“I needed to be in an environment with space to think, and time to nurture interests again”Charmaine Au-Yeung

In the midst of the pandemic, with normal life on hold, Rob took a step back and wondered: “If I had full control over my own life, what would I do?” He felt no particular attachment to his corporate job. Since his time studying law at university, he’d followed the crowd down well-trodden career paths. But he always knew his true passion lay elsewhere - in scientific research. To realise that dream would require a drastic derailment of his comfortable career. Taking the risk, Rob matriculated at Wolfson last Michaelmas to embark on a second undergraduate degree.

“The first time I was in uni, I would envy the people doing interesting subjects”

With three colleges catering specifically to mature students, Cambridge is a prime destination for students who wish to pursue a second undergrad. First degree-holders are eligible for affiliate status, allowing them to complete a second BA in just two years, while a special March application round provides mature students greater flexibility to apply outside the usual UCAS deadlines.

Some of these students, like Rob, are pivoting into disciplines different from their original backgrounds, grasping a second chance to rededicate themselves to their academic calling. Rob previously attended a university with a “really vocational culture”, in a milieu that saw education merely as a means to “climb the social ladder”. “The first time I was in uni,” he recounts, “I would envy the people doing interesting subjects, resenting why I had to do something so pre-professional.”

Now in the position he once envied, he is deeply grateful for the opportunity to explore academic interests for their own sake. For Luke, who was drawn to a branch of the humanities in the last year of his first degree, the academic rigour of Tripos helps build a “rock-solid foundation” before graduate programmes. And though he was fresh out of an Ivy League university majoring in a STEM discipline, he found the intense, regular scrutiny of Cambridge supervisions “significantly more challenging” than his previous studies.

“What I have to do in a week here is what I had to do in a day”

For students who’d previously been exposed to the stresses of the corporate world, returning to school has served a specially therapeutic purpose. “After four years working, you enter a headspace where you no longer have access to interesting thoughts anymore,” says Rob. “I needed to be in an environment with space to think, and time to nurture interests again.”

Binky, an ex-lawyer now pursuing a humanities degree, is also effusive about the effects of student life on her well-being. “I took a nap this afternoon,” she gushes. “I couldn’t take a nap when I was working!” Ploughing through reading lists is no joke, but as she puts it, “What I have to do in a week here is what I had to do in a day!” Her original choice to study and practise law was motivated by financial pressures, and while she is now financially independent, the support systems at Cambridge leave her severely unimpressed. Her previous uni was generous with support and helped students find part-time work, so she finds it jarring that the university frowns on students working part-time.

Doing a second degree doesn’t come without a cost. For 2023 entry, Home students pay an increased fee of £11,670 for courses other than Medicine, plus College fees ranging from £10,338 to £11,500. While Rob is used to explaining his background to fellow students, what’s harder is justifying this expense to people with a more traditional picture of success. “Most people have prescribed life paths, with no room for the idea that one can give up earning money. There’s this idea that you should move forward [in life].” Nonetheless, Rob is unafraid to step out of sync with the prevailing culture of materialism.


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By contrast, some students’ second degrees are a launchpad to their chosen profession. Mira always intended to do a law conversion after her undergrad, and preferred the depth of the affiliate BA to the GDL. “Instead of cramming everything into a year, you get a far more in-depth experience, and you can really appreciate the nuances of the law.” She was pleased to have a good number of people in her cohort who were also pursuing Law as a second degree, with the same age-range and similar life experiences. Felix, an affiliate medic, studied biochemistry for his bachelor’s in the US and favours the American system of studying medicine or law only after gaining a more broad-based academic grounding at undergraduate level. “If you come out of high school and go straight into medicine, I think you’d have a lot of knowledge gaps.”

With such varied experiences and lifepaths, second undergrad students have an understandably different perspective on Cambridge to the average student. But the prevailing sentiment was appreciation: thankfulness for being able to pivot their lives in their desired direction with a Cambridge degree. “A lot of people don’t appreciate just how unique [Cambridge] is,” Rob reflects.

And even for those who don’t have as much reason to appreciate life here, perhaps some comfort can be drawn from these experiences of coming back to university, in better circumstances, for a second bite of the cherry. Our undergraduate days aren’t a one-off, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: you can always be a fresher again, if you so choose.