Why having your hopes and dreams crushed can be a good thing

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.

A prelude

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.

The background

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.

Interview day

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.

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.

No surprises

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]

37 thoughts on “Why having your hopes and dreams crushed can be a good thing

  1. Hey, I really like this article, it gives an opportunity for a deep dive into humanity in the ensuing discussion.

    As an introvert, interviews are a form of torture for me and when I hired my first person, it was a desperate and scared looking girl. She worked out well luckily and everyone thought I was a naturally competent interviewer, which in itself is under-rated as a very serious, scarce skill. But the truth was I was over-sensitive to the interviewee’s because I knew how bad it could feel and I was just lucky with that girl that she was Ok, because I mainly hired her so I could sleep at night. (How bad can you be that your day’s work was to have made a little girl cry) With experience I got a lot better, but still cringe at memories of colleagues conducting interviews.

    There’s a particularly nasty attitude in the UK about people who serve in their job, whereby a lot of people feel it confers on them the right to denigrate those people who have to do it for a living. Having worked sh*t jobs as a student including 2 that can attract some of the most humiliation, I still to this day can’t complain to supermarket or waiting staff without courtesy and carefully stating that my problem was with their employers, not them. There is a also a taboo whereby the majority of the public don’t admit they are happy to punish the poor for their fate as if it were always a choice. This is seen in a lot of societal interaction, from repeatedly voting for parties with cruel policies across the spectrum to living in parallel to fellow citizens, the only contact being in master/servant situations. An experience I had when stacking shelves in a supermarket still rankles today; a very wealthy looking lady rushed over to rescue her dog from accidental contact with a colleague, without making eye-contact. She didn’t know we were MSc students in a science I doubt she understood, yet was wet-wipe ready to protect her dog from accidental contamination by perceived poverty rather than save his leg from the affections of her pet.

    1. Thanks FI Warrior.

      I absolutely agree with your part about how people in ‘sh*t jobs’ are treated. Anybody who has ever worked in retail or catering or something similar will have seen it. I think it’s terrible. I see it every week when I go shopping in Lidl. The staff are treated so badly, with utter contempt. Now without wanting to kick a hornets nest, it’s almost always British people who do it – it is very rare to see a non-British person lay into the staff. It’s very disappointing. Because the staff in Lidl are very good. They work hard – harder than most stores. Part of the irony is that Lidl pay quite well – much more than other retailers. But I’d still never want to take a job there because of the crap the staff get.

      The most that I saw this kind of attitude was when I was a reception at a local IT firm. I used to get all sorts of crap from people, even though I was effectively switch-boarding a lot of the time. There was one particularly bad day (one of BTs servers went down) loads of customers computer systems stopped working. It was absolute carnage. I was called all sorts of names. It was so bad that the CEO stepped in to answer the phone.

      1. Off the top of my head I can think of 2 factors that might be at play here, firstly, in Mediterranean countries by comparison, businesses are often family orientated, so it’s not a humiliation to work for the family venture as you too get the benefits and have dignity as a co-owner. Customers also know this and that the establishment will kick them out if they disrespect the waiter for example, because it’s only a rude stranger vs their blood-relative; no contest.

        Secondly, in the UK, colonialism has only recently been reluctantly relinquished, mainly because the maintenance/suppression payments exceeded the loot/profits from that venture and the bottom line always wins and often that’s sooner than later. The public school system with it’s institutional callous attitudes created the ruthless administrators needed to rule over these stolen, occupied domains and official bigotry was used to practically enforce it. So in Britain today, it’s still natural for the average person on the street, who’re conditioned since birth to take advantage of the down-trodden, to have no empathy for anyone in a position as helpless as those former colonial, vassal-subjects. The fact that it’s also the working class taking this flak doesn’t seem to bother their supposed brethren, who’re fine with operating an ‘I’m alright Jack’ principle in their callous treatment of fellow-citizens.

