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Oxford University rejected me. Then I took a gap year, reapplied and got in

I applied to Oxford University in 2019, my final year of junior college, and was rejected. In 2020, I reapplied — and got in! What made the difference this time? I took a gap year to reflect and reassess my options, and that has made all the difference.

The author with her brother and grandmother during a family holiday to Shanghai, China.

The author with her brother and grandmother during a family holiday to Shanghai, China.

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I applied to Oxford University in 2019, my final year of junior college, and was rejected. In 2020, I reapplied — and got in! 

What made the difference this time? I took a gap year to reflect and reassess my options.

In secondary school, I was always hopping from one interest to the next, never really settling on one specific subject that appealed to me. 

I was interested in a vast array of disciplines — from history, politics and economics, all the way to philosophy and art — always feeling both exasperated and in awe of just how much there was to know. 

However, when junior college (JC) was nearing, I felt the need to whip myself into shape. 

I had a friend who was dead set on being a lawyer, another who wanted to code for Big Tech, and yet another who decided on being a doctor. 

There were many fine paths laid before me, and I felt like I could choose only one. My friends had managed to choose, so why couldn’t I?

I remember feeling like Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar — sitting under a fig tree, “starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose… as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet”. 

And so, I decided I had to hunker down and specialise. 

In upper secondary and JC, I was very involved with the Model United Nations circuit. Within this crowd, the philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) degree was all the rage. 

PPE at Oxford University in particular is known for being very employable and prestigious, mostly from its reputation of historically producing many British prime ministers and heads of state. 

The degree appealed to me as a wide-ranging course that could capture at least three big fat “figs” in one go. 

So I said to myself, yes, I am going to do PPE at Oxford University, and for the next three years I charged towards that goal with intense tunnel vision. 

In the end I was rejected by Oxford, while receiving offers from two reputed universities in the United Kingdom. 

In retrospect, the rejection made total sense, given that my decision to apply for PPE was made under pressure. 

I knew I had to take a gap year, to reassess and reapply.

During this time, I raised my head to look up at the fig tree for the first time in three years.

I saw that all the figs were still there, plump and untouched. I realised how silly I’d been.

But I was only 15 when I chose to close myself off. 

The artificially imposed deadline of university applications made it seem like all the doors were closing on me; that all the figs had fallen when in reality they were all still right there. 

With this newfound clarity and time, I gave myself the freedom to do anything I wanted during my gap year, including courses and readings in artificial intelligence, machine learning, start-ups, investing, marketing, creative writing and filmmaking. 

After months of learning and introspection, I decided that studying history and politics at Oxford was the ideal option for me. 

While history and politics fascinated me to no end, and reading it gave me lots of personal satisfaction, I also saw the two disciplines as a sturdy framework for learning more about other subjects that interested me. 

For instance, knowledge of historical trends and a rock-solid understanding of current affairs would be an asset in the art of investing. 

History also offers a wealth of inspiration for creative writing and filmmaking — the idea that reality is often stranger than fiction. 

Industry-specific knowledge such as the history of public relations and propaganda is also key to understanding what marketing really is. 

Not to mention the soft skills attached to studying this major — analytical rigour, problem-solving skills and interdisciplinary thinking, to name a few. 

I now see history and politics as a firm foundation for future explorations. 

Oxford is also the ideal place for me to figure out how these interests would play a part in my future career. 

Apart from clubs and societies, students also have access to the Oxford Foundry, an entrepreneurship centre set up in 2017 by the Saïd Business School and Apple’s Tim Cook. 

I see the foundry as a great place to connect with people interested in learning about tech, and interested in using multidisciplinary solutions to solve problems in sectors like education. 

Being at Oxford also means being in an environment with a longer tradition of creative writing and filmmaking, with more opportunities for developing myself in these areas. 

As someone deeply interested in Chinese history and China’s booming entrepreneurship scene, I was also drawn to Oxford’s postgraduate opportunities — particularly their master’s scholarship programme carried out in partnership with China’s Ministry of Education. 

Armed with a clear sense of purpose, I was bent on putting together the best application I possibly could. 

Even though I’d attained 44/45 for my International Baccalaureate examinations, I knew that for Oxford, the vast majority of applicants would be similarly qualified. 

I had to distinguish myself through other aspects of the application — the personal statement, the history assessment test, as well as their notoriously challenging interviews. 

To make sure I was maximising my time and abilities, I sought mentorship from an Oxford history and politics graduate with whom I connected via university admissions consultancy Crimson Education. 

The help included rigorous academic guidance, which is crucial as Oxford professors select applicants based on their critical and creative thinking abilities. 

I was overflowing with motivation and endless curiosities. My mentor helped me direct that energy in a productive way, towards refining my sensitivity and eye for history and politics. 

I knew that I had done all I could and that I was applying for the right reasons this time. After many gruelling months, I finally received an acceptance from Oxford in January 2021. 

Taking a gap year to recalibrate my worldview and mindset towards learning was crucial for me. 

I previously saw getting into the PPE major at Oxford as a solution to my anxiety around having too many interests and too little time. 

I was looking for a semblance of security as to the direction I was taking in life, and I thought pursuing this degree could give me that. 

The reality is that a straight path to gaining knowledge does not exist. My acceptance to Oxford, although significant, is only a single step forward in the endless winding path I’ve always been on. 

In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood hints that the perceived security and satisfaction of choosing one fig from the fig tree is only an illusion — the last thing she wanted “was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from”. 

There is lots of joy to be found in serendipity, and I look forward to finding out where my time at Oxford will take me. 



Zhen Yuan, a 19-year-old Singaporean, will be starting her first year as a history and politics major at Oxford University in October 2021.

Related topics

university education Oxford University history Politics

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