Catchy title eh? I figured it was best to get to the point straight off the bat. But, if you’re looking for a post that will rant, rave, and rail against the world you won’t find it here. Contrary to what some people who know me might think I am no stranger to rejection. I’ve been unsuccessful with job interviews, freelance pitches, friendships, and clubs. I don’t get everything I want (which stands to reason because no one should get everything they want) and I haven’t gotten everything I’ve worked for (because sometimes someone else just beats you and there is no explanation for it). All of this to say, I experienced a pretty tough rejection recently.
I was rejected from Oxford.
In other words my application to study at the University of Oxford for my master’s degree was unsuccessful.
I’m not going to lie, it sucks. Wow, so eloquently put right? But honestly, it’s difficult to describe what it feels like when one of your dreams is swallowed up by reality. I tend to live my life in an extremely practical manner. I look forward but take great care to learn from my past. I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist – I am realist who sometimes delves into cynicism when tired.
You see Oxford hasn’t been my dream for six months or even two years, I’ve been thinking about this particular program for four years. As with my current program, the Bachelor of Humanities at Carleton University, I spent four years researching the degree and learning whatever I could about it. I went so far as to actually get my parents to cut a family vacation one day short so that I could be back in town to hear a lecture by an Oxford scholar who helps operate the program I applied to attend. I spent my Spring Break last year in the city of Oxford getting to know the streets, visiting the libraries, investigating the museums, and falling in love with the location. I met with a professor and a current student who spoke to me enthusiastically and frankly about my program of interest.
What you have to understand is that I did not apply to Oxford because it is Oxford, I applied because of the program and the opportunities for research it presents its students. Believe it or not, I did not consider much beyond the program itself until I was actually there in “the city of dreaming spires.” So, as my third year drew to a close after that Reading Week I started to brainstorm ideas for my statement of intent and scout out referees for my application.
In total, I spent around 8 months crafting my application package. From brainstorming to editing to filling out scholarship applications I found myself immersed in the process of preparing for a prospective future at graduate school. Once my portion of the application was uploaded in October I spent the next 4 months cautiously yet consistently following up with my academic references. To them I will be eternally grateful for taking my follow ups in stride and for offering me encouragement whenever possible. I also owe a great debt to those who read my statements, my papers, and continuously supported me even as I became very one track minded as the submission deadline approached and then passed. To my friends who read my submission pieces, to the academics and the HUMS alum who read my statement, and to my parents who were the final proofreaders of everything before I clicked ‘Submit’ – thank you.
Thank you for believing in me!
Thank you for also tolerating my ranting about how beautiful the city is, how amazing the conveners of the program are, and how amazing it would be to work with the Bodleian’s manuscripts up close.
But as I said before, I am a realist. I am practical so up until Spring Break last year most of my friends, even my closest ones, had no idea about my Oxford ambitions. My parents knew of course. My dad accompanied me to Oxford in February, but I was nervous to tell anyone else. I was scared that if I gave voice to my dream it would somehow evaporate. My chance, no matter how slim given the admissions statistics (there were 5 spots in the program I applied to), would disappear – I was sure of it.
Except, once I returned from my trip people began to ask me questions – innocent ones – about how I’d picked my destination, what I’d done there etc. One day I just blurted it out to a friend in HUMS, “I’m applying to Oxford,” I said to him and he took it in stride, nodding and voicing his support for my dream. By February I’d let a few people in on my secret but after the trip I began to tell anyone who asked. I figured honesty felt better than anything else I’d been doing up until that point. After all, I was not ashamed of my decision to apply. I was in awe of the challenge I’d set myself perhaps but not ashamed.
In late 2016, a friend took me aside to tell me that she thought I shouldn’t be telling so many people about my application. My first reaction was fear – had I made a grievous error in speaking plainly about my dream? – but my second reaction was a polite rebuff of her friendly advice. I had no desire to hide the heights upon which I had set my sights. Looking back I’m glad I decided to talk to people about my goals even though now I have to look them in the eye and tell them it didn’t work out.
The morning I found out I woke up at 3:00 a.m. and couldn’t fall back to sleep. When my alarm finally went off I checked my email to see something awaiting my attention – it was my rejection. I was upset. Part of me still is, but I don’t have time to grieve this properly with three weeks or so left of classes. I messaged a few close friends to notify them of my news and their responses were what gave me the strength to get up and tell my parents. They responded with the exact type of support I needed. They propped me up and they didn’t offer me pity, for which I am eternally grateful. They spoke to me, they reassured me, and reminded me that I still have so much outside of Oxford.
The former director of my current undergraduate program said something to me last year that I did not really understand until now. He said: “You’re bigger than Oxford.” I get what he meant now. I have a path to walk that will not be contained by four year plans and dreams that aren’t meant to come true (just yet).
My friends helped me get through Friday and my news from Oxford with grace and love. They knew how much this application meant to me and none of them tried to contradict my desire to attend Oxford – they just stood by me. One of the professor’s who looked over my statement initially in the Fall of 2016 reminded me on Friday that “It’s always a long shot with Oxford.” Strangely enough that helped me gain some perspective. I knew that it was a long shot but I went for it anyway and I am so happy that I applied. I am so proud to say I tried.
I am not angry at Oxford. I will not rant about elitism, high tuition costs for international students, or pick apart my application. I won’t do any of that because it won’t change anything about the result I received. Those topics also may have nothing to do with my result either. I also won’t blame myself. Would I change things about my proposed topic of research now? Yes, looking back on it I would certainly refine parts of my statement but does that mean that my application was bad? No. Oxford is a competitive place. But, just because I did not get into Oxford doesn’t mean I am a lacklustre student. I still love academia. I will continue to push myself in my studies. I am not a failure because I did not get into Oxford. I am not a failure. Full stop.
However, Oxford has not seen the last of me yet. I will reapply for my PhD. If there is one thing that rejections have taught me it is that they are often connected to formative moments in life. Without rejection we would never learn to improve, to challenge ourselves, or to reevaluate our choices. I value my rejections just as much as I enjoy my acceptances. Also, I applied to three grad school programs for next year so my options have not run out yet. My goal is, one day, when I have a place of my own (where I can hang things on the wall) I will hang my grad school letters in frames above my desk. I will hang the rejections beside the acceptances to remind myself that life is full of ups and downs. They will also help me remember that sometimes golden opportunities pop up when you least expect them.