  2. Had one memorable job interview fresh out of school for a trainee alarm engineer, on arrival was handed a questionnaire to fill in. One question was do you know ohm’s law, I put yes on the basis I had an incline it was that triangle thingy from my physics lessons. In the interview, first question – explain ohm’s law, within 30 seconds it was ‘Thank you for coming today, NEXT!!!’ and I was out of the door.

    On another interview, in response to what I knew about the company I said only that what they sell costs me a fortune, also I was upfront with them that I pulled a sickie to come to the interview. I ended up being offered the job and I’m still with the company today.

  3. I had an interview for a job in a shoe-recycling factory – I’m glad I didn’t get the position as I have a suspicion it would have been sole-destroying.

    Possibly its a semantic argument, but I would disagree that everyone deserves respect. I think very few people deserve respect and it is hard earnt, not defacto given. I would say everyone deserves to be tolerated. Tolerance is really important. If you can muster the energy, its also great to be kind. But respect, no, not everyone deserves respect.

    Having a bunch of awkward social situations when you’re around the 18 mark is par for the course. You have to go through them to get better and sort out who you are and what you’re about. It all balances out in the end and usually you roughly get whats coming to you?

    As for being honest, well its good to be honest with yourself, in a way thats an extension of the Ermine’s favourite Delphic maxim ‘know thyself’, pragmatically speaking though being honest with the rest of the world is overrated. Certainly, in the form of bluntness, it is a tool which has to be used with extreme skill and delivered in small doses.

    And remember, if you’d got in off the back of that horror-interview, you would almost certainly have found your time there to have been wonderful, just as you did at LSE. Conflating the quality of the interview with the quality of what 3 years spent there would have been like probably isn’t accurate. You would have adapted and enjoyed most likely. That paragraphs analysis is survivorship bias looming large.

    Alls well that ends well as they say.. I’d agree that the experience did you good.

    1. Possibly its a semantic argument, but I would disagree that everyone deserves respect.

      I think its semantic Rhino. I couldn’t think of the right word. I didn’t mean ‘deserve’. I now know the words I meant: ‘treat everyone with respect’. I don’t like the word ‘deserve’. I think it’s abused a lot by people who have a sense of entitlement: “I deserve this… I deserve that…”. I don’t think that anybody ‘deserves’ anything. They might have a right to some things or a reasonable expectation. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to edit the text to correct it.

      Having a bunch of awkward social situations when you’re around the 18 mark is par for the course.

      I’ve had my fair share of awkward conversations (and still do as an introvert). I’m also not shy of being awkward either. (If we’re talking about the introduction thing) This was different though. It felt like genuine contempt. FI Warrior has got it spot on when comparing it to working in a ‘sh*t job’ – that’s how it felt.

      As for being honest, well its good to be honest with yourself, in a way thats an extension of the Ermine’s favourite Delphic maxim ‘know thyself’, pragmatically speaking though being honest with the rest of the world is overrated.

      I agree that self-honesty is an enormous virtue and one that few people possess. However, I can’t agree that honesty is overrated. If I could share two thoughts. Firstly, there are very few times in life where the situation is win-lose. There’s sports, maybe some business situations with direct competitors. Even in the space where I worked quite a lot, legal disputes, there are, more often than not, win-win scenarios. If you see life as a series of confrontations then the temptation to cheat is strong. But, for the most part, most things in life are about collaborating towards common goals. The case for lying is much weaker. For me, an interview is a collaboration. The goal for both parties is shared. It’s about balancing the information asymmetries.

      Secondly, being honest leaves you with few regrets. I read the book ’30 lessons for living’ a few months ago, the most unanimous lesson from the experts was ‘to be honest’. For those that had lived dishonest lives, they bitterly regretted it. Another theme was that those who had been lied or cheated (particularly in their work careers) were very resentful. I can emphasise with that, the few occasions that I’ve been cheated on at work were painful. I never trusted that person ever again.

