Wednesday 15 October 2003, A level Year 2, Surrey, England

15th October every year was a big day for English schools. It was the deadline for those who wanted to apply for Oxford and Cambridge, the two most sought-after universities in England. Today, along with a few others, I submitted my carefully put-together application. Phew, a big relief for getting over another obstacle along the way.

Making such applications allowed me to discover many positive aspects about myself for the first time. It was a necessity. Otherwise, how would one be able to fill two pages of information about oneself in the application form? I imagined leaving them blank would not look very good.

In addition, it also solved some of the mysteries I had had. It was said that some elite English schools went over their syllabus extremely quickly so that their students could take A level exams half a year early. Then those who didn’t get close to full mark would also be able to retake them during the normal summer time. While this was common practice in China—most high schools went over the syllabus in two years and dedicated the final year to revision, I struggled to see why it was necessary here in England. Anything above 80% would be A, the highest grade. So why bother spending so much effort getting full mark? UK was not like China where every single mark mattered. Or was it?

It turned out Oxbridge had a supplementary form in which it asked for the exam marks behind the letter grade. When I saw that, those elite schools’ practice made so much sense now. When it came to tackling exams, learning in advance and revising intensively always worked, whether in China or England. As Dennis and I sat down and fill this form, he was the happier one out of the two of us. By far. England still had some way to go before it achieved true equality.

Oxbridge application also brought new questions. It turned out one didn’t apply for the two universities but the individual colleges within them instead. Therefore, the question was not whether to try Hogwarts, but to try which one out of Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin. The fact that there were sixty-nine colleges in Oxbridge in total rather than four, made it slightly more complex. Not to mention that there was no Sorting Hat neither.

The two universities provided students with prospectus saying all colleges were equal and students from all colleges would receive the same rigorous education. While I was certainly very happy to get into any college—I had not heard of any of them anyway—it was just not very helpful for me to decide which one to apply.

Luckily, even if the colleges were the same in the education provided, they were at least different in their entry requirements. All colleges from Oxford asked for extra economics essays submission for its Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) program. Although I had figured out what “to evaluate” meant by now, writing essays was certainly not my strength. As creative as I tried to be, I didn’t’ dare to even mention it in my application. So that was an easy no. For Cambridge’s Economics program, there were a lot more varieties: some colleges required applicants to sit the infamous Thinking Skill Assessment (TSA), while others require answering essays questions on the day of the interview. There was also one college that only required an interview with no written work of any kind. With no colleges kind enough to allocate the spaces on a pure lottery basis, I figured that would be my best shot. So I put that college down in my application: Trinity College, University of Cambridge.

PS: The naïve believe anything, indeed. Rarely anyone believed me when I said that was how I picked Trinity, the richest (fact) and best (personal opinion) college amongst Oxbridge. For that I was forever grateful for going to a school that suited me perfectly. Shall I be admitted to one of those elite schools, I probably would not be as ignorant. But neither would I ever have the courage to try Trinity. There must be a ton of students with full marks who want to go to Trinity. That alone would discourage me as I barely got an A in economics. At Hurtwood, I was the only one who applied for Cambridge Economics that year and therefore had the the freedom to pick any college I wanted. Ignorance can be a gift. And I seem to have a lot of it. So many thanks to the schools that rejected me and Hurtwood for having me. It could hardly work out any better.