Corpus Christi Essay Competition Classics And Muscle
The girl who rejected Oxford may be full of herself- but she's bright as a button. And that's why what she's done is so stupid
By Tom Utley for the Daily Mail
Updated: 14:08 GMT, 20 January 2012
To judge by most of yesterday’s comments on Mail Online, I’m going to make myself very unpopular with readers when I say I like the sound of Elly Nowell. Indeed, I’ll go further and admit that if I were in charge of admissions at Magdalen College, Oxford, I’d plead with her to change her mind.
Elly, 19, is a state school student from Brockenhurst sixth-form college in Hampshire who has sent a rejection letter to Magdalen, informing the dons that Oxford does ‘not quite meet the standard of the universities I will be considering.’
All right, I grant her critics that she comes across as cheeky, chippy and a bit full of herself. But like many parents, I’ve become so used to those vices in 19-year-olds over the years that I’ve learned not to let them interfere too much with my affections.
Bright button: A-level student Elly Nowell is predicted to get A*s in history, law and English literature
And as far as my own reaction is concerned, Elly’s letter succeeds in its clear, primary purpose, which is to raise a smile.
In it, she accurately mimics the tone of rejection letters more usually sent by universities to candidates they turn away (and I’ve seen a fair few of them in my time): ‘I have now considered your establishment as a place to read Law (Jurisprudence). I very much regret to inform you that I will be withdrawing my application. I realise you may be disappointed by this decision, but you were in competition with many fantastic universities…’ etc etc.
It was a nice touch, too, to list her suggestions as to how Oxford might improve its chances of winning her favour, under the heading: ‘Guidelines for Re-application’. I’ll come to those in a moment.
Which of us hasn’t, at some time or other, felt the urge to cock a snook at authority and prick the vanity of those we suspect of believing they’re above us?
I’ve lost count of the number of resignation letters I’ve composed since I embarked on the world of work nearly 40 years ago.
Magnificent, pompous screeds they were, cataloguing everything I disliked about whichever job I happened to have at the time. On a few occasions, I’ve even gone as far as committing them to paper — although, mercifully for my family’s finances, I never quite got round to posting them.
So, good on Elly, I reckon, at least for having the guts to post her letter to Magdalen, giving the dons a piece of her mind.
True, it’s possible that they would have rejected her anyway, if she’d waited for their decision and her A-level results before giving them the brush-off.
But on the evidence of her feistiness, her vivid turn of phrase (in Oxford for her interview, she says, ‘I felt like the only atheist in a gigantic monastery’) and her predicted A* grades in history, law and English literature, I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. Clearly, she’s a clever girl. But let’s face it, she’s also a complete little fool.
I base this harsh judgement on the fact that three of her four objections to Oxford, listed under ‘Guidelines for Re-application’, seem to me to be either wrong-headed or just plain wrong, springing from a prejudice against the two ancient English universities all too widespread among state school pupils (I’m allowing her fourth objection — that it would have been nice if she’d been offered a glass of water at her interview).
It is a great pity that many of the brightest and best from the state sector shun Oxbridge because they think it's only for nerds and toffs
Indeed, this prejudice is shared by my two youngest, state-educated sons, who refused to try for Oxbridge on the grounds only ‘toffs and nerds’ go there — ‘People like you, Dad.’ (I hasten to protest that I fall into neither category, although I did go to Westminster School and Corpus Christi, Cambridge).
Elly’s first objection is one I’ve heard so often that I feel she must be parroting something she’s read or heard, without really thinking about it.
‘Whilst you may believe your decision to hold interviews in grand formal settings is inspiring,’ she tells the dons, ‘it allows public school applicants to flourish in the environment they are accustomed to and intimidates state school applicants.’
Rejected: Elly Nowell told Magdalen College that there were 'significant flaws' in its education system
But is this really true? Certainly, I was accustomed to grand buildings at my public school (Westminster Abbey was the school chapel). But that didn’t stop me from quaking in terror when I went up for my interview at Corpus four decades ago.
At one point in my grilling, I blush to remember, I heard myself uttering the anguished word ‘pleeeease’ — half meaning ‘please, God, grant me something intelligent to say’ and half ‘please, God, let this interview end’.