      Conflating the quality of the interview with the quality of what 3 years spent there would have been like probably isn’t accurate. You would have adapted and enjoyed most likely. That paragraphs analysis is survivorship bias looming large.

      That’s fair. Certainly a big dose of revisionism. It makes it easier to feel more comfortable with what happened in the past if you change history (but nobody ever re-writes history right?) I probably would have adapted – I’m a firm believer in pragmatism.

      But there are some reasons why LSE was much better for me. The post was getting a bit long, so I cut them out (along with lots of other stuff). But a few of them were: (i) my course was better suited to me at LSE, it was more maths based (my strength) and had no dissertations (I couldn’t write for toffee). I would have struggled academically at Cambridge. (ii) I had family and several friends in London which made settling in much easier. (iii) LSE is much less formal, my tolerance for pomp and pageantry is low, to the point of almost non-existence now. (iv) I know I’ll get howls of derision, but the proportion of people I think are kn*bs is much lower at LSE; it was bad enough having a handful of kn*bs in my classes at LSE, it would have been more difficult at Oxbridge (I know that is very much my problem, but nobody’s perfect!)

      Apologies if my reply is a bit long, but your comment was thoughtful and I think it deserved a ‘full’ response!

      1. Honesty can be a luxury if the price is high, which is often, but unless you’re a manipulative, sociopathic character type, integrity is the only way to live at peace with yourself and your individual world. We should all aspire to live by the hypocratic oath of first doing no harm to others, so I couldn’t disagree more with the statement that honesty could ever be over-rated.

        Anyone who’s of average intelligence and has lived long enough to have some experience of this world will know that as hard-working as a person can be, their achievements will still never match those from cooperation with others. Advantages from possible synergies derived from cooperating in any venture, elevate you to a higher level of civilisation and is it’s why being an introvert is an unfortunate burden, by making it harder to reach out to others.

        1. @FIW – but beware, the path of absolute honesty can cause enormous harm to others.. as ever, honesty is to be applied with a healthy portion of emotional intelligence.

          The success of humans, through their ability to trade and specialise is well documented. Fortunately, in todays day and age its entirely possible for an introvert to benefit from this without having to reach out to others any more than an extrovert would. I don’t concur it is an unfortunate burden. Introverts and extroverts aren’t bad and good, just different. A modern-day introvert benefits from a million synergies without having to talk to anyone!

          1. I think we may all be in broad agreement, but differing on definition here, emotional intelligence is indeed crucial. I meant I try to live honestly, while there are times when to say something truthful would simply hurt the listener without improving the situation, so the diplomatic option would be to keep quiet. I do try to go for being happy rather than right, so before opening my mouth, ask myself if what I want to say will actually help and if unsure, I keep those thoughts to myself.

            Re: the burden of introversion, I may be wrong, being quite a pronounced one myself, I assume it’s so easy for extroverts, but really have no way of knowing as I can’t swap for a while to see.

        2. FI Warrior – there’s an excellent book called ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain on introverts/extroverts. It looks at how society perceives and interacts with different personality types: in particular introvert v extrovert. It was enlightening for me.

          1. There is one other point to be made on the subject of introverts and extroverts.

            An introvert uses up energy interacting with others whereas an extrovert gains energy from interacting with others. This is subtly different from whether an introvert or extrovert is good or bad at communicating.

            Introverts can be excellent communicators and excel in cooperating with others, but it will be effortful for them to do so.

  4. Well if its any consolation I steered well clear of oxbridge for exactly the same reason – I was pretty convinced it would be teeming with assholes and assholes aren’t my bag. It does look very pretty though and its always going to be good on the old CV.

    I guess you can treat someone with respect without actually respecting them – I’d prob just describe it as treating someone nicely. I’d agree its important to treat people nicely. Conferring respect, for me, implies some favourable judgement on the subject’s character to have been made, probably over a period of some time.

