Natasha strikes a pose on the steps of the Oxford College that she will apply to 10 years laterNatasha Schmittzehe

All of us probably remember the exact time, location and surge of emotions as we opened that letter, that email, or UCAS track and found out the news that for some of us proved life-changing: the offer and acceptance to the University of Cambridge. Yet for a significant number of us, this had not been a fairy-tale process, an easy success story. Rather, it had been the triumph of a second shot, a win after having felt defeated first time round.

Not only am I both an Oxford reject and a Cambridge student, I would go so far as to say that being rejected by Oxford was what made me a successful Cambridge applicant – and more importantly, a happier one.

Although some do apply to Oxbridge on a whim, for me, like many others, it was a romantic dream I had set my heart on years ago. When you’re 5 years old, you hope to one day become a superhero, yet all I desperately wanted was to one day to reach the dizzy heights of Oxford. I realise now how ludicrous this really was – yet growing up in a household where my father, grandfather and uncle all bore the title of ‘Oxford undergraduates’ and then going to a highly-academic, pushy all-girls school, it was the cultural norm to pursue the ideal of being a gowned scholar studying a subject you pretend to love far more than you actually do.

“I can now see that rejection from Oxford for what it was: a painful but necessary opportunity for growth and self-confidence”

Coming from a bubble where Oxbridge is a ‘normal goal’ to aspire to is an exceedingly privileged position to be in, yet on my mother’s side of the family I faced a different sort of pressure. With my grandfather having grown up in the slums in India and my grandmother having gone to work at 14 in a biscuit factory, Oxbridge was a big deal to them. I wanted to make them proud. Oxbridge was therefore synonymous with personal success right from the start. I was clueless at the time of course, but a photo of me taken at 7 years old, pulling a face on an Oxford college’s steps, would turn out to be at the college I would apply to 10 years later.

The expectation of being ‘Oxbridge material’ and then being rejected is a common experience. Having always felt like a bit of an outsider, the ‘swotty one’ who only gained approbation from those around me for my exam results, Oxbridge felt like the way in which I would finally gain the respect and validation I craved from others. Not getting into Oxford was something that in the grand scheme of life and all its knocks should have been inconsequential, but it made me feel like an absolute failure. Was I now worthless? Were those who had been admitted better human beings than me?

“I am well acquainted with that feeling of rejection such that the worst possible outcome doesn’t feel scary anymore”

Facing an Oxford rejection was a cold slap in the face but ultimately, a much-needed reality check. By forcing myself to come to terms with that deeply uncomfortable feeling of rejection, I was put in a position where I had to re-evaluate what my priorities were and how I defined being accomplished and fulfilled. Would going to a place where professors dedicated their time to burrowing away reading dusty books really make me a happier, more fulfilled person? Was it worth striving for academic success at the expense of my own mental health and making meaningful human connections?

Having placed Oxford on a pedestal, my 17-year-old, angst-ridden self was expecting a god-like, formidable interviewer and yet in trying to be liked, I completely broke down. With his refusal to shake my hand and his pointed statement, “I think people like you tend to overanalyse literature”, I felt completely powerless and confused. What had I done wrong to turn him against me? Except I had done nothing wrong – it was just that I hadn’t yet learnt that, like everyone else, prestigious professors are flawed, biased human beings too and that, despite one’s best efforts, you just can’t make everyone like you.


Mountain View

Music for the end of the world

I can now see that rejection from Oxford for what it was: a painful but necessary opportunity for growth and self-confidence. With a newfound self-assurance, positivity and rationality, I approached the Cambridge application process with a far healthier mindset. If I didn’t get into Cambridge, I had the security and confidence in myself to believe that it would be no indication of my worth and I would still have something meaningful to offer. After all, the application process is a lottery and I knew I would be content going someplace else. In a similar vein, I now feel like whatever life throws at me or when I doubt myself, I am well acquainted with that feeling of rejection such that the worst possible outcome doesn’t feel scary anymore.

For anyone reading this facing any form of rejection – you may think that you have lost something, but in fact you are in the process of gaining far more. And I promise, you will look back on being rejected and you will feel less bitter and more grateful for the lessons you have learnt and the more empowered person you have become.

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