12 notable alumni who prove that you don’t need a 2.1/1st to be successful

A list far, far better than the Class List

It’s Easter term, and we all know what that means… Exams!!! Some people love revising and spend more time in the library than their own room. For others and myself, even finding the motivation to do a past paper is a challenge, particularly as most students haven’t taken a meaningful exam in at least two years. However you feel about exams and revising, I think there’s one opinion shared by the majority of Cambridge students – you have to get a 2.1 or a 1st. 

We can pass the blame of these high expectations onto our pushy supervisors, or the companies we want to work for, but realistically the blame lies with us. With 91.6% of Cambridge students graduating with a 2.1/1st (cheeky stat there for you x), it seems like a necessity to stick with the crowd and get those top grades. Yet many of Cambridge’s notable alumni are thriving, despite not achieving such results. 

So if you look at your exam results and feel disappointed, remind yourself of these alumni and remember that you too could be famous one day…

Peter Bazalgette, Law at Fitzwilliam, 3rd

To add some spice to the article, I actually emailed all those alive and mentioned asking for a comment. I was rejected/ignored by all but one, and surprisingly, the one I heard back from was the one I least expected – Sir Peter Bazalgette, current chairman of ITV and “creator of Big Brother” (and, for any engineering geeks reading, great-great-grandson of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who created the sewer network for central London).

During his time at Cambridge, Bazalgette took up many fun extracurricular activities. He was President of the Union when the Union’s roof burnt off and spent three months filing the insurance claim, and also wrote for Stop Press (now Varsity, but I like to think he’d have written for The Tab if he was a student nowadays). Because of his busy schedule, Bazalgette was awarded a 3rd, but he told me he felt it was “reckless charity” to be given a degree at all! He also added that he only saw his tutor to ask to borrow his electric piano, whereas he doesn’t think today’s tutors would’ve ever let him get away with his poor attitude to studying.

When I asked what his main piece of advice to Cambridge students would be, he replied “If you get the opportunity to go to Cambridge, you should make full use of it, whether that’s academically or otherwise. Be happy or get a degree [or both].” It may also be worth securing a job before you leave Cambridge (though this is, of course, not essential) as Bazalgette mentioned he’d had a BBC News trainee role lined up before he got his results. 

Bazalgette also stressed the importance of outreach and how we need to get more talented people from all backgrounds to study at Cambridge. The implicit message I got from talking to him was that you’re lucky enough to even study at Cambridge, so make the most of it and help others who may want to study here too.

File:Peter Bazalgette.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Big Brother, Big City (Image Credits: Rachel Goodwin via Creative Commons License)


David Mitchell, History at Peterhouse, 2.2

David’s career in the spotlight started long before Peep Show and Would I Lie To You. In fact, he actually met Robert Webb (who, if you were wondering, studied English at Robinson) in his first year at Cambridge, when they were rehearsing for Cinderella. Wikipedia doesn’t tell us who they played, but I’m hoping they were the ugly stepsisters. Mitchell became president of Footlights for a year, which is what he believes led him to get a 2.2 in his final exams. Personally, I’ll take being funny over a 2.1 (if my DoS is reading this, that was a joke x). 

File:MitchellandWebb.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Smile if acting is better than studying (Image Credits: Irving Liaw via Creative Commons License)


Carol Vorderman, Engineering at Sidney Sussex, 3rd

Given that Vorderman’s career is built on her being a maths genius, it may come as a surprise to know that she is actually a member of the ‘Nines Club’ – meaning she got a Third in all years of study. Another fun fact, when Vorderman arrived at Cambridge at 17, she was one of the youngest women to be admitted at the time.

She told The Independent that she “could’ve worked harder” in first and second year, but felt that she’d upped her game for third year. However, when she went to look at her third-year results, posted outside Senate House, she found out she’d got another 3rd. However, I think we can all learn from Vorderman’s attitude – “I was hugely disappointed, until two minutes later I thought: it could have been worse. At least I’d got a Cambridge degree, even if with three Thirds”. Absolutely right Caz.