    On the honesty thing, maybe what I’m getting at is you can be sparing with your honesty, i.e. what you don’t say can be as important as what you do say. Thats not the same as lying and cheating your way through life. Thats definitely not a good strategy. In other words, not being honest does not always equate to being dishonest. Someone wise once said, ‘You never get away with anything, you may think you have, but you haven’t’. I believe that to be true.

    The prevalence of win-wins versus zero-sums in your life probably boils down to whether you have an ‘abundance’ or ‘scarcity’ mindset to use MMM’s terminology. I think the world is a much more pleasant place if you opt for an ‘abundance’ mindset.

    1. “Conferring respect, for me, implies some favourable judgement on the subject’s character to have been made, probably over a period of some time.”

      You’re probably right that ‘respect’ can be thought in that way. I guess how I’ve always thought about it is: “don’t be a d*ck to people” which is a more vulgar way of putting what you say!

      I confess I didn’t think you were advocating for telling fibs Rhino, I could have clarified what you meant. I agree that often silence is the best thing. As you know, I’ve been fighting with my natural instinct to not say things in writing this blog. I also agree with you on ‘absolute honesty’, I think it’s wise to be wary of anything that’s absolute.

      Apologises for mis-construing anything you said Rhino. As I’ve mentioned before, I really enjoy reading your input.

  5. Cheers for the thought provoking recollections. One suggestion though — do a search-and-replace for “more minor note” and swap in “the most important note”.

    Can’t hurt! ?

  6. Hi, I’ll sheepishly admit to having attended Oxbridge (studying a science subject), and I also stayed on to do a PhD and acted as an “assistant interviewer” then, so I got to see the process from both sides. It’s good to see articles like this that show the perspective of the students.

    I think something to bear in mind is because of the college system, your experience can depend strongly on which colleges you’re interviewed at and the profs that happen to be at those colleges. I think my own experience of the process was more positive (as you might expect). I also came from a state school (though one with better-than-average results I think), but I didn’t feel that there was any exclusion of state school students at the particular college I attended – indeed, when I was an undergrad, the private and state school students seemed to mix quite well, and those who had gone to private school just seemed to be kids who were as scared about starting uni as everyone else (it might be different for Etonians and such like – I never got to know any – kids from “ordinary” private schools did not seem very different to everyone else, though). But it has to be said that most of the state-school students were still quite middle class.

    I also remember being made to wait for one of my interviews – though there was at least a bench for me to sit on. You’re right that it is important that the schedule is kept to. Though when I assisted with interviewing, I have to say I found it to be done quite professionally on the whole (again, this is an experience based only on one college for one subject, though). My experience was that interviewing is also very intense for the interviewers, who might see 30ish students in a day – perhaps this could be a reason why your interviewers seemed grumpy – possibly the process should be made less intense to give interviewees a better experience (but that would require spreading it over more days, which might be difficult logistically).

    I wouldn’t dwell too much on what may or may not have gone wrong in the interview – as you probably know by now as a professional, there’s a lot of randomness in these things. I remember thinking I had done poorly in one of my interviews, but apparently not poorly enough. It’s possible that your answers seemed fine and they just had a very strong field of candidates that year and they had to disappoint slightly-less-strong candidates like you. When interviewing, candidates fell into one of three groups – the excellents, who all got offers, the bads, who didn’t, and a large number who fell in between – it had to be decided somehow which of these in-betweens would get offers, and differences between candidates were not large, so small differences in test results etc. could make all the difference.

    If you had had good interviewers (maybe you didn’t), it should not have mattered that you didn’t know what stamp duty was – when I watched the profs give interviews, they were more interested in how candidates thought through bits they didn’t know, rather than how much they knew to start. I get the impression that most Oxbridge profs do value academic achievement highly and so saying you didn’t care about GS probably wouldn’t have gone down well, though I would hope that they would generally be more sympathetic about your personal situation than your interviewers seemed to be – but there are some profs that wouldn’t care about your attitude to GS, though.

