Flaviana Crâznic: Interview from former to prospective law student – Studying Law at Cambridge University, with Irina Ţuca. Asking my burning questions as a Cambridge applicant to a Cambridge graduate

Flaviana Crâznic
Flaviana Crâznic
Irina Țuca
Irina Țuca

Flaviana Crâznic: I would like to start by describing the internal process of applying to Cambridge: What motivated you to apply to Cambridge? What were your thoughts at the beginning of the application process and what chances of getting in did you think you had at the time?

Irina Țuca: I knew I wanted to study Law from a relatively young age. Being convinced that this is what I wanted to do in life, finding a suitable university became a priority. I think it was my ambition to do Law which steered me in the direction of Cambridge: I was very motivated to study it at a very high standard and Cambridge’s impressive reputation was a huge selling point. Law was something I was passionate about and the only way to do justice to such passion was to at least attempt to pursue it in a place like Cambridge.

In terms of the chances of getting in, I honestly do not remember thinking about those at the time of applying. I never thought of myself as a genius who would get in without even trying (far from it actually), but conversely, I didn’t doubt myself to the point of being convinced it is impossible to be admitted. I was of the mindset that I needed to do my best, and that if I didn’t get in that wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Flaviana Crâznic: To what other universities did you apply? Why Cambridge and not Oxford? Having graduated, what would you say it’s the main difference between the two?

Irina Țuca: Besides Cambridge, I also applied to UCL, LSE, King’s College and University of Nottingham. As you probably know, the system of UK university applications does not allow students to apply to both Cambridge and Oxford, so I had to pick between the two. The main reason why I chose Cambridge was the teaching. Apart from being ranked above Oxford the year that I applied, it also had a larger number of Law fellows that I admired, professors that I was familiar with from my readings. On top of this professional-driven preference, I also picked Cambridge over Oxford because after visiting both, I felt more at home at Cambridge.

The difference between the two is minimal: both are equally difficult and rewarding, and you cannot go wrong with either.

Flaviana Crâznic: What do you think was decisive in your admission’s success?

Irina Țuca: Ironically enough, I was actually told what was decisive three years after I was admitted, when I was in my final year. It was during the graduation dinner, and I was sat opposite two of the professors who interviewed me (and with whom I had become quite close during my three years at Cambridge). I was telling them about how many mistakes I thought I made during the interview, and about how convinced I was that I wouldn’t get in. They both looked shocked and told me that they knew they would admit me halfway through the interview. When I asked them why, they said it was because my answers showed that I had the right type of thinking to study Law.

Flaviana Crâznic: What were your thoughts before, during and after the interview?

Irina Țuca: My thoughts before the interviews had nothing to do with the interviews themselves. I had promised myself that as soon as I arrived in Cambridge, I would not do or think about anything related to them.

On the morning of the interviews I took a walk by river Cam, and then I spent the rest of the day in the hotel room, playing chess with my Dad on a little portable chessboard he had bought from the airport. We talked about tennis and other mundane topics, purposely avoiding the topic of the admission process.

During the interviews I was completely engaged in the discussion. I had no external thoughts, nor did I feel hyper aware of the stress of talking to the professors. I was just thinking about the conversation at hand, as if I was talking about an interesting legal topic to a friend.

After my first interview I had a short 10-minute break, which I spent in the cafeteria of the college, next to other candidates who were being interviewed that day.

My second interview was in a professor’s office, which was at the very top of a staircase. After it was done, I climbed down the stairs and stopped at the bottom, right at the exit of the building, and I started crying. I don’t know if they were tears of happiness because the interview went well or tears or relief because it was all over – I just remember feeling proud, and I still think of those 5 minutes I had with myself at the bottom of the staircase as some of the happiest 5 minutes of my life.

Flaviana Crâznic: What did your family and friends back home say about you applying to Cambridge?

Irina Țuca: They were very supportive. However, applying to Cambridge is an inherently lonely and daunting endeavour, in which support from others fades in comparison to the pressure which falls on your shoulders. My friends and family were wonderful and constantly reassured me that I had what it takes to get in, and that even if I didn’t get in that would be alright too. But listening to encouraging voices is very difficult when your own internal monologue is critical. I knew that they would be proud of me regardless, and that did help me calm down, but ultimately the most difficult battle is the one you have with yourself.

