Hailing from County Roscommon and completing a year at Trinity College Dublin, Cormac takes us through his Cambridge journey.
My name is Cormac, and I’m a Roscommon native who decided to push the boat out [both literally and metaphorically, as I have taken up rowing] by pursuing my Law degree at Cambridge. Coming from Roscommon, it is extremely unusual to hear of anyone attending Oxbridge, to the extent that I would contend it's not even seen as a plausible educational path. Few, if any, consider it to be an available educational route, so I believe many people who possess the academic ability to attend don’t even consider applying. I must admit, I once counted myself among their number. Like many who excelled academically in school, I was shunted into the rural to Trinity and UCD pipeline without much thought. My teachers and friends considered these two universities to be the height of academic achievement, and so naturally, I too adopted this mindset.
In September 2022, after receiving my Leaving Cert results, I began studying Law and Business at Trinity College Dublin. Trinity is an exceptional university; it is as stimulating as it is beautiful, and the friends I made there I will count among my closest for life. The social scene, the society scene and indeed the academic workload are all weighted towards socialising and enjoying First Year. I had the best year of my life. However, shortly into term, after being exposed to a more eclectic group of people than the archetypal secondary school can offer, the idea of applying to Oxbridge was quickly floated. I heard about people with similar Leaving Cert results to me who had got in, and after research, it became apparent that the Oxbridge model better suited my intended path in life.
The Application Process
I applied for Law at Churchill College, Cambridge (see photo below). Oxford and Cambridge operate on a collegiate system; one must pick the college within the university to which they will apply [alternatively you can do an open application, but I only know of one or two who did so]. A helpful, but not wholly accurate, way of thinking about it is likening your College at Cambridge to your house at Hogwarts. One lives there, makes friends there, eats there and attends small group supervisions with one’s college group, but attends lectures at the University faculty and can use all the university facilities. Moreover, everybody will graduate with a degree from the University of Cambridge, rather than from their college. Despite now being extremely happy with my choice of college, I was, at the time, overwhelmed. I picked based on the college’s laid-back atmosphere, expansive grounds and comparably large rooms and modern facilities. That said, I have never heard of anyone who [at least openly!] dislikes their college. The friends you make at each college are the salient aspect, the other factors, such as a college’s facilities and locations, somewhat fade in importance as time goes on. So simply, don’t overthink it! You’ll be happy wherever you apply! The other aspect of the initial application, the personal statement, can be equally daunting. It takes time, but no more than a few hours if you are efficient. Simply be yourself, explore your interests and show evidence of extra reading.
I sat my LNAT, the Law admissions test, before the October 15th deadline. Students applying to a number of UK universities will have to sit it. It is advisable [but not indispensable] to practise for the LNAT, so this may take up some of your leaving cert study time. There are multiple online resources that can be accessed to help you. One of the best ways to prepare is simply to read a variety of Financial Times or Wall Street Journal articles; the writing style and reasoning will foster the correct mindset to excel in the LNAT. It can be a daunting experience, especially when one has sat no more than a Junior Cert. Simply relax, and remember that your LNAT is not the only factor that comes into play in your application.
After submitting my application and sitting my LNAT, it would be a lie to say that I worried; I was too engrossed in life at Trinity to truly ponder whether I would get into Cambridge or not. Amongst the frenzy of life at Trinity, I was informed I was being given an interview. I completed it without much ceremony and waited. The interview was a rather laid-back experience, at least at Churchill College, but some peers in law at other Cambridge colleges contend that they had much more intense interviews. That said, it is important to have a genuine interest in your subject, engage in reading and build a coherent narrative as to why you wish to study your chosen subject. Preparation is key, but remember to be yourself and stay true to your interests.
I got my offer in January, which was conditional on me gaining certain grades at Trinity, so I didn’t slack off. After receiving my final results at Trinity, my place was confirmed at Cambridge. Overall, the application process was not as intensive as one would at first think. That said it does require significantly more time than a CAO application. One should have at least some genuine interest before investing the time to apply, but as I have now learned, there are significant supports in place for Irish students who wish to apply to Oxbridge due to the small number who do so. There are organisations in place, and most Irish students who attend Oxbridge are more than willing to support prospective students in their applications if reached out to!
Cambridge so far [In comparison to Trinity]
Embarking on the study of law at Cambridge presented a discernible shift in academic rigour when compared to my experiences at Trinity. The intellectual landscape is more intense, and the work is more demanding, requiring extensive extra reading and study surpassing the scope required at Trinity. The workload is higher, you are expected to cover more material and to do so in more depth. There is significantly more written work expected at Cambridge, but I see this as an opportunity for improvement, and in undergraduate Law, it doesn’t count towards your yearly grades. Beyond the confines of the library, Cambridge has so far offered far more in the way of networking opportunities with law firms and other organisations. It has been tough, but rewarding. Regardless of any advantages one would hope to gain upon graduation, in practice, I can see how the work I do here will benefit me as a lawyer in the long run.
Outside of Academia, the social life at Trinity was certainly more active than at Cambridge. The combination of having less work alongside living in a larger city is a recipe for better, and more frequent, nights out. As someone who enjoys a night out, I can confirm that the nightlife in Cambridge is noticeably subdued, often remaining confined to the College Bars and Spoons. However, it improves on the big nights, and alongside lecturers, supervisions and societies, I have found time for weekly nights out during the first term. In contrast, first year in Dublin was crazy, and every night was amazing. Additionally, there is also a wider variety of daytime activities in Dublin.
Both cities are beautiful, but Cambridge is perhaps more so. The architecture is stunning, and the thought of walking in the footsteps of some of the illustrious alumni (Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Alan Turing to name a few!) is humbling. The novelty does wear off, however, and as someone living at Churchill [the most stunning bastion of brutalist architecture England has to offer] there was perhaps no novelty in the first place! Societies at both Universities are extremely active, however, I’d posit that there is more opportunity for committee-level involvement at Cambridge, as individual colleges often have their own societies. Further, there are probably more sporting opportunities at Cambridge, with college sports offering another layer of involvement of trinity, for those who haven’t trained at near Olympic level!
One might also question the attitude at Cambridge to rural Irish students and those who are attending from less traditional backgrounds. I can unabashedly say that I had the same concerns, but they were certainly misplaced. Cambridge has been extremely welcoming, and it is, contrary to popular belief, far more common to meet down-to-earth state school attendees than it is to meet the archetypal Boris Johnson lookalike who attended Eton. In fact, I’d contend that Cambridge feels far more grounded than Trinity!
Cambridge is, in general, cheaper than Dublin, however, one should keep in mind travel expenses and the inevitable Winter and May Ball tickets that you’ll be coerced by friends into buying! Additionally, Cambridge is smaller, easier to cycle around and in general more accessible. You’ll spend less time commuting as opposed to living in student accommodation in Dublin.
Overall, while I would recommend Cambridge, one should weigh up the time it takes to apply with the impact on exams, while also considering what one wants from a university experience. If you want to attend an academically stimulating and intense university, that will push you, and you want to get involved in sports and societies, then Cambridge just might be for you. The two pieces of advice I would give are, firstly, to start your application early, and secondly, to develop and foster a genuine interest in your subject through reading and research. Remember, as I quickly realised after leaving Roscommon, attending Oxbridge is indeed a viable pathway for hard-working students from the West of Ireland, it is not as difficult to get in or as exclusionary as one would imagine.