    And sometimes interviewers can just make a wrong decision. When I did my PhD, one of the other students who started had actually interviewed for the same course at the same college as me and didn’t get offered a place. He went on to finish his PhD 6 months faster than normal and has already got a permanent academic position. I have no idea how come he didn’t get offered a place – I think he’d have been better than some people who were given offers. It happens that he was also from a relatively poorer part of the country, so perhaps he was also affected in some of the ways that you were. Or maybe something just randomly went wrong for him – it’s not possible to say.

    It does seem from the admission statistics that private school kids do have an edge, but state school kids can and do compete (60% of accepted students are from state schools) – the candidates I saw when interviewing couldn’t be divided into groups of state and private school kids based on interview performance, and nor were we very aware of which were which (because we weren’t checking the names of the schools people went to, which is useless information – though there were flags on the application forms to indicate when students were coming from a school with poor results or other similar factors). I never detected a bias against students from poorer backgrounds.

    Something else I would add is that I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to not be offered a place. In Oxbridge courses, as in everything else, there have to be some people who come near the bottom of their cohort and struggle, and from my observations these people may be worse off at Oxbridge than if they had gone to universities where they would be in the middle of their year group or better – I think the system could be improved a lot to improve support for these students. It is far from a “dream” experience for everyone. So a rejection can be a blessing in disguise. I suppose this backs up the main message of your post.

    1. Hi Pagwblog, absolutely no need to be sheepish at all! Thank you for your comment. Your comment is worthy of a post of itself. First of all, thank you for sharing your view from the ‘other side’.

      It’s interesting to read and strikes an uncanny resemblance to my experience in the workplace being the interviewer and watching people being interviewed. I’m not really a proponent of interviews of so many of the reasons you articulate: luck, depends on which college/firm/team within a firm you meet, depends on the mood of your interviewer, all sorts of cognitive biases, lack of (actionable) feedback. I have a rule of thumb: anybody who says conducting an interview is easy is probably not a good interviewer!

      I think I was genuinely unlucky with my experience. I’m sure the vast majority had positive experiences interviewing at Oxbridge (whether successful or not). In a way, I hope my post shows that even when things go badly, there are always positives you can take away. It’s by no means a criticism of Oxbridge, rather it just happened to be one of the formative experiences in my life.

      A final thought, which was originally in my post but which I excised. There’s been a bit of bluster recently about UCAS applications and specifically Oxford applications around some stats that David Lammy quoted. Now the stats are a bit of mixed bag, although the data suggest that black applicants have a more difficult time getting into Oxford. (FWIW, I thought my post was too long anyway, and this subject too much of a tangent, which is why I didn’t include it). Leaving that aside, the issue to me is around the perceptions of ‘bias’. I think it’s incredibly unlikely that there is conscious bias towards some applicants (on the other hand, given all the empirical evidence over the years, it’s incredibly unlikely there is no unconscious bias). But there is a perception. My view is that universities have to do more in challenging this perception. It’s not enough to have no bias, you have to dispel the perception as well. I say this as a Chartered Accountant. For us, it’s not enough to have no conflicts of interest, we must also do our best to act on perceived conflicts of interest. In that respect, perceived and actual conflicts are treated with equal import.

      Thanks again for sharing!

      1. I very much agree that reducing the perception of bias is important – one of the reasons why the ratio of private to state school students at Oxbridge is what it is is surely that the ratio of the number of applicants from private and state schools is similar – state school students are just far less likely to apply, and part of that seems likely to be due to perceptions that the system is biased against them or that “their kind” are not wanted – I don’t think either is true to a large enough extent that students should not apply because of that (I didn’t see evidence myself of either being true at all really, but I can’t be completely confident that they’re not there at all).

