from the University of Cambridge. I had been invited to study for my undergraduate degree at King’s College. My initial reaction was, of course, ecstasy. 4 years at one of, if not the, best university in the UK? Sign me up! 

As the months passed, my excitement continued to grow—but along with that excitement came intrigue: Would the class stereotypes prove true? Would I really have that many essays to write? Would I stand out because I didn’t summer in St. Tropez on my parents’ yacht? 

I had always thought of Cambridge as this posh, prestigious institution where everyone had actually finished reading War and Peace. I imagined beautiful hallowed halls, green courtyards and stunning chapels (I was right about that part). My preconception of Cambridge was pretty positive, to say the least—I had put the students on a pedestal, viewing them as some kind of divine incarnation of raw intelligence. 

In reality, while the students are, of course, great, they aren’t godly. They’re all just super-smart and love the subject they study. Quite a few come from a great deal of privilege, but many don’t. 

I had underestimated the workload, as most people probably do—but in a slightly different way. I had no notion of how the lines would blur, how your subject would become a part of your identity, given that you spent 7 days a week reading, debating or writing about it, I guess that’s to be expected in retrospect. 

So apart from the city being just as picturesque as I’d imagined, I was wrong on both other counts: 

Cambridge students = normal people. 

Cambridge workload = large. Very large. 

After living and studying in Cambridge for one year, I’d say I’ve had a perspective shift. What I also didn’t expect, but which is one of my favorite parts, is the sheer quirkiness: Mix world-renowned academia with a bunch of (pretty) normal 18-25-year-olds, add in a dash of privilege and class and what do you get? The result is these out-of-context quotes, some overheard (or said) by me, and a few taken from friends or the @overheardatoxbridge Instagram account: 

“Did your parents ever teach you to curtsey?” 

Overheard at Newnham College. Playing into the classic high-society stereotype, it depicts life before Cambridge as an education in all things champagne, sailing regattas, and signet rings. 

“Can we do an hour of work then have a trifle rendezvous?”

Overheard at Christ’s College. I can’t decide—which word encompasses the Cambridge student more: trifle, or rendezvous? 

The average Cambridge student spends 48 hours a week studying. I, for one, would attest to the fact that we rarely have a full day off—maybe this is due to the weeks at Cambridge starting on a Thursday. Weird, right?  Many like to joke that the week is structured this way so that the weekend doesn’t really feel like the weekend, meaning it’s perfectly normal, if not expected, that a Cambridge student works 7 days a week. The workload can definitely feel crushing at times, as if your head will simply explode if you have to write even one more essay, but while demanding, it is manageable. It’s simply a matter of multitasking, prioritizing and compartmentalizing! (You know, easy peasy.) 

The following summarize the experience of “dealing with a Cambridge workload”: 

“I don’t have time to be ill.” 

Said by yours truly, tissue in hand. 

“I haven’t even done any work today, I’ve just watched five lectures!” 

Overheard at Fitzwilliam College

“I don’t have the time to contemplate my existence…” 

Overheard at Lucy Cavendish College. FYI—contemplating one’s existence is a particular hobby of the average Cambridge student.

“Wait, how many essays did I write this term?” 

This question was posed by my lovely friend Astrid.  

And now for my personal favorite:

“When I’m making out with you I think about my essay plan.” 

Overheard at Jesus College, without sarcasm. Enough said.

It’s often said that students at top universities have some trouble with social interaction. This could be because higher IQ can be linked to poorer social skills. In kinder words, we might accidentally let our quirkiness show while trying to masquerade as “normal” members of society. Sometimes our love for academia shines through, often in a slightly bizarre way. Like when my boyfriend tried to explain my mood swings with these two sentences:

“You’d be a nightmare to model economically.” 

“Your emotional volatility would be graphed as 1,000,000sin(x).”

Because we invest so much time into our studies, we tend to let our academic interests get very involved in our daily lives. My lovely friend Astrid has provided a few examples of this for us. 

“I freaking love Louis the 16th!”

Followed by:

“Hmmmm Rousseau… No, I don’t like him.”

And along the same lines:

*In the kitchen… at 1 AM*

“What’s your opinion on Camus?” 

The clichés here are true—like you’d see on TV, we really do sit around discussing philosophers and theories (cue the iconic bar scene from Good Will Hunting). Of course, this doesn’t happen all the time, but I’ve definitely overheard some very intellectual conversations happening around me at weird times of day! If I wanted to, I could almost always find some kind of debate going on, with words thrown around that I don’t even understand! 

And for my last foray into things-I-now-expect-to-hear-at-Cambridge, a personality trait that a lot of grammar nerds (like me) can identify with:

“I compensate for my lack of dignity with grammatical pedantry.”

So there you have it—life at Cambridge wrapped up in just a few quotes. The overarching themes? A complete fusion between the person and the subject they study (where do I end and where does Goethe begin?), a mountainous workload, and a particular affinity for British teatime treats—can I interest anyone in a trifle rendezvous? (If you’ve never tried it, I recommend you pencil one in.)

These weird and wonderful qualities combine to create an experience like no other: To meet people whose personalities are so intertwined with their subject—their passion—is a unique experience in itself. I must admit, I am so deeply rooted in the literature aspect of my degree that I did do a close reading analysis of my friend’s text messages this year! (Sometimes you need to learn to turn it off, I guess.)

As you’ve probably realized by now, our academic lives blurring with our social ones is a natural phenomenon here, as is encountering someone whose uncle’s cousin’s neighbor’s friend is the Princess of Norway. 

If you’d shown my 18-months-ago self these quotes, she would have been absolutely terrified. They paint Cambridge as a high-class, curtsey-loving collection of academics who discuss Plato on their way back from the club—but I’ve found that this isn’t valid across the board. The great thing about putting a bunch of 18-25-year-olds with high IQs together is that conversations range from the silliest things (debating how many geese would it take to beat you in a fight?) to the most intellectual challenges of our time. 

There’s more than one side to Cambridge—yes, the curtsey-and-trifle-loving part exists, and perhaps there’s more to be said there on elitism, privilege, etc. But what I’ve also found is that I can continue to be myself here—there are so many different types of people here who are passionate about so many different subjects that, really, anything goes! Hence why these quotes are accepted as the norm, despite their seemingly bizarre nature! 

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