Failure happens to all of us at some point. Whether it’s a GCSE you knew you always hated, your first, second or even third stab at a driving test, or aiming for and just missing out on a spot in the first team. This time last year I wrote a post about choosing and applying to universities, and I’m aware it’s once again the season of personal statements, UCAS and acceptance emails – but also a time when you might be experiencing your first taste of rejection too.
Getting a rejection from a university that you’ve probably visisted, researched, and then given the highest honour of one of your five UCAS slots hurts, there’s no doubt about it. If the university is a prestigious one, it can feel like a personal blow to you – a failure that despite your grades and hours spent drafting and re-drafting your personal statement, you still somehow ‘weren’t good enough’. If the rejection is from your first choice, all the worst. You might have built up a mental picture of yourself at that university, where you’d be living, what societies or sports you’d get involved in, and having to move on from all of that is tough going. And then there’s arguably the most difficult part; telling everyone else. Rejections aren’t something you’ll cheerily inform family and friends of as soon as you get them; they’re instead brought up in an awkward and often delayed conversation that isn’t much fun for either side involved.
Rejection for me came in the form of a blunt ‘unsuccessful’ email from the University of Durham some time in the winter of year 13. It was quickly followed up with an offer for an alternative course, if I really wanted, but it wasn’t History. I can’t say I was all that cut up about it, I had already been accepted to Exeter, my first choice, but it niggled at me nonetheless for a few days. What if I had wanted to go to Durham? My grades were what they were asking for, so it must have been my personal statement. In which case, what had I done wrong? What was wrong with me?
It was at this point, I realised something. I was proud of my personal statement – I’d spent a long time putting it together, even more time re-drafting it with the advice of my teachers and Head of Year in mind, and then even more time again re-drafting that version until I felt it was an accurate representation of myself. I’d avoided the white lies as far as possible, I hadn’t exaggerated about the books I’d read or the things I’d done; I’d just tried to speak honestly about why I loved my subject and why I was good at it. Personal statements are always going to be cringey to an extent – after years of learning that above all else ‘modesty’ was the most important characteristic to maintain as a teenage girl, to shove all that aside and sell yourself goes against the grain. But, despite the cheesy intro and awkward synonyms for ‘passionate’ because we were told it was the Number One Word to Avoid, when I submitted my personal statement on UCAS I felt it did me justice.
It was knowing this, that in the long run enabled me to turn the rejection from Durham into something positive. Gradually I realised that there was nothing wrong with me per say; instead the admission team at Durham had just been doing their job. They had looked at my application, thought ‘this girl isn’t the type who would do well here’ and sent off my rejection. Later my Head of Year told me that I should have mentioned more academic works that I’d read, but to be brutally honest, reading up on historiographical trends in my free time is not my idea of fun, and never has been. I didn’t put those sorts of books on my personal statement because I hadn’t read them, and if Durham rejected me on those grounds of not being ‘academic’ enough – then they did exactly the right thing. If I had crammed my academic reading in the summer, and reduced the paragraph on my extra-curricular pursuits to tailor it to Durham’s expectations, I might have got in – but it would no longer have been ‘me’ they were accepting. I’d have then turned up in September most likely unprepared in comparison to the rest of my coursemates, and, in all honesty, not suited to the university.
I think I’ve gone on quite a long winded way of saying it, but essentially I’m trying to explain that if you give your all, prepare as best you can and put yourself forward in a way that you feel does you justice; rejection can never really hurt you. It’s the same for other aspects of life as well; if you fail that first driving test, it’s because you just weren’t ready, if you don’t make the first team, it’s because you need a little more training, if your essay comes back with a 2:2 instead of 2:1, that’s just letting you know that there’s something you need to look at to change for next time. One of my favourite lecturers here at Exeter recently told me the best mark you get in your first year is your worst, because that’s the most helpful in terms of your improvement. University applications can feel a little daunting as often people worry that they’ve only got one shot, but that’s really not the case. If I’d set my heart on Durham, I could have reworked my statement, read the books I knew they would be interested in and re-applied. I could even now have a shot at applying for a Masters if I wanted to.
Rejection can really hurt your self-esteem and confidence, but (and excuse the cheesiness) if you’ve tried your best that’s really all you can do. You can’t be any more than the best you can be. It’s bound to feel a bit rubbish for a while, but try not to see rejection as a door closing – instead try to imagine it more as a whopping great big ‘Diversion’ sign blocking your way. It’s not permanent, and you might come back to that very same door later on, but for the time being life is directing you down a different corridor.