Words of wisdom

The university experience is an incredible opportunity, but how to make the most of it? Assorted Cambridge alumni provide advise and inspiration

It should be taken as read that the function of university is to expand your mind and make you a more intelligent person than when you entered. “Maybe I’m overstating it,” says Stephen Fry, “but university is first and foremost about intellectual sodalities, learning ‘to play gracefully with ideas’ in Oscar Wilde’s phrase. It’s about reading time and friendship, about learning to understand the limits of one’s knowledge.”

However, there’s no reason why these high academic ideals should not be combined with a concerted effort to prepare for professional life, as a host of experts and luminaries, including some of Cambridge’s finest, can attest.


Get connected

Everyone remembers Evelyn Waugh’s words of advice in Brideshead Revisited: “You spend the first term at university meeting interesting and exciting people,” he says, “and the rest of your time avoiding them”. But it’s worth remembering that the people you meet and the relationships you build at university could turn out be your best networking tool. “Handing out business cards and going to cocktail parties doesn’t compare to having a college buddy that went on to work for a high-profile company,” says Eric Ravenscraft from the website lifehacker.com. “When one person in your group ‘makes it’, they’ll bring everyone with them.”

Effective employees always make an effort to be on good terms with people from all sectors of a firm – from ancillary staff and cleaners to middle management and directors. In the same way, it’s good to maintain friendships with people from around the university. Get to know students a year ahead of you on your course; they can keep you informed about how your course might develop and what options are available. It’s also important to have friends outside your own field of study, perhaps to become acquainted with alternative study plans or to visit inspiring lecturers.

If you do need to expand your social circle, don’t be afraid to join societies, be it cooking or cricket or computing. “I tried to get involved with as many things as I possibly could,” says Sandi Toksvig of her time at Girton College. “Footlights, the Cambridge Light Entertainment Society, the student paper, gay and lesbian cooking clubs – you name it, I was part of it. I met people who would remain friends for life and made contacts that would prove useful decades down the line.”


Don’t be awed

Just as entering a new place of work can be a daunting prospect, so too do countless Cambridge graduates report being cowed by their surroundings. The writer Peter Ackroyd – brought up on a west London council estate – talks of making great efforts to lose the last remnants of his cockney accent to fit in at Clare College, Cambridge, wanting to be “an ordinary middle-class person”. Nick Hornby recalls shrinking in the face of the “unquestioning entitlement” of his peers at Jesus College (“I didn’t have the confidence to compete”). Spin doctor Alastair Campbell says he was “too young, too chippy and hated all the posh kids” when studying at Gonville and Caius. Arianna Huffington talks of being mocked for her Greek accent when she first spoke at the Cambridge Union.

If university should prepare you for anything, it’s not to be overawed by your environment. “The beautiful architecture in Cambridge had a political function,” says Clive James of his time at Pembroke College. “The idea was to tame the intelligent upstart by getting him addicted to privilege.”

Says award-winning novelist Zadie Smith of her time at King’s College: “The key thing is to enjoy the experience, and exploit it for all its worth. Especially if you’re not from a privileged background, you know that you’ve earned your place there. Cambridge was a joy. Tediously. People reading books in a posh place. It was my fantasy. I loved it. I miss it still.”


Be open to the possibilities

“Can you imagine being a student at Cambridge in the 1920s and not making an effort to see the living legends who were performing every week?” says Germaine Greer, mourning her lack of extracurricular education at Newnham College, Cambridge. “Imagine that you can pop in and see lectures from Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, GE Moore and John Maynard Keynes, and you choose not to. How stupid would you feel? And the terrible thing is that most of us do that all the time at university!”

Though it might not be in your subject, you’re more than welcome to go into any lecture hall. In America, this practice is formalised. Students can choose from a variety of “minor” courses to accompany their “major” subjects. Steve Jobs, while majoring in physics at Reed College in Portland, attended a random class on calligraphy. What he learned about typography and spacing would later be incorporated into his Apple Macs and would revolutionise desktop publishing. In the UK, Stephen Hawking was said to have spent most of his first years at Trinity Hall, Cambridge reading sci-fi and attending English literature lectures, whereas James Dyson was a fine arts student who moved into design and attended lectures on engineering. The ability to make such connections between apparently unrelated fields is, says Clive James: “the hallmark of the truly great mind”. It’s an approach that will benefit you throughout your professional life.

The reality is that the dramatic rise in tuition fees has led to students making new demands on their university course. “My most important advice to any student,” says Columbia University professor Chris Blattman, “is to use your undergraduate degree to learn things that are hard to learn anywhere else.” Another good idea is to take modules out of your comfort zone. If you can speak French fluently, for instance, why not use university as a chance to learn Russian, Arabic or Mandarin? Enhancing your skill set in this way is something that should later govern your choice of job or work experience. “Don’t just ask, can I do this job?” says Rich Milgram, CEO of the careers network Beyond. “Ask, what skills can I acquire from doing this job?”

