Debate: First year shouldn’t count towards your degree

Image credit: Jorge Ryan

I often hear the argument that first year is a waste of time without exams. But as someone who only did prelims, did I spend my first year coasting, sleeping, or partying away till sundown? The answer is no: I spent it glossing Cymbeline, getting lost in the UL, and wrestling King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Perhaps freshers at less intense universities can be found partying away their first year, but this isn’t the case at Cambridge. We work too much.

Neither is it the case that we need our constant hard work recognised by examinations. Acknowledgement is great, but this can come in a less stressful package from our supervisors and our director of studies. Who needs the extra stress? First year can be filled with pain. Some spend their time staring at the ceiling of their room, wondering why they ever wanted this, just wanting to go home.

Personally, I arrived at university unprepared for it all; unprepared for the stress, the people I thought I could trust, the drastic change into adulthood. I witnessed mental health issues seep through university like vodka. First year is the chance to deal with these problems: to meet new people, to discover ourselves, and to get involved in extracurricular activities which allow us to escape the Cambridge bubble. It is not the time for more exams.

Out of the nine English students in my year at my college, I am the only one to have come from a state-school. My first term of first year saw me sandwiched in between two privately schooled men in supervisions, where I quickly realised that my school had taught me very little compared to some of them. I had also been taught to be ashamed of my intelligence, and not to voice my opinion. I felt behind and, unsurprisingly, it took me months (at least) to get to grips with the style of essay my supervisors were nagging me for, a year to build up my confidence, and a year to deal with problems induced by a repressive state-school background.  

Of course, first year exams would also further disadvantage women. Often it takes women longer to settle into their degree: 95% of 1st class grades in Part I History go to men and this begins to level out later in the degree. Cambridge is already an environment which often privileges men, and first year exams would only make it more worse for minority groups who are already struggling.

Being at university is about more than just burrowing in lecture theatres or the library. The (relative) freedom we get in first year is all about meeting the people who will inform the rest of our lives, exploring new cities, and becoming comfortable in our own skin. We need time to settle in, and I don’t see why we can't have a whole year.

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