Flaviana Crâznic: Fast forward to you getting in, were you afraid to move to another country on your own or rather excited? How did you settle in?

Irina Țuca: A bit of both. I was afraid to move not to another country, but to Cambridge in particular, because I didn’t know if I would be able to make it on my own in such a competitive environment. I wasn’t necessarily reluctant to move abroad, but I found the prospect of living alone in a small university town quite daunting. Apart from the element of novelty, I knew that this step in my life would come with very Cambridge-specific challenges, such as managing loneliness whilst also coping with academic pressure.

On the other hand I was also excited, because I was eager to earn my independence and branch out away from home. I felt motivated by the prospect of starting afresh, of paving my own way. I think deep down I knew that I would be ok, and that even though being away from home at 18 is not easy, I would eventually adapt.

I settled in quite quickly. In Cambridge you are forced to live in university accommodation, which was incredibly helpful with making friends. I instantly befriended by next-door neighbour, who was a Medicine student. It was a very close-knit community, so I was never really alone, not even during my first days there.

Flaviana Crâznic: How would you describe Cambridge as a place to live in?

Irina Țuca: Cambridge is a great place to live in as a student, because it’s lively enough to offer great opportunities for socialising and having fun, but not big enough to throw too many distractions your way.

The great thing about Cambridge is that it is a university town, meaning it pretty much revolves around student life. For example, each of the four clubs in Cambridge had their own nights of the week when students would go in and party, and the rest of the Cambridge residents would usually avoid those particular nights, knowing that they were pretty much for students only.

Being so small, Cambridge is also a very friendly place to live in. I used to get my coffee from the same coffee shop each morning, and the barista learned my order and my name within the first week (which is very unlikely to happen in a big city like London). I also regularly bumped into other students in the supermarket or at the gym, something which makes you feel at home.

Flaviana Crâznic: How did a normal day for a Cambridge student look like?

Irina Țuca: As a Law student, a normal day would probably start with two or three lectures in the Law Faculty. After that I would go to the Library and study for a few hours, and then in the afternoon I would have a supervision (which is very similar to a seminar, but it’s conducted in groups of 3 or 4). With the exception of exam term (when everything is absolutely hectic), I would take the evenings off and see friends, go to the movies or take part in a society-organised activity.

In Cambridge weekends are hardly ever free. In fact, I did more work during the weekends than I did during the week. My friend and I used to joke that the lectures we had during the week were actually an “inconvenience”, because they distracted us from all the studying we had to do on our own anyway. Hence why the weekends were so precious – they were a time where you could organise your own reading and researching, which was absolutely necessary in order to keep on top of the work you had to do for the following week.

Flaviana Crâznic: What type of relationship is between students and professors? Do Cambridge students still get intimidated and nervous in front of a teacher?

Irina Țuca: I had a close relationship with most of my teachers, who were very open and friendly. I still keep in touch with some of them, and whenever I email, I get the feeling that they are as considerate and helpful as they were when I was their student.

I wouldn’t say that Cambridge students get intimidated by professors – rather, it’s a feeling of admiration and respect. You don’t get nervous, but you feel a sense of obligation to do well, because you are very aware that the person in front of you is an absolute expert in the field, from whom you have a lot to learn.

Flaviana Crâznic: Was there something that you had to face that surprised you?

Irina Țuca: I had to face a lot of doubt and self-criticism. In Cambridge, it is impossible not to compare yourself to others and to feel like everybody else has it all figured out and is doing a much better job than you. I regularly felt improper, like I was unsuited to be in such a competitive and highly intellectual academic environment. I wasn’t alone in feeling this way – every single person from Cambridge to whom I confessed this reciprocated the feeling. It’s a very common symptom to doubt yourself, but to me it was nevertheless surprising to be faced with such a difficulty in trusting my own abilities.

Flaviana Crâznic: Is there any social life for students or just stay-in nights and studying?