        The issue of ethnic minority applications is a tricky one – the retort I’ve seen Oxford and Cambridge come back with for why they have so few students from ethnic minorities is that very few apply in the first place and they apply disproportionately for the most competitive subjects like Medicine and Law (e.g. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/oxford-data-reveal-disciplines-admissions-equality-divide), though I’m not sure how much of the discrepancy can be explained by this. (But Oxford now has all its stats online, so I guess it should be possible to check).

        Newspaper articles on the subject seem to normally lead with a headline about there being very few people from minorities at Oxbridge and include complex statistical points like that above near the end, which doesn’t do anything to help reduce perceptions of bias.

        So then the question becomes who should have responsibility for reducing the perception of bias? The universities could probably do more outreach, but it may also require the media not to follow the same tropes of saying the Oxbridge system is very biased towards those with privilege, and also teachers in state schools to get more training on how not to spread myths that might also be putting good students off applying (and also how to best prepare applicants and give advice on good A-Level subjects to take).

        1. Hi Padwblog, I’ve been talking to an Oxbridge graduate this afternoon. And we both said pretty much exactly what you’ve just written. They said so many more people from private school apply to Oxbridge – whether they get in is another matter.

          We also found that our shared view was that what we see being reflected in the applications is a symptom not a cause. As you say, I think so much of this furore has been misplaced towards universities. The issue occurs much earlier on in society. That’s a big part of why I thought including about it in the post would have been counter productive.

          My Oxbridge friend said that the universities “aren’t great at PR”. A lot of the ‘issue’ could have been headed off by better couched responses.

          That said, I’m with you on the media reaction. The mainstream media sensationalises the issues. Much the same as they do with personal finance. It’s a lot of the reason I don’t really follow mainstream media.

          1. Well I wouldn’t let the universities off completely – they have a few billion sitting around, some of which could probably be put to better use in funding more outreach rather than subsidising rowing teams etc. (which is ridiculously expensive, and probably enjoyed more by the posh kids). But I don’t think they could do it all, so I think we agree that other actors need to play a part too.

            A memory that just came to me is that one reason I picked the college I did is that it didn’t do “formal hall”, which conjured up in my teenage imagination an image of a bunch of stern-looking men conducting some weird dinner ritual in medieval clothing. But then when I got there and visited some other college’s dinners, I found that it’s not very formal at all and is quite an enjoyable tradition (you have to wear a gown that looks a bit silly and sometimes a suit, and someone talks at you in Latin for 30 seconds at the start, but apart from that it’s all quite normal and nobody really takes the traditions seriously, and the wine is quite cheap…). But yes odd things like that could certainly seem offputting – I think, having gone through the system, I’ve forgotten how weird it all can really seem to start with.

  7. hehe – plus ca change plus c’est la meme. Thirty years before you had this experience a young Ermine rocked up and the hallowed halls of Oxbridge, from a State grammar school and took the entrance exam for science – it’s Natural History in Oxbridge-speak at the time, because folk there are bright enough not to have to specialise in phsyics, chemistry or biology like everyone else. No probs with the science bit of their exam, but the general studies section? I didn’t even understand the fricking questions, never mind have the foggiest as to the answers, so that was an alpha and beta for the science bit, and a gamma for general knowledge. Basically they searched the Ermine cranium for a hint of general knowledge and failed to detect any useful signal, like your SD question, I just didn’t have the hinterland you get at a decent public school it seems. I think I got a B in the general studies O level, so whatever that tested was nowhere near the Right Stuff for them.

    So I got the thanks but no thanks letter, Having said that, there was none of the boorish behaviour of them being late, that’s absolutely terrible!

    1. Haha thanks for your anecdote ermine, it’s given me a good chuckle. I reckon I would struggle even more today on ‘general knowledge’ or ‘current affairs’. I don’t watch TV or read newspapers anymore (noise and no signal)!

