(a ramble) on university application

I started a similar post to this back in early November. It read as follows:

As I write, I am waiting on a response from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, regarding whether they have decided to give me an interview for English Literature. It feels as though a lot has changed since day seventy-six, when I collected my AS Level results and questioned whether a study of English at university was the right decision, and yet nothing has changed at all.

Perhaps that’s it. Nothing has changed: I still know that literature is the subject I wish to commit at least three years of my life to; I still know that I will enjoy and be good at it; I still know that the grade I received in August was not one I deserved after the work I put in all of last year. And the fact that I have held on to this knowledge is the main reason that I decided to apply to Cambridge regardless.

It was a convenience, too. It’s no secret that UCAS applications are stressful, complicated and time-consuming, and applying for Cambridge ensured that mine would be completed by the early October 15th deadline (by which time all Oxbridge and Medicine applications must be submitted). Although the last fortnight – when I committed to the decision of a Cambridge application and suddenly found myself with an entire UCAS form to fill in online, as well as a concise and tricky personal statement to write – was a mad rush, for the last month I have been able to help my peers struggle through the process on top of the ever-growing pressures of A2 study knowing mine is already complete.

Furthermore, an early application often (though not always) means early offers. Within eight days of the submission of my UCAS form I received an offer from my top choice bar Cambridge, the University of York, followed over the next few weeks with offers from Sussex and Lancaster.

It is likely that I will hear back from Sidney this week, since interviews are held early in December. It is hugely unlikely that I will be successful, on account of my lower-than-anticipated grades.

At this point, I stopped typing. Instead, I contemplated on the almost inevitable outcome of the situation: rejection. I wondered how I would react when the thin envelope wafted through the letterbox – whether my stomach would drop as I read ‘We regret to inform you…’, or how my parents would respond. And I didn’t start writing again, because I hadn’t got my head around all of the potential situations: it all seemed too far away to be considering.

It took Sidney far longer to get back to me than I had expected – into the last days of November, when interviews for other subjects at other colleges were almost underway (I knew because friends were obtaining permission to miss school for theirs). Every morning when I got home from college I went to check the post. I told myself it didn’t matter, that the outcome was ultimately irrelevant. Wherever I end up, I will enjoy myself and be successful. Oxbridge isn’t the be-all-and-end-all (as it is for some of my friends).

My predicted rejection came in the post on a Saturday morning. The flimsy envelope that clearly carried just the one sheet of folded A4 told me all I needed to know as soon as I saw it on the tiled porch floor. My hands shook as I opened it, adrenaline coursing through me despite already knowing the result. “My rejection letter came,” I told my parents, and left it on the kitchen table (it has since disappeared). I was relieved at first, but now I wish I had been given the chance to interview. Instead, I received kind emails from staff members and commiserations from friends who now hold offers.

Or: instead, I received an A*AA offer from Exeter, and AAA offers from York, Sussex and Lancaster, and yet more difficult and life-changing decisions loomed. Of the four, York was my top choice, and as I have to pick a Firm (if I get the grades offered I am expected to attend this establishment) and an Insurance (where I will attend if I miss the grades for my Firm but get the grades offered for this university) choice, Exeter was put immediately on the ‘no’ pile. York would be my Firm choice; all that was left was to decide between Sussex and Lancaster which, if all went right, I would not be attending anyway.

Therefore, it felt necessary to make some visits, so Mum and I headed north. We felt we couldn’t just drive for five hours to look around a university for an hour before heading back home, so we took advantage of the October half term and spent a weekend in the Lake District before being toured around Lancaster and speaking to a member of the faculty. I liked it; I liked the collegiate system and the feel of the place. The course looked good, with the potential to take modules in other subjects alongside English (although my first choice here would be a Music module, and they, like many other universities, have recently axed their Music degree), and I loved the idea of being just down the road from my favourite area of the country which itself is steeped in literary heritage. What’s more, the faculty member I spoke with told me that it was more than likely that despite my AAA offer, they would accept me with AAB, or even ABB, so long as my A was in English. Fantastic, I thought. York would be choice one, with AAA as its offer, and I could take Lancaster as offering lower than they’d said – a perfect choice for my insurance. Sussex was off the table.

