There is more to getting into Cambridge than simply being brightLOUIS ASHWORTH

Appearing as it does in the top 10 of almost every university ranking, it is undoubted that Cambridge can appear to contain some of the best students in the country, if not the world. In fact, this is an angle not only used by the University to market itself to potential students, with the phrase “best and brightest” thrown around during open days and outreach events, but it defines the way Cambridge is perceived by onlookers. However, the implication that there is a marked difference in intelligence between those admitted to Cambridge and those who are not has a damning effect on access both before and after admissions.

It is interesting to think about just which sixth-formers would consider themselves to fit this bill. Between 2006 and 2016, over a third of Cambridge students came from just 100 schools - today, the students from those schools arrive at Cambridge with a significant amount of their classmates and, crucially, have watched their older peers and siblings go through the admissions process time and time again. Years of lunch-time conversation surrounding who got in and who did not have given these students a clear point of reference as to who belongs at Cambridge, a vision of what meets Cambridge standards based on years of observation.

“This notion of Cambridge students being the best – that those admitted are those that most deserve it – disregards the University’s access issues”

Compare this to the experience of someone from a state comprehensive. Likely to be the only person they know attending Cambridge, the standards of their soon-to-be supervision and lab partners remain unknown and all the more intimidating: state-educated students will habitually doubt their place at Cambridge, measuring themselves against an intangible, and therefore unattainable, standard of intelligence. No wonder, then, that imposter syndrome is so pronounced in Cambridge students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Being accepted to the University and feeling accepted at the University are very different things, and we must not underestimate the role that portraying Cambridge students as effortlessly ‘bright’ plays in this problem.

Students who have learned to cope with or be free from imposter syndrome often do so by finally internalising a sense that they are indeed one of the best, or that their offer was not a mistake. This, however, only illustrates why imposter syndrome is so prevalent to begin with: the pressure is to be one of the best.

What's more, this notion of Cambridge students being the best – and that those admitted are those that most deserve it – disregards the University’s access issues. If this were true, it would follow that there would be no problem with severe underrepresentation of students from working-class backgrounds or certain ethnic groups at Cambridge. Indeed, considering the overrepresentation of students from high-income backgrounds here, that would imply that brightness is inexorably linked to privilege. This only has further implications when it comes to access efforts, as it creates an imposing, churlish, and, crucially, unattainable vision of the kind of intelligence needed for Cambridge, possibly discouraging underrepresented students from applying.

While we continue to illustrate the supposed standard of our student body by referring to our position at the top of university league tables, we actively contribute to this issue. League tables do little to contextualise the ranking of a university with its students’ socioeconomic backgrounds.


Mountain View

Revealed: The regional disparities in Cambridge’s access efforts

We need a reality check. Instead of encouraging students to finally see themselves as being ‘bright enough’ to attend Cambridge, we need to be candid about the realities of admissions and recognise the role played by privilege in gaining a place at this university. Of course Cambridge produces some world-class academics and professionals, but we should remain critical of how much these people have benefitted from privileges to get to where they are. Describing Cambridge students as the “best and brightest”, even if it is intended as a compliment, irresponsibly skirts around the reality of what a huge number of Cambridge students really are: some of the most socioeconomically privileged in the country.

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