I’m so sorry to hear of your disappointment, though if I am honest, also a little glad; it sounds mad, I know, but it may take family pressure off my own young son in years to come a little. I don’t know you well; it’s been many years since you sat in my lap one summer holiday and gave all your dolls my name. Since then our respective nuclear families have drifted apart, meeting briefly and not always even at Christmastime. But I have a pretty good idea what you must be feeling.
You like me stem from a family in which firsts from Oxbridge are the rule rather than the exception, leaving those who don’t even go to Oxbridge, let alone get firsts, feeling like youngsters with chronic learning difficulties, or whatever the term is now.
It’s hard, at 18, and from such a background, not to believe your academic grades represent your destiny, and that Oxbridge or otherwise terminally divides the country’s youth into future winners and losers. Here you are stuck on the wrong side already, so you may as well top yourself now.
And yet, look at me, dear niece. I went to Oxbridge, yet in career terms have been long overtaken by those who did better elsewhere. Still I don’t feel like topping myself, even now, with the damage all done. I don’t have many Oxbridge friends, but I do know a good number of successful, happy people who never went near the place. My sister, your other aunt, is one of them.
Like you, I failed first time. Driven by a furious ambition to prove myself as good as my brother, I got in at the second attempt from a sixth-form college, having switched subject and Oxbridge college, and benefitting from a special entrance exam supposedly sourcing clever, untutored state school girls. There were fewer girls then, and even fewer state school ones, and the achievement ranks as my first and only spectacular exam success barring my A at Physics O level ca. 1975. In later years, I couldn’t help suspecting that I was only there on account of my illustrious academic relative. I distinctly remember being asked at interview why I hadn’t mentioned him on my application form. “I dunno!” I said dimly, not understanding why I was supposed to have mentioned him, when he had no hand in my application, which was my responsibility alone. That spark of independence may have worked in my favour.
You’re not a state school girl, I know that. You have the un-ambivalent support of your family. You’ll get many A’s, for sure – not just for O level Physics. You have many other advantages over me; musical and artistic prowess, foreign languages, good internships, good friends, social confidence. You live at a time where girls and careers are taken for granted, not tinged with the bluestocking-schoolmarm-spinster image I recall. For all those reasons, if you did get in second time around, you’d probably do better and have a lot more fun at Oxbridge than I did. But you’d do better anywhere else as well.
I don’t like Oxbridge, in the same way I don’t like the private schools whose pupils it disproportionately educates; and I can afford not to, not moving anywhere near those circles any more where attendance is taken for granted. This article sums up my reasons well enough. I don’t expect you to be moved by these arguments; not while you’re still nursing an unaccustomed rejection. In due course you might consider, though – there are many great universities, different courses, and paths to professional distinction, assuming this is what motivates you. It depends on what kind of career attracts you – I don’t know – but there are also many workplaces where a slightly unconventional route to distinction may have the edge. Let’s be honest, for someone from your background, Oxbridge is hardly original. Something done well, somewhere else, just might end up looking, feeling and actually being a whole lot more distinguished after all.