Six years ago I received my Oxford rejection letter. Here’s why I framed it.
Scrolling Instagram this week I came across the Oxford University account congratulating students who’d just received their offers. But there, scattered in the comments, was the inevitable. “I just got rejected”.
Six years ago, that was me. The brown envelope arrived in the post. “Thank you for applying to Oxford… after careful consideration it has not been possible to offer you a place at this college”. It felt like my biggest failure but somehow, at the same time, my proudest achievement.
It felt like my biggest failure but somehow, at the same time, my proudest achievement.
The prospect of studying at Oxford didn’t appear on my radar until sixth form. A small group of students were gathered for discussions about our academic pursuits, which seemed to encourage only two things: studying Medicine or studying at Oxbridge. I didn’t fancy seven years of Medicine and by this point I was head over heels for Psychology. I received a huge amount of encouragement from the school’s resident career advisor and with his help I submitted my application for Oxford’s Experimental Psychology course.
Things started to feel very real. I practised for the Thinking Skills Assessment (a test with 50 multiple choice questions that can only be compared to extracting reason from a politician’s most avoidant answer) and visited the university for one of their applicant open-days with my Mum and Grandparents. We toured round the halls and gawped at the libraries. I felt proud. Maybe Oxford wasn’t so out of reach.
I felt proud. Maybe Oxford wasn’t so out of reach.
That was until one of the informational talks ruined the day. It focused on the importance of academic work (not unreasonable), how everything else should be put on a back burner and that part-time work was very much frowned upon. The talk hit Mum hard. We’d both worked hard for my education and now she didn’t know if we’d be able to afford it if I couldn’t have a job.
Still, the application continued. I sat my TSA and by some miracle I was invited to an interview at St Hugh’s college. Mum dropped me off and there I was for two days of interviews and painful small talk with the other applicants. The interviews for Physics were being held at the same time, so it was an odd mix of people. My first impression of the Physics lot was walking into the common room to see them grouped around the TV arguing about the accuracy of The Big Bang Theory. I felt like I was in my own sitcom.
Dinner wasn’t much better. I sat at the bench opposite a tall, well-spoken boy and politely introduced myself. We exchanged small talk about the courses we’d applied for and where we were from. That’s when he asked me “do you board?”. “Skateboarding?” I replied “yeah, I’ve done a bit”. Skateboarding was not what he meant. This was the moment I learnt that boarding schools were not just a setting for Enid Blyton books.
This was the moment I learnt that boarding schools were not just a setting for Enid Blyton books.
I wasn’t the only one there from a state school; one of the Physics boys was from a nearby school in Leeds that had a bad reputation. His Physics teacher had left just as he started his A-Levels and had been replaced by a temp who had no Physics background at all. The temp wasn’t very temporary and he ended up teaching himself the curriculum, an achievement that has always impressed me.
We had three interviews over two days, where we were asked questions about the Psychology of Artificial Intelligence, how we would answer The Trolley Dilemma and to solve the Wason Card Selection Task (I’ve included it below, give it a go). The interviewers ranged from enthusiastic and encouraging, to interrupting while you were mid sentence to ask “what’s log base 10 of 10,000?”. I left the interview process exhausted, bemused and with serious office envy but I’d made it in front of those professors and held my own.
We waited weeks for the news, which was due bang in the middle of exam season, and my letter was three days late. I’d wait as long as possible to leave for sixth form in hope that the postman would arrive. When it finally did, I was heartbroken. After all the effort, all the hope, Oxford wasn’t meant to be.
Looking back, it was the best outcome. My richest experiences at the University of Nottingham were non-academic and I worked alongside my studies from start to finish. While I’d still jump at the opportunity to study at Oxford, it wasn’t the right place for me to find my independence.
Though I didn’t know all this back then, I did know how much I’d overcome just to get in front of the Oxford professors and introduce myself. I might not have been enrolled as a student, but one of the most prestigious universities in the UK had acknowledged me, and I had the proof right there on headed paper.
One of the most prestigious universities in the UK had acknowledged me, and I had the proof right there on headed paper.
Oh, and the boy who taught himself Physics at one of the roughest schools in Leeds? He got his offer and graduated two years ago. If you let anyone inspire you today, let it be him.
*The answer is A and 7. Read the full explanation here.