  8. I used to always think being completely honest and telling the truth was the way to run my life/career. I succeeded in many areas with this approach. But now at the end of my career and looking to transition into retirement I can say that a completely honest approach is not the best one if you want to maximize your potential and the results you can achieve. In order to achieve the right decision from a group or a person things need to be couched or positioned in a way that it makes sense to them. This can mean that you need to emphasize the benefits over the dis-benefits to their particular position. My advice would be to be prepared to tell a few white lies to get the right outcome. But don’t trample on people with less persuasive powers.

    1. Hi Robert, thanks for commenting. I think you’ve got it spot on. Finding the benefits (or as your namesake Robert Cialdini would say, the incentives) is important. It also has a virtuous side-effect of developing your empathy-skills. You’ve left me curious, however. If you’d be willing to share, I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences – particularly where, as you say, a completely honest approach might not have been the best one.

  9. Great article once again. I have been fortunate in that I’ve generally done well in interviews, but on one occasion I went for a job as a mobile phone test engineer and just like you, was left alone for around 30 minutes. The difference being that I was left alone in a small room accompanied only by a huge slice of chocolate cake. I duly polished off the cake and only then did I begin to fret as to whether I was its intended recipient. I failed the interview and wonder to this day if the interviewer went hungry that day.

  10. I really enjoyed your story. I came from a similar culturally-impoverished background. My father was a white collar professional in a Third World country– that is, we were wealthier than our peers (not saying much), and we had some cultural capital but not Western cultural capital.

    By some crazy fortunate string of events, I ended up in an Ivy League university (this was because Ivy League colleges and some other universities in the US offer international students like myself generous financial aid). The adjustment was really hard. I was wearing Walmart clothing, barely spoke in class, had lots of thoughts but no means to express them (in my childhood, no one ever asked me my opinion about anything….), and certainly had no polish, while my peers were articulate, poised, confident. I am so glad that there were people in my life who had seen my raw talent from the stuttering 17 year old who had food stains in her paper application to Ivy League colleges because she didn’t think that it was important.

    It was not the most ideal experience that I could have hoped for, but I got out, survived, decent grades by kind professors, and the name recognition from my university now has boosted me tremendously in future job applications.

    I completely understand on what you say about always questioning authority. I think poor, less-fortunate people see the Authority as something immutable, unquestionable. In my childhood, no one ever asked me my opinion, whether to defend or argue a point of view, or to discuss a topic. Children seen and not heard. Most of my adult life was spend learning that I could negotiate everything, and and question exactly who made these rules and what were these rules made for?

  11. Going off on a tangent, the best interview I ever had, I actually didn’t get the job for. I wasn’t suited at all, but was so desperate to kickstart my career at the time; it was at Newcastle University and the interviewers were relatively young academics and slightly older students than me. They obviously sussed out that I was nervous, desperate and quite unsuited by experience for the role. So they asked a few general questions until enough time had passed to not insult me, then gently eased me off to the nearest pub and bought me drinks until my train home. That unbelievable kindness and humanity I have experienced time and again from Geordies, making them my favourites; despite never having lived in the north a disproportionate amount of my good memories come from the few of them I met in the midlands and south.

    There is no excuse for the sort of cruelty that can happen in interviews and this was one of my main motivations to becoming FI, I wanted to never be in a position where some pissant, jumped up, psycho could get off on being rude to a stranger. Freedom is the ability to get up, smile and walk out without dignifying the occasion with a word if you don’t like what is happening, the independence of not having to eat sh*t to pay the bills to stay in the game of life until tomorrow when the struggle begins again.

  12. Great post, YFG – thanks for sharing. I only have one ‘disastrous’ interview story – having attended some training on ‘do’s and don’ts for interviews, as a new graduate, I had in my mind to have a strong handshake. I was nervous and guess I overdid it as I will never forget the expression of the interviewer as I grasped his hand in a vice-like grip he wasn’t expecting! I didn’t get the job!

    As for being honest – at the end of my 3-month probation, my boss gave me a positive review and one of the words she used to describe me was ‘honest’ – as mentioned above, this honesty has to be selective when used at work and I guess I’ve worked long enough to know just how far to go without being too blunt or too truthful. But lying outright is a no-no in my book because you always get found out.

