An Open Letter to Future Oxford Applicants

Ok, so today’s big sort of silly news story is about a girl named Elly Nowell who sent a rejection letter to Magdalen College, Oxford. The letter has been a popular internet meme for a couple of days and apparently has been knocking around on sites like The Student Room for even longer. But today, a relatively slow news day in the still of mid-winter, its hit the big time with mentions across a good chunk of the major news outlets.

Oh no, wait, that’s Hogwarts

Umm… you know the letter was a joke right?

That’s a really good question, imagined interpolator. This letter is all over my twitter feed today and a lot of people – people I know or have worked with or whose opinions I generally respect – seem pretty keen on its contents. This could of course just be because they like Nowell’s feistiness and self-belief. But for a lot of people reading it, this joke will increase or create a prejudice about Oxford that is largely unfounded. A whole bunch of these people might apply there in the future and I find it kind of sad that the hours of work that an army of staff and volunteers within the university put into access and outreach on a weekly basis will be undone for the sake of a slow news day.

Alright, but why do you care so much about this one letter?

For a load of reasons that will make me sound pretty unlikeably earnest. But basically, I was in this girl’s position myself four years ago – lower middle class background, state school, Oxford interview, typical sort of thing. Three years at Oxford really opened my mind and my imagination – it changed the way I look at the world. I was taken care of, treated well by the institution both personally and, quite frankly, financially. Oxford provides the best financial support of any British uni, and if it hadn’t been for their bursary I’d be swimming in debt right now.

It occurs to me that a lot of people who enjoyed the letter on my twitter feed are graduates from a time when the system was cheaper than it is now and it wasn’t quite as important to get into a university with Oxford’s resources.

I’ve got nothing against Elly Nowell, Oxford isn’t the right place for everyone, but it would be a real shame if other people weren’t afforded the opportunity to study in an environment as rich in creativity and ideas as Oxford, as I was.


“grand formal settings”

Someone else’s Oxford: from the underrated film adaptation The Golden Compass

Nowell’s first point is that the “decision to hold interviews in grand formal settings… intimidates state school applicants”. It emerges from the conversation on The Student Room that Nowell was pooled to Magdalen. Being “pooled” is what happens when you make an open application to Oxford or when the college you apply to has too many applicants – it’s a way of moving people around so that everyone faces an equal level of competition – and it’s pretty unfortunate that Nowell was pooled to Magdalen, which is the very largest college.

I think for most state school students the fact that the buildings are quite nice isn’t much of an issue. But interestingly, this is one of the reasons why I applied to my college, the cosy Teddy Hall. I wasn’t intimidated by the big colleges as Nowell was, it was more that my brain had compartmentalised “heritage site” and “places I could live” pretty distinctly and put the big colleges like Christ Church in the former and smaller ones like Teddy Hall in the latter.

If this is a feeling you share, then Corpus Christi is particularly small and friendly whilst St Catherine’s has the most modern buildings and it’s always worth marking a preference if you have one.

More broadly, I think it’s an odd complaint – I mean where is Magdalen meant to do its interviews? Its buildings just look like that, they’re nice buildings. Hiring somewhere offsite, and marching interviewees over there just to do an interview in a slightly shitter room seems to me absurd. I’m not being facetious, I just really can’t see a viable alternative.


“traditions and rituals”

Rituals weirder than our’s: a man blows up a pig’s bladder

Her second point is that the “traditions and rituals” of Oxford were off-putting for her and contradictory to the aims of a free-thinking institution. Whilst that may be true, they’re really not a big deal. I mean I never found that wearing a gown for the induction ceremony got in the way of my thinking about Victorian Literature or whatever.

Personally, I quite like weird little traditions, whether that’s putting a tree inside at Christmas, or watching a morris dance or wearing a carnation to university exams. Nowell accuses these rituals of being “illogical”, which is kind of why I like them. Once you get to university you’ll have to work pretty hard, a bit of fluff and tradition and “illogical” revelry is exactly the escape you might need. For example, at our college there’s a tradition (I assume quite a recent one) of standing on the chairs in the hall at the Christmas meal and singing the Teddy Bear’s Picnic.


“white middle-class students”

The Cowley Road Carnival in Oxford

Nowell’s third point, that she observed an “obvious gap between minorities and white middle-class students” could mean a number of things and it’s not one hundred percent clear what she’s getting at i.e. whether she witnessed discrimination or if minority students she met weren’t flourishing in their studies or whatever. But what I think she’s getting at is an issue of numbers i.e. that she met very few students from less traditional backgrounds. This is clearly a problem for the university, which takes in slightly less than the average number of ethnic minority students when compared with similar institutions.

