Over the years I’ve had a fair few setbacks. But being honest, I’ve led a charmed life. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities I have in life because of the time and place I was born as well as my gender and ethnicity. For me, part of the deal with being blessed in living in the greatest ever time to be alive is that, when things go wrong, you don’t get too down about it. The reality is, when your hopes and dreams get crushed, it’s not the end of the world. In the past, it wasn’t always like that.
So today I want to tell you about a time when my hopes and dreams were crushed. Why it wasn’t the end of the world. And what I learned from the experience and how it has helped me reach the point I’m at today.
Just over a week ago I wrote a post asking whether a private school education was worth it (link). There were some great comments both for and against private schooling. I don’t have any children, and Mrs YFG and I aren’t planning on having any. So I don’t have much “skin in the game” so to speak. But I generally land on the side that private school isn’t worth it. However, there are some exceptions. I think one comes out in this story, which is about my terrible experience applying for entry to Cambridge University.
I grew up on a council estate (where my mum still lives to this day). It was, and still is, a rough part of the UK. The town I lived in is one of the most deprived in the country. Perhaps tellingly, it had one of the highest proportion of voters voting for Brexit. A sign that the town has been very much left behind and has really suffered from the neglect of central government.
I went to pretty terrible First and Middle Schools (where I lived used an unusual schooling syste:m, First School was ages 3-8, Reception to Year 3; Middle School ages 8-12, Years 4 through 7; High School ages 12-16, Years 8 through 11). Things were a bit better at High School. I went to the best school in the town. That isn’t saying much, GCSE pass rates at the school are just above the national average, rather than just creeping into double digits (the worst school in the area at the time, now an academy like all the others, only had a 4 day week due to a shortage of teachers and barely scrapped double-digit pass marks in GCSEs when I was a kid). I got good, but not great, GCSEs – mainly because I hated school and really couldn’t be bothered.
College (Sixth Form) was better for me. The local Sixth Form is a good school, one of the best large colleges in the country despite being non-selective. Mid-way through my first year I had pretty much guaranteed an A in A-Level Maths (there weren’t A*s back then) and had A’s in all my other subjects. Just before the Summer AS Level exams my father passed away suddenly. Somehow, I managed to do excellently in my exams getting A’s in every exam (apart from one, which I’ll talk about soon) and finishing my A-Level maths a year early with a high A grade.
Applying for university
My first two choices were Cambridge for Economics and Warwick. In the end, I was rejected from both. In fact, I ended up with only 2 offers out of 5 (more on that later). It was the Cambridge application that my true first choice. It was the closest to home, the most prestigious university, with excellent facilities, and in a lovely city. I knew, of course, that competition for places was fierce. I was more likely than not to be rejected.
Going to university was a big thing for me. My mother had never gone to uni. In fact, she was the only one of her siblings to finish school. Her mother, my grandmother, is illiterate. I would be only the second person in the family to go to uni. My father had gone to uni, being the second in his family to go. He was from a family of immigrants, and so access to education had been much more limited (ironically my grandfather and great-grandfather were both teachers, though I don’t think they went to university, I’m not sure there even was a university back then in their home country).
Anyway, much to my joy, I managed to get an interview at one of the colleges. That was when things went downhill. The day of the interview ranks up there as one of the most unpleasant experiences in my life.
It didn’t start well. First off, there was a breakfast introductory meet for all the applicants. I quickly found I was one of only a handful of state school applicants. A good half were foreign students (mostly Chinese) who didn’t really want to talk to any of the British students, and when they did talk to me, couldn’t understand a word I said in my rough, thick, council estate accent. The “public schoolboys” were even less interested, keeping very much into their circle. When the state school kids were periodically introduced to the public school groups you could almost taste the disdain.
The unpleasant experience was interrupted by an announcement that it was our turn to take the electronic entrance exam. Never in my life had I been so thrilled to hear it was time to sit a test! The exam was pretty unremarkable. I’ve got no idea whether I passed or failed it.
