Dear successful applicants,
Congratulations on achieving your grades. Making your offer is 90% of the battle and you’ve done it! If you didn’t get your grades, well, this letter is not addressed to you.
Your As and A*s have made you the pride of your school, your family, heck, maybe even your town. Today there’ll be local news teams at your school, clamouring to speak to all the successful Oxbridgers who are tasked with inspiring the next generation. If that doesn’t make you feel tremendously smug, then the obligatory celebratory family dinner really ought to. And you’ve earned it after all those hours spent studying for your GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels.
Over the next few days you’ll probably get pangs of worry. ‘Oxford is going to be really hard’, you’ll think to yourself, ‘I’m not going to make any friends, I’m going to be found out as a fraud!’ It’s quite the comedown after the success of your exam results. Suddenly you realise that A-level History is not actually that difficult. Suddenly you realise that the secondary reading you’ve been assigned for your first essay is more than the entire contents of your school library. If this doesn’t cause you to panic then, well, I salute you again.
The next few weeks will be both fantastically free and oppressively condemned. You know that, by the final days of September, you’ll be locked into a three-year sentence that only ends where the real world begins. You’ve got to make your time at home count; no vacation will be the same again. You’ll rush to see all your friends before you leave, go on an anxious family holiday, get drunk and laugh and pretend that you’re REALLY EXCITED to be heading to Oxford, all the while cowering in terror at the sight of the word.
And then, in the first week of October, you’ll head to Oxford. You came for interviews, in the winter when most of the students had left, except for reclusive and harassed looking third years. Back then it seemed idyllic- you pottered around the town, you worked a little bit in your top-notch interviewee room, and you left with pride at being ‘an Oxbridge candidate’. In October that façade will crumble. You’ll realise that you’ve been set an essay in fresher’s week, or worse, if you’re a maths student, that you have an exam to sit. You’ll realise from countless faculty and general library inductions that you’re expect to ‘work independently for eight hours a day’, and that you can’t be sure whether tutes and lectures will be at 9am the morning after your favourite club night, or bizarrely placed on Saturday afternoons.
And you’ll be sold tickets to three or four different events during the week, which you’ll feel an obligation to go to, even if you’re going to spend the next few years never setting foot again in Carbon, Lola Lo or Rappongi. And when you wake up the next morning, the feeling of dread will grip you again, and you’ll scurry to be the first fresher in the library.
The dirty little secret of Oxford, however, is that it’s not that hard. You’ve been sold a lie. Your teachers at school are in on it. The national papers are in on it. Your tutors at Oxford are in on it, heck, they’re the ones who started it.
Getting into Oxford is the difficult part. It’s difficult not because A-levels are hard (you’ll realise very swiftly how easy they are), but because it’s a lottery. Some great students will miss out; some shitting students will get in. It takes hard work, yes, but it also takes a lot of luck. You might’ve had to get three As but, chances are if you’ve been accepted to Oxford, that wasn’t the most taxing proposition. The real fear was that, last December, you were going to be overlooked in favour of Mr Self Confident Eton-Thompson, or Miss State School Quota. All the rumours- good and bad- are true, and the result is an admission system that rewards the lucky, rather than the brilliant.
But lucky you are, and now you’re at Oxford, facing its infamously difficult curriculum. Your tutor has dedicated their entire life to academia and sits you down and tell you that THIS IS IT- this is the best place for the most brilliant people. Just like them. It’s a self-aggrandising boast, albeit a fun one, and you should take it with a pinch of salt. Oxford is a place for lucky people who worked hard enough to get a few As at A-level. If you managed that, then you’ll be able to cope with your course here.
Your real enemy at Oxford isn’t the work. It isn’t the nights out that write you off for the next day. It isn’t the horribly time consuming extra-curriculars like the Union, the Blues or Cherwell. It’s the fact that you’ll be constantly scared of failure and constantly supposing that you’re on the brink of it. You’ll sit and worry that your marks aren’t good enough, your essays aren’t incisive enough, your bibliography isn’t long enough, your lab work isn’t precise enough, your vocabulary isn’t big enough, your translation isn’t accurate enough…
But it will be. So long as you’re confident, you’ll be fine. You’ll learn to get by working a few hours a day. You’ll become used to staying up late at night to finish an essay. And you’ll become immune to the constructive criticism of your tutor who, after all, is just there to help you. And, suddenly and mysteriously, it will all cease to be that difficult, and everything you spent the last month worrying about will just float away…
Of course, that’s not to make you all big headed. If you don’t worry about your work at all and choose to go out all the time and then come back late and make loads of noise outside my window, well, I will kill you. I want you to enjoy your degree, so long as you enjoy it quietly and nowhere near me.
Disgusted St Aldate’s