File:Carol Vorderman Waddington Airshow 2011 -3.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Mental maths > whatever bollocks you learn in uni maths modules (Image Credits: 21stCenturyGreenstuff via Creative Commons License)


Hugh Laurie, Archaeology and Anthropology (specialising in Social Anthropology) at Selwyn, 3rd

Recently seen wandering the streets of Cambridge, Hugh Laurie was usually found on the river during his time studying here. Laurie took part in the 1980 boat race (sadly losing to Oxf*rd), training up to eight hours a day, as well as becoming president of Footlights, which makes it quite an achievement that he even passed his degree at all! Similar to many of the other celebs on this list, Laurie was someone who met many of his famous pals at Cambridge, with Emma Thompson (VP of Footlights under Laurie) and Stephen Fry included in his friendship group.

Good to see that Hugh Laurie isn’t a superspreader (Image Credits: Nicole Egan and Sam Baxter)


Zadie Smith, English Lit at King’s, 3rd (in first and second year)

Zadie Smith is the woman behind many famous novels, such as White Teeth, On Beauty and NW. However, in this article, she is proof that your first and second-year results do not have to define the grade that you graduate with. While Smith was awarded a 2.1 in her final year, she got a 3rd in Part 1A and 1B of her course.

I’m not recommending that you bin off your first two years at Cambridge, but at least know that you can work your way up to higher grades. Also, if Smith went from a 3rd to a 2.1, who’s to say that people can’t go from a 2.1 to topping Tripos… Upgrades people, upgrades!

Zadie Smith | If you would like to use this image to illustr… | Flickr

Who needs to top the English tripos when you can write the literature yourself? (Image Credits: Chris Boland)


Mel Giedroyc, French and Italian at Trinity, 2.2

Best known for her role on Bake Off (and one of my favourite childhood shows, Sadie J), it turns out Mel Giedroyc is also a keen linguist. From what I could find in The Independent, I feel I should emphasise the importance of revising all modules. Mel got a 1st in her Italian essay paper, but only 17% on her history of Italian paper (where she wrote about Monty Python). To be fair to her, I’m not sure where Italian history would come up after uni, but maybe her knowledge formed the basis of many discussions with Mary Berry.

Although Mel may not have graduated with a coveted grade, she did meet Sue at Cambridge, and we all know that Mel without Sue is like Victoria without sponge.

The Great British Bake Off | WARNING: Embargoed for publicat… | Flickr

Mel’s face is a good reflection of my shock when I open my exam in a few weeks… (Image Credits: Mark Bourdillon via Creative Commons License)


Diane Abbott, History at Newnham, 2.2

The first black, female MP and one of the key faces of the Labour Party (and the London Underground) in recent years – Diane Abbott’s career goes back to when she graduated from Newnham with a 2.2. While many think of Politics as a posh, white man’s game (as we know, many MPs and PMs were privately and Oxbridge educated), Abbott showed this was not the case, and paved the way for females from ethnic minority groups in Politics.

Abbott’s result, and later success, shows that there is way more that can be picked up from a Cambridge History degree than knowing the winner of every single war to have ever existed. Confidence, courage and connections are just a few of the things that grads leave uni with.

