A tense time of the year in Cambridge

Undergraduates at Cambridge do their final exams in late May and early June. No matter how well they have done in the rest of their three years at Cambridge, their degree class (*)  will depend entirely on their performance during a couple of weeks right at the end of their ninth term (or for a few who do four year degrees, their twelfth term).

You might think this would create a certain pressure and tension. You would be right. It is a very difficult period in the lives of the young people, all of whom had to do extremely well at school to get a place at Cambridge in the first place. Now their degree grade, reputation and job prospects depend on about six or seven exams of three hours each. Some subjects may substitute a dissertation for a couple of these exams.

The colleges are mostly closed to visitors during this period so it’s a bad time to visit Cambridge. Students are fretful enough without tourists taking photos of them and making distracting¬† noises. Colleges provide advice to students on how to cope with the experience. Here is Clare College’s for example, which includes the helpful information that “It is really very hard to fail.” This is true, but depends on students working very hard in order to ensure they don’t fail, so there is something of a paradox in this advice.

Trinity Hall May 2013
Students suffering from stress at Trinity Hall, May 2013

It’s even worse in Oxford because students have to wear academic dress (“sub fusc”) for exams, which means black suits or skirts, ties and heavy black gowns, which on a hot summer day (it does sometimes happen) in a stuffy exam room, make you feel even more hot and oppressed. This is one tradition that Cambridge thankfully has dropped. Oxford students voted in 2006 by a large majority against making the wearing of sub fusc voluntary, which is I think a priori evidence for the superior intellect of Cambridge students.

The one benefit of a period of unbearable tension is that when it finishes, the release is wonderful. Actually, the tension is released in two phases. It is a tremendous feeling to walk out of your last exam. But the actual class isn’t revealed for another few weeks, so there is still some anxiety about.

The period of celebration after exams has to wait till the very end of term, as some subjects don’t complete exams until the last day of term. The weekend after the end of term includes Suicide Sunday, supposedly named for the fact that (most) students haven’t committed suicide despite the best efforts of the University to encourage them to do so. The next week is called May Week, a week of college balls and garden parties which allows people to spend most of each day as drunk as they can handle (and in some cases drunker). It’s called May Week, despite being in June, because originally the balls were held before exams, during a time when perhaps the exams weren’t taken quite so seriously.

The exam results are posted, publicly, outside the Senate House, by subject as the results come in. So the final stage of the tension is waiting for your name to appear on a list, alongside everybody else’s, on a notice board. If you’ve done poorly, your humiliation is public. (This system of disclosure is argued by some to be in conflict with British law on data protection, as well as being needlessly insensitive, and may not last much longer.)

For the vast majority who have passed, graduation takes place a week or two later at a series of ceremonies, conducted college by college, at the Senate House. At that point students have a BA (Honours) degree from the University of Cambridge. Those lucky enough to stay alive for another three years are entitled to convert their degrees to the MA, possibly subject to a small college fee.

There is much to condemn about the Cambridge system. It puts enormous stress on students. It provides no credit for outstanding performance in the student’s first or second year. It tests students largely on their ability to perform a sort of sprint – a relatively short exam under high pressure conditions – rather than a marathon – work done steadily over a period of time, as in a dissertation. It is unavoidably open to some amount of luck, because you may have revised just the subjects that come up or you may not, you may have a cold, you have may just broken up with your loved one and so on.

But a good result cannot be faked.

(*) Cambridge, like most UK universities, places students into the following classes: First, Upper Second (II.1), Lower Second (II.2), Third (quite rare at Cambridge these days) and fail (very rare). It’s also possible to get an ordinary degree, rather than an honours degree. This is tantamount to a failure in England and Wales but a qualification in its own right in Scotland, where a fourth year brings honours.

7 Responses

  1. Kit Kilgour

    If you were a mathematician taking your finals, then as Mathematics one of the remaining parts of the historical Quadrivium, you also had the opportunity to attend the Senate House at 9:00am on the day of the results to hear them read out from the balcony inside. Certainly a time of high stress to listen through the alphabet waiting to hear if you got the class you expected. When I sat the finals, it was 4 exams taken over two days, so one bad day and you had a lot of ground to make up.
    But as you say, a good result cannot be faked.

  2. Rob Hall

    Thanks for your article. As a future graduate student from the US, this way of doing things is baffling to me. Throwing away your previous years hard work and dedication just for your final exams seems odd to me, but I’m glad I was able to learn about this prior to coming this fall. I’m also glad that my MBA program is only a year and that is all I have to worry about!

  3. Anthony Smith

    Ahh ! Happy Days. I recall the bowel-watering moment when I realised that my first exam was only four weeks ahead – Modern Languages being first to start. Cue cynical Historian friends setting up a sweepstake as to who would be first to a nervous breakdown. (Smith in the lead.)

    Cut to a few weeks later. I’m done. It’s the Historians who now have the thousand-yard stare.

    Nonetheless, the examiners took mercy on my relatively poor performance in Finals, and gave me a 2.1, because I’d done OK in Part 1, so maybe it’s not all down to a few papers after nine terms ?

  4. Harrison

    I’m going to have to go thoroughly that kind of process at my IB School, as we have to study extremely hard for 3 years, and then at the end the only thing that counts is the Final Exam! If I applied to cambridge then it wouldn’t be so bad for me…:)

  5. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz

    Oh, yes, I remember it well … as you say, major stress. And in my time (end of the 70s) there was the occasional suicide or nervous breakdown – I hope that doesn’t happen any more. But nothing could compare with the bliss of May Week and the run-up to graduation when you were footloose and fancy free and had time to do all those Cambridge things that you’d been promising yourself for three years.

  6. Hilary Davidson

    Simon Taylor is misleading when he says ‘ their degree class depends on a few weeks work at the end of a term, as in Cambridge University the degree class Is not given on the final certificate but each year is graded separately, and counts. This is why graduates can claim to have double or triple firsts…….So the work done towards each year’s exam does count, and the final year’s grade is no more important and has no more weight than the grade given at the end of the first year…….

    • Simon Taylor

      It’s true that the degree certificate contains no class or grade (you can get a transcript of grades from the University). But it’s not true that there is an overall grade averaged over the different years’ grades – this is explicitly ruled out on the University website. All undergraduate degrees require a student to have passed both a Part I and Part II, together known as the Tripos. It is possible to get different grades in each Part. But employers, scholarship awarding agencies and other universities all look at the Part II (final year) grade. You will not be successful trying to persuade JP Morgan that your Part I first and Part II 2.2 average out as 2.1. So the pressure is all on the final grade, no matter how well you might have done in Part I.

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