Education Quandary

'My daughter is set on going to Oxford, but she may not get in. Should we encourage her or not?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

This is a girl who, you say, is bright but not exceptional, fiercely competitive, and has some eating problems. You and her teachers seem clear about the realities of her situation and, to be honest, it is an impossible one. Of course you want to support her ambitions, but at the same time you do not want to exacerbate any emotional fragility that could be developing in her.

I would suggest letting her follow her ambitions – she's going to do it anyway – while at the same time keeping her firmly focused on the wider picture. Make sure that she understands just how the sheer numbers of brilliant applicants aiming for Oxford inevitably turn the admissions process into a lottery – there is, after all, no failure in not winning a lottery.

Make her see, too, that while A grades are important, Oxford will also be looking for a lively, well-read and questioning mind, so she will need to do much more than slave away at her homework to prepare for her application. And buy her Oxbridge Entrance: The Real Rules by Elfi Pallis to help her start to think about her interview.

Even more important, make sure she always keeps other universities clearly in her mind by encouraging her to get their brochures and go to their open days. If it's cloistered tradition she is attracted to, get her to visit somewhere like Durham. If it's exciting history, she could look at somewhere like Nottingham. Remind her, too, that most successful and ambitious people never set foot anywhere near either Oxford or Cambridge.

Readers' advice

I think your daughter should have a go, but she needs to do four things:

First, analyse why she has set her heart on going to Oxford to read history. Is it a vision of herself among the dreaming spires or a real passion for history that's motivating her? Second, appreciate that getting in is just the beginning, and that she will have to work under pressure alongside many other very able people. Can she cope with that away from home? Third, be an independent learner, able to demonstrate at interview that her knowledge and interests go well beyond the confines of her A-level syllabus.

And four, accept that aiming high means that sometimes you will not win and will need to learn to cope with failure: this is one of life's greatest lessons.

Vicky Tuck, Principal, Cheltenham Ladies' College



Being competitive can be good, but can also be very hurtful. The best antidote is unconditional generosity, so I suggest that you prepare a special treat for your daughter for when results are known. If she is successful then the treat is a celebration, and if she misses out, it's a consolation prize.

Robin Minney, Durham

Your daughter sounds very fragile and should be strongly steered away from the rat race of Oxbridge applications. Suppose she gets in? Her problems will get worse. A girl who is a perfectionist, and already has an eating disorder, will not thrive in a hothouse atmosphere. She badly needs less stress and pressure.

Amy Flowerton, Wiltshire

Next week's quandary

Dear Hilary,

I cannot believe that when our children in the UK are still doing so poorly in English and maths, the Government is bringing in something as daft as "happiness lessons". I have one child who's just started at primary school and one at nursery school. This is really important for their future. How can people be so stupid?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 17 September, to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax to 020-7005 2143; or email to h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary 5th Edition

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