    1. Thanks Weenie! As a slight germophobe, the whole handshake thing is a bit of minefield. Not to mention, I usually have to put creams on my hands which sometimes also freaks people out. Haha

  13. Reading this reminded me of my Oxbridge interview: it went terribly, especially when the interviewers asked me a maths question and didn’t believe me when I told them that I hadn’t studied it in school yet!

    I went to a state school which had a reasonably good reputation and managed to get a fair few students into Oxbridge each year. Looking back there were a few who were super bright and would always have gotten a place and then a larger number of capable enough ones where the outcomes were a bit more mixed. Of the capable enough ones the differentiating factor for whether they got an offer seemed to be their upbringing and mannerisms: they were better at presenting their thoughts and arguments to adults, which I never was comfortable doing as a kid or teenager with a tendency to day dream for hours!

    My grandparents didn’t go to uni and my dad went to a polytechnic whilst my mum did a vocational course, so when I applied to uni they didn’t know how to help me prepare. Firstly, my parents were very confused about the Oxbridge college system wondering why I wanted to apply to a college after finishing college/sixth form. But then again when I got rejected whilst it hurt I got over it very fast as I didn’t have to worry about disappointed parents or their crushed dreams. Some of my friends with more ‘educated’ parents had to cope with feelings of disappointing their parents on top of their own pain. So in a way, I was very lucky and maybe in that way you were to.

    I also ended up going to LSE to study economics. I remember the absurdity of freshers week in September 2008 where events, such as a silent disco, were sponsored but recently defunct banks!

    I think that they were quite a number of w*nkers on the LSE economics course though – the same types that Oxbridge attracts for certain courses. I remember being looked at in open disdain by a fellow student (proud recipient of a Goldman Sachs internship) in my second year when I told him that I hadn’t applied for any accountancy/banking/consulting (ABC) internships over the summer and had opted for a lesser paid and more creative summer job. In defence of Oxbridge I think it depends a lot on the course. I’m good friends which some science students from those universities and the type of person and outlooks vary, just as in LSE the, say, anthropology students could be very different from economics students.

    I don’t know whether it’s just my personality type or upbringing, but as I have moved through my twenties I’ve become more adverse to acting differently from who I am, and prefer to be very honest in my dealings. This has the side effect of making it harder to get by in some scenarios and professions. I hated my Big 4 department as it was full of image management and pretence.

    Do you think that you’d be comfortable being so honest if you weren’t FI? We have to earn our money until then and depending on the profession it can be hard to to not adapt to the culture of your office. I went to a wedding recently filled with mostly Oxford graduates in elite professions. I was impressed by their career successes but many of them were very status obsessed. I ended up sat for dinner at table with, amongst others, a Lord who was telling us all about his important work being a Lord. Everyone was hanging on to his every word and adding in their own humble brags. I didn’t say much but politely listened, which didn’t go unnoticed. The Lord then started talking about me to others loud enough that I could hear him and then concluded I was born overseas, which when I corrected him (I wasn’t) seemed to confuse him. I guess that I didn’t pay him the open respect that he expected. At a wedding this doesn’t matter, but in certain careers I would be disadvantaged for not doing so.

    Yet again it comes back to temperament (I’m introverted so at a disadvantage in some fields) and upbringing (yet again with parents who don’t work in offices or in elite jobs, I’m not socialised in those ways). It’s liberating though as I can observe how strange some social customs are – I can have a tourist experience in the English of settings!

    1. Very interesting Essex Boy. We may well have come across each other at LSE.

      In answer to your question, I think I’d be just as comfortable being honest even if I wasn’t FI. I was brought up with a fierce independent streak and in valuing honesty very highly. Being FI has probably made me less tolerant with putting up with people’s shenanigans. And I think it’s meant I can be a bit more blunt – but I wouldn’t say that’s always a good thing.

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