Irina Țuca: The answer to this question is “yes”, there is a social life for Cambridge students, but I would slightly qualify this affirmative answer and say that it mostly depends on the course you are studying.

At Cambridge, it is a known fact that Law and Medicine are the most difficult subjects, and that the people who study them will have more work to do than others, hence less time to socialise. That was, indeed, true: compared to my friends who studied History for example, I had less hours in the day to dedicate to my hobbies or to socialising. However, with that being said, I think it would be a misconception to claim that Cambridge students have no social life: despite the hardship of studying Law, I had an amazing time in Cambridge, and it was during my undergraduate years that I met some the closest friends I have today.

Flaviana Crâznic: What societies are at Cambridge that you think a law student would like to join?

Irina Țuca: There are societies for absolutely everything – from Buddhism to knitting. Choosing one would depend on your hobbies and interests, but also on how much time you’re willing to dedicate to it: societies such as debating are a bit more demanding (but also more rewarding) than others. Personally, I joined the debating, Russian Literature, photography and film societies.

Flaviana Crâznic: Did you ever struggle because you are from Romania? How did you found studying in English as a non-native speaker?

Irina Țuca: I was proficient in English before I went to Cambridge, which was a great advantage when it came to socialising and adapting to university life. For a subject like Law, which involves a lot of reading and researching, you get to perfect your English (especially the legal jargon) through practice. I don’t think I had a disadvantage because I was a non-native speaker.

Flaviana Crâznic: For this last part, I have some retrospective questions: What’s your favourite memory from Cambridge? 

Irina Țuca: I have two, both from when I was in my first year.

The first memory that I think of fondly happened during a criminal law supervision. I was in my criminal law professor’s office, along with 4 other students. This professor was one of the toughest in Cambridge, with extremely high expectations and very little tolerance for lack of preparation. He also rarely awarded high marks or paid compliments, hence why he would sometimes come across as very stern. On this particular day, we were discussing a very complicated topic surrounding money laundering. The offence had been previously regulated under the common law (the doctrine of precedent), but a newly enacted statute slightly changed the position. The other 4 students I was in the supervision with asked the professor about this change of position, wanting to know how the new statute applied to a very specific scheme of fraudulent transactions. The whole thing was so complicated and complex, that the professor took out the white board in his office and started drawing on it, spending about 10 minutes trying to explain. At the end, he asked all of us if we understood. The other 4 students said they didn’t, but I said I did. He immediately raised his eyebrows in a doubtful look– as if he didn’t really believe me – so he asked me to explain everything to my other 4 colleagues to prove that I understood. I was terrified and very intimidated, but I bit the bullet and summarised his very elaborate 10-minute explanation into 5 simple phrases. He looked at me shocked and said “you are very good at explaining complicated things concisely”. Even though I felt proud of myself, I didn’t really think much of this episode at the time. However, the more I progressed through my legal education, the more I realised how valuable I find his compliment: as a legal professional, one of the things I aim to excel at is seeing the essence of things, and being able to get to the core of complicated matters. The fact that a Cambridge professor saw that in me is one of the best compliments I could ever receive.

My second favourite memory is from when I participated in a tort law moot. A moot – which is effectively a pretend trial, very similar to a debating match – is a very technical endeavour. There are 2 students representing each side, acting as lawyers in a pretend litigation scenario. Both sides send each other the skeleton arguments beforehand – just like litigious parties have obligations to disclose in real life contentious cases –, so the whole exercise was not a very entertaining thing to watch. In line with the tradition at Cambridge, a High Court judge was present to adjudicate the “trial”, so all four of us participating were rather stressed and focused on making a good impression and getting our legal points across.

However, at one point during the mock, I realised that the two student “lawyers” on the opposite side contradicted each other. It was a subtle contradiction, but it was one which ultimately favoured my client’s position. Even though I was supposed to “stick to the script” and follow the prescribed plan of developing my arguments, I decided to take a risk. When my turn came, I stood up and began my speech by explaining the contradiction, highlighting to the judge that what the two opposing lawyers did was actually bring an argument for my client. I remember looking in the audience and seeing my tort law professor, who had had a poker face up until that point, smiling and nodding in approval. It was the best reaction I could have hoped for – not necessarily because it proved that my point about the contradiction was right, but rather because it validated my risk taking. I understood that this professor – and the whole education system at Cambridge – valued creativity and ingenuity, which was a great source of joy for me.

