I spent a lot of Year 13 crying. Particularly when I thought about achieving my Cambridge offer. Unlike most of my subject-mates, I knew I wanted to do Human, Social and Political Science (HSPS) since I first stumbled across it in year 10. I instantly fell in love with the breadth of the course and the possibilities to cater my learning to my interests. The HSPS page on the university website very quickly became my most visited (and remained my most visited page until October of 2016) as I would obsessively read through the course outline, sample questions and reading guide.
This excitement soon became overshadowed by stress. It wasn’t difficult for Cambridge to become closely intertwined with my idea of self-worth and success. I began to form a very unhealthy relationship with learning; Cambridge was my object of desire and getting the best, and only the best, grades would grant me admission.
My idolatry of Cambridge was only exacerbated by my status as a working class woman of colour. Statistics illustrating the student demographic told me that I was – and still am – doubly an anomaly. School teachers constantly repeated that the only way to escape the confines of East London and climb up the social mobility ladder was by going to a top university. I was told that I would gain access to limitless opportunity, improved social status, and respect.
Instead of helping, this only amplified my anxiety. Instead, I want to share the advice that I wish I’d been given:
- You are not a failure if you don’t meet your offer.
Failure. The word I feared the most, and still do to this day. Many people who apply to Cambridge grew up being overachievers. Academic life was probably defined by praise of their intelligence, predictions of offers from Russell Group universities and high-flying careers. Others were told that they’d never make it to Cambridge. That they weren’t not wealthy enough, not white enough, that they didn’t have enough work experience or connections, or the ability to pass an interview. They learned to equate Cambridge with success and any other experience to failure.
However, you are not a failure if you don’t get an offer or fail to meet that offer. You are not a failure to your friends. You are not a failure to your family. You are not a failure to your teachers. And most importantly, you are not a failure to yourself.
The university admissions procedure is catered to a very particular kind of education. It is accessible to those who have been taught to read in a particular way, to comprehend in a particular way, to speak with a particular style. The comprehensive state school process simply does not cater to the particularities of the elitist admissions process and this is not your failure at all. Intelligence and hard work is only one, and possibly a marginal factor, in the process.
After starting university, I quickly realised that Cambridge is not the end point. It is an educational institution just like any other. I spent the first few weeks frustrated at myself for wasting so many years of teenage life fixated on the notion of studying here. While Cambridge has certain resources other universities do not, and of course prestige attached to its name, it is not the be all or end all of academic success. A lot of my learning at Cambridge is independent. Furthermore, my area of interest lies in liberation politics which has extensive, cutting edge and radical resources available online, often outside of academic spheres.
I am fortunate to be mostly enjoying my experience here, but seeing my friends at other institutions demonstrates that I could be just as happy at any other. It is not the fancy formals, the black gowns, or the name of the institution that defines your university experience. It is the people that you meet, the friendships that you create and the knowledge that you acquire.
- Poverty is not a sign of shame.
In the comprehensive school system, Oxbridge is held as a key to escape poverty or working class status. The constant reiteration of this rhetoric reinforces the notion that poverty is simply a temporary position which can and needs to be escaped. That poverty is a visible and grotesque stain, demonstrating your inability to work hard enough to erase it.
This rhetoric is extremely violent on three levels. Firstly, it cements the notion that poverty is a sign of personal failure. Secondly, it ties self-worth with achieving a place in a university that is often not accessible to people who do not fit in the white and/or middle class category. Thirdly, it places the burden on you to escape the circumstances of your socio-economic condition.
I wish I was told that my socio-economic status does not make me a lesser person. While a Cambridge degree might help individuals to find a better job in the future, it will not uplift the communities that we come from.
My admission certainly didn’t destroy the deeply entrenched class dynamics that continue to be etched into the walls of the institution. I wish I was told that I would continue to encounter unequal power relations and face the insensitivity of fellow subject mates and even friends not understanding that my experience at the university is greatly different to theirs.
Finally, I wish I was told that escaping poverty is not my burden. There are social and political systems that have to be challenged and resisted, but this cannot be done alone.
- Grades do not define knowledge.
I was never pleased with myself unless I got the highest grades in the class. This approach to learning was not only extremely damaging to my emotional, mental and physical well-being, it is simply not a good way to advance knowledge. When receiving an essay back I would instantly look at the mark before the feedback. Even if I did well and the feedback was constructive, I would obsess over the number or letter and think about it the entire day and night. This also began to strain my relationships with friends who I started to treat as competition even if this was not intentional.
My experience in Cambridge thus far has perhaps been uncommon, but I have certainly gained a healthier approach to learning. I have been fortunate enough to have supervisors that do not award marks to every essay I submit; instead they have opted for extensive and constructive feedback. Focusing on ways I can improve rather than fixating on a number has meant that my knowledge of a particular topic and also skills in writing have improved dramatically in the past few months. It also means that I can spend my mental energy bettering myself rather than lamenting over a lost mark.
I wish I took on this approach a lot earlier in my academic career. If you don’t have a teacher to validate your work, tell yourself that what you have to say, demonstrate or create is important and will make a meaningful contribution to the world and yourself. Even if the words feel fake, praise yourself until you start to gain confidence in those praises. By seeing your grades as more than the means to an end, you will value the knowledge you acquire, not a mark and it will ease the pressure of attaining a particular number or letter.
- Meritocracy is a myth.
I remember getting into a heated discussion with my head of sixth form regarding meritocracy. He claimed that because I, a working class woman of colour, got into the University of Cambridge, it meant that anyone could.
What he didn’t understand was that my mother worked seven days a week to ensure that I had my own bedroom and a desk. He didn’t understand that she did all the house chores and cooking while working to ensure that I could focus on school. I don’t have younger siblings that I needed to take care of – a task many of my friends had done since primary school. He didn’t understand that a number of external factors helped me get an upper hand over my peers. And because the school didn’t understand how these external factors operated, they thought that to improve overall achievement rates simply more revision classes, detentions, mock exams and Saturday classes would be enough.
The myth of meritocracy is perpetuated from all directions; from the university (which claims its admissions process is fair and accessible to all,) secondary education, and, importantly, the state.
Allow yourself to accept that hard work is only a starting point. Accept that hard work will not always guarantee success and that this is not your fault at all. Give yourself the credit for already working doubly or triply as hard as those who have had resources and opportunities handed to them. And, allow yourself to rest.
- You will be okay.
I was given a lot of advice on the admissions procedure, how to get the grades, and how to deal with an interview. What I was not told is how to deal with the anxiety after gaining an offer and eventually starting university.
If you’re reading this article, you’ve found FLY so you’re already a step ahead! Remember that you will find an amazing network of radical, caring and badass women at the university who are here to listen to you and make your experience of the university a little better. Black, PoC and femme students have worked tirelessly to make this university more accessible. When you arrive, attend the first FLY meeting (I promise it is not intimidating at all) and go to the BME squash. You will be welcomed with open arms and while there may be several factors working against you, we will try to help you navigate the exhausting world of Cambridge.