On Cambridge #1

My last post was about starting a blog. It mainly concerned itself with my  terror of writing and publishing online. Since then, I haven't published anything for 10 months. Now that, dear people, is dedication. Anyway, onto a context-giving anecdote for this post:

I recall a conversation that happened when I was around 15 between a then-mentor-figure Leo and another older student Nathaniel. I was sitting in a classroom of would-be debaters that were under his tutelage. We were perched on a mix of tables and chairs hanging around after school and I had happened to focus in on this particular conversation going on at the time. Leo and Nathaniel were talking about a system which my school had cleverly put in place – every student that sat an Oxbridge entry interview was asked to fill out a form detailing as much about the interview as possible.

As such, my school slowly compiled years upon years worth of various interview questions. Or at least, that was the plan. As Leo pointed out – many students failed to fill in their forms in the immediate aftermath, such that most of the detail in the forms was exceptionally vague. Being told that you should expect to be asked maths questions in a science interview with no more details isn't overly helpful.

Naturally, Leo acted differently - he told us about how  after a mere few minutes after his interview, he had gone to the nearest cafe, sat down, and transcribed every question he had been asked. He even made a point of including the questions most wouldn’t even consider real questions – in this case, technically the first question he was asked was a casual one as to whether he knew a student that had gone to our school and was now at that college. A wise man. Sadly Leo-senpai and I drifted apart, as I became increasingly intolerable in my later teenage years. If you read this Leo, I’m more tolerable now I swear – lets grab a coffee! Anyway...

Following the same vein, I finished my Cambridge degree three days ago, and now I have something to say about it. It was an emotional last exam, immediately followed by a much needed lunch with friends. For additional important details - I studied Natural Sciences, doing (mostly) Physics for three years at Homerton College. It was, on the whole, a fantastic experience.

 While I did not immediately go to a cafe afterwards to write this, it should be said that I feel justified in that we are talking about a 3 year process versus an hour long interview. Proportionally, these are probably around the same waiting times to record my thoughts. These aren't written with any audience in particular in mind - if you're thinking of applying, you may find it useful. If you've just graduated, you may find it agreeable, or not. OK, done stating the obvious, here we go:

Thought #1:  Luck's a huge part of a Cambridge Degree (and some of us realised too late).

One thing that is seldom talked about but often agreed upon by most that I’ve encountered at Cambridge is the sentiment that we’re all lucky. Everyone knows it’s difficult to obtain a place, and we all know many people equally intelligent people - if not much more so - who applied and didn’t get one.

What I think is less agreed upon, or at least fully realised, is how the luck game only begins upon entry. Cambridge degrees are almost entirely decided by final exams – you are betting that for that week in three or four years time, you’ll be on good form. You won’t be ill physically or mentally, and you’ll be ready.  Throughout all the chaos and time unknown that separates you and that week, you’re betting that you’ll be match-ready. Want to take that bet?

Now, I’m sure many of you are thinking that you have a great deal of control in this – sure, for all intents and purposes this is true (let’s not get into determinism arguments here) – you’re free to work hard to ensure you learn enough, free to eat well to help prevent your health deteriorating and free to  have enough fun that you’ll not fall into the depths of despair. This is a great attitude to have, however, it’s one that I’ve seen the collective Cambridge experience rob from some of my friends entirely during their time here.

I’ve seen smart, warm, fantastic people get screwed over because in the last few weeks during their exams, they got depressed or ill. At Cambridge there are seldom retakes – occasionally one can intermit or repeat a year if circumstances are deemed ‘sufficient’ to, but these are few and far between. For some, getting into Cambridge was an unlucky thing to happen to them. 

Consider this fact that many of you know - of all the content you’re taught during your degree, you’ll be examined on a tiny fraction. Did you get ill while those lectures were on and miss supervision on that one topic that happened to come up in the final paper? Unlucky. Did you get depressed and go home for a few days, meaning you learnt a topic slightly poorer than the rest? Unlucky.

End up living next to people in your first year that you get on spectacularly well with, who go on to become your best friends and keep you happy and supported during your time here? Lucky! Live with people who you actively dislike, on top of everything else – unlucky. Get on with your DoS and supervisors? Go to a college that you like? Hell, even did you even pick the right course to study? Much of this is down to luck, at least in the initial stages, but it really can impact peoples’ experiences of the university, and that translates directly into exam performance in the long run.

 I know that many things in life are subject to luck, and I wouldn’t make a point of it if it weren’t for two things;

1.       The Cambridge environment actively makes many people mentally unwell*

2.       Other universities have a system much more robust against you failing to be a fully functioning human for a week

And hey, this goes both ways. You could not work that hard during your years at Cambridge and happen to get examined on stuff you did know! Lucky! Fair? Maybe not.

I wrote this not to give the definitive perspective someone should have when looking at Cambridge – I don’t really think this is the best attitude to have at all during your time here. It’s somewhat grim and dis-empowering, and not my overriding view at all. 

The reason I wrote this is because I think there are elements of truth in this view that are seldom realised early on. 

The fact of the matter is this: with the way finals are structured, coupled with extreme pressure, a high rate of mental health issues and the usual randomness involved with doing a degree, Cambridge is a risky place to study - even if you're exceptionally smart and hardworking. 

Like I said, some of my friends were extremely unlucky in finals week. It wasn't that they weren't smart, or that they didn't work hard - they were unlucky. I don’t know whether they fully realised the nature of the gamble they were taking when they signed up - I certainly didn’t - and I think it’s worthwhile to consider if you wish to come here.

*what do I mean by many? Something along these lines http://thetab.com/uk/cambridge/2013/06/14/the-tab-mental-health-survey-response-24426

Next post: On the Cambridge Impronauts....

EDIT: Scratch that, I'll write that post eventually

On Cambridge #2: My Top 10 moments, Part 1/3

On Cambridge #2: My Top 10 moments, Part 1/3

On starting a blog

On starting a blog