Make the most of your time, accumulate as many skills as you can and learn as much as possible.


Learn to be professional

Student life is, for many, the first experience of independence. The way to get the most out of university is to treat it like a full-time job, using the kind of good habits that will serve you well throughout your professional life.

“Get into a routine,” says Christine Fanthome in The Student Life Handbook. “Turn up to lectures and seminars on time. Get used to reading something for your next seminar immediately after the current one finishes. Type up lecture notes on the day of the lecture, set yourself a lunch hour, and dress reasonably smartly.” This kind of time management is something that will remain useful throughout your career. Like a college essay, any professional assignment will always benefit from being started as early as possible, and not left until one in the morning of the deadline date.

Likewise, it’s crucial to be able to construct and write assignments coherently and effectively. “Employers desperately need literate graduates who can write fluently,” says Mike Harris, former Head of Policy Development at the Institute of Directors. “There is a credibility gap between the picture painted by decades of rises in exam pass rates and employers’ real-world experience of interviewing and employing people who can barely write.”

Countless business leaders will tell you that they are often shocked at the poor level of written English displayed by so many graduates – even those with good degrees from excellent universities. Whatever subject you are studying, you’ll need to write well and take care of your written work. Read widely. If you identify your writing as a weakness, take courses – or attend lectures – in creative writing, journalism or English. There are often additional courses, learning and support you can get from the university along the way – in writing, presentation or computer skills.


Think beyond your degree

“The most sought-after skill sets for recruiters are becoming less and less about proficiency in specific processes,” says Rich Milgram, the founder and CEO of the career network beyond.com. “It’s more about how you think things through and work within the context of the team. Learning is the easy part. Having the mindset and logic to process it, being thorough and detail-oriented while doing so, these are the critical skills.”

In 2015, Forbes magazine listed the critical job skills required by the most in-demand jobs. The top four skills, mentioned by nine out of 10 of the most prestigious employers, are: critical thinking (using logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of approaches to problems); complex problem solving (identifying complex problems, identifying options and solutions); judgement and decision-making (considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate ones); and active listening (giving full attention to others, taking time to understand, asking questions and not interrupting).

Recruiters also look for experience outside of an individual’s course, whether this be volunteering, internships or extracurricular activities. The majority of these will be unpaid, which can prove tricky for a generation of students who have to contend with astronomical tuition fees and spiralling living costs. But a week spent on work experience can be much more useful than several months in a dead-end part-time bar job. If you’re studying law, two weeks spent as an intern at a firm of solicitors will work out far more profitable in the long run than a job as a Christmas temp for the Royal Mail. Use your holidays to try out different careers, maybe by interning as a researcher, medical assistant, journalist, NGO worker or MP’s assistant.

The value of education beyond university is, of course, not new. “Against my will, in the course of my travels,” said Bertrand Russell, of his time at Trinity College, “the belief that everything worth knowing was known at Cambridge gradually wore off.”


Take the initiative

“When I was studying at Newnham College in the mid-1970s,” says classics professor Mary Beard, “one of my friends achieved a brief moment of fame when she told a professor that his lectures were a disgrace to the university. Nowadays, students are asked to complete forms to assess the performances of their lecturers. I sometimes think it’s a lot more useful for a student to be blunt and tell a teacher if the lectures are not up to scratch.”

Many students remain passive, however, for the entirety of their degrees. The difference is that university students are adults – and nowadays they are adults who are paying a vast amount of money for their education. Students should develop a personal contact with tutors and professors, who are there to help with course content, give feedback on essays and can provide references for future employers. And it’s the same in any area of your university experience – in work or play, taking the initiative and making the most of your time is crucial.

“Be ambitious,” says Richard Branson. “There probably won’t be another time in your life when you have such freedom of opportunity. Grasp it with both hands.” The US academic and politician Elizabeth Warren similarly advises, “People will tell you to plan things out as best you can; they’ll tell you to focus and follow your dreams. They’ll be right. But they’ll also be a little bit wrong. Never be so faithful to your plan that you are unwilling to consider the unexpected.”

Equally, employees should show as much initiative with their management. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – whether in a lecture or a conference meeting, if you’re confused about something, it’s likely that other people are, too. This is why learning to be bold at university is so vital.

“Lord Byron kept a low profile in Cambridge, confining himself to booze, broads and leading a live bear around on a string,” says Clive James in his memoirs of studying at Pembroke College, May Week Was In June. “I was less inclined to hide my light under a bushel. As Byron says, the days of our youth are the days of our glory.”