I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that the day I received my Oxford offer was among the best of my life. It was overwhelming, to realise that the very thing that had been a pipe dream for so long was suddenly my reality. And however much we settle in and realise that Oxford is, at the heart of it, just a university, filled with ordinary students living their lives, it’s still hard not to feel at least a little overwhelmed by the sight of the throngs of subfusc-clad individuals filing into the Sheldonian and finding themselves declared members of the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
For many people, the change can be dizzying – the realisation that what has been a distant goal you’ve been working towards for months, even years, is here. Then the haze of dreaminess starts to evaporate as reality sets in. And reality isn’t always pretty. Sometimes it’s study sessions in the ambience of the Rad Cam, or dressing to the nines for Formal Hall, but reality is also frantic 3am essay crises, reality is a whole group of students used to being among the top of their academic spheres at school suddenly hearing things like “a somewhat flimsy argument” or “not your best essay, I’m afraid.” And then the panic starts to set in. The odds of making it to Oxford were slim to begin with, but when you’re not excelling 100% of the time, the fear emerges: why am I here at all?
It’s a conflict that arises in part from the fact that many people have spent the longest time looking at Oxford as a destination: hard work and stressed all-nighters are supposed to be part of the long journey get you here. And we’ve all heard the warnings about what we’re in for – intense tutes, a deluge of essays, brutal exams – but at some point, all of us made the decision that it was all worth it, if we could only earn our place in these hallowed halls. But the fact is, hard as it is to get in, being here is often harder – there’s more work, more expectation, and more doubt.
The offer letters and UCAS notifications that validated years of effort in school are things of the past now, and suddenly we’re small fish in a very big pond. People used to getting As and A*s without blinking are suddenly left panicking with the unhappy realisation that receiving a First is more fable than fact for many. For better or for worse, the fact is that Oxford often invites a group of people who are used to measuring their worth by any kind of results-based, external validation: exam grades, competitions, certificates…tangible proof of excellence. This means that the realisation – and however prepared we think we are, it’s hard to truly realise this until we’re actually here – that Oxford is not simply another sign of achievement, but a challenging, strenuous journey unto itself can be disorienting.
I don’t mean that everyone came here expecting to just rest on their laurels. The fact is that getting into Oxford requires hard work, and for some people, being greeted with yet more intensity can lead to a feeling of being burned out. It’s hard to reconcile that with the intellectual enrichment you feel like you’re supposed to be gaining from this education. Add this to any number of other factors – maybe you don’t feel posh enough, maybe you’re the only BME person doing your course at your college, maybe you feel self-conscious about an accent – and it’s unsurprising that people are often left feeling like they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, for someone to tell them that getting here was an elaborate prank and they’re not cut out for it after all.
Perhaps the only way to work past the imposter syndrome is to realise that your place at Oxford isn’t supposed to be a stagnant position to be consistently maintained: your offer was a gateway, not a podium. You didn’t get in because you fooled your tutors into thinking you were the ‘Classic Oxonian’, you got in because your tutors thought you could gain something from Oxford, and Oxford could gain something from you. It’s easy to look at the dreaming spires and forget that first and foremost, Oxford is an institute of learning. So next time you feel like you don’t belong, remember that Oxford is only as good as its students, and now that you’re in here, you’re one of them, and that you do in fact belong.