An article I wrote about my experiences at Oxford when I had my interview there in December 2010. Having mused on this topic for a long time, I am thinking of writing a longer piece — perhaps a story — on the topic: it is a very poignant memory still, and something that drives me to this day.
This was published in the first issue of this academic year for the Sussex University newspaper, the Badger.
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Who hasn’t looked at the university league tables? For many, it’s the first port of call when choosing a university. It’s hard to escape looking at the first results at the top of any uni guide: Oxford and Cambridge. Their status and prestige is undeniable. For many, they have no interest in going there; it wouldn’t suit them. But with more and more students achieving superlative grades, it’s no wonder that more potential undergraduates applied this year than ever before — necessitating the largest number of rejections in history.
Where do people go to talk about universities? The Student Room forums: the number one place to talk about universities in Britain. And if you spend any extended period of time browsing the threads, one word comes up over and over again: prestige. Indeed, upon googling ‘university prestige’, one of the first results is a thread on TSR which has someone bluntly declare ‘Let’s face it. Prestige is everything.’
Let us briefly remind ourselves of the current situation: the admissions departments of every university in the country were so overwhelmed this year due to the increased tuition fees for the ‘12/13 year that even UCAS itself crashed on the most important day of the year: the 18th of August, 2011. Results day. I saw so many stressed — and then mostly elated, but a few dejected — peers that I scarcely had time to think about my own results. I had made it into Sussex University to study Philosophy and English, but seeing close friends burst into tears because of their exam results completely overshadowed my experience that day. The real climax of my journey had actually ended on a gloomy day a week before last Christmas when I got my Oxford rejection letter.
What, exactly, is the the effect an Oxford application has on the applicant? It is multifaceted and in many ways, subtle, but this fact sums it all up: everyone from my college who applied for Oxford and didn’t get in genuinely considered not going to university that year and applying the next year just for achance to get in, regardless of the increased tuition fees. Illogical and depressing, that is the toxic nature of prestige at its worst.
So, why did I apply for Oxford in the first place? Because I wanted the best education possible. It was prescriptive, automatic, unthinking: if you want the best, you apply to Oxbridge. I’d dreamt of it many times in a vague fashion, without really thinking what it would be like. And so, I was thrust into what I call ‘my Oxford debacle’, assured that it was the right thing to do, like taking a medicine: if you want to get better, you must.
I took the ELAT (English Literature Admissions Test) on November 5th and passed with 67%: I had earned myself an interview. The elation I felt upon receiving that news is hard to express. But when I went to Oxford, I was struck by a strange dualism: whilst I was in awe of its history and importance, I didn’t feel comfortable there. The many times I’d dreamt about studying at Oxford didn’t prepare me for this philosophical nausea. My interviews reinforced this feeling. Whilst they didn’t go badly, I didn’t feel as though I expressed my personality at all; I was almost a shell of myself, unsure if I wanted to be there or not, as if I had a pill stuck to the back of my throat and didn’t know whether to swallow it or not. Lying in my room there, it felt like a sort of prison: I knew that it would be good for me to attend Oxford, but I started dreaming about my other option: Sussex. It seemed like a beacon of hope, somewhere that reflected my personality.
I wasn’t surprised when I received a letter a few days before Christmas telling me that my application was unsuccessful. In reality, I wouldn’t have suited Oxford: I didn’t bond with anyone there and I felt uncomfortable; I felt that when I told my interviewers that I was an aspiring poet and writer that the atmosphere in the room darkened. I was never going to get in. But I cannot deny the impact that not getting into Oxford had on me; it was an existential crisis the likes of which I have never felt before.
I won’t pretend that every time I pick up a book by Oxford University Press that I don’t wince, but Sussex has strengths that Oxford does not: a creative impetus not encouraged when I visited that great city, and a liberal mentality synonymous with Brighton.
Prestige is important to many, but there is a virtue Sussex University has, for me, that nowhere else comes close to.
It feels like home.