Of course, it couldn’t be so simple. A couple of weeks ago I received a letter containing an offer from Sussex that threw me back to square one: if I put them as my Firm choice on UCAS, they will make my offer Unconditional – I would have a place regardless of my grades at the end of this year. Furthermore, if I did manage to get three A grades, they would give me £3,000. Unconditional offers at this stage – when you don’t even have your A-level grades – are like gold dust, and I was so stunned on receiving this letter that I sank to the floor. I struggled – my self-confidence surrounding my predicted grades this year is shaky, so to go into my exams holding an unconditional offer would take off a significant amount of pressure, whilst the financial incentive to do as well as I hope to would just be something extra to spur me on. It seemed the obvious choice.

But I’d set my heart on York from early on – to the point at which when I received my Cambridge rejection my initial relief stemmed from an inherent knowledge that I would prefer the atmosphere and systems in place at a non-Oxbridge institution. English at York has always been The Plan, since – or perhaps before – I got my reply from Cambridge (even if I didn’t know it). And I should get three As; if all goes to plan I will do better. But what both my GCSE and AS Results Days have taught me is that I cannot put my faith in my examination performance, or the grading systems. I, like thousands of others, have been a victim of shifting goalposts and subjective marking, and there is nothing that I can do to change or prevent this from happening.

So, we took a trip to Sussex last week. We could not be taken on a tour so had to find our way around ourselves, which always leaves me feeling insecure and unhappy: my head screams I do not belong here and it is obvious and I want nothing but to leave. Their student elections were taking place, so the campus was full of posters and candidates calling for last-minute votes. I liked the political engagement. Our conversation with a faculty member was far more academically satisfying than at Lancaster, and as I was talked through the course I knew it was something I could be extremely enthused by. Again, there was the option to take modules in other subjects – and the English and Music faculties are housed in the same building. The woman we spoke with talked of renowned research-led teaching; of modules that excited me; of trips to London which is only an hour away by train. We drove past the accommodation,  through the city, and by the seafront. I find it hard to imagine myself living anywhere other than home at the moment but I knew I preferred what I saw of the city to Lancaster itself.

And so, I find myself struggling. I set my heart on York a long time ago, but perhaps my conviction is beginning to waver and I’m running out of people to ask. Yet without the potential of an unconditional offer my choice would be simple – so should I simply let something which would, I know, feel like a cop-out sway my mind?

I’ve rambled on for over 1500 words now (this has been a slightly more unusual post) so I will leave it here and update when I reach my final decision, along with some tips for those applying in the next few years – but if anyone has any advice for me it would be greatly appreciated. I know that wherever I go I will be happy, and I will probably adore whichever establishment I end up at. But is it wise to accept Sussex’s offer, particularly now I can see I would fit in well there, or should I stick to my guns and hold out for York?



  1. 24/03/2014 / 12:17 am

    I had my heart set on University of East London for my art course in 2012 since day one. When I got the grades I needed, I was over the moon! But, I made the terrible mistake of going with my heart instead of my head. It was the biggest mistake I could ever have made. There are so many factors to choosing the university for you, but you need to be sure that any negatives are outweighed by the positives. Only then can you be sure you’ll have a happy and fulfilling time at university. I left after 7 months as I became far too sick to stay in at uni and became bedridden. The university did not check on me, or offer me any support. I wish I had explored the care that the university could give me in such hard times in greater detail. So yes, the academic side is extremely important, but so is the pastoral care you can be given if worst comes to worst. Speak to students about the care they received. You don’t want to end up suing your uni like I did! Good luck with your studies 🙂 x

  2. 02/03/2014 / 6:51 pm

    I was fascinated to read a personal view of the process, never having had the good fortune (in the late 1960’s) to attend university, not for academic reasons, but for others too convoluted to explain here.
    I have no doubt that degrees from Oxford/Cambridge are more highly regarded in this country; right or wrong, it is a fact of life. But I have been to both Lancaster and York, and they are equally fine cities, with much to recommend them. If Sussex are willing to take you with any results, and offer financial inducements too, perhaps this says something about the calibre of the university, and the regard in which it holds itself? I cannot hope, or want, to influence you, but I would choose York and Lancaster instead, as anywhere that wants students that badly, like Sussex, must have something to hide…
    Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

