Why Oxford and Cambridge might not be for you

The following article featured in The Daily Telegraph discusses “Why Oxford and Cambridge might not be for you”.

Oxbridge deadline time is upon us. This Monday, parents and pupils around the country will start crossing fingers, collecting rabbits’ feet and drawing hexes on the floor as the final applications are filed.

But our education system fetishises Oxbridge to a blinding extent. Candidates only think about whether they are clever enough to get in. They rarely stop to consider whether the universities are right for them in other ways.

Oxbridge isn’t for everyone. And despite the stereotypes, this isn’t because the universities are posh – they’re not. There might have been a time when they were enormous stables for braying hoorahs. But not any more. This isn’t to say that you won’t see the odd Jack Wills gilet. But its wearer will have qualified, just like you.

Over my three years at Cambridge, it was clear that students were varyingly well suited to the system and the place.

In the first place, it is hard work. Even lazy students can’t help but write at least an essay a week. Usually more. Terms are short but hectic.

And for all the academic rigour, the courses can be more prescriptive than elsewhere. You are not allowed to get on with it on your own, at least not for the first few terms. For English, I had at least five or six contact hours a week – of tuition on my own, in pairs or in small groups. If you fall behind, or go wildly off-piste, you are told about it quickly.

It wasn’t simply to do with cleverness. Some of the brightest were also the most miserable. And some of the least bright had a ball. At least a few students would have been happier elsewhere.

For one thing, the style of teaching favours oral debate. Meeker students, terrifyingly brilliant in writing, could wither in the glare of a more boisterous student.

It’s also true that many of the people who get into Oxbridge will be used to coming top. For some, meeting the competition is inspiring, but others might be disheartened to be dropped into a larger pond.

College life rewards joiners-in. There are myriad clubs, societies, sports and minority interest groups to involve yourself in. If all you want is a library and some quiet, you can find it, but it would be a waste. And you’ll be more irritated when you’re woken up by the Guatemalan Trombone League than you would otherwise.

Remember too that both Cambridge and Oxford, no matter how much the latter will protest, are profoundly uncool. Not in that egalitarian modern sense of “oh it’s so cool that they’re that dedicated to Ancient Greek”, or “he is the only person who can do that sum, how cool”. There is plenty of that.

But in a more traditional, John-Belushi’s-character-in-Animal House sense of rebellious glamour, characterised by a dedication to hard partying and a healthy disregard for “the man”? I didn’t find many of those.

I met confident, charismatic, witty individuals, but on the whole their paroxysms of hard partying would be interrupted by the fact that they had an essay to write. What’s more, far from disregarding him, many of them were at Cambridge in the hope of becoming “the man”, i.e. powerful and wealthy, probably through a well-paid job at a law firm or bank.

There were the usual Trotskyite rebels, but they too spent at least as much time in the library as they did smoking rollies and “sitting in” at various protests.

None of this is meant to sound flippant. For some students, hedonism is an important part of the university experience. If you are planning on a long and successful career afterwards (and most students are not plotting lives in academia), university might be when you plan to go wild. But Oxbridge is a poor place to do this.

This is about geography, as well as demographics. Oxford and Cambridge are both tiny. Oxford is bigger – a town with a university attached – while Cambridge is really a university with some shops. But neither is a heaving metropolis. Big name bands and DJs are exceptions rather than the rule.

Nights out tend to be formalised and on specific days of the week: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays. Everyone goes to the same place (except the architects, who turn wherever they are into East London, like Bedouin with asymmetrical haircuts). Whatever you think of ‘drinking societies’, they are indisputably pervasive, and formal swaps (where a single-gender group meets an opposite single-gender group) are the main way to meet a lot of people quickly.

Some people love it. If you have grown up in a big city, or wanted to move to one, Oxbridge can seem provincial.

Better to decide early and make the right decision, than follow the glistening name to three years of wondering what could have been.

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