Easter term is a strange time for us at Cambridge. For the rest of the year, none of the work we do affects our grade, leaving us free to use supervisions and practical exercises to explore our subject in depth. However, during the second half of Easter term, we sit Tripos exams, which determine our grade for the year.
Hence, Cambridge becomes a lot quieter during Easter term as everyone revises for their exams. In computer science, we’ve got no fewer than 19 courses to go over (everything from computer architecture to law and ethics) – and anything that’s mentioned in the lectures can appear in the exams. This idea that just about anything can appear in exams is half of what makes the exams so scary. The other thing is the stakes. Exams don’t just just affect our self-esteem: getting a low grade can make it more difficult to get accepted for employment or for a graduate degree later on. And, in an environment where we’re constantly made to feel insecure about our academic ability, doing badly can feel devastating.
Our exam insecurities are not particularly helped by the importance a lot of Cambridge departments place on exam results either. For example, the Computer Science Tripos requires you to get 1st Class Honours (the best possible grade) in 3rd year in order to progress onto the 4th year. Furthermore, many colleges (St John’s included) offer preferential treatment to those that get 1sts, including £500, a special feast, privileged dining rights, and first choice of accommodation for the next year. Simply put: a lot comes down to how we perform in these exams.
And so, as exams approach, stress slowly creeps up towards us.