The feeling of not belonging or being a ‘fraud’, known as “imposter syndrome” is common among Cambridge students. However, my personal feeling of imposter syndrome is compounded by the fact that it took me two attempts to get my Cambridge offer – a secret I have not told even my closest friends. 

I applied to Cambridge in my final year of sixth-form. I spent hours drafting and redrafting my personal statement, reading extra books and preparing for the interview process. For an entire year, I spent almost every waking moment on improving my application and thinking about how badly I wanted to be accepted. 

We need to open up a conversation about experiences of academic failure and rejection

When I found the email in my spam informing me of my post-interview rejection, I was utterly crushed that my dream of going to Cambridge was over. I had made the unhealthy mistake of attaching my self-worth to whether or not I got in, and so the decision filled me with self-loathing. Needless to say that my mental health and personal life suffered.

While I was rejected, my then-boyfriend had been accepted into Oxford. I was simultaneously happy for him but so incredibly envious and I began to think that I wasn’t good enough for him; we both prided ourselves on being ambitious and determined – characteristics I felt that I had failed at. My rejection also coincided with the death of my grandmother from cancer, who I was very close with. Both events together felt like I was grieving twice over, once for my grandma and once for my failed future plans. 

Following my A-levels I was hesitant about reapplying to Cambridge. I was told that the tutors reject people if they think they aren’t a ‘good fit’ and I also didn't want to put myself through another rejection. But something inside me knew that Cambridge was right for me. I loved the course, the idea of supervisions, weekly essays, and the short terms. I also couldn’t bear not knowing if I would be accepted if I didn’t try again. So going with my instinct, I decided to reapply and put myself through the gruelling journey of the Cambridge admissions process. This time I was armed with what I had learnt from my previous mistakes and a sense of peace: if I was rejected again, I would know once and for all that Cambridge and I weren’t meant to be. 

To cut a long story short, I was accepted and I have now had two joyous terms here at Cambridge. But my experience is always tinged by my secret that it took me two attempts to get in. Even though I was eventually accepted, I still feel like I’m not good enough and that I need to work harder than my peers to prove my worth. 

Despite struggling with these negative feelings at times, I know that my Cambridge rejection has made me a stronger, better person. 

My Cambridge rejection has made me a stronger, better person. 

It means that I am capable of overcoming failure. It also means that I don’t take my time here for granted. I am grateful for every lecture and supervision, every essay I write, every time I go to a Union debate and every time I get to cycle down King’s Parade. No matter how tough it gets, my daily activities are imbued with a feeling of gratitude for the second chance I was given to come to university here. So I do feel slight annoyance when my friends complain about the workload because I know how it feels to not be given the incredible opportunity to study here.

Most importantly, my Cambridge rejection has taught me that it is unhealthy to base self-worth on academic achievement. I know now to base my self-esteem on whether I am kind and selfless towards others.

On reflection, my fixation on getting into Cambridge wasn’t entirely my fault. Oxbridge occupies a mythical space in our culture, and this fuels media obsession which spills over into schools and the workplace. It’s no wonder I was obsessed with getting into Cambridge: wider society had misleadingly taught me that if I got in I was special, a mysterious anomaly and a ‘cut above the rest.’ 

I also know that my ‘secret’ is, in reality, very trivial. Why do I feel so ashamed that it took me two attempts to get into one of the world’s most prestigious universities with one of the most competitive application processes?


Mountain View

Becoming the self you want to be

I think my feelings of shame stem from the fact that academic rejection is a taboo topic here. I’m certain that there are other people like me whose journey to Cambridge has been complicated. But the reason I think people do not talk about it is that ultimately few people here have experienced failure and rejection in academia. This makes those who reapplied to Cambridge after rejection afraid that if we are honest with our friends, they will think we aren’t good enough to be here. 

While there are things to celebrate about Cambridge culture, the taboo about rejection in academia still persists, and needs to be broken. We need to open up a conversation about experiences of academic failure and rejection to further break down the imposter syndrome that is rife here, and to better equip ourselves to handle the real world where love, kindness and job applications are rejected on a daily basis.

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