The Secret Tripos Topper

What's it like to know you're the best? An anonymous starred first student confesses all to The Tab.

My mark last year was 87%, one of the highest in my subject. There is a perception that people who get the top grades must find everything easy, and consider themselves above everyone else, but that’s just not true.

I found the course challenging and thought my exams had gone worse than I’d wanted. I was aiming for a first and I was worried that I’d let myself down, so it was a massive shock when I saw that I had got a starred first.

The morning I opened CAMsis, hungover in May Week after a ball, I was shaking, and didn’t quite believe what it said. I was convinced there must have been a problem with the marking – I had to get my director of studies (who I don’t think believed it either!) to ring up the department to make sure.

My family were pleased, and I think most of my friends had already created an impression of me as smart, so to them a starred first didn’t mean very much.

I don’t tend to mention it outside Cambridge, ever. Not even as an ‘interesting fact’ to introduce myself, and I doubt I ever will. Most people who do find out are a little bemused, don’t understand what it means, or think you must be some sort of autistic freak.

I think it certainly changes how you are perceived by others on your course and at college though. Other students tend to pay more attention to what you say in supervisions. When we are debating a topic in or out of class my word kind of becomes the gospel truth – which is not necessarily a good thing.

I know that it looks good on the CV, but I don’t think a starred first really helps with anything other than going into academia. I’m pretty sure I’d get a fair load of funding if I ever did, purely off the back of my results.

More generally, I would say it has helped boost my confidence, particularly after coming to Cambridge from a more non-traditional background. I found it a huge leap from school and I was quite intimidated by others who seemed to have had a better education than myself and were more eloquent.

Cambridge is definitely a stressful place. I got a high first in my first year and I put loads of pressure on myself to repeat that. The pressure definitely came from myself rather than my DoS or anyone else.

So how did I do it? I hate to say it but there is no magic formula. I think I was in the half of people that worked particularly hard in exam term, but it was more about knowing where to put the work in than slogging away for hours on end.

It is probably easier to get a very high grade in an arts subject than a science subject as the exams are essay-based. Confidence is everything: if you are confident in your ability to build an argument then you can just write about what you know.

Having read and being able to reference broadly was crucial. Going outside the reading lists and engaging with theories and concepts which are not prescribed in supervisions and lectures throughout the year may well have been the difference.

Also, I tried to keep up with extra-curricular activities so I didn’t spend all my time working and go crazy. This was especially the case during exam term when I had more free time and would spend several days a week doing sport. But I think that when I did work I was probably more efficient.

I would advise anyone who wants that cheeky star to work hard all year – not too hard, don’t slog your guts out, but make sure you’re on top of things from the get-go rather than an exam term sprint.

Read just a little bit more than other people on your course will have – that interesting reference you don’t have time to follow up? Follow it up and it’ll look good. It’s all about going that little extra mile, or at least making it look like you have.

  • Gram

    'purely of the back of results'

    Clearly a mathmo

    • Mr Perceptive

      "Having read and being able to reference broadly was crucial."

      No starred firsts in maths. Also, no referencing. Most likely history – the department awarded 14 stars last year.

    • male air hostess

      top ranked mathmo gets 100, not just 87

      get more mathmo mates

    • Can't be a mathmo

      He/she isn't using a university approved calculator

      • HO MAK

        Mathmos don't use calculators in exams…

  • Inadequate

    "Going outside the reading list"….um fuck off, I struggle to cover half the reading list.

  • Judging by

    your quality of prose style, we'll all get starred firsts. Even the Hungarian mathmos.

  • A Sensitive Scholar

    'The best way to get a starred first is to become a deeply unpleasant twat' – Orlando Figes

    • You are not

      bloody Kant.

      I only used to enjoy your comments for the pictures.

      • A Sensitive Scholar

        It was not my choice to stop, friend. The new website doesn't allow the submission of links.

  • Well that was

    Obvious and uninteresting

  • Everyone


    • But ….

      as he says only… "one of the highest in my subject".

      Which subject is this??!!!

  • I thought

    marks were capped at 85%?

    • Mr Perceptive

      No. It is *possible* to get 100%, although you're unlikely to see this in the arts. A few years ago, someone was made Senior Wrangler with 96%.

      • Actually in the know

        No. In maths, generally the Senior Wrangler gets 100%, and the four or so below him/her get marks over 95%. It then goes linearly down according to merit mark from 95% to 70% for the wranglers. In 2011, both Senior and Second Wrangler for 100%.

  • asdfgh

    There certainly seems to be no magic advice. Work hard but not too hard, do a bit more than everyone else, do some extracurricular stuff too, be confident.

    Anyway, good for you sir.

    • indeed

      The closest thing to a hint seems to be
      "Also, I tried to keep up with extra-curricular activities so I didn’t spend all my time working and go crazy. This was especially the case during exam term when I had more free time and would spend several days a week doing sport. But I think that when I did work I was probably more efficient."
      Basically – just being in the library for 9 hours does not equal 9 hours revision, you'd be better off playing football for the middle 3 and getting just the same amount of work done.

  • Mr Perceptive

    "It is probably easier to get a very high grade in an arts subject than a science subject as the exams are essay-based."

    Disagree. Speaking from a similar position as you, but on the engineering tripos, I've found there's often a lot of redundancy in the exams; do the last ten years' worth of papers three times over and tripos just becomes a test of muscle memory. Sad, really.

    • Brown Barrel

      Plank Barrel? Is that you?

  • anon

    Bit of a difference in the amount of starred firsts awarded by various departments though…

    MML seems to give out relatively loads, and they're non-existent in Sciences.

    • Nah

      Lots of Natscis get over 80%, it just doesn't say "with distinction" on the class list

    • hurrumph

      MML gives out no more starred firsts than any of the other arts subject like History/English/Philosophy etc. Geography gives out a few if you look back at class-lists.

      Don't single us linguists out – compared to the other arts subjects we have a considerable amount more work than them!

  • Tabland

    In my experience there was a heavy correlation between VK consumption and starred firsts.

  • JB

    I would have got a first but I was too busy selling tickets for lolas

    I'll be in hall tonight again if anyone wants any

  • Cindies

    How many times did you visit me all year?

    • Alumni

      Funnily enough, I never went.What did I miss?

  • Nice!

    I like these articles put out by the tab this year. keep them coming!

    Just been reading the 80/20 rule: 20% of the work gets 80% of the results. So it isn't how much time you spend but on what you spend it on.

    Saying that from my talking with guys who perform really well, the trick really is just getting down and doing it (during the long vacation).

  • Hey


  • Hooray casual discrimination

    “some sort of autistic freak”

    Seriously please remove this article now, you are a disgusting person if you think having Autism is something to be made fun of, and the fact that you imply everyone else getting amazing exam results must have it speaks buckets about your self confidence.

    • whatever

      I don’t think this article suggests in any way that Autism is something to be made fun of. the “autistic freak” bit is only used to describe ignorant and dismissive reactions from society that excellence or extreme success can spark.

      Saying that she or he is “a disgusting person” just for pointing out that others may call him/her think of him/her as “an autistic freak” is actually pretty insulting….

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