23/01/2012 07:33 GMT | Updated 21/03/2012 05:12 GMT

A Response to Elly Nowell's Oxford Rejection Letter

Former CUSU President Rahul Mansigani responds to the 'rejection letter' addressed to Oxford University in which Elly Nowell wrote that the institution made her feel like 'the only atheist in a gigantic monastery'.

I am sure that every Cambridge and Oxford Admissions Tutor sometimes wishes they could accept more students than they have places for. There are many good candidates who apply to both universities, and because of the level of competition, some are unfortunately rejected.

Elly Nowell was apparently one of these candidates: she is clearly eloquent, intelligent, and has a sense of humour. But she has not helped Access. Her email, 'rejecting' Oxford, has led to articles and interviews across the media, parodies an Oxford admissions letter, and informs Magdalene College that 'it does not meet the standards' that she requires. She criticises the college's policy of holding its interviews in 'grand formal settings', and realises that they may be disappointed with her decision.

Most Cambridge students certainly would have joined Ms Nowell in 'laughing at how seriously everything was being taken': at my college we parodied college graces with reading random items from the Pizza Express menu, whilst 'formal hall' was actually just a great way to have a cheap dinner with friends. We were passionate, of course, whether about our degrees or our politics, but we did know how to make fun of ourselves and of our university. It is wrong to suggest, though, that we 'blindly and illogically do whatever we are told': the very nature of our education is to question, criticise and debate.

As President of Cambridge University Students' Union (CUSU), I spent most of last year making Admissions Tutors' lives difficult: particularly over the future of Cambridge's admissions in face of the catastrophic trebling of fees by the Coalition government. CUSU is the only students' union in the country with a dedicated full-time Access Officer, who is assisted by hundreds of passionate student volunteers (from both state and private schools) and an Admissions Office staff that dedicate their careers to making Cambridge's admissions as fair, transparent and accessible as possible. These people are all trying to make sure that candidates from state schools apply in the first place and have a fair and equal chance of success.

Oxford pointed out in a statement that of the seven UK students who received offers for law at Magdalene, competing with Ms Nowell, only one was from an independent school. Cambridge and Oxford are desperately keen to increase their state school intake, through shadowing schemes to make the dreaming spires less intimidating, through touring conferences and school visits to explain the admissions process, and through the Special Access Scheme to compensate for personal or academic disadvantage. There are popular schemes to specifically encourage ethnic minority applications, with the enthusiastic support of the universities. Cambridge and Oxford could do more, and will - if their students have anything to say about it. They need to dedicate more funding to its access schemes, they need to target state school students earlier, and they need to aim as high as possible.

The interview is an important tool in this--interviewers all realise that the interview is a nerve-wracking experience, but vitally, it gives them a chance to see more than a paper application. Many schools apparently effectively write their students' application forms for them - the interview is the opportunity for a student to demonstrate, away from their parents and teachers (and irrespective of their background), that they are intelligent and original, and that they are enthusiastic about their subject. The tales of rugby balls being thrown at prospective applicants are nothing but myths.

Magdalene is a beautiful, historic College--but of course it's not for everyone. My own College, Robinson, was alternately called the 'red brick palace' or the 'car park' and featured en suite bathrooms rather than Gothic trimmings. Many of my friends applied there specifically because this made them feel more at home--some of these friends were state-educated (like me), some weren't.

So I disagree with Ms Nowell on her means but not her end of making Cambridge and Oxford more accessible--and UCL, an excellent, elite university, may have gained a very bright student. For everyone else looking at university choices for next year: please think of Cambridge or Oxford. It could be the best choice you ever make.

If you are a member of the Cambridge Union, and interested in contributing to this blog, please e-mail Sophie Odenthal on