I'm watching Queens' College Cambridge on University Challenge and I'm thrown back nearly 20 years to a time when I was applying to various universities in the run up to my A-Levels. I was encouraged to apply Oxford or Cambridge: my acceptance would apparently reflect well on the school and on my parents, and I was apparently considered bright enough to give it a go.
Although I hadn't yet fully developed the chip on my shoulder, it was at an advanced enough state to make me resistant to the idea. I was probably vain enough to want to be accepted for the kudos that might bring, but somehow objected to the whole principle of the thing. Why should I apply to them? I knew that I wanted to read for a History degree, and I already knew that I probably wanted to do the course offered at the University of Warwick - itself a perfectly respectable establishment - where I would get to spend a term studying in Venice. Why the hell should I apply to Oxbridge? What made them so damn special?
My father told me at this point that he had a friend who was an Admissions Tutor at St Johns College, Cambridge, and that he would be more than happy to talk to me about the whole thing. I agreed, but instead of seeing this as a great way of getting into Cambridge, I thought the whole thing was some elaborate attempt to tell me how clever everyone at Cambridge University was. I left convinced that this guy, an old pal of my dad with no agenda other than to do his mate a favour, had tried to impress on me how all his students were veritable geniuses and published authors. In fact, that's all I can remember about our conversation, and by the time I left, I was seething with rage.
In a somewhat pathetic attempt at rebellion - TAKE THAT! - I applied to Oxford instead.... not applying to either of them was clearly not an option for me, you'll notice.... I knew nothing about the Oxford colleges and applied blindly (you get a choice of three on the application form, and I choose one randomly and left the others blank to be selected for me). I also refused to sit the (optional, but encouraged as it gives the University more to go on than predicted A-Level results and your performance at interview) 4th term examinations. Who the hell did they think they were? They either took me as they found me or they could bugger off. I was determined not to go an inch out of my way for their satisfaction. It was my way, or the high way.
Guess which they chose.
I was interviewed, but not surprisingly, nearly everybody else there had done the 4th term exams and had applied specifically for a college rather than putting in an open application. I was doomed and the whole thing was a pretty miserable experience.
I'm pretty sure that I did the right thing in escaping from many of my public school peers and going to a rather less elitist University. I'm also confident that the Modern European and Renaissance History degree I sat at Warwick was at least as good as the equivalents offered at both Oxford and Cambridge, and a lot more interesting to me. The four months I spent in Venice alone probably made the whole thing worthwhile. I don't regret my decisions at all. I'm pretty happy with where I've ended up and it's a waste of energy to think about what never was.
...but looking at these students on the TV this evening, I can't help but think about the sheer, willful, bloody-minded idiocy of my 17 year-old self to REFUSE to apply to a college where an old friend of my father, one who had been kind enough to grant me an informal interview in his rooms at college, was in charge of admissions.
You think I'm bad now? You should have met me when I was 17. What a prat.
14 hours ago