Flaviana Crâznic: Did you have moments when you wanted to give up and come back home? How did you overcome them?

Irina Țuca: For me giving up and coming back home was never an option. That is not to say I didn’t have moments when I felt completely beaten down and lost, however – I did hit low points throughout my time at Cambridge, but no matter how awful it got I never considered giving up.

Thinking about it now, I think this mindset is something specific to Cambridge. Studying in such a competitive and stress-inducing environment can make you go through particularly depressing phases, but at the same time it makes you so ambitious and passionate about what you’re doing that you manage to subdue those lows. I remember one particular moment when I was revising for my Administrative Law exam at the end of my second year and I started crying in the library, purely because of how tired and hopeless I felt. But ultimately I got over it and resumed studying because I knew that complaining wouldn’t really get me anywhere.

I think the way you overcome low points like these is by remembering that they are normal (when I told one of my friends from Cambridge about the crying episode he just shrugged his shoulders and said he’d done it many times), and that feeling beaten down is a necessary step towards progress in an environment like Cambridge. For me, it also helped that I absolutely loved what I studied, which allowed me to find purpose in difficult times.

Flaviana Crâznic: What is one sentence about the law that only a law graduate from Cambridge can form?

Irina Țuca: “Law is a subject which you can study your whole life and still feel like you need to know more about.”

Flaviana Crâznic: What’s next for you? Are you planning on staying in England permanently? How are you going to manage the distance from your family over the years?

Irina Țuca: I am currently working as a trainee solicitor in London, so I plan on staying here for the foreseeable future. In terms of legal opportunities, working in England would allow me to do what I love, so I see no reason for returning home anytime soon.

I hope that after the world goes back to normal in the post-COVID area, distance will not be such a big issue. I do get homesick and I do wish that I could have my family here, but being away from them since I first came to the UK when I was 18 has taught me how to manage that occasional nostalgia. Leaving home for university has made me better at keeping in touch with close ones and ensuring I am part of my family and friends’ lives even from a distance. 

Flaviana Crâznic: Do you regret any aspect of your decision to leave Romania?

Irina Țuca: No, I don’t. I miss a lot of things about Romania: its culture, its people, its unique take on life. But as much as I yearn for those, there is a longer list of reasons which made me decide to leave. I often think about how my life would have looked like if I stayed, but this exercise of imagination always ends with the conclusion that it’s better that I left. Therefore, I don’t regret my decision – if I were 18 again, I would have made the exact same choice.

Flaviana Crâznic: What would you say to your past self from when you were deciding on leaving or staying?

Irina Țuca: I would tell my past self that the sacrifices of leaving are ultimately worth it. Before I left – and even during my first weeks of Cambridge – I felt terribly pessimistic and I doubted whether I made the right decision. I wish I knew that beginnings are always the hardest, and that the moments when I felt the most anxious about my decision are proof that I made the right one.

Flaviana Crâznic: Who would you encourage to try applying to Cambridge?

Irina Țuca: I would encourage everybody who wants to pursue higher education in the UK to apply to Cambridge. They have nothing to lose and a lot to gain. Even if they don’t ultimately get in, the process of applying to Oxbridge (especially the interview stage) is a learning curve in and of itself.

Flaviana Crâznic: One piece of advice for everyone who is thinking of applying to Cambridge and in general of studying Law in the UK?

Irina Țuca: I would advise them to be open-minded and curious: studying Law in the UK is difficult, mainly because the legal system here is extremely complex and very quickly evolving. There is a good reason why London is the heart of the European legal community, and that has a lot to do with how much law thrives and evolves in the Anglo-Saxon world. Studying Law here is ultimately a very rewarding experience, one which they will enjoy as long as they learn how to overcome the difficulties and see the beauty of it.

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