What happens to people who don’t get into Oxford or Cambridge

‘If I’d got in I’d be someone with a much better LinkedIn profile’

On an unspeakably cold day in November 2011, I had an interview to read history at Pembroke College Cambridge. 

I thought it was going pretty well. I answered the questions competently enough. As it came to a close, the (wheelchair using) interviewer asked me whether I’d enjoyed the process.

“Yeah,” I replied, “definitely. I’ve had a wheely good time.”

She looked at me. I tried not to look at her wheelchair. She was still looking at me.

In the Grand Canyon long silence that followed, the silence that continued as I got up, turned around and left the room, I think we both knew there wouldn’t be a place for me in Cambridge.

Pembroke's lawn is wheely nice

Pembroke’s lawn is wheely nice

Everyone who was interviewed but didn’t get a place at either Ox or Cam has a similar story. Some seem elaborately doctored, some painfully honest. In common they all try to answer the only question which matters in this context: why didn’t I get in?

When people tell you their Oxbridge rejection stories a clear pattern emerges from them – they really don’t give a fuck they didn’t get in. If anything they feel better for having not got in: they’re fitter, funnier and better adjusted for it.

Here are their stories.

Edmund Bannister – Southampton, applied to Downing College, Cambridge in 2011


Downing College counts Nick Griffin as a notable alumni. When they asked me why I’d applied, I joked that my “political idol had come here.”

It was met with stunned silence and the knowledge that even the nepotism of my dad having taught the interviewer couldn’t rescue me. That was the moment I knew I wouldn’t be getting in.

Even before I was cracking BNP jokes, I remember making a tit out of myself. They had a postgrad and a lecturer doing the interviews, the postgrad came out to use the toilet and I assumed he was an interviewee and I asked him whether the interviewers were dicks or not.

If I had got in I probably would have shot myself due to the stress.

Laura Fitzpatrick – Manchester, applied to Clare College, Cambridge in 2013


I remember thinking at the time it had gone horrendously and I was right to think that.

In my interview they asked me to speak in French and Italian – I did A Level French so this was alright but I’d only done Italian to a lesser standard than GCSE two year prior to the interview, so it was safe to safe I just about knew how to introduce myself and ask where the bus stop was.

This didn’t stop me comparing grammatical structures in French and Italian. So I ended up speaking French with an Italian accent the whole time and trying to pass it as Italian, then finding out that one of the interviewers could actually speak fluent Italian.

I’m very glad I didn’t get in. I would have been even more of a neek than I am now and probably would have had no life or fun whatsoever. Cambridge is a pretty bum out place, swear there’s literally nothing to do other than ride a bike and read a book.

Riyah Collins – Birmingham, applied to Brasenose College, Oxford in 2012


I spent the entire two days I was in Oxford for interviews trying to rekindle an old flame.

So I hung out at the college he was applying for rather than the one I was going in for. Ended up doing about one per cent of the prep I should have been doing and inevitably failed.

Eventually I got the same letter everyone gets, where they tell you you’re great but there was just an “unusually high number of exceptional candidates”. I was convinced I didn’t get in because I don’t have a family legacy at Oxford.

The guy who I was seeing at the time got in even though he was convinced his interview didn’t go very well but conveniently had generations of Oxford grads behind him. Now the bitterness has subsided though, I realise I just wasn’t good enough I guess and I wouldn’t have coped with it overly well, although we’ll never know for sure.

If I got in, I can’t imagine being the sort of person I’d like to hang out with. I think it would be hard to avoid that sense of elitism that tends to come with an Oxford education, so I’d probably be a dick to everyone who I didn’t meet at the college bop.

Ben Foreman – UCL, applied to Clare College, Cambridge in 2013


The interviewer said to me: “So I want you to imagine your best friend. Right? Now imagine that your best friend is taken away without you knowing and replaced by electrodes and controlled by externally commandeered electrical impulses. For all intents and purposes, your friend looks identical and acts identical to how they did before. Would you be able to tell that something has changed?”

I looked back at the Professor, looked him in the eye thinking I’d just nailed some sort of test and went “No. Because you’ve just told me he looks and acts exactly the same way.”

There was then an awkward silence where he looked down at his note pad and exasperatedly said “riiiiight.”

I was skiing with seven friends when the results came out. Three of us had applied to Oxbridge, the other two of them got in. I was pretty gutted when everyone was celebrating. If I’d got in I’d be someone with a much better LinkedIn profile.

Roisin Lanigan – Journalist, applied to New College, Oxford in 2010


I had three interviews in a day. My college helper person made me late for the first one, in the second one the guy kept taking text messages during (I found out from the guy who was in before me he actually took a call from his daughter halfway through the interview and just ignored him).

By the third one I hated it and when he introduced himself and said “I’m sure you’ve already heard this but welcome to Oxford” I was really rude and angry and was like “No, actually I haven’t”. I basically threw a massive strop and kept answering questions like “Nope”, “No I haven’t been taught that”. Literally the minute I left the room I was like, oops. 

I’m OK with it now because I know I wouldn’t have had fun or fitted in at Oxford. If I had got in I’d be much more serious and have a massive superiority complex but also pretty boring.

And I’d probably have a nicer accent.

Ed Campbell – Edinburgh, applied to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 2013


I had an academic interview with two lecturers. I had been given a passage of Rousseau to read and analyse for half an hour previously but I could have cheated quite easily because there was only one student supervising us.

There was then a discussion of essays I’d submitted previously. One of them was about football which wasn’t very conducive to a discussion of politics.

If I had got in I’d probably have to work a hell of a lot harder than I do at Edinburgh.

Robin Brinkworth – Edinburgh, applied to Pembroke College, Cambridge in 2012


I had two interviews and I thought they both went alright. Except for the second one, when the interviewer picked up her iPad and tried to show me something on it – turns out the last thing she’d been watching was Dora the Explorer. She tried to blame it on her kid so that was smooth…

For the first interview, got the feedback, she basically said: “I asked him a question about morality and he ignored me.” I have no memory of that question – like – absolutely no memory of it whatsoever.

If I’d got in I would be a private school, Cambridge educated person. Not a twat as such, but pretty close. You can choose your own crowd at Edinburgh – I wouldn’t have been able to do the same at Pembroke.

I’m bloody bloody glad I didn’t get in – Edinburgh suits me better, the college system would have driven me up the wall, and Cambridge is too small a place for me to enjoy.