Who hasn’t looked at the university league tables? For many, it’s the first port of call when choosing a university. It’s hard to escape looking at the top two of any guide: Oxford and Cambridge. Their status and prestige is undeniable.
Many have no interest in going there; it wouldn’t suit them.

But with more and more students achieving superlative grades, it’s no wonder that more potential undergraduates applied this year than ever before – necessitating the largest ever number of rejections.

Where do people go to talk about universities? The Student Room forums: the number one place to talk about universities in Britain. And if you spend any time browsing the threads, one word comes up over and over again: ‘prestige”. Indeed, upon Googling ‘university prestige’, the first result is a thread on TSR which features the blunt declaration ‘Let’s face it. Prestige is everything.’ Is this really the case?

Let us briefly remind ourselves of the current situation: as a result of the increased tuition fees, every university in the country was so overwhelmed with applications for the ‘11/12 year that even UCAS itself crashed on the most important day of the year: the 18th of August, 2011.

Results day. I saw so many stressed – and then mostly elated, but a few dejected – peers that I scarcely had time to think about my own results. I had made it into Sussex University to study Philosophy and English, but seeing close friends burst into tears because of their exam results completely overshadowed my experience that day.

The real climax of my journey had actually ended on a gloomy day a week before last Christmas when I got my Oxford rejection letter. The effects of applying to Oxford on a person are multi-faceted, but this fact sums it all up: everyone from my college who applied for Oxford and didn’t get in genuinely considered not going to university that year and applying the next year just for a chance to get in, regardless of the increased tuition fees.

Illogical and depressing, this is the toxic nature of ‘prestige’. So why did I apply to Oxford in the first place? Because I wanted the best education possible. It was prescriptive, automatic, unthinking: if you want the best, you apply to Oxbridge. I’d dreamt of it many times in a vague fashion, without really thinking what it would be like. And so, I was thrust into what I call ‘my Oxford debacle’, assured that it was the right thing to do, like taking a medicine: if you want to get better, you must.

I took the ELAT (English Literature Admissions Test) on November 5th and passed with 67%: I had earned myself an interview. The elation I felt upon receiving that news is hard to express.

But when I went to Oxford, whilst I was in awe of its history and importance, I didn’t feel comfortable there. The many times I’d dreamt about studying at Oxford didn’t prepare me for this philosophical nausea. My interviews reinforced this feeling. Whilst they didn’t go badly, I didn’t feel as though I expressed my personality at all; I was almost a shell of myself, unsure if I wanted to be there, as if I had a pill stuck to the back of my throat and didn’t know whether to swallow it or not.

Lying in my room there, it felt like a sort of prison. I knew that it would be good for me to attend Oxford, but I started dreaming about my other option: Sussex. It seemed like a beacon of hope, somewhere that reflected my personality. I wasn’t surprised when I received a letter a few days before Christmas telling me that my application was unsuccessful. In reality, I wouldn’t have suited Oxford: I didn’t bond with anyone there and I felt uncomfortable. I felt that when I told my interviewers that I was an aspiring poet and writer that the atmosphere in the room darkened. I was never going to get in. But I cannot deny the impact that not getting into Oxford had on me; it was an existential crisis the likes of which I have never felt before.

I won’t pretend I don’t wince every time I pick up a book by Oxford University Press, but Sussex has strengths that Oxford does not: a creative impetus not encouraged when I visited that great city, and a liberal mentality synonymous with Brighton. So is prestige really ‘everything’? I don’t think so. Oxford might top the league tables, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone – and this especially important to consider if you have been stung by rejection by that (or any other) university. Prestige won’t take your exams for you.

The important thing is what you bring to your studies.

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