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Department of Computer Science and Technology

Undergraduate Tanya Morris

"Don’t worry that you might not fit in. When you get here, you will naturally find other people like you." So says ex-comprehensive school pupil Tanya Morris who is now a Computer Science undergraduate here.

She recently finished her first-year exams but Tanya's still answering questions. Only now they come not from her teachers, but from prospective applicants who want to ask her about student life here and applying to Cambridge.

Tanya administers the student-run Cambridge CompSci (@cambtweetcompsc) Twitter account and is highly active on it. She regularly shares her experiences of the workload, supervisions, and exam revision and answers queries on course content, how well student loans cover living costs, and how much coding experience is useful for applicants.    

On it, she describes herself as '#StateSchoolProud', saying: "I went to an all girls comprehensive for my GCSEs and A-Levels which gave me a drive to prove I could succeed. No one I knew was at Cambridge, or had ever applied, yet I have just finished my first year as a female studying Computer Science here."

"Going to an all girls comprehensive for my GCSEs and A-Levels gave me a drive to prove I could succeed."

"I followed the Cambridge CompSci Twitter account myself when I was applying here," she says. "So when the opportunity to take over the account came up, I was like 'I’d love to do that' because I’d found it so useful."

She wants to encourage any prospective students to ask her questions, either on Twitter or on the CuriousCat anonymous Q&A social networking site. She's particularly keen to hear from girls who are still outnumbered by boys. "I’d like to see more women here. But we’re not going to have more female students here unless we have more female applicants," she points out.

She's also eager to encourage interest from fellow state school students in applying to university. Having herself succeeded in getting here with little of the admissions test or interview preparation that private schools can offer, she knows that with determination and motivation, it can be done. So she wants to encourage others to follow her lead.  

"At first, you can feel intimidated here by some of the other students. It feels sometimes as if they have been taught a whole lot of extra stuff and you haven’t," she says. "But at the end of the day, if you meet the entry requirements and get the grades, why shouldn't you be here?"

"No-one I knew was at Cambridge, or had ever applied, yet I have just finished my first year studying Computer Science here."

Tanya is clearly academically talented – and impressively self-motivated. In her GCSE's she obtained seven Grade 9s, two Grade 8s and one Grade 7, while she got an A* for her A Level Maths despite doing it in just one year. But she doesn’t come from an academic family. (The only other family member to go to university was her mother, who studied nursing.)

However, none of Tanya's academic achievements seemed likely a few years ago when, to her teachers' surprise, she failed the Eleven Plus exam in her home county of Kent. "I was good at Maths and English at primary school, so everyone there thought I would pass."

Failing the Eleven Plus 'a blessing in disguise'
When she didn’t, she went to a comprehensive rather than a grammar school. But she regards that as a blessing in disguise. "Friends of mine who went on to grammar schools were under much more pressure than I was. Whereas what I achieved came entirely from me wanting to do it, not from other people dictating to me what I needed to do."

Tanya went to Chislehurst Girls' School. "I liked the fact that we studied for our GCSE's over three years there, rather than two. I thought I had more of a chance to do better if I studied the subjects courses for longer."

She liked the school so much that she stayed on to do A Levels there. But even after her strong GCSE performance, "I didn’t think of myself as academically good enough to study at Cambridge," she says. Then she got an A* for A Level Maths and began to realise that maybe Cambridge was attainable after all.

She wanted to take Further Maths A Level but she would have been the only student in the class. "The school said they weren't able to run the course when there was just one student taking it." Fortunately, a maths teacher came to her rescue. "He said, 'You're more than capable of doing this, and it wouldn't be fair if you didn’t get the chance to show that.' So during free periods, we'd sit in the Maths office and he'd teach me. And in between times, I taught myself Further Stats."

Visiting Cambridge
As she considered Cambridge further, she came to a 'Women in STEM' residential course at Murray Edwards College. "I was a bit daunted about applying to some of the more traditional colleges: I thought I would be different from their other students and that I wouldn’t fit in there. But Fitzwilliam, next door to Murray Edwards, felt smaller and more modern and more 'me'. And I liked how many state school students they took."

So she applied to Fitzwilliam. More of the girls in her school went on to apprenticeships than to university, let alone Cambridge. So while her school tried to support her, they lacked experience in how to coach Oxbridge applicants. "They tried to prepare me for the admissions test but they didn’t know what it would be like."

She found the test very hard – "It really threw me, it was like nothing I had ever seen, so I just tried my best." Though she didn’t do as well as she would have liked, she was subsequently invited for interview and given an offer. And today she is a student here and looking forward to a career in computer science.

She's already discovered from a course this year that she is interested in the area of human-computer interaction, and interaction design. "I had always thought I'd want a job in computer security, but I liked how human-computer interaction also involves a lot of psychology and interacting with people. I think I might like to do something in that area in future."

'Put thoughts that you won't fit in to the back of your mind'
She's also keen to do more outreach to encourage others to aspire to university, including Oxbridge, and has been in touch with some of the students from her school about this.

And what would she tell prospective applicants here? "I would tell students that if they think they might not fit in here, they should put those thoughts to the back of their mind. If and when you get here, you will find people like you. And you’ll find more of them if more people like you apply. Because if you don't, how is anything going to change?"

Published by Rachel Gardner on Wednesday 7th July 2021