The Secret Tripos Topper

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

Cambridge how to get a first interview secret starred first Tripos Topper

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.