About a month ago, I found myself sitting in front of a small group of particularly bright-eyed sixth-form students and feeling even more ridiculous than ever in my formal position of supposed superiority. These were ‘Oxbridge’ applicants who had been arranged rather hurriedly into our pre-interview gathering after a colleague let slip that I too am a Jedi Master, or something. Like all teachers, I deal with a certain weight of expectation every time I am offered the holy sacrifice of students’ undivided attention (though I usually avoid reflecting too deeply on the power one holds in such a situation), but this was profoundly different. However I opened this conversation, and whatever points of advice I happened to prioritise, these probably-very-intelligent people would likely meditate quite deeply, possibly obsessively, over the content of our discussion for the next few tortuous days of preparation.
“Firstly”, I began, thinking this start appropriately academic, and the following pause appropriately wise, “you might not get in. In fact, you probably won’t. Statistically, I mean”.
Not exactly what they were hoping for, I’m sure. But when I really thought about it, preparing to fail seemed the best thing they, at this late stage, could possibly do. Realistically, if a university admissions process is at all effective, there is very little concrete advice one can offer to affect the outcomes of interviews. They had already been coached that they ought to check their body language and maintain eye contact, so the only important thing I needed to add was: “well, obviously that’s a load of bollocks”. Not in so many words, of course.
These are people who have experienced comparatively little failure, certainly in academic terms, in their lives so far. Furthermore, they may well have been thinking about this application for years, perhaps even the most part of their lives. It could have been their driving force in secondary education; the reason they’ve succeeded in so many other ways to this point. It may be a shared ambition with their families: perhaps mum and dad went; perhaps they wish they had; perhaps an older sister got in; perhaps she wishes she had. Whilst I would like to say that there is great variation of character amongst this particular breed of teenager, and perhaps I can in some regards, one thing at least is fairly certain: this is something important to them.
A few weeks having passed, the decision letters have now begun to arrive. Some got in, some didn’t. With those who arrive at my classroom door with a grin that tells the story before they say a word, it is wonderful (and I don’t use the term lightly) to witness and share a little of their excitement. To those who email me their disappointing news with an air of relief and nonchalance that I can only hope is not entirely forced, it is easy to respond with encouraging words for whatever they plan to do instead, since they quite clearly still have a disproportionate chance of future academic and professional success.
Reflecting on the whole affair, I wonder if I was a little over-negative from the start. Perhaps they are hardier than I realise. Perhaps it isn’t as important to them as I thought. Yet I can’t help but think that those who now trudge through a period of disappointment have got en inevitable first experience of significant failure out of the way just in time. Personal failure is something of a necessary limiter in the mechanisms of our aspirational culture. More importantly, it’s something that, from time to time, can help us to feel fundamentally human. Everyone faces it at some point, and I only hope that the ones who got in are at least a little prepared for failure when it is their turn. Which, eventually, it probably will be. Statistically, I mean.