Oxbridge rejection now does not mean failure forever

by Ellie Jones

‘Oxford or Cambridge?’ is always one of the first questions freshers at Durham ask each other in the first week of term. Someone once jokingly (I hope) asked before asking my name. For me it was Oxford, Brasenose College. Following the sting of rejection this time last year, I allowed myself to be reassured by the regurgitated newspaper articles that spouted statistics and stories about other failed Oxbridge applicants and argued that this year had been more competitive than ever due to rising fees, fewer people taking a gap year and increasingly high academic standards. Numerous excuses on my behalf flooded automatically from friends and family. On hearing the news, they would shake their heads and say ‘Well it’s not the end of the world’ or something similar, their overly sympathetic expressions and hopeless sighs indicating that they thought otherwise while even my parents fretted that I would forever define myself as an Oxbridge reject. One particularly blunt family friend even added at the end of yet another round of reassurances “But it does open doors you know…” Well, thanks. Clearly all the doors are closed now. Slammed in my face by one automated email.

And now it’s that time of year again. Oxford has rejected and Cambridge is in the midst of rejecting. While the successful applicants rejoice, the ‘failures’ now see their other offers (generally ranging in the top 5 or 10 universities) as the ‘Good Try’ sticker or the ‘Endeavour prize’. An onlooker might think we’ve just been told that all we’re destined for is a life living solely off baked beans and benefits. For some people, the rejection means just this; they believe that their prospects and potential have been instantly limited to remain within the average rather than become some of the extraordinary which Oxbridge promises to produce. It seems that through one email we’ve been dropped from the race of becoming the cleverest, most successful people in Britain.

As Durham students do we define ourselves or are we defined by others as second place? What exactly is it about Oxbridge that we so desire to be a part of? It’s partially the intellectual allure; we see Oxford and Cambridge as a haven for bright young people who gather together wearing velvet jackets and tweed trousers while exchanging a non-stop flow of witty banter. Do we imagine the future Cabinet sitting in dark oak libraries planning their administration whilst the Stephen Hawkings of the world invent the next atomic bomb or world-hunger curing GM crop. By attending or indeed surviving one of these institutions you are automatically tagged with the Oxford or Cambridge status giving you, what we imagine, a prestige that lets you glide through life.

But where is the line between rumour and reality? Students are more likely to be cooped up in their rooms chasing this allusive ‘prestige’ than partying with the next Prime Minister and although rooms may have a fireplace, a study and a double bed Oxbridge life is not as romantic as we have been led to believe. Days are spent rushing through mounds of reading that is physically impossible to overcome, compounded by crippling pressure and fear of failure with perhaps time for a few crammed in mouthfuls of pot noodles for dinner (it’s not all Harry Potter formals in large wooden halls). Although this is a gross generalisation and I’m sure many students occasionally stumble upon social activity, the point remains that Oxbridge is not the world of glimmering academic perfection that is often painted for us to covet.

There are groups on Facebook celebrating rejection; failing with a bunch of other clever people always feels better than being the only loser. However, onlookers, including sometimes those accepted into Oxford or Cambridge misinterpret these groups as expressions of disguised bitterness. No one likes rejection, and those that apply to Oxbridge will have dealt with little of this before in their academic lives. The best way to deal with it is to have a little cry, get over it and move on. And when you do eventually end up in Durham you can truly laugh. When I say I’m relieved I did not go to Oxford, I am not trying to hide my inner anguish, I’m genuinely glad. For me Durham has everything I wanted to get from Oxford: cobbled streets, hidden away cafés, old bridges, a cathedral, a few eccentric academics and heaps of intelligent, funny and friendly people. Of course it would have been nice if Oxford had wanted me.

I would say now that I’d liked to have got in ‘just so I could reject them’, because what we really want from Oxbridge is confirmation that we are good enough. But for this short-lived comfort we would have entered unwittingly into a Faustian pact, signing away our lives for the next three or four years just so we could say we went to Oxford or Cambridge. So instead of seeing our rejection as a complete and categorical failure, let’s consider it as equivalent to an annoying but minor ailment, like a bout of indigestion or a broken nail.

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