Rejecting Rejection

I got my first Oxford English Dictionary (for children) when I was 6 years old, and since then I knew that The University of Oxford was where I wanted to study. This motivation was irrational. I based it upon the university’s elite reputation and a fantasy of learning amidst dreamy spires and beautiful stone buildings. At the time I didn’t even know what I wanted to study, only that I wanted to study at Oxford.


As I grew older I started honing my interests in specific subjects. At the age of 13 I wanted to study English Literature; Oxford’s list of alumni including J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis made me swoon. At 16 I realized my true passion lies in Economics; having Adam Smith – the father of Economics – as another alumni made my love for Oxford even greater. It seemed that whatever I wanted to do, I found a way to make Oxford the place I wanted to do it.

In Junior Year when my college counselor at the British School of Manila sat me down and asked me what I wanted to study and where, I had no hesitation in my response. The more research I did surrounding my application, the more I fell in love with the university, the city, the course – everything. I even had a picture of it as my desktop wallpaper and on my dream board in my bedroom. I was obsessed.

In early October 2012 I finally submitted my application to my dream school.  In late November I received an e-mail inviting me for an interview – it was one of the happiest days of my life. Within three days I booked flights, got on the plane, and arrived at the most quaint and magical city I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit. The next few days were filled with meeting other applicants and attending two 20-minute interviews. Before I knew it I was back in Manila and waiting for the decision e-mail.

Something funny about universities is that they never say the actual word – “rejected”. Instead, they sugar coat it, saying that they are “it has not been possible to offer you a place” and they are “sorry to have to inform you”, or words to that extent. However we all know at the end of the day no matter how nicely they manage to phrase their e-mail, it’s still a rejection. With acceptance rates at top universities worldwide ranging from 5-15%, this means every year thousands of students must feel the exact same way that I felt when I opened my inbox to find that I would not be attending The University of Oxford in the fall. It hurt. I cried.  It felt like I had been dumped by the love of my life.  For the next few weeks I couldn’t even hear the word “Oxford” without tearing up. My family, teachers, and friends consoled my with phrases like “they’re crazy”, “you’re too good for them anyways” and “everything happens for a reason”, all of which I brushed aside like messages in cheesy Hallmark cards.

Then came my acceptance offer from University College London (UCL), which is ranked #4 in the world by the QS World University Rankings 2013 and my mother’s alma mater. Although in my mind it was still not the same as Oxford, it was my second-choice university and I knew I had to work hard to meet the conditions of the offer (39 points in the International Baccalaureate [IB] with 19 points at Higher Levels and a 7 in HL Mathematics). I refocused my time away from sulking about Oxford and into my classes and exams. The day IB results were released and my place at UCL was confirmed then became THE happiest day of my life thus far.

As I write this I’ve been at UCL for 6 months and there are so many things I have learned. Beyond just learning about Economics though, I have learned a lot about why I would have hated studying in Oxford. First it’s the one-on-one tutorial system that Oxford and Cambridge pride themselves on. At UCL we are in tutorial classes of 15 students – similar to the class size at my high school – and I already cringe at being picked on; I can’t imagine how I would be able to learn and thrive in a tutorial with only the professor and myself in the room. Then, I’ve realized I hate writing essays and prefer the maths in Economics. Oxford’s course is more essay-heavy. Finally, growing up in Manila I am a city girl at heart. I love how London is so huge (it even has Chatime and sells Lucky Mie!) and there’s so much for everyone to do. Oxfords quaint charm and small size might be appealing to some, but I know now that I would have been bored. There’s a whole host of other reasons why I realized that UCL is a better fit for me than Oxford, but I won’t bore you and that’s not what I came here to say. What I’ve realized in the past year is that everyone who told me that “everything happens for a reason” was right.

University decisions may seem harsh and unkind, but admissions officers are experienced and know what kind of student would succeed at their university. As much as students have criteria for picking universities (e.g. location, student-staff ratio, class size), the universities have criteria too. Therefore, a rejection doesn’t mean you’re not good enough, it could just mean that the place isn’t right for you. This could be applied beyond college admissions and with future jobs, friends, and relationships. You could dream all you want about what you want, but if they don’t want you back then it might be for good reason. Furthermore, think about WHY you want what you want. I was clouded in my judgment by the dream of studying at Oxford that was implanted in me for most of my life, without having the right motivations for wanting to study there.

My advice when applying to schools is to ignore prestige and reputation, ignore propaganda bribing you towards certain colleges, and ignore what your friends are doing. Rather, take a step back and think about what YOU want, what YOU like, and what YOU need in a college experience. Finally, even if you do get rejected, it’s not the end of the world. It’s an opportunity to be exposed to something that could be even better. Don’t waste time and energy thinking about what could have been. I urge you all to reject rejection – I did, and it feels great. 

Victoria Kongoasa graduated from British School Manila in 2013. She now studies Economics at University College London as a member of the class of 2016.