Discussion: University & Competitive Learning Environments


Once again, Emma read something flippantly on her Facebook and then ended up spiralling off into a moment or two of self-absorbed musings and reminiscences. Feel free to ignore this, eventually I’ll write something light and cheerful about books again!

A couple of introductory remarks so as not to alarm anyone. Firstly, I have categorically not experienced depression or eating disorders of any kind and the article I’m about to mention simply popped up on my Facebook feed and hit home in a really weird way that I couldn’t fathom. Because this girl’s experience was not mine, I’ve had a relatively easy ride through university thus far, so why oh why did it strike a chord? I just couldn’t fathom it until I started thinking over my own experiences with Cambridge University applications and my own relationship with academic competition now I’m at university in Lancaster.  This is the article I refer to, it’s worth a read, I think.

Now to my own personal (limited) experience. I applied to read English Lit at Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College to be precise. I loved the city, I knew I wanted to surround myself with academia, it seemed like the perfect place. Even the rain soaked pavements that I nearly slipped on when rushing to my first interview of the day couldn’t quite dampen my spirits. I ended up feeling more sick and nervous than I ever have before, social anxiety mixing with academic anxiety and the sinking feeling that I shouldn’t even be here, I shouldn’t have even got to interview. The nice thing about Cambridge was that they interview pretty much everyone – that’s what my advisor at sixth form always said. Oxford like to whittle it down at the preliminary stages, Cambridge include as many as possible in the interviews because they’re one of the easiest ways to see if not only the student will be a fit for their particular learning environment but if this Oxbridge-style learning environment will fit the student themselves. (This doesn’t just apply to Oxbridge, obviously*)

So when I was given a poem and told to look at it for 10 minutes, jot down some thoughts, and then talk it over with a waiting tutor… well that wasn’t so scary, I could do that. The girl who came into the prep room just after me burst into tears. Okay, so… maybe I wasn’t as nervous as that. But I still felt like every answer I gave to the tutor about my interpretation of the poem was horribly unoriginal and boring. She was lovely and very encouraging and I left the room feeling like it could have gone a lot worse – hey, at least I’d said something vaguely coherent. And then the famous second interview of the day in which two tutors quizzed me on what I’d wrote in the essays I’d submitted with my application and on my interests in general. Having two renowned Renaissance academics look at you with thinly veiled disgust because you let slip that you hated Romeo and Juliet wasn’t the best an interview could have gone. But, nevertheless, they seemed at least pleasantly surprised that I’d just shit all over one of the most famous tragic plays in existence. (I still hate Romeo and Juliet for what it’s worth!)

At the end of that day, I knew I wasn’t going to get past the interview stage. I said goodbye to Cambridge out of the rain-spattered car windows and said goodbye to the dream. When I got the rejection letter I wasn’t surprised, I wasn’t even upset really, the application had always been a ‘well I might as well, I haven’t got much to lose’ shot in the dark. My teachers seemed to be tip-toeing around me once they heard, which I appreciated but was entirely unnecessary. My head of sixth form said she’d got the interview feedback, if I wanted it, and it was all nice and perfectly fair and actually weirdly encouraging. If I remember correctly… which I possibly don’t because… this was January 2011, 4 whole years ago. What I do remember was the numbers, because let’s face it, we all do, whenever we get essay feedback some choice phrases might stick too but the numbers are usually etched into our memories. The college had interviewed 33 people for English Literature, they’d ranked everyone, and accepted the top 8. The next 4 had been put into the pool system where other colleges could pick them up if they were lacking numbers. I’d been unlucky number 13, I’d been close. Even after 2 interviews where I felt horrifically out-of-my-depth, I’d been close, I’d ‘done better’ (though I hate that way of thinking about it) than 20 people. And that, weirdly, gave me confidence. Because if one of the best universities in the world thought I might fit into their academic rigour, that was an enormous compliment.

