James Mitchell


About to fail? Don't worry, JAMES MITCHELL is here to help with some worldly wisdom.

“Just sat an exam? How did it go?”

The inevitable, post-exam question – we’ve all asked and been asked it.

Social etiquette dictates that if someone responds in a dejected manner, the person asking is required to offer some consolatory or encouraging words. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m sure you did better than you thought” for example, or “I’ve heard that examiners award extra marks for filling in your name correctly”.

Only a monster would start pointing and laughing at you as you exited the exam hall, Nelson Muntz style.

However, some of you reading this may very well have done badly in your exams. It’s possible that some may even have failed. If you have, you probably know it already. So, being told “it’s all going to be alright” is not going to ease the anxiety or sense of impending doom. That’s what I’m here for.

I turned twenty-three last weekend, despite still being a first-year undergraduate (have I mentioned this before?). My age and lack of occupation is a favourite topic of conversation at home. My mother will often say things like, “Can you believe Sebastian Vettel is the F1 world champion?” before adding, with a distinctly disappointed look on her face, “and he’s only twenty-two. Oh well, never mind”.

When I meet up with my friends from school or even the people who started with me at the LSE five or six years ago, they tell me about their new jobs in the city, their recent engagements, and most frighteningly of all, their plans to settle down and have children. All I can manage is a brief moan about having to get out of bed for a lecture at noon and not having enough TV to watch now that Glee and House have ended.

On reflection, I wouldn’t swap my life for theirs. Mess up your exams, and you too could become a perpetual student.

You might not be convinced. You might well share my parents’ view that I have wasted almost 25% of my life to date. But I have no regrets about the path I’ve taken. My prolonged spell at university has brought me many new and wonderful friends. And the smattering of Farsi I picked up last year still manages to win (condescending) praise from some cabbies and girls of Middle Eastern descent.

Rudyard Kipling’s invitation to treat triumph and disaster just the same is – not to put too fine a point on it – absolute bollocks. I know what he had in mind: with a stiff upper lip, the true man should dismiss both, without showing pride or disappointment (as the case may require). But only a soulless automaton would be able to feel no misery at failure and no joy at success. Dealing with failure requires a measure of perspective and some optimism which, when mastered, might even leave you in a better place than a dose of success.

But if you are to fail, rest assured that Cambridge is one of the best places to do it. It’s akin to having a heart attack outside the cardiac wing of Addenbrooke’s. Once you’ve been accepted, Cambridge will do their utmost to help you get back on the right track.

When I was heading for ignominious failure in my course last year, I initially felt utterly hopeless. I was, however, shown nothing but kindness and given plenty of time to consider my options (which were far more extensive than I had imagined). I eventually decided that I wanted to reapply for History, and I was given time to prepare and sit an exam and interview, making the whole process as painless as possible.

Most of you aren’t going to fail and this column might have little resonance. However, if you have just returned from an exam that didn’t go so well; slumped yourself in front of the computer; and opened up The Tab for some light relief, then take heart. It could be worse.

You could be a man-child approaching his mid-20s nowhere near completing an undergraduate degree.

On the other hand, you may be a little closer to getting your own column on this website.

As they say, every cloud….

@jamesrsmitchell
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