Hatty (left) and Anna (right) in the woodsAnna Willmoth

“I’m about to embark on this crazy journey, kicking and screaming from my duvet cocoon, into adult independence and Cambridge-level intense academia.”

I wrote that two years ago, almost to the day. My offer had come through, I’d got my A*AA, and was now preparing to venture into the Oxbridge unknown. I was right that it would be fairly intense. Going from my run-of-the-mill comprehensive sixth-form college to eating guinea fowl at gowned formals in fifteenth-century dining halls was a culture shock to say the least. I struggled with the weight of academic expectation that I felt was synonymous with a place like Cambridge. I struggled with what I felt should be my workload and prioritised ‘getting it together’ academically over making friends. I struggled finding my niche, my place, my people. My first Michaelmas was difficult.

"This next Michaelmas will be Anna’s first and my last."

I also had an incredible time. I remember walking around those cobbled streets, passing wide-eyed tourists and buildings that were so beautiful they didn’t quite look real, and feeling like I could just lift my feet off the ground and float with pride. I had made it. I was here. After so many hurdles, exams, stresses, Cambridge was my city and I finally had the privilege of studying among the best and brightest minds in the world.

Taken on 11th October 2018, 'floating with pride'Hatty Willmoth

Cut to last month. I’m woken up by my sister, Anna, bursting into my room teary-eyed and telling me that she had been given two As and a B for her A levels, missing her offer from Downing. And it wasn’t her fault.

Anna had been so determined to get her place at Cambridge. She’d worked harder than I ever did, with levels of organisation to which I can only aspire. She’d written essay after essay when they hadn’t been set, read full articles that I’d only quoted, and studied in her room for hours after every day of college. She was predicted three A*s and she deserved them.

And then lockdown happened; we all know the story. Her educational success was delegated to her teachers and the government, and she became a victim of moderation. Downing have since let her in via the summer pool and the government has rescinded their moderation, so Anna now has her three A*s.

Two years earlier, I hadn’t been particularly pleased with my grades, but at least they were mine. I could point to the As I had expected to be A*s and acknowledge that they were there because I hadn’t revised as much as I should have done. Then, I could remember my A* in History and feel proud of what I had achieved. They weren’t perfect, but they were my grades.

"There is room for hope."

Anna doesn’t have that luxury. I worry that for students like her, imposter syndrome will be harder to overcome. It is something that I have found difficult. I have often found myself thinking that if the questions on my history papers had been different, I wouldn’t be here – that ‘good luck’ was the real reason my application was successful. But I can, at least, refer to my A*AA, written in black and white, and know that I got the grades I needed to get in; I did that. Anna’s year group didn’t have such an opportunity. Their grades are guesses, predictions, teachers’ replacements for what could have been. Next year’s intake will deserve their places as much as any of us, but they won’t have the same objective evidence of their legitimacy.

I am also concerned that freshers won’t have the same opportunities to socialise. In the weeks before leaving for Cambridge, I went to an event in my area for students like me. I say ‘students like me’, but most of the attendees went to private school and, unlike me, were quite at home making polite conversation over red wine and cheese boards. It did, however, give me a chance to ask questions. I began to get used to stories about unfortunate supervisions, wacky academics, and bikes in the River Cam. It was a good taste of the Cambridge culture to come. Similarly, freshers’ events like bar quizzes, speed-meetings, and college family trips helped ease us into Cambridge life. I didn’t do much socialising for the rest of that Michaelmas term so, for me, those early days of mingling were essential.


Mountain View

Cambridge as seen by a refugee

Social distancing does not allow for such events. New students could feel thrown in at the deep end, bewildered by an alien environment and unable to call on freshly formed friendship groups for support. I found the transition difficult, but how much harder might it be to build a community at a distance?

There is room for hope. JCRs and college officials, I’m sure, are putting plans in place for COVID-secure freshers’ events and making full use of technology to try to ensure that students don’t feel alone. This sort of Freshers’ Week may be a little different from normal, but it will hopefully still offer students a welcome start to their Cambridge journey. 

Meanwhile, some current students have put together an unofficial pack of information and advice written for incoming students. If you are concerned about what Cambridge might have in store for you or wondering how you should be preparing for the academic challenges ahead in these next coming weeks, it might help give you some direction. There, you’ll find advice relevant to most available subjects, explaining course structures and things to do to prepare. It’s all optional, it’s all unofficial – feel free to have a read.


This next Michaelmas will be Anna’s first and my last. That’s scary for the both of us, and it won’t be a ‘normal’ term for anyone. But all Cambridge terms are challenging; that’s the nature of the beast. I, for one, can’t wait. Bring it on.