Why no one ‘deserves’ to be at Cambridge
The idea of Cambridge being for a deserving few can play into snobbery
Over the next few months, the hard work will kick in in preparation for exams.
Cambridge, but also all of those A-level students who need to meet their grades. A small minority will have offers from Oxbridge.
These are already those few who have made it through the rigorous application process, and they are the chosen few, soon to be narrowed down by narrow grade boundaries to the chosen even fewer.
Hard work, determination, skill, natural intelligence are all thought of as prerequisites to come to Cambridge and rub shoulders with the crème de la crème of the nation and worlds wider student body. The sense of achievement is great.
Yet there are times at this great University, where we all (well maybe not all but most) have crises of confidence. Not even a year in I can hardly count the times when I look across the library table at the raw determination of the person sitting across and think, I can’t do this.
I have handed in essays, pleased with what I have done to be told that I had missed the point of the essay. In another supervision I had, my supervisor spent the first half of the supervision inviting my supervision partner to list the things I had done wrong in my essay. Hers was, as he said, simply better than mine. I tried out for my college university challenge team, and that was hardly a confidence boost.
It is at times like these when the doubt hits. Why am I here in Cambridge? I’m not intelligent enough to be here. I am not capable of getting the same kinds of grades. Why did they even let me in? I should have gone to Bristol/Edinburgh/Durham/predictable back up choice.
When I have confided in people that I feel this way, the response comes back that of course I deserve to be here. I competed against all those other people who wanted spaces at this amazing pressure cooker of a university and I won.
Hear it enough times and it’s easy to believe. “You deserve to be here”
We all carry this, regardless of differences among everyone there is a sense of being a part of a community of people who are just a little bit better than everyone else. Oxbridge spawns Prime Ministers and Nobel Laureates, and we have been chosen to be here. We can wear it as a cloak of protection for those times when we feel inadequate. We internalise it.
There is no shame in being proud of being here. It is a top university and it is hard to get into. It is ok to have a sense of loyalty and joking rivalry with other universities. It is natural and occurs at every university.
The problem is when we start to buy too heavily into the myth that we, as Cambridge students, are deserving of a place here. When our sentiments stretch beyond pride and they extend to a sense of inherent superiority. We are here because we are better than most other people. It doesn’t matter how we are faring relative to other people here, simply because we are here.
I have friends from school who are at very good universities, doing courses that they enjoy. Yet sometimes, I feel myself feeling a glow of some superiority. I am at Cambridge, the famous, world class institution, and I feel in those moments that I deserve to be where I am because I am more capable than them. I am for a moment, even just internally, sneering and unpleasant.
In those moments I hate myself, not as much for my arrogance but for my dishonesty.
I applied twice to Cambridge, and the first year, I was rejected without being pooled. I could, if I so wanted spin an American Dream narrative about myself. Boy fails, boy picks himself up, spends a year working hard, and all that hard work pays off and his dream comes true, and he is more deserving because of those obstacles.
It simply wouldn’t be true. I was no better prepared, and not much better of a candidate the second year around. In the application where I was accepted to Cambridge, I was rejected from several universities that I now look down on from my Cambridge pedestal. One year it just didn’t work at interview for me, and the next year, it did. If my relative merit made a difference then I couldn’t see it. I was unlucky once, and lucky once.
If it is such an imprecise thing, then I cannot say that I deserve to be at Cambridge. Then again, nor does anyone deserve to be here. I could have been accepted the first year and been just as good as whomever I displaced, and similarly, I will not kid myself that of those who applied there aren’t many who this year would not have been as good if not better than me.
There is no student in this university who, if things had gone differently, or if they hadn’t clicked so well in interview, or if they had had a different thought in their exams, could say, “I would definitely still be here”.
There is of course merit in the admissions process but merit is at times subjective and chance has played more than a small part in every single one of us students being here. Some people have an inability to realise that no one gets in here without a little help from fate.
Of the students in the midst of the application process, there are many capable prospective students, who would thrive and contribute much to this university community. Some may be ‘better’ than others, but who gets in will not be a pure reflection of that. Those people who have had their applications rejected would do well to remember that, but so too would those who have been accepted.
I don’t wish to make people feel inadequate by saying people don’t deserve to be here. But the fact of the matter is that if we recognise the role of luck, and that no one really deserves it, then it takes away the pressure to live up to being a member of this supposedly superior university.
It is fine, in a humorous way, for us to be snobby from time to time. It is fine to be proud of our achievements that have led to admission, and to be proud of the fact that we were chosen.
Yet we can get carried away with an idea of being the deserving few. This manifests itself in a certain self-satisfied self-serving elitism which masks the simple truth. Cambridge is a great university, but no one necessarily deserves a place, and getting in doesn’t necessarily give you a right to feel superior.
And no one should feel like they don’t deserve to be here compared to everyone else who does.