But my jitters had nothing to do with the splendour of the room, which wasn’t very grand, as it happens. I put them down to the fact that university interviews are nerve-racking in their very nature.
Is Elly quite sure that the grand setting of Magdalen puts state-school pupils at a disadvantage? Or is she just seizing on a well-worn excuse to explain feelings that are common to all but the most self-confident, wherever they were at school?
Her next objection is this: ‘Whilst you may believe your traditions and rituals are impressive, they reflect badly on your university.
As an institution that preaches academic excellence, teaching your students to blindly and illogically do whatever they are told reveals significant flaws in your education system.’
Frankly, the idea that students at Oxford are taught to do whatever they are told, blindly and illogically, is pure tosh.
In fact, they’re taught to question absolutely everything, which is rather the point of a university. And if only young Elly had questioned her prejudice against the place, she might have discovered this.
Letter in full: The rejection letter that Elly Nowell, 19, sent to Oxford University via email
But it’s her third objection that annoys me most: ‘During my time at Magdalen College the obvious gap between minorities and white middle-class students was embarrassing. Whilst I realise you are trying to address these problems within your university, the gap between elitism and discrimination is a narrow one and one that you still do not appear to have adequately addressed.’
This charge is so unfair, and so often repeated since Gordon Brown made that fuss over Laura Spence’s rejection by Magdalen 12 years ago, that I’m growing weary of refuting it.
Mind you, the college’s latest admissions figures go some way towards doing the job for me. For of the seven UK students who received offers for law and joint school courses at Magdalen, only one was from an independent school.
Of course, Elly is right to suggest that a disproportionate number of students from private schools get into Oxbridge. At Cambridge, they make up about 40 per cent of the student body, while only 13 per cent of sixth-formers go to fee-paying schools.
But this is because the private sector, with all its unfair advantages, does a better job of preparing pupils for universities — which is why many parents who want the best for their children make huge sacrifices to pay the school fees.
Meanwhile, all the discrimination by Oxbridge admissions tutors works the opposite way from that alleged by Elly.
Even in my day, Oxford and Cambridge made allowances for candidates from bad schools, admitting them with lower grades than those who went to the best. This was for the good reason that pupils who do well against the odds in bog-standard comprehensives tend to shine at university.
Foreign Secretary William Hague is one of the many successful alumni of Magdalen College
But after decades of bullying by social-engineering politicians, discrimination against the private sector has become an obsession — and even the best universities are admitting poorer quality students, for no better reason than that they tick the right socio-economic or ethnic minority boxes.
Isn’t this a step on the way to national suicide? In the cut-throat world of global competition, it won’t help us to argue that our goods and services are offered by engineers, physicists, doctors and lawyers who came from poor families. We need the best — whatever their backgrounds may be.
So here’s a final thought for Elly to chew over, after throwing away her chance of a lifetime.
Yes, it’s a great pity that many of the brightest and best from the state sector shun Oxbridge because they think it’s only for nerds and toffs. But in publicising her witty rejection of Magdalen, isn’t she making the problem worse?
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A non-eventful weekend checking old emails triggered the motivation Lucinda Hobden needed to achieve victory in Cambridge University’s Corpus Christi Essay Competition.
By eloquently answering the question ‘Does Literary Criticism Do Us Any Good?’ Year 12 student Lucinda won the Christopher Marlowe prize in English and delighted her English Literature tutor, Mrs Hubbard, who had originally suggested she enter the competition.
She explained in her essay how criticism can enrich a person’s understanding of literature and that ‘the world of literature would ultimately be left impoverished if the parasitic critic was banished.’
Lucinda’s essay showcases her excellent research and communication skills and her drive to outline her views clearly and concisely. She explains “I entered the competition simply because I was interested in the question. I really enjoyed the research and it gave me the opportunity and incentive to consider deeper questions around English literature, which may have otherwise been brushed over”.
Lucinda is looking forward to attending the prize winner’s lunch along with other writers, graduates, dons and lecturers from the college, where she will receive her award of £300. She is keen to apply for a place at Cambridge and immerse herself in the whole university experience.
'Does Literary Criticism Do Us Any Good?' by Lucinda Hobden