CHOOSING UNIVERSITIES
Rachel Cusk

Author. Winner of the Whitbread first novel award

English, New College Oxford

'My older sister was quite masculine in her way of approaching academic life as a path to other things and I think that's how it filtered down to me. When she got into Cambridge, suddenly Oxbridge was very much in the air and what we were all expected to do. It probably wouldn't have entered my parents' heads until then. My younger brother reacted against us being so studious but I followed the academic path quite obediently. It didn't really matter to me where I went but I loved my time at Oxford.

"I'd been a weekly boarder and hated living in an institution. It isn't the key to maturity, you tend to be sheltered, I was quite backward socially and hadn't had a year off so I was more interested in passing my social exams first. The social side of university is important - a part of doing well in the world is learning how to get on with people, particularly if you've been at a single sex school and not been out much which I certainly hadn't. It helps you progress from an awkward schoolgirl to an adult and it can nourish your ambition too. I've definitely made my best and most enduring friendships so far at university.

"I had incredibly bad work habits which I still really regret. I was very lazy and jacked any foundation in general knowledge. I couldn't stand getting in trouble so I'd get things in on time but stayed up all night doing them at the last minute, getting by doing the bare minimum. I'm far more conscientious now and would give anything to be living in a beautiful place with nothing better to do than read books. I don't think tutors are very good at whetting your appetite for things. There should be some kind of strategy for impressing on people like me who just get away with what they can that it really is valuable. I'm sure mature students work much harder.

"I always felt that I lacked inspiration in the way I worked. I was merely covering ground. Now I have found a very fulfilling way of doing things. Most writers say doing an English degree is the worst thing you can do and I agree. I've only recently learnt to read properly, having an unfettered communication set up with the person writing the book. At university you feel obliged to read 10 books about the book. When it becomes an academic exercise there's some kind of interference, the writer can't play with you in the right way. It makes you anxious and self-conscious. I wish I had done history, philosophy or economics, something that requires instruction before you can approach it.

"Part of what affected my work was going through that rite of passage romantically having my first serious relationship, although he was in Scotland most of the time. I was absolutely broken-hearted when he chucked me in the final year and could only think about surviving emotionally when I left. I had no ambitions to be a writer although I wrote poetry at university and tried setting up a poetry magazine like everyone else. But I knew I wanted to be happy and have a good life and that's something that Oxford gives you, wanting that golden feeling that you get when you are there to carry on."

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