Pressure is never greater for Cambridge students than during Easter TermLouis Ashworth

Cambridge has a reputation for academic excellence, selecting only a small percentage of applicants to study at its world-class facilities each year. Its traditions – the gowns, the formal dinners, the secret societies – only add to the intrigue, cementing the stereotype of the institution as the birthplace of the future elite.

But there is a darker side to this reputation. While statistics from the 2016 admissions cycle indicate that 46.9% of offers went to those from UK maintained schools and just 25.2% of offers went to those from UK independent schools, this does not accurately reflect the class imbalance present at the University. This is not least because, among other things, ‘maintained schools’ is a term used to cover various selective schools and grammar schools as well as comprehensive state schools, the latter making up just 21% of all offers in the 2016 cycle. Indeed, Varsity’s investigation into ‘The Schools that Rule Oxbridge’ revealed that 34% of all Oxbridge entrants came from just 100 of the most prestigious UK schools.

Students from less privileged backgrounds must not only cope with the pressure that the very label of being a ‘Cambridge student’ supplies, but with the pressure that they are competing with some of the most privileged minds in the country. This can lead to social isolation and feelings of ‘imposter syndrome’.

Students from less privileged backgrounds must cope with the pressure that they are competing with some of the most privileged minds in the country

Coming from a school which personally advised me against applying to Cambridge, I have felt first-hand the relentless pressure to prove myself. Some students can feel, with each essay they hand in, with each supervision they attend, like they are effectively ‘re-applying’ to Cambridge, being judged and assessed on their worth and value at such an institution.

This feeling is only exacerbated by the additional stress added in Easter Term. It is almost impossible to escape from the work-centred culture, with even sunny, coffee-shop Instagram posts featuring the corner of a textbook. These subtle reminders create an environment which perpetually induces guilt for not studying, even when taking a break, creating a dangerous dynamic where students measure their worth by the number of hours they have spent staring a textbook.

Perhaps one reason why students put so much pressure on themselves as exams near is the University’s attitude to examination grades. Students studying at Cambridge will most likely be used to being the best; students will have achieved incredibly high grades at GCSE and A-level, and will be among the highest achievers at their schools. However, in order for any grade system to work, there must be some disparity in the grades obtained by students. This inevitably means that some students must fall below ‘average’ in their cohort at Cambridge, while still remaining above average in relation to the nation.


Mountain View

Oxbridge admissions dominated by top schools

This problem is heightened by the negative connotations associated with lower grades, with anything below a 2:1 regularly being considered a failure. I have personally experienced the negative consequences of this, having been called in for a ‘discussion’ by the college principal after receiving a 2:2 in my first year examinations, despite being diagnosed with Dyspraxia only a few months earlier. It is shocking that a very comfortable pass could be considered a ‘cause for concern’. Even more worrying was the lack of regard for the context of my grade, with the first mention of depression bringing the conversation abruptly to an end.

Ultimately, all students who have been admitted to Cambridge have been accepted for a reason. The interview is over; there is no need to prove yourself anymore. Success in this University should not be measured by a grade, or a percentage. Succeeding is making it through, relishing the opportunity to learn from some of the greatest minds in the field, and prioritising your own happiness and health above everything. Next time you go for a coffee break, grab a friend, leave your textbook behind, and enjoy the sun.