After lunch, it was time for the interview.
It didn’t start well. I turned up to the office of the professor who would be interviewing me (along with one other person). It was in a damp, dark corner of the building. Down a corridor with no light or anywhere to sit. I turned up 15 minutes early. The interviewers were late, so I ended up waiting 30 minutes, with nothing to drink, nowhere to go to the toilet and nowhere to sit.
After what felt like an eternity, I was ushered into the office, just as the previous applicant left. She looked pretty miserable coming out of the room. I was suitably intimidated. I was greeted half-heartedly by two upper-middle-class white guys. Both seemed very grumpy and aloof and not best pleased I was sitting in their office at that moment.
The interview started off reasonably well. I was asked two maths questions. I got the second one wrong, only to correct myself a few minutes later when I realised my error.
Things go downhill
Things then went downhill. The “economics” question was:
what are the problems with stamp duty tax?
Now I had prepared quite a bit for the interview, as best a state school kid with no dad could. The Principal had kindly done a mock interview. I’d had done some interviews for some weekend retail jobs. I read the Times every day (out of enjoyment). But I was stumped by that question. I was a council estate kid. I had no bloody idea what stamp duty was (they didn’t allude whether they meant SDRT or SDLT). Given houses in my town sold for fractions of the SDLT minimum-level, it just wasn’t a thing I had ever come across. My dad traded shares, so I had a vague idea that there was more than one stamp duty. All I knew is that they existed.
I admitted to my interviewers that I didn’t really know what stamp duty was, so I couldn’t answer their question. If they were grumpy before, they were definitely annoyed now. In fact, my response seemed to completely throw them. They didn’t seem to have another question, so they tried to explain what stamp duty was and asked me to answer their question anyway. After a long and confused pause, I tried waffling an answer. I can tell you it was a load of bollocks. I know that now because, after a decade of studying economics, finance, accounting and financial planning, there’s no clear-cut answer to that question.
It gets worse
So things were bad. But I was still hopeful as they were moving on to my grades. I already had an A in A Level maths, so I’d only need two As to get the required grades. I had pretty much guaranteed that as in my 3 other A Levels I’d have to get worse than Ds to not get those needed As. They skimmed my results with a mutter: “decent grades”. But then they spotted I’d got a D in one of my general studies exams.
why did you do so bad in general studies?
If you want to fail an interview this is how you answer: “I didn’t do very well in general studies because I don’t care about it“. Now that was the truth. If you asked any of the several hundred students forced to sit the exam (so the college could get more money) they would have felt the same. The only people (at least who I knew of) who liked general studies were weirdos (sociopaths). I didn’t give a shit about general studies, I don’t give a shit now.
That was the wrong answer.
Well, why don’t you care about how our country operates. Isn’t that important to you. Don’t you want to do well in your exams?
I replied that general studies didn’t really teach anything (it didn’t). I wasn’t focussed on it as I was just trying to keep my life together after burying my father a few weeks earlier. It was hard enough getting out of bed let alone caring about some poxy exam that almost every university didn’t count towards their required grades. My college had kindly written a note explaining my extenuating circumstances. The interviewers then asked (roughly): why did I need those extenuating circumstances, you did well enough in your exams, could you have done better? I can’t remember how I answered, but that question really hurt.
The interview petered out. And I left, knowing, even in my ignorant bliss, that things went bad.
I wasn’t surprised I got the rejection letter. I confess I was a little disappointed I didn’t even go into pooling. My teachers were disappointed, they had hoped I might be successful. There were about 5 of us who applied to Oxbridge, I think one (or maybe two) of us got in. Amongst a year group of a few hundred students, it must have been disappointing for the college.
I was a bit more surprised when I got rejected from Warwick. It was a tough course to get on, but I was still hopeful. In a twist of irony, I was accepted to LSE (the London School of Economics), arguably (I’m biased of course) the best uni out of the lot for my course. In another bit of oddness, the grades I needed for LSE were lower than all the others (AB only).
