Approaching Oxbridge with Growth Mindsets
It’s that time of the year again when we congratulate or commiserate with our Oxbridge applicants and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to it being a process I find quite uncomfortable. Firstly, those getting in should be very proud of their achievements and excited about the prospect of going to one of the most recognisable universities in the world. Getting in is an arduous and potentially stressful procedure, but they can now focus on enjoying the moment, telling friends and family and then achieving those all important grades. One word of caution I will offer (other than revise, obviously) is to be prepared to meet some very fine minds and not to expect to be at, or possibly even near, the ‘top of the leader board’, as is often the case here at school. Of course, it may prove to be that Old Silhillians do in fact become leaders and pioneers in their chosen fields (coming back to school to make a speech and present prizes at Prize Giving), but I recall a former pupil of mine at another school who was academically gifted, a brilliant sportsman, Head Boy, extremely modest and great company telling me that finding himself as a middle ranker at Cambridge took some adjusting to. Whilst clearly shocked by his relative anonymity, he found his university peers to be inspiring and uplifting. As I once read in a (management) book published by one of our current parents, and one which appeared in the Times bestsellers list, ‘it matters who you hang around with a lot’!
To those that didn’t get in, the margins are ever so fine and every applicant this year (as in previous years) is deserving of a place. And sometimes Oxford and Cambridge quite simply get it wrong and miss out on very talented individuals who would grace any lecture theatre or seminar room in the land. It’s not terribly scientific and interviewer quirkiness, subjectivity and a bit of bad luck can sometimes rule the day. Of course, if reapplying once grades are known is any pupil’s preference, which is often successful, then the school will do all it can to facilitate this second time around. I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, and you may say that’s obvious from this blog, but I do believe that measuring any school success by the number of Oxbridge places is fundamentally flawed – and I can be hypocritical at times, publicly citing these figures myself. Some of our most able have chosen not to apply or even to decline an offer, due to the course not being quite right or something else more appealing at another university. It is definitely the right destination for many, but certainly not all. In my early days as a Headmaster I used to announce our Oxbridge successes in assembly, but no longer do so. There is a distinct kudos in graduating from Oxbridge or Cambridge and my own experience of working for a London based merchant bank suggests that it can also provide the proverbial ‘leg up’ in the job market, but there are many excellent universities out there, Russell Group or otherwise, and undergraduate satisfaction league tables are often very telling.
Unlike passing an examination, where one can miss out on an A* grade but still get an A grade, the Oxbridge process is much less forgiving with either acceptance or rejection, and this will be the first major failure for most, unless passing a driving test proves to be tricky, as it did for me! However, flippancy aside, there are likely to be many disappointments along the way. I have had several such episodes in my personal journey and I remember quite vividly not getting a Headship elsewhere, a Headship I thought I was perfect for. Clearly, what I didn’t know at the time, was that there was an even better one waiting just around the corner for me; thankfully I did embrace a motto unknown to me back in 2009 – ‘perseverantia’. In tune with persevering, I recently delivered a senior school assembly on growth and fixed mindsets and it is very important that we recognise traits from both in ourselves. It was my message, and is my hope, that pupils embrace challenge, persist when obstacles appear, learn from valuable criticism and don’t feel threatened by the success of others, but inspired. Unless you survive on Kryptonite or cost $6 million to ‘rebuild’ (my childhood TV viewing), then you will stumble along the way. However, a double dose of perspective and how you respond to that misstep will determine exactly who you are and how high you will achieve.