Cambridge's iconic Senate House / Flickr/James Bowe

Everyone's exams are hard, but there are few as gruelling as those at Oxbridge. Cambridge finalist Samantha Hunt explains what the pressure's like

It is that time of the year again. Up and down the country, thousands of students are cooped up at library desks, attempting to cram the information necessary to get through finals and out to the other side, degree in hand. And I am one of them – a Cambridge finalist, attempting to deal with the Oxbridge stress in the only way I know: caffeine hits and reclusion.

Whether you love or hate Oxbridge, the fact that these two universities provide unique learning environments is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the student has access to some of the best education in the world; on the other, the pressure that comes with this can prove damaging and unhealthy to students, and is simultaneously passed off as the norm; swept dangerously under the carpet.

Many Cambridge students find themselves trapped in a pressure cooker of expectation, whether this comes from their supervisors or tutors; their director of studies, or even from themselves. The drive towards achievement is either the key to success or to possible serious personal issues, as Mark Phippen, head of the University of Cambridge’s Counselling Service said: “there are plenty of perfectionists in Cambridge, but it can work two ways: it can push you to accomplish and to achieve, or it can get out of hand, disabling or immobilising people.”

The resulting mental strain on students can prove debilitating, but workload and exam pressure is not something ever-traditional Oxbridge will be changing anytime soon.

Over the past few weeks of exam term, many students have said that they 'can’t handle' working in certain libraries which are filled with other students hard at work. The competition and paranoia are more prevalent than we realise or question: you can feel as if you are being judged for how long you take on a lunch break; how much time you spend on Facebook or YouTube; or how little time you spend reading. These feelings aren’t necessarily produced by individual students, but instead by the paralysing assumption that you have had for the entire length of your undergraduate degree so far: that you are not working hard enough, you are not clever enough, and therefore you are not good enough to be at Oxford or Cambridge.

Crippled by the pressure

Too many students feel almost crippled by the pressure to achieve but feel unable to speak about it, as – if everyone else seems to be coping – they must also pretend to cope too.

The drive to achieve becomes problematic when it is the only thing students have: tutors and supervisors regularly encourage students to avoid extra-curricular activities, urging them to focus on their studies to an extent that many find hard to handle. One current Cambridge tutor has been known for checking up on the activities of students involved in extracurricular theatre by searching for them on the website – which details who is involved in certain plays each term – just in case it affects the student’s work output.

Problems arise when the pressure and stress produces or aggravates mental health issues; problems that have been brought to attention over the last couple of months in articles primarily from Oxford’s Cherwell and Cambridge’s The Tab. The attention has sparked the Cambridge University Student Union to set up Students Deserve Better – a campaign to tackle complaints about supervisors and tutors lacking the ability to provide proper pastoral support.

“When I told my dissertation supervisor about my problems with anxiety and therefore about my worries surrounding the work load she was suggesting, she just said that I would probably feel less anxious once the work was done,” an anonymous finalist student has said. “It shouldn’t be an accepted response in one of the world’s best universities – their response only exacerbated any feelings I had concerning my final year.”

Phippen said that finals today contain too much finality in the eyes of those taking them: “At this point in time the exams seem like the most important thing – however, two years down the line people realise that the exams they did at university aren’t very important at all, as what then becomes more important is what you have done within those two years afterwards.”

Finalist exams can become suffocating for students studying at any university. All we must remember is that we are not alone; we are good enough, and that – a few years down the line – our ability to recount the plots of Euripides’ nineteen plays will matter no longer. So why worry?

Samantha Hunt is an undergraduate finalist at the University of Cambridge and acts as both Senior Arts editor and columnist for the university newspaper, Varsity. She blogs here and Tweets here.