Some things I learned
Despite my Cambridge dreams being mercilessly crushed, I learned a great deal. In no particular order:
- Always have respect for people who have come from other backgrounds – the breakfast introduction was a horrific experience. I have vowed never to treat anybody poorly just because they come from a different background to you. I never ever want anybody to come away from talking to me like I did at the introduction.
Everyone deserves respect.It’s important to treat everyone with respect.
- I have huge respect for people who overcome the odds – having been pretty beaten up in applying to Cambridge, I have huge respect for the people who made it in. Even more so for those who have overcome difficulties in their life to make it. The two smartest (and arguably best) bosses I worked for both came from working-class backgrounds and made it into Oxbridge, both getting Firsts (or Double Firsts, can’t remember exactly). I have a lot of time for those that overcome the odds and succeed.
- Schooling can only get you so far – being a state school kid from a council estate I was like a guy turning up to a gun fight with a butter-knife. The public school kids had prepared so much more than me. They also had the confidence. They weren’t intimidated by the tall buildings. When you have grown up in a town where a 3 story flat is ‘the tall building’, even small things are strange to you. The whole Oxbridge world was completely alien and new to me. Maybe you need to go to private school to ‘learn’ lots of this. That would seem at, first glimpse, the best way to do it. But I’m sure there are other ways.
- Always be prepared – following on from the last point, great preparation is invaluable. I’m now always prepared for tough questions. When I go to an interview I know everything about my interviewer. I do the homework. In doing so, I have a better control of the interview. But it also applies to other aspects of life. In my job I had a reputation for ‘getting things done’. That’s because I was always prepared. Many of the best opportunities I got in my work-life was because I was ready and not a disorganised mess.
- Keep to time – The huge wait for my interview was stressful and incredibly unpleasant. Not keeping time is disrespectful to the other person. You are in effect saying, my time is more valuable than yours. Unless you are the President of the United States, then I don’t think you have much of an excuse. I never want to leave a person feeling like I did in that damp dark corridor.
- Tell the truth – I bombed the interview, in part because I was too blunt. But being honest is the #1 most important thing in life for me. Say I had fibbed in the interview and lucked a place. I’d have that place because I lied. That place might not have been right for me, because it was right based on a set of false information. The only way I would know is the potentially painful process of finding out later on. By telling the truth at the interview I found out that Cambridge wasn’t right for me and I wasn’t right for Cambridge (it works both ways). I’ve “passed” most of my face-to-face interviews since. One particular interview where I didn’t, I knew immediately it hadn’t gone well. Because I knew I wasn’t right for the guy interviewing and he wasn’t right for me (a close friend now works for that guy and confirms that it would have been a disaster if I had ended up working for him).
Perhaps the most valuable lesson for me is to always question authority. My interviewers held all the power. And I let that be. I didn’t question why they had that power. An interview should always be a meeting of equals (even where it’s a Partner interviewing a trainee). It’s an attempt to share information: both the interviewer and the interviewee have a common goal (albeit coming from different angles). You should always question anybody who tries to wield authority over you. I can’t put it better than Tony Benn:
“What power have you got?”
“Where did you get it from?”
“In whose interests do you use it?”
“To whom are you accountable?”
“How do we get rid of you?”
It all worked out
In the end, even though I had wanted to go to Cambridge so much, things turned out great. I really enjoyed my course at LSE. The course was suitable for me. I got to live in London for 3 years which was great. On a more minor note, I also happened to meet Mrs YFG there (how unfortunate for her!)
So when people say: “when one door closes, another opens”, it is true. It might not feel like it, but there is an opportunity from every setback.
Some questions for you. What setbacks have you overcome? What did you learn from them? Did it help you on the road to FI?
I’d also like to hear from anybody who did go to Cambridge or Oxford (be nice to me!), and from those that didn’t get in.
All the best,
Young FI Guy
[p.s. I can’t remember the interview questions verbatim, it was over a decade ago – there’s every chance I’m remembering it worse than I did!]
[last edit: 6 June 2018]