On fish and ponds of various sizes

Before coming to Cambridge, you were used to being the big fish in a small pond.

If I got a pound every time I heard that, I wouldn’t need to go to university anymore. This analogy has been used by our senior tutor, by the supervisors, by a therapist that spoke to us during the coping-with-Cambridge(!) lecture, by random people on the street. Some of them even used suggestive pictures:

My high school colleagues look delicious in this one. Source: Wikipedia

I understand why they insisted on this idea. After all, going to Cambridge is akin to going to high school with some of the smartest people from every other high school in the world. If you were the one with the highest grades in your city, the apple of your teachers’ eyes and the reason why your principal came to school everyday instead of moving to Bahamas, being average all of a sudden might be shocking. Coming to terms with becoming a medium fish in the ocean is even harder when you know that you will be graded on a curve: even though you still are smart and determined, everyone is, and you have to be in the top 30% to get a first. This might be a bit overwhelming indeed, and I appreciate the fact we were taught some ways to deal with these new circumstances.

The thing is, I’ve never really felt like a big fish in a small pond. I was lucky enough to go to a relatively good high school in my home country. And, even though I was in the top there (valedictorians who’ve forgotten more than half of what they’ve learned throughout high school, raise your hands), I constantly participated in national competitions, so I got my ass kicked repeatedly. No hard feelings, I ended up on decent places almost every time, but I was never truly the best in any given subject. Despite being a big fish in my county, I’ve always known there were smarter people out there.

I think this was really helpful for two reasons. Firstly, I didn’t feel overwhelmed when meeting people that had done so many more amazing things than I had managed to do before coming to university. Former participants in international olympiads? I knew some from back home. People with perfect results in their finals? Already used to their existence. Secondly, I felt… liberated, in some weird way. No one expects me to be the best engineering fresher in Cambridge. I don’t have any subjects I don’t like that I must learn for in order to get high grades. I don’t feel pressured to overperform (how could I, anyway?). I’m just another student that wants to learn cool stuff and earn a degree.

To me, being an average fish in a big pond is amazing.

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