But actually, when I look back on it, I couldn’t be more glad I didn’t get there, and reading the Guardian article I linked above only dredged up these memories. That sounds easy to say now, now that I’m working on my MA having got a First in BA English Literature. But my friend from school, the only other person who applied (to Queens College), was accepted and went to Cambridge. He certainly worked hard, he played hard, he enjoyed himself for his 3 years of study there. But he went from being easily one the brainiest guys at our sixth form to the same as everyone else around him. He became average, because everyone there was purposely chosen because they were super smart and conscientious. And at some point, he’d got the balance wrong, he hadn’t quite worked out what stuff he could get away with not doing, and what stuff was vitally important and the result was that he was so close to failing a year. Well that just confused me. One of the smartest guys I knew – he just knew stuff that other people had no clue on, he remembered things and was so interested in learning and education – and he was failing… that really unsettled me. If he couldn’t hack it, what would have happened to me. Well I can say with some confidence that I would’ve tanked. I would’ve failed. I wouldn’t have been able to stand the academic pressure.

Here’s the problem – no amount of competition will ever get me to believe I am good enough to be competing, it has the opposite effect on me, it makes me agree I shouldn’t be competing and slide into a pit of self-pitying despair. So I am lucky to be in a university and a course that, for the most part, encourages a cooperative and collaborative learning environment amongst students and staff rather than a competitive one. I’ve seen that, especially at postgraduate level, the already very approachable staff now definitely treat you like a fellow academic instead of just a student of theirs. It’s nice, if a little unsettling at first. Competition does pop up, it’s a fact of life that even if you try not to compare yourself to others, because that way madness lies. Still, standing outside waiting for class, I found myself drawn into a discussion about our recent returned essay grades. I was thrilled with a 67 and a 68, a fellow classmate was disappointed with his 68, and suddenly I felt like maybe I shouldn’t be nearly so happy with my own grade.

This mindset has to stop, I have to try to block it out as much as possible, because I am not an ambitious or competitive person. I don’t think ‘fuck it, I’m gonna show everyone, you’ll all see!!!!’. That’s not me, no, I agree that I am a terrible excuse for an academic, I hide under my duvet, and I re-watch The Thick Of It for the fortieth time (I’m currently watching it now), instead of stubbornly working on my dissertation until I’ve done the best in the class. Accepting your own limitations and study practices is, I think, a good thing. I’ve realised that I probably don’t have the academic discipline, nor the originality of thought, to get the very very best marks at the end of this course. My ideas are not going to rock the world into a state of shock where everyone realises they’d been thinking in the wrong way about Shakespeare for the past 400 years. But you know what? I think I’m okay with that. I’d much rather get to the end of this year with my mental health still intact than have scraped an extra 10 points on my average but feel like utter shit.

Of course I’ll try, I’ll still do my best, but I’ve made my peace with the fact that it’s a balancing act between having a life (even if that life only consists of reading YA, YouTube, Netflix, and blogging) and getting a Distinction at the end of the course. All I want at the end of this year is to have not failed and wasted a year of my life. I want to be happy and healthy, in body and in mind. I want to have not been reduced to inaction or else tears whilst writing an essay because I just feel so unbelievably not worthy and stupid and unoriginal. I want to have not shied away from what I wanted to write about because I felt the pressure of years of research by much more renowned and clever academics weighing down my own response. I want to be proud of the work I submit – or, at least, not ashamed to hand it in for marking. I want to be able to wave the final bound copy of my dissertation into my family’s faces and say ‘look, look what I did, I wrote a thing!’ – and then they can say ‘yeah good for you, we’re proud’ and pretend like they’ll get round to reading it one of these days. That’s what I want.


(*Seriously, do not underestimate the importance of this – the learning environment at university is an entirely different beast to any educational environment you’ll previously have come into contact with. You’re independent so if you decide not to go to a seminar, you just don’t go. You’re not constantly hounded at to improve your drafts before you hand in the final piece. If you decide to leave your 2,500 word essay to the night before it’s due, on your own head be it. You’re expected to have ideas and opinions on your own and be willing to share them in front of other people. )

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