On Rejection from Oxbridge
In December of 2011, my application to Oxford University was rejected. It had been my target – my goal, for the best part of three years up until that point.
After getting my A level results however, I decided to take a gap year and reapply to Cambridge. This application was successful.
This week, a good friend of mine applied to Cambridge and was unsuccessful. They wrote to me about it. I knew exactly how they felt, and wrote back the letter I think I would have liked to have read some years ago.
It’s been about a week since most people would have received this decision, so it occurred to me that this might be worth putting up now that there’s been some time for the dust to settle. If this letter applies to you, I hope it offers some help.
I was absolutely gutted on your part to read this. I know exactly how it feels. Excuse my french, but it's a total bitch [She lives in France].
A few things to immediately bear in mind -
The application process is - to a fairly uncomfortable extent - a lottery. Anyone in either Oxford or Cambridge who is involved with admissions knows this. There are so many factors that are beyond your control – who interviews you, your chemistry with this person, how they feel on the day, the questions they ask you, what they think of your response etc.
As someone who has studied at Cambridge, and spent lots of time with many people from Oxford, I can assure you that the result of your application is not a reflection on your intelligence - you are a hell of a lot sharper than many of the people I've met there. So please don't start an internal narrative of 'I am not good enough', because that is simply untrue.
When I got rejected, the main thing I felt was embarrassment – like I had been found out as someone who wasn’t that clever, or wasn’t that great. It’s natural to have this feeling, but it is just a feeling – let is pass.
You don’t need to have gone to Oxbridge to be brilliant or successful and happy. It really isn’t the be-all and end-all.
OK - so onto the big life decisions stuff.
One important thing to remember is that you have time. Lots of it. Not to get too deep in this email, but many people really on find their true calling much much later in life, if at all. A rejection like this can be quite discombobulating – especially when Oxford and Cambridge gets built up in your mind as this huge life-changing ordeal.
You might feel the urge to make a dramatic decision, or you might simply feel that suddenly your life has gone off the correct narrative track.
It's especially frustrating when people start treating you like someone you know has died - they feel disappointed on your behalf, so they're not to blame - but it can add to the feeling of great life significance.
If you don’t know what to do, that’s fine. If you've had a deep realisation, awesome. But my advice would be to sit still for a week or so at least, just to you can re-acclimatise a bit.
Besides, even if your mindset doesn’t change - and you decide you want to pursue music or art or anything else over academia - my advice would be simply do both.
At any of the universities you've applied for, you'll have ample time to meet other people who will greatly broaden your horizons. Hell, this Friday I'm doing an improvised comedy show in a theatre in London - I only even encountered this phenomenon while at university, and now it's something that I'm pursuing half seriously.
Going to university and meeting lots of other people and being introduced to many more ideas is where the true value of the experience really lies.
Be greedy with your life, it's entirely your right to do so - don't do one thing, do everything, at least for a little bit.
To repeat myself - you're young, you have time, you should capitalise on this resource.
Now, when I was in the position you were in, the immediate thought that came to my mind was 'hmm, maybe I should take a gap year and reapply' so I'd be remiss not to at least offer some consideration of that notion here.
The other universities that you've applied for, are places where in all likelihood you'll have a fantastic time.
In much the same way that not being born in the greatest economy in the world - America - means almost nothing in terms of how wealthy your life will be, in the same way not going to a university that has higher metrics in some areas doesn't mean anything really in terms of how happy or successful you'll be. Oxbridge likes to think it's all that, but at the end of the day they're a bunch of buildings with some clever people inside, and there are many places that fit this description.
That said I’d like to remind you, given you have time, that it is entirely your right not to settle. I often think of the quote from JFK “Once you say you’re going to settle for second, that’s what happens to you in life, I find”
If you visit other universities you get offers from and don't like the vibe, then you can very easily take a year if you wanted to, get a job, save money, travel, pursue and explore other things for a bit, and reapply to other places. Again, you have lots and lots of time.
If this idea appeals to you, and you are still leaning towards it in a few weeks’ time, please do talk to me about it – don’t just take a gap year for the sake of reapplying for Oxbridge. If you do decide to do one, you have to do it fully comfortable with the fact that the second attempt may fail too. The year has to be worth it in its own right.
[This is an open offer, if you, dear reader, want advice on this - feel free to email me! Jack_lawrence1@hotmail.co.uk]
So yeah - just flagging up some thoughts here because they were in my brain.
Pfft, this email is already super long, apologies. In summary:
It's natural to feel a bit gutted, and though everyone will say this - try not to be. You've done very very well, and you'll have an awesome life regardless of what happens. Don't play 'what if?' just move forward.
Give yourself the luxury of taking some time to mull things over, and change your mind a few times. It's easy to feel certainty in the eye of the storm of big emotions, let the winds pass and see where you stand.
You have lots of options and lots of time, you're smart and hardworking, and have people who love you and care about you. You've kind of already won really. Try to remember this.
Happy New years to your family too. Everyone in the Lawrence household wishes you an electronic hug from us.
As an example of someone who entirely flourished after not getting into Oxbridge, and ended up being grateful that they didn’t, look no further than this article by Emma Fear here: Why I’m Glad Cambridge Rejected Me
And if all truly feels lost, here is an excellent video from Zefrank on the topic of rejection.