The pain of being rejected from both Oxford and Cambridge

This goes out to everyone who was ‘too fun’ for the country’s best two unis

Who wouldn’t want to be the first person in their family to go to Oxbridge?

Let’s say you were state-educated, and got three Level 5s at Key Stage 4, and you went to high school and got sent on “gifted and talented” courses with other bright sparks from your county, and then chose three so-called “hard” A Level subjects to show how broadly your talents lay.

If you jumped through all those hoops, chances are you grew up thinking you were destined for Oxford or Cambridge.

My work ethic at sixth form was frankly dreadful: I always got high marks, being one of those students who seemed to coast through academically.

Despite this, it was disappointing to receive a B in my History AS, along with three As. But that didn’t put me off Oxbridge. Nor did it make me work harder. It just made me want it more. Little did I realise I was just building myself up for almost two years of perpetual disappointment, and a bitterness that lingers to this day.

Me aged 17, pre-rejection

Me aged 17, pre-rejection

I thought I had a good shot at being Prime Minister when I was in Year 13. I looked alright in a suit and was better than most at public speaking – so I applied for the SPS tripos at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

The train journey up was unremarkable, as was the room they put me in. I was expecting something out of Brideshead Revisited, all wooden panels and old-school maps on the wall. It just looked like any other room.


The offending room

Most of the morning was spent waiting in a small hall, jarringly modern in contrast to the rest of the college. The other candidates all sat nose-in-book, poring over pre-prepared notes, bespectacled and silent. No-one spoke to each other – which is weird when you think hypothetically you’ll be spending the next three years with some of these people.

There were two interviews. I felt like I didn’t do too badly in the first, with Lord Wilson, the master of the college. When he asked who I thought the most powerful person in government was, I said “the Prime Minister – because he can fire anyone”.

The second went much less well. It turns out I didn’t really know what either Sociology or Social Psychology was. I stumbled over my words a lot, and there were a lot of really long silences. You think you’re clever – and then you sit there, 17 years old, two of the best social scientists in the world staring blankly at you, and you realise you’re no-one.

The quad at Emmanuel, taken on a sixth form trip up for the smart kids in June 2008

The quad at Emmanuel, taken on a sixth form trip up for the smart kids in June 2008

I went in overconfident and left knowing I hadn’t got in. The rejection letter was still a body-blow.

Throughout the rest of sixth form, I continued as I had before Cambridge. I got conditional offers from my four other choices, and was set on studying at Manchester.

I was delighted to get four As on A Level results day. It came four days before my 18th birthday, so as my friends headed on a night out to celebrate, I had to stay in at my parents.

It was then that my dad, an English teacher, said: “I guess the only thing to stop you going to Manchester would be trying for Oxford.”

I had just got four As. I didn’t want to regret not trying. Why wouldn’t I be good enough?

I contacted UCAS and pulled out of Manchester. I submitted my re-application as early as I could, and whiled away the following months working on the meat and fish counter at the local supermarket.

After rejections from Durham and, weirdly, Royal Holloway, I was called to interview for History and English at St John’s College.

It looks pretty alright

It looks pretty alright

It was a very different atmosphere to my Cambridge interview a year beforehand. People actually spoke to each other for a start, and it was a much more diverse mix of people – Braden from Newcastle, Sangeeta from Hertfordshire, Tom from Sherborne, Martina from Italy.

A lot of us had applied to St John’s because we’d been told about their “high state school intake”, about how it just looked at raw talent and not your parentage.

The waiting itself was much more relaxed, chatting about everything and anything, bright sparks waxing lyrical – this was what we all imagined Oxford was for. Sure, everyone there was palpably nervous, but we were all focused.

Thanks to this in part, the History interview was exhilarating, but in the second one they probed for an encyclopaedic knowledge of literature I didn’t have. I just liked reading. Isn’t liking something enough?

I didn’t get in, and the second rejection stung more than the first. Still haven’t learnt anything, have you?

I’m still in touch with a number of the others I met at the St. John’s interview. A couple joined me at Exeter. The others went to Bristol, Durham, Warwick. You’ve probably met them. This story might not be too far from your own.

Oxbridge’s loss was Exeter’s gain, we tell ourselves.Too fun for Oxbridge, we all say. I’m glad I didn’t peak at 17 in an Oxbridge interview, we look back and think.

None of it is true. It still hurts. You know it, and it’s a bitterness you’ll carry for the rest of your life – when you’re back home from uni and your mate at Oxford tells you how tired they are all the time, when you want to visit your friends there and they’re too busy to put you up, when you go for a job interview and find you’re up against a “Pembroke man”.

Every smart state-educated 13-year-old in the country has a narrow shot at Oxbridge. Don’t blow it like I did.