With all the crushing inevitability of England losing in penalty shoot-outs, exam term is that ever present shadow on the horizon of life at university. Waiting to punish you for a year of revelry and frivolity, it reserves special retribution for the congenitally lazy. The atmosphere of Cambridge is palpably different and there is an accepted term for that particular brand of associated stress. Try as they might, everyone gets ‘The Fear’ eventually.
Often it is an airborne contagion, where students with an ostentatious work ethic are asymptomatic carriers of a particularly virulent strain. Sometimes ‘The Fear’ stumbles upon you in the most unexpected moments; half-way through an episode of ‘Lost’, or while chewing a mouthful of baked potato in the dining hall. At night ‘The Fear’ actively stalks its prey through silent corridors, digging heads forcibly from cosy piles of sand and filling them with screaming nightmares of abject failure. Even the strongest will eventually fall, and however it happens they are clearly marked as a warning to the rest. With library-bleached complexion and a hunted look, they sway through college under the weight of a dozen textbooks, files heaving with unread lecture notes. They are the students who never sleep, maintaining a sizeable library population right through the night, fuelled by caffeine and chocolate with occasional forays to the nearest kebab van.
But with the angst comes a certain comradery; a bond of common suffering between inmates of the library. There are over-competitive attempts to find distant bins with balls of paper, and whispered debate on optimal England tactics for the World Cup. In the small hours of the morning, paper aeroplanes sail from the windows overlooking main court, ghosting through the lamp light and onto the grass beyond. Comedic relief is provided by furious emails from the librarian, complaining of flagrant disregard for the rules and particulary the discovery of a tea pot and kettle hidden amongst the book stacks. The residents suffer together, and it is extraordinary that others choose to lock themselves away in their rooms for the duration. Nothing could be more guaranteed to exacerbate exam-induced insanity than complete isolation.
The conveyor-belt of education carries generations of hapless students from one exam to the next, and for those that continue with higher education the journey to emancipation can take nearly twenty years. Children join the process at progressively earlier ages, and henceforth all schooling is preparation for the next set of tests. The years turn to decades and education tapers as it climbs, until the ultimate piece of the pyramid is reached in the shape of final exams. It is no exageration to say that your life’s work has been building to this moment and suddenly, as if by magic, only a single paper remains. Everything rests on a few scrawled pages.
For those of an academic bent, never before has the next step been in doubt. The only question was what degree you would choose, not whether you would pursue one at all. You get your GCSEs and A-levels, then off you trot to university. But then it’s over. Around you the exam hall empties, and you scrape your chair back from the table, casting a final anguished look at your inadequate answers. Stepping blinking into the sunshine, both literally and metaphorically, the rest of your life stretches before you. The exam may have been difficult, but only now does the hardest question require an answer.
What in the hell do you do next?