“Imposter Syndrome” isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to Cambridge, but it is a big part of the experience for many students and can be a real struggle, in first term especially.
Academically, you’re surrounded by some of the most high-achieving people in the world – embracing your mediocrity can be liberating, but it can also be overwhelming. I struggled through my reading lists for History, feeling like everyone else was managing two or three times as much as me, and anxious that this would expose me as a fraud.
I once had to read an article for an essay where the author had a habit of switching to Latin mid- sentence – no need for a translation, since everyone speaks Latin, right? I’ve spoken to friends who’ve had similar experiences – feeling like they “couldn’t possibly keep up with the vocab of (other) students and supervisors” or afraid to voice opinions for fear of being “wrong”.
The whole environment of Cambridge can feel equally overwhelming. I worried about not knowing the right etiquette for formal halls (how do you know which cutlery to use?!) and felt isolated when I spoke to people in freshers’ week who had multiple school-friends starting Cambridge with them.
But while imposter syndrome can make Cambridge feel intimidating at times, it also gets much easier. You learn to stop comparing yourself to others (remind yourself that everyone works at their own pace, and you’ll thank yourself for reading less when it comes to sorting through notes for revision).
I went from feeling like my supervision essays had to be perfect (or I’d be exposed!) to realising that my supervisors were there to teach rather than judge me, even when I handed in some pretty shocking essays. And at the end of the day, everyone is in the same boat (even if that boat sometimes feels like the sinking Titanic).
I remember being convinced that I would turn up to my interview and be told there had been a mistake – nearly two years later and I still haven’t shaken off the feeling that somehow I got in by a fluke.
But although the feeling of being an imposter in this strange and confusing world might never completely fade, I’m learning to appreciate it. I’m not sure I ever want to get over the novelty of wearing a gown (or discovering that my supervisor didn’t actually hate my essay) – because it makes it all feel pretty special. Aspects of Cambridge can be off-putting, but don’t be put off – you absolutely deserve to be here.