It is finished. Well, sorta.
I’ve never really understood the expression “weight off my shoulders” until today.
This morning, sat in History learning about Charles II’s many mistresses, I let out a yelp of excitement. Covertly checking my phone underneath the desk, I see an email with the subject line ‘Your application to Oxford’. My friend, reading over my shoulder, looks at me and mouths ‘Oh my God’. I click on it, my hands already shaking. My entire academic career has led up to this moment, and I know that if it’s a rejection letter I will be devastated.
I’ve wanted this since I was in Y6.
For many people, University is not for them. They go into employment straight away, or go down the route of apprenticeships etc. For many people, they look around several Universities and choose the one that ticks the most boxes. For me, it’s been a little different. Oxford ticked all of my boxes, from the beginning. The trouble was, I wasn’t sure if I ticked all of theirs.
In early October, I sent off my UCAS application. Early December I found out that I’d been shortlisted for Interview at Balliol College; a college I had fallen in love with when I went with my Mum for the open day earlier in the summer. The buildings were picturesque, the city was enchanting and the tutors were the most passionate, inspiring people I’ve ever met. I knew that it was a place where I could feel comfortable, where my love and enthusiasm for reading and writing could continue to blossom. A place that felt like somewhere I could easily call “home” for the next three years.
The week of the interviews came. I got the train down after school; buying my own dinner from M&S and sitting alone at a table in a sparsely populated carriage, the enormity of the experience I was embarking on hit me. I jotted a few things down in my journal. A little pep talk to myself, if you will:
I can’t tell if you’re nervous or not. An air of casual indifference – nonchalance, even – seems to surround you. If I didn’t know you better I’d say you’re not in the least bit concerned as to what the outcome of the next few days will be. Oh, but you are. Your entire academic career has led up to this week. You are pretending not to care, because you know you care too much. If you mess up this opportunity, you will beat yourself up about it forever. You aren’t considering the possibility of failure, though, because failure is not an option. You’re going to walk into that room, smile, shake off the nerves, and show them what you’re made of.
When I got there around 7:00pm, most people had gone out for the evening. I wound up sat in the JCR, watching the LEGO movie with some current students. Not quite the highbrow introduction to life at Oxford that one was expecting, but entertaining and a welcome distraction all the same. Fortunately I found a guy I’d spoken to on Twitter, so didn’t feel too isolated or alone. We walked around the city and talked about our preconceptions and judgements so far. We played “spot the poshest surname” from the noticeboard. We both went to bed ridiculously early, but for me sleep didn’t come until much later. I spent most of the night writing up a live review, brushing up on my essays and personal statement and texting friends also there for interview.
The next morning, checking the noticeboards it appeared I was up first for interview. Gulp. Another Twitter friend came to my rescue, which meant I didn’t have to eat breakfast alone. Not that I could really stomach much, my gut churning with anticipation and nerves. An introductory meeting saw me faced with all the other English candidates; all remarkably lovely people who I had no reservations in chatting to and attempting to get to know. No one mentioned the awkwardness, the veil of competition that cloaked us. We were just a bunch of people who loved English, unaware of each others’ capabilities, desperate for things to work out in our favour.
Despite a minor mix-up, regarding which interview I was to have first (the unseen poetry or the personal statement “chat”), I arrived outside the correctly numbered office in the right staircase with ample time to compose myself. Phew. Over the first hurdle – trust me, when you’re a person who failed Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award, it’s always an achievement to end up where you’re meant to be! Staring at the office door in an attempt to abate my nerves, I notice that the tutor interviewing me has edited a book on the destruction of literature: Book Destruction from the Medieval to the Contemporary. This is almost fate: considering the front of the book depicts flames made out of the pages of books, and I’ve nominated Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as my favourite novel. If they ask me about Bradbury, I’ll cry with happiness.
Despite a minor embarrassment as I nearly trip over a low lying table as I sit down, the nerves dissipate very early on. All the rumours that I’ll be given a mundane object such as a banana and asked to talk about it are just that: rumours. The reality is that this is just a conversation. A conversation with fellow literature enthusiasts; a conversation whereby I can demonstrate my continued passion and dedication to the subject I want to read at University.
Sure enough, Fahrenheit 451 is talked about, along with the permanency of literacy. I talk about the oral tradition; how stories survive because people survive and pass them on from generation to generation. We talk about what the digital age has meant for literature; how people have more access to a whole host of material because of the internet. I’m asked whether you can read things “incorrectly” because I’ve written in my personal statement “Philosophy, like English Literature, has no right or wrong answers. I enjoy the debate that arises in both”. I admit that you can’t argue that The Bible was based on Harry Potter but that providing you can find textual evidence to support your theory, yes, I maintain that there is no ‘wrong’ reading of a text.
We talk about the entertainment site I’ve founded and edit ‘The Indiependent’. I make a joke that it’s not The Independent that I edit… yet, anyway. I talk about the magnitude of the project, how impressed I am with our contributors’ dedication and the consistent content. They seem genuinely impressed and I realise, that’s because it is pretty darn impressive. I am really proud of my achievements, regardless of whether Oxford want me or not.
Next we talk about what I’m reading at the moment – Not That Kind A Girl – which leads into a discussion about Lena Dunham’s Girls and feminism. We talk about Emma Watson’s #HeForShe campaign and I explain that in an age where we want things quickly, condensing a movement into a hashtag is positive rather than negative. Next thing I know the next interview candidate has barged into the room and after she’s told to leave and wait outside, I’m quickly thanked and they apologise for running over.