But if you’re from a less traditional background, I would hate discussions like this to put you off – Oxford really does want you to apply and it’s through people like you applying that the problem will get better. The second thing I would say is that the university is pretty culturally diverse – there are a lot of international and visiting students and the place certainly doesn’t feel oppressively white. I witnessed considerably more racism at my state school than I did at Oxford.


“glass of water”

Her fourth complaint is that she was not offered a glass of water in her interview. This might seem petty but I guess it’s the kind of small thing people remember. At the same time, don’t take this as reflective of the system as a whole – each college employs a team of current students to help at interviews and I remember having plenty of refreshments whilst I was waiting – coffee, biscuits, three free meals a day. Besides, the point is pretty clearly there to reinforce the sort of comic obnoxiousness of the letter and seems Nowell’s least serious.

Ok, so tradition can make some of us look silly

So, apologies to those people who endorsed Nowell’s sentiments on my twitter feed – I needed a sort of spring-board rhetorically to explain how this came into my sphere of reference and mean nothing personal by it. But anti-Oxford prejudice is really the biggest hurdle the uni faces when it comes to diversifying and every student put off by a stunt like this I think marks a pretty big loss to everyone involved.

If you are a university applicant with questions about Oxford feel free to comment below the line and I’ll try my best to answer what I can.



Filed under General, Politics

8 responses to “An Open Letter to Future Oxford Applicants

  1. Kim Sayers

    I completely agree with everything you have said.
    – Current Oxford Law undergraduate from R.A.F background and four different state secondary schools.

  2. I completely agree too – and that’s saying something seeing as how I go to The Other Place. And people should know that Oxford and Cambridge are obsessed with ‘access’ – there are flocks and herds of state-school children wandering around my College on tours every day.

  3. Great blog. Elly Nowell was a twat for sending the letter.

  4. ComeWhatMae

    I totally agree! I am AT Magdalen and from a state school and had a TOTALLY different experience at interviews. That isn’t to say that her personal perspective isn’t authentic, just that, by virtue of it being published by major news outlets and reposted all over the internet, it is coming across to many as being the ONLY authentic experience, which is simply untrue. This letter does so much more damage to Oxford’s access work than its quirky and enjoyable traditions or aesthetically-pleasing old buildings ever could.

  5. Andrew Timms

    Having dealt with quite a few Oxford (and the other place) graduates and I will categorically say, feistiness and self-belief as personal qualities that are a rarity. Especially in the first three years

    Oxford alone is not the only academic seat that will open your mind, you find that magic ‘click’ that turbo charges your imagination all over the globe.

    I deal with Chief execs, Managing directors and the Chairman of the board who two three and four decades on are only in the position they are in due lots of people below them aspiring to their position by massaging ego and an excellent PA or two to scared to tell her boss that he’s an insecure fool and ineffective manager.

    It’s quite clear there is a problem for the university, and new blood (not ‘daddy went to oxford’) would go a long way to repair the damage.

    Can I congratulate you on your naivety, as the university is culturally diverse, as it is a massive money-spinner, and one of the significant contributors to bursary funding.

    Having said that, Oxford has polished some real diamonds and have met some brilliant graduates who I greatly admire. Would they have achieved that in any other place, I can’t comment.

    The other side of the coin is many Oxford students and Grads have problems from family pressures, self-expectation, or accepting their sexuality / asexuality. its is significantly higher there … and when you meet ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’, you can immediatly see why

    Look for a happy student, you will be hard pressed to find one. Do they see it as a wonderful opportunity? No! They can’t relax and enjoy the magnificence of their achievements and their surroundings, its all doom and gloom and more work. Hence the nurturing environ of the dons.

    The definition of an academic is theoretical or hypothetical; not practical, realistic, or directly useful.

    Most students ‘start’ learning when they have to start earning a living.

  6. ‘it’s through people like you applying that the problem will get better.’

    Basically the entire point; self-perpetuating system ahoy

  7. Noddy

    This is an astonshingly bizarre response.

  8. Aliana

    Hi, I have a few questions about applying for Law at Oxford.

    I’m currently predicted 34 IB points whereas Oxford requires 38 points – Is this too much of a gap ?

    Also, my GCSE’s weren’t good because of a sudden change in education system 5 months prior to the finals.

    However, I’m confident that by the end of my IB course I will do much better academically.

    In my PS, I’ve made sure to highlight what drives me to study law.

    Is it worth giving Oxford a shot or should I not misuse a space on UCAS ?

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