7 Ways I Got Good Grades at Cambridge Without Meeting My Course Requirements

Chay Graham shares the trials and tribulations of navigating a part-time Cambridge Degree and praises the support of the SU Disabled Students’ Campaign

CN: Discussion of mental health issues

My Natural Sciences BA was long – and that’s an understatement. 6 messy years dominated by ill health, disability and experiencing hate crime for being bisexual. I finally finished with a grade to be proud of and a place on my dream PhD course.

However, I am actually more proud of all the stuff I DIDN’T do during my time at Cambridge. By sticking up for myself, knowing my rights, and with the solidarity of the Cambridge SU’s Disabled Students’ Campaign I was able to break many sides of the rigid academic system open.

On that note, here are the 7 ways I got good grades, without meeting my course requirements:

1. I didn’t sit one of my exam papers

The Department of Biochemistry just didn’t provide me with the lecture recordings they were supposed to (in the pre-covid era). This was due to a combination of some lecturers refusing to be recorded and other staff, who were supposed to record it for me, either forgetting or just choosing not to. Without my lectures and sufficient resources, I couldn’t feasibly take the exam paper. 

They tried to offer “a few tutoring sessions” to catch me up. I subsequently went around them and got my Tutor to get permission from the Exam Access and Mitigation Committee to ‘disregard’ the paper (an ‘Exam Allowance’), meaning I could get my degree without taking this particular exam.

Two students hugging in new museums site near the bicycle racks. On the left, a guy is dressed as Goku from Dragon ball Z in a bright orange jumpsuit with navy bands around their waist, wrists and ankles. On the right, a guy is dressed as Ash Ketchum from Pokémon in a blue jacket, green gloves, a red cap and poke balls covering their T shirt. A white arrow labelled with the text 'Me' points to the guy dressed as Ash Ketchum on the right

Gotta catch ’em all” is about Pokémon, not your exam papers. (Image: Author)

2. I didn’t hand in my dissertation on time

I got a month’s extension with no penalty whatsoever. Deadlines are fake!

My director of studies tried to persuade me to ask for a 2-week extension WITH a penalty to my marks (is that even an extension?). He then tried to persuade me that instead of getting an extension and finishing my diss, I could just give up and drop out: he presented it more charitably as applying for a certificate that would say ‘you did part of the course then quit’, known as an Ordinary Degree (which could genuinely be a good move for someone wanting to withdraw permanently).

Eventually, my senior examiner sympathetically decided that yes, I could have the month’s extension. I am not sure whether this annoyed or impressed my director of studies.

3. I didn’t study full time

I was told over and over that all undergraduates at Cambridge have to be full-time, and if it makes you sick then you just suspend (aka ‘intermit’) and leave until you can return healthier and take the heat.

The Department of Biochemistry had never had an undergraduate student study part-time (ever), nor had my College (Magdalene), and it was not thought to be possible. But, with help from the disabled collective and Disability Resource Centre I managed to become the first student both at my college and on my course to study part time as an undergraduate. 

My biochemistry finals were split roughly in half: I took 2 papers and my research dissertation in the first year, and three papers with a coursework essay in the second year, with everything somewhat evenly spaced across terms. 

Part-time study for health reasons, known amongst students as Double Time (or officially as ‘Alternative Mode of Assessment’), needs to be actively advertised. If you think this is something that could help you, make sure you know the details to effectively fight your case.

inside a college undergraduate student room. An sink with a tiny mirror can be seen next to battered furniture that looks like it's been kept since the 17th century. Two students are in the room. On the floor on the right, a man wearing black clothes and reflective bracelets is passed out, with his arms over his stomach. The man's student ID hangs from his belt. On the left, a woman is sitting above the man. The woman is wearing a cloudy black and grey dress with long black stockings. She is covering her face and laughing.

Me ‘socialising’ while misguidedly trying to study full time circa 2017 (Image: Author)

4. I didn’t study all of my lecture modules

Covid mayhem meant that the School of Biological Sciences delayed announcing their exam formats. I was in a bind without enough time to properly study my modules (I really need to know what I am doing in exams in order to study effectively due to my neuro divergence).

To cut corners, I just picked three topics to revise and in the exams answered three questions as required. I watched the rest of the module for fun (on 3.3x speed, which is heaven for my ADHD) and actually enjoyed learning about it without the horror of knowing I’d have to try and regurgitate the stuff I was hearing a year later. We do NOT have to do all the work.

5. I didn’t have any of my final marks decided by traditional archaic exams

Not that extended-time, open-book exams are more than a plaster on a deeply wounded assessment system, but still, we take what we can get. I was told that three-hour exams HAD to happen for my data handling paper even if my other exams became 24-hour papers.

Allegedly something to do with how the data handling paper relies on testing how quickly people can read new information, process and recall what they know under time pressure to pseudo-bell curve the cohort (like some kind of weird biochem IQ test).

After a term of arguing and being told “no, never,” I had to laugh at the ludicrousness of this situation and panic-laughed myself all the way to the Student’s Advice Service (SAS). Coincidentally (or maybe not) just two weeks after I filed a formal complaint through the Students’ Complaints Procedure with the help of SAS, I was given a 24-hour allowance for all my exams, even my data handling paper.

6. I didn’t leave Cambridge with unaddressed mental health conditions

People who have never struggled with mental health finish Cambridge with mental health conditions they did not arrive with, and I have watched people who arrive with some degree of mental illness leave with it severely worsened.

This is super visible in finalists. I watch a lot of people leave Cambridge optimistically saying life will get easier once they have left. Every time, I clench my jaw waiting for all their unresolved issues to come down on them like a ton of bricks once the privileges of cushy Cambridge boarding school life are removed and the harm it has done is laid bare.

The way the mental health crisis in young people is completely disregarded is the real barrier to whatever futures we are hoping for. The silver lining to my own experience is that I sought every bit of uni-funded mental health and disability support available. Especially helpful in my case was accessing the Crane’s Fund to cover many hours of therapy.

How it felt to finally leave Cambridge, having had as much support as I could get from the uni whilst I was here. (Image: Author)

7. I didn’t sacrifice my political beliefs for the sake of coursework

On my course, there was a hideous bit of coursework called the ‘Science In Society’ essay where they ask a class of biochemistry majors to produce a quasi-political essay related to biosciences.

There is no teaching delivered in sociology nor politics for this task, which more or less models the way in which scientists are afforded undue lab-coat authority on issues they know precious little about as members of some kind of bourgeoisie commentariat.

Ultimately, I am proud that this bit of coursework was my lowest marked piece of work. I wrote about how the climate crisis is linked to the physiology of mental health (especially Seasonal Affective Disorder) and took a decidedly unbalanced aim at both the misleading mitigation claims of liberal environmentalists but more so the colonialism inherent to right-wing climate destruction regimes.

I am proud of using my time as an undergraduate to develop political consciousness beyond what is expected and estimated of scientists and rejecting the humanities-STEM border omnipresent in Cambridge academic culture.

I am proud of what I didn’t do

The expectations at Cambridge conflate unfair working conditions with academic challenge. I came to Cambridge to be intellectually stimulated, not driven into the ground because of tradition. The workload, teaching and exams at Cambridge have been designed without mental health, disability and neurodiversity in mind.

When my course didn’t accommodate me, I found extensions, part-time study and adjustments. When my adjustments were not made, I refused to take unfair exams. When my mental health was minimised, I found pockets of money and spaces of resistance. And ultimately I found a very valuable political education, in disability rights and more, beyond my boxed-in degree programme. Know your rights!

Feature image credits: Author