I leave the room with a head that’s reeling. I’ve talked about so much in such a short space of time, but there’s a huge grin on my face because that’s good – I’ve talked, I had things to say and I didn’t freeze up because of nerves (which I did in a mock interview with my Dad). I’m filled with confidence for the unseen poetry, and there’s a spring in my step as I go to collect it when the hour comes.
It’s a little bit unnerving that we’re given an hour to look at the poem. You’re allowed to take it back to your room and annotate it. The temptation to Google it and see who it’s by is tremendous, but I resist. That would be cheating myself, and besides, I know I can do this. I think I know who it’s by, anyway. I’ve written some points down but I still have forty-five minutes to kill before they want to see me. I put the poem down and read a chapter or two of my book. Ten minutes before, I pick the poem up again and reread it. I make notes on the obvious questions they’ll ask me: Why did you choose Poem B instead of A? What jumps out at you straight away? What’s it about? I’ve done all I can with it, so I get up and go wait outside the office. There’s laughter from inside the room and that doesn’t do anything to quell my fears. The guy that swans out of the office looks sheepish and I smile at him awkwardly, fully aware that he probably hopes my interview goes terribly.
The next twenty minutes feel like they’re over in two. Despite dropping my pen once, I am relatively unflustered. I sit in the nearest chair; I don’t trip over any low laying furniture. It is, for all intents and purposes, already a success. The bespectacled fellow who interviews me is soothing, he asks helpful prompt questions and soon I find myself talking about the poem – which I’ve never seen before – with an air of confidence. I unpick every line, and it’s reassuring to receive nods and smiles from the three adults that sit in the room, in complete silence as I talk. They thank me, I leave the room.
A friend at another college goes for coffee with me, and we wander around the city that could well be my place of residence, and we de-construct the days events. It’s a relief to have company, I know my brain would possibly overheat if it was left alone.
After an awkward sit down meal in the hall (where I barely have enough room to move my elbows and shovel food into my mouth due to how busy it is), everyone migrates to the Junior Common Room. Speaking to the other English candidates, I am struck by an overwhelming feeling of relief. These are people just like myself. They are not freakishly intelligent. They all have subjects they’re better at than others. Some of them don’t know how they’re even here. Many of them are charming, funny individuals that I would have no reservations getting to know better and being friends with in a slightly less competitive, hostile environment. We all know it; we aren’t all going to be smiling come January. That’s the harsh fact of the matter. I just hope it’s not me that isn’t.
Laying in my bed and reflecting on the day, I’m torn. My interviews went well, but I almost want another interview at a different college. I want a chance to consolidate why I deserve to be here, come October of next year. I’m not sure whether I want to see my name on the dismissal noticeboard or not. It’s no surprise that I sleep just as little as I did the night before.
Waking up prior to my alarm, in a panic that I’ve completely missed an interview (somehow I doubt they’d be so cruel as to schedule one for 6am!), I have some time to kill. I get dressed and go to the JCR. I’ve been sent home. Oh. My stomach churns.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? The boy who has already been dismissed alongside me seemed pretty confident with his interviews thus far. I know they say there’s no logic to the system, you can’t tell who has got an offer and who hasn’t based on how many interviews the candidate is called for. But in that moment I felt confident, knowing I was being sent home alongside an individual who had also done all they could. Someone happy with their performance. Then as I have breakfast, I see that Balliol English department have followed me on twitter. A glimmer of hope is ignited inside of me … I don’t want to get too confident. But it feels like I gave it my best shot. My best is good enough… right?
I hope so. As the train races through the countryside and the houses whistle past me on my way home, I think: now we wait.
The last few months of December and the first week of January crawl by at an agonising pace. Even Christmas and New Year pass slower than normal; it feels like I’m being taunted. It’s cruel. I’m in a permanent state of irritation. If anyone mentions ‘Oxford’ to me, I snap. I’m exhausted. I just want to know.
It’s the night before and my brain is entertaining every single eventuality. I have two close friends also applying: I picture the scene where they get in and I don’t and I have to go through the agonising “Ahhh I’m so happy for you!” façade, when really dying on the inside. I imagine having to tell my grandparents and my parents that I wasn’t quite good enough. Unsurprisingly, the pressure and the expectations I have placed on myself get to me and I end up crying. But a few Kleenex and pep talk later, I’m back on my feet. It’s late when I get to sleep and when I wake up, my stomach is churning with nausea. This is arguably the most important day in my life to date. The outcome of today will determine the place I end up, the people I’m with and the things that I’m doing for the next three years and more. No pressure.
I’m in double history, barely able to concentrate on the Restoration and the discussion as to whether it’s inevitable or not. The hands on the clock face feel like they’re taunting me. As if it’s only half past ten. Whilst my teacher fast forwards a DVD to the relevant place, I check my phone under my desk. That’s when it happens. That’s when everything I’ve worked for in the last few years slots into place. The smile on my face speaks for itself.
I know I’ve not got there yet; I know I still need to get the grades. I’ll be just as nervous as I was last night, the night before results day in August.
But I’ll be damned if I let this opportunity slip through my grasp.
See you in October, Oxford.