    • 02/03/2014 / 7:13 pm

      Pete – this is precisely the issue. Although league tables are often not the best things to go by, it is interesting to note that Sussex were doing fantastically well until 2012, but in the past two years they have dropped from being in the top 15 in the country for my course to number 32 I think, which I do think is telling. And yet there’s nothing that I can find anywhere to explain it, so it’s very odd indeed!
      That said, many UK universities now offer financial incentives of up to £10,000 for high-achieving students, either as money off of fees or maintenance loans, or just straight into your account to do whatever you like with. Sussex isn’t the only one to be handing out unconditional offers to highly-predicted students either. It’s just another competitive business I suppose – just strange that my peers and I seem to be a commodity of sorts.

      • 02/03/2014 / 7:27 pm

        That is very interesting, and seems to have not been well-publicised outside of academic circles. Out of interest, what are you hoping to do as a career/job when you leave University? Perhaps the direction of the course, providing you with a better chance of that career should be the most important factor. I am sure that was your first consideration though.
        Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

        • 02/03/2014 / 7:56 pm

          To be honest, I’m not at all sure career-wise. Perhaps journalism, perhaps publishing, perhaps editing. So it actually wasn’t really a consideration, as my university course will ultimately be about my enjoyment of academia I think, rather than being a means to an end, at least in part.

  3. 02/03/2014 / 5:09 pm

    What a beautifully worded dilemma! If the modules and facilities at York and Sussex are comparable (from what you have seen), but Sussex is going the extra mile to woo you, then is fate giving you a push in the right decision-making direction? Only you can answer this, but surely an unconditional offer is not to be sniffed at. Pros and cons; good luck!

    • Mel johnstone
      09/02/2016 / 8:04 pm

      My daughter is faced with a very similar dilemma. She was given offers from both York, Exeter and Sussex. She was undecided as to whether to make York or Sussex her firm choice. Both required AAB for her course.Two weeks ago she received a letter from sussex offering an uncondition offer. The problem is that people generally think so highly of York and it concerns her that if she accepts Sussex she could be making a mistake despite loving Sussex from the beginning on par with York. As mum I felt that like you it took some pressure off despite the fact that she is exceptionally hard working things can go wrong on the day and exam situations are never easy. I would love to know what you decided and which university you are now attending. I would be so grateful for any advice you might have. She is my baby and I just want the best for her but more importantly her happiness and to be confident in whatever decision she makes and she will have to decide very soon.

      • Lucy Furneaux
        09/02/2016 / 8:37 pm

        Hi Mel, thanks so much for your comment. This is a pretty long response but I hope there’s something useful in it!

        It’s such a difficult situation. In the end, I decided to make York my firm choice and Sussex my insurance, on the grounds that if Sussex had been willing to give me an unconditional offer, they would be willing to take me if I missed a grade. I firmed York because it was always my dream university and course – even though the offer from Sussex was tempting, I knew in my heart where I wanted to be. Thankfully even though I did miss a grade I got into York, now study English there and absolutely love it.

        However, if your daughter likes both universities equally that can make the decision harder. Is there perhaps a way that you could visit both universities, even if you’ve been around them already? A second visit might help sway her one way or the other.

        It might also be worth her thinking about the things she’d like to get up to at university alongside her course; for example, one of the reasons I adored York was because of its fantastic tradition of student journalism. Within four weeks there I became Features Editor at Nouse, the University’s original student paper. If your daughter is particularly into a certain sport or hobby, finding out what different extra-curricular opportunities are available at each university might help her decision.
        The other important factor is visiting the city; when I went to Lancaster, I loved the university, but an hour in the city made me really uncomfortable at the thought of living there. It might be an idea to spend some time in the cities that the universities are based in to get a feel for what living there and being part of that community might be like.

        Finally, I think the best thing you can do for your daughter is to support her in her decision making process, but not nag her too much about it; this is a hugely personal decision – one which will essentially affect the rest of her life – so trust that she can make it on her own and will ask for help if she needs it.

        Best of luck to her!


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