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Hail to the Queen

Surviving the Geyser

By Matt Zedler

The Cambridge-MIT Exchange (CME) program is different from many advertised exchange programs since academics are still a priority. Junior engineers in the CME program are essentially converted into third-year engineering students at Cambridge. Such a shift didn’t initially seem like it would be so difficult, as the language is the same. One is coming from MIT after all. The first, or Michaelmas, term at Cambridge quickly culled those na ve conclusions.

In the English system, one specializes early on. Universities require that applying students interview with a member of the faculty in a specific discipline — in other words, there is no option of being “undecided.” Such a system has one clear advantage: the university education can be more focused and therefore shorter. Most Cambridge students graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in three years, with some courses presenting a Master’s degree to those who stay around for a fourth year. While there are plenty of people at MIT who would rather do without the HASS requirement and the GIRs, I found having four or five pure engineering classes per term rather difficult.

The first term was especially tough because the Cambridge system is much more competitive than MIT’s, and I was coming in with no friends, no experience, and a mistaken belief that individual students’ success would be a priority as it is at MIT. All engineering students take a more general course for the first two years, finally specializing in the third year. Each year, students receive a mark that serves the same purpose as our grade point average. About 10% of each year’s students get the coveted 1sts, the vast majority gets 2.1s or 2.2s, and a small portion get 3rds or actually fail the year. There are no tests, quizzes, or midterms – only the infamous Tripos exams at the end of the year.

Even though the year is broken into three distinct terms (Michaelmas, Lent, and Easter), exams for all courses are given during the Easter term, meaning that all the information one learns in the Michaelmas term must be retained for an extra term before one is actually tested on it. Imagine finishing fall term at MIT, going home for winter break without having taken any tests, coming back for spring term, and then finally getting tested on everything at the end of the year. Shorten the terms to eight weeks with five week vacations (so called because one is supposed to “vacate” the university rather than actually stop studying) between each, and you have the Cambridge system.

Engineering Tripos exams are at the beginning of the Easter term, right around the same time as MIT exams. Instead of spending the five week Lent vacation relaxing, Cambridge engineers tend to spend the time in the library. For two and a half weeks of this vacation, I became a “hermit” and essentially lived in the library. While the most I managed were eight hour days, some of my Cambridge friends were in the library for upwards of ten to eleven hours a day, seven days a week. Let me tell you, such intense studying is no fun, and meals and other small breaks quickly become the high points of the days. Stress levels rise, and it becomes almost impossible to escape the heavy atmosphere — every time I left my room, I had to walk past the library and see my peers studying there.

After what seemed like a lifetime of this self-induced agony, we finally reached the first exam. Each module had a one and a half hour exam where three out of four problems had to be answered. There was never enough time, even if one knew exactly how to approach the question. Instead of seeing how you think, Cambridge exams force you to learn how to apply a certain methodology to a problem. If you don’t know how to do the problem when you first look at it, you aren’t going to be able to solve it completely during the allotted time.

On top of this, there are several robed proctors who are constantly swooping up and down the aisles “invigilating,” or making sure no one is cheating. After surviving eight to ten of these exams, it was little wonder that some of the CME students were caught saying, “I’m looking forward to having an MIT exam next year …” Of course, that response could have also been due to the copious amounts of champagne consumed after the final exam, as one was languidly basking in the freedom of the spring weather.

I do not think that either the MIT or Cambridge academic system is superior; instead, I feel like each has its own strong points and corresponding weaknesses. The work exerted in both environments is supposedly the same, and the end result is similar. In both systems, students tend to purge all the material after exams are over, only remembering the bits which actually can be connected to their own lives.