File:Official portrait of Ms Diane Abbott crop 2.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

We <3 politics (Image Credits: Chris McAndrew via Creative Commons License)


Stanley Baldwin, History at Trinity, 3rd

Stanley Baldwin dealt with the aftermath of two Great Depressions in his lifetime – finding out his grades and the 20th-century crisis. Although he is no longer with us, Baldwin proves, like Diane Abbott, that politics isn’t just for those who hold double Firsts in PPE from Oxford, and that History is worth taking at uni. And after all, I don’t think it even takes a degree to be smarter than BoJo…

Stanley Baldwin in Montreal | Photographer: John Boyd jnr. A… | Flickr

Living the good life (Image Credits: John Boyd jnr. via Creative Commons License)


Alexander Armstrong, English Lit at Trinity, 3rd

As it seems Alexander Armstrong can do just about anything (hosting Pointless, Opera singing, acting, etc), it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Armstrong took a similar I-will-do-everything attitude while at Cambridge. As well as studying at Trinity at the same time as Pointless co-host Richard Osman (who read Politics and Sociology), Armstrong played piano and oboe, sung bass baritone as a choral scholar, and was a member of Footlights. And I can hardly find time to do my supo work alongside writing the occasional article and obsessively watching Suits…

File:Alexander Armstrong (cropped).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

So can we conclude that results are Pointless? (Image Credits: StormCab via Creative Commons License)


Hugh Bonneville, Theology at Corpus, 2.2

Hugh Bonneville, star of Downton Abbey and, more importantly, Paddington, claimed he did more acting than academic work (does being a drama queen count as acting? If so, I’m on the same level as Bonneville here). Hopefully, you’ve spotted the running theme by now – it’s important to do things you enjoy outside of your studies because, as well as being fun, your hobbies could take you even further than good grades. Especially if you want a career in acting.

File:Hugh Bonneville MingFilmFest 2011 n1.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The things I would do to be able to meet Paddington bear (Image Credits: Marie-Lan Nguyen via Creative Commons License)


Prince Charles, Anthropology, Archaeology and History at Trinity, 2.2

Contrary to popular belief, Prince Charles is further proof that going to Trinity doesn’t automatically guarantee you a 1st. You also would’ve thought that you’d be pretty good at anthropology if you’d met so many people during your lifetime. But what can I say – the Royal Family are always defying expectations!

I’ll admit, Charles’ “success” is tricky to replicate (the only link I have to royalty is my friends calling me “queen” every now and then). However, there’s got to be someone studying at Cambridge with at least a minor link to a monarch, so you could always try to scrape in with them and see where it takes you. Your best bet is to keep an eye on those John’s boys…

His Royal Highness (HRH) Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, stands in the shade prior to

Shades on, problems gone ( SSGT Samuel Bendet, USAF via Creative Commons License)


Tom Hollander, English at Selwyn, 2.2

Another actor to round off our list – Tom Hollander has starred in Pride & Prejudice, Rev and more. Hollander told The Guardian that once he got into Cambridge, he thought “I don’t really have to do any more work ever again” because getting in was the hard part (I think we’ve all thought the same thing at some point, and oh how wrong we were). Unsurprisingly, Hollander was a member of Footlights and even starred in a production with Deputy PM Nick Clegg. Many of his cohort will have graduated with a 2.1/1st, but few could say they acted alongside a future politician. I know what I’d prefer. 

File:Tom Hollander 2017.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Selwyn seems to be a breeding ground for celebs (Image Credits: Bex Walton via Creative Commons License)

So there you go gang; a bunch of famous people who didn’t get their hands on a  2.1 or a 1st. I’m sure there’s plenty more out there, but Wikipedia, unfortunately, cannot uncover the grades of every alumni to exist. I personally think that the moral of the story is that you need to use your time at uni wisely. Whether that’s acting, playing a sport, singing, or setting up your own quirky society, you need to have good things to look back on in case your results don’t end up being what you’d hoped for.

Even if you do top tripos, your degree still doesn’t define your future. AA Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, was a Trinmo, and I can bet you he made far more money from writing about a bear than he would have made from being a mathematician. Similarly, Sacha Baron Cohen got a 2.1 from Christ’s and he’s known for acting in a mankini…

Good luck with your exams from all of us at The Tab Cambridge, and if they don’t go as planned, you can always aim to be on this list in the future!

Feature Image Credit: Izzy Porter; Esmvski, Creative Commons License; Rwendland, Creative Commons License

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