Friday, August 05, 2005

The Google Season: Secrets of Getting into Oxford

The Google Season: Secrets of Getting Into Oxford

Oddly, though this is the google which started my mini-season, I feel curiously out of my depth in sharing any of my so-called-knowledge on the subject. Because if there are lots of secrets about Oxford then I have to confess than no one divulged them to me. So really all I can say is, like the great Sunscreen speech, the following is based on nothing more than my own meandering experience.

The Big One: Be passionate about your subject
Maybe a bit obvious but it should be noted. This is not to say that you can't get into Oxford with a bit of Machievellian cunning and a pragmatic attitude [I'll return to this later] but it's not one that I favour. For all that the newspapers stir up interview bias at Oxford, first against State school pupils and then against Public school pupils the reality is that for every place on offer there are often six, seven, eight candidates who'll be waving their 'A' grade A Levels. It was explained to me before I applied that Oxford wasn't simply looking for those who are academically gifted, they don't simply want good future doctors or journalists, they want the person who'll find the cure for cancer, the person who's going to win the Booker. Now this obviously isn't true for every Oxford student, only a small percentage will go on to success at that level, but it's the passion and drive which propels people to these feats that they want. You'll be surprised just how far genuine enthusiasm and spark can get you.

Oxford will propel you across a gamut of emotions, pushing you from extreme to extreme. It is anything but easy and I'd be lying by omission if I didn't mention mention the academic pressure. But if you've got that interest, that love for what you'll be doing then you've got the resources to cope. Oxford certainly isn't for the half-hearted and those tutors, in those interview rooms, will suss if you're half hearted.

So you've got the passion, but now you're wondering what use that is. Passion is a bit of a waffly term when you're looking for a key to bashing down the doors to those dreaming spires. Which is where the pragmatic bit comes in. I've known people use the pragmatic bit on its own, walk away with an Oxford first and seem quite happy but let me state - I do not like those people. I'd go as far to say that I don't think Oxford should be using its resources to fund the emotionally sterile. But if you've got that passion then it would be stupid not to add a bit of pragmatism to your approach. After all you show me an Oxonian who hasn't got a competitive, pragmatic streak and I'll show you a liar.

1. Choose your college well.
As it currently stands Oxford has a weird collegiate system when it comes to applications (on an undergraduate level at least). There is talk of this being changed so that addmissions are dealt with on a University wide basis to try and eliminate the quirks (I knew four people reading english at St Anne's who'd originally applied to another college, been turned down and then reapplied to St Anne's the next year. I think it's this sort of oddity they're trying to eliminate). But for now you've to deal with the collegiate system so use it to your advantage. Look at the number of people who apply per place in each subject at each college (they tell you in the back of prospectus) and take note of the number of places for each subject at each college (it varies slightly year to year but never by too much). I read English, a particularly oversubscribed subject and applied to a college that has 12-15 places a year for it, compared to other colleges that had only 4-7. You might as well make the odds work for you.

There is a wider issue about colleges that is not quite as pragmatic. When you read about/see them you might fall in love with one regardless of its place/application ratio. If this happens and you decide that you have to go to Magdalen because Oscar Wilde strutted his stuff there, or Queens because Gatsby did, then by all means go for it. Ultimately your life in college will affect you more than any prospectus ever tells you. The newer colleges tend to have less money and prestige, but also tend to be more forward, less oppressive and generally more relaxed. Older colleges have wonderful buildings and nice bursaries but the novelty might wear off when you've tripped over your hundredth tourist or had to wear your gown to dinner for an entire term. The urban-myth has it that no one outside of Merton actually knows anyone from there because all Mertonians work so hard that they never leave, that they hand out Conservative Society application packs with the freshers material at Oriel and that at the people's republic of Wadham if you aren't a bisexual radical when you enter you will be by the end. For my own college's part it was labelled by one Oxford guide as "looking like a polytechnic with students who act like they're at one". Needless to say I loved St Anne's and - dodgy sixties buildings aside - really can't envisage having spent my three years anywhere else.

2. Don't be scared of interview
This is not to say that interviews aren't scary. Being 17 coming up to Oxford to face interview opposite the people who made the t-shirt on your chosen specialist subject is not to be sneezed at. But everyone's in the same boat. And if they're acting cocky and couldn't care less then they're probably even more scared than you. The Oxford tutors don't want to pull you to pieces and leave you a jabbering wreck in the corner (they've enough opportunity to do that once you're actually here) they just want to poke you a bit and see how you react.

I don't advocate the intense coaching that everyone knows goes on in certain schools. The tutors aren't stupid, they can see a preprepared answer a mile away. But equally you don't want to be entirely unprepared. I had two practice interviews [one at which was by one of my teacher's brothers who was a lecturer at Leeds University. That was much, much scarier than my actual Oxford experience]. We didn't talk about anything that subsequently came up in my interview but it got me used to what would be expected of me. The only thing that is truly scary, afterall, is the unknown.

Interviews at Oxford vary according to subject/college and some subjects will throw in a few exams just to keep you on your toes but there are a few things that are probably universal. You're going to have to talk - on equal footing - with those t-shirt owning tutors. They're going to test your viewpoints and see what you do. They may even throw the odd curve ball in there. My most memorable interview moment came when discussing whether ET was a representation of Christ and whether this was deliberate from Mr Spielberg or not. Never having considered that the white-robed alien who brought love and joy before going home was anything else than a cuddly and tissue needing film I actually had to stop my tutor and tell him that I needed to think about this as "I haven't thought about this before". His reply was quite simply "good, we're here to make you think about things differently". Tutors don't expect you to have all the answers, they just want you to explore them. There's also that difficult line to be walked between being able to hold a position in a debate and being able to see the other side. They want you to be able to tread this line, even if it eventually ties you in knots. Possibly the best - and conversely the least helpful to those looking for the bullet point secrets - piece of advice I ever receieved was given to me just before my finals: "it's better to be interesting than right".

In honour of being taken outside of your comfort zone you've got to be able to talk about things that aren't on your syllabus. Nothing great and don't panic because you haven't read everything ever written, but the odd work or two that you can slip in always helps. It shows an enthusiasm that extends beyond the classroom. I studied The Waste Land at A Level and submitted my coursework on it to Oxford, knowing this and the fact that I'd become a little bit of a TS Eliot fan I went away and read some more of his work, culminating with my first stab at The Four Quartets. I didn't understand everything but it gave me an area to delve into when I ended up talking about Eliot in the second of my interviews.

There's also a lot of talk of value added extras when it comes to applications. Aside from academia Oxford really is thriving, in particular with sport, student journalism and drama. If you've got some great hobby - anything from watching films through being a grade eight pianist to collecting beer mats - be willing to talk about it and wax lyrical on the skills it has allowed you to demonstrate. They're not expecting Renaissance Wo-man but maybe her/his 21st century equivalent isn't exactly out of place. And it's another opportunity to display that passion and enthusiasm they're looking for.

3. Oxford isn't the be all and end all (and Cambridge definitely isn't)
I know this is easy for me to say, as someone who did get in, but it isn't the only place you can have a fantastic time and maybe a little piece of that attitude is good for you. I didn't realise just how much I wanted to go until I missed my offer by one grade courtesy of one of those great double bs: bloody biology. I was pretty sniffy for the two hours whilst I waited for my fate to be decreed it has to be said. But had things turned out differently and I'd ended up in Newcastle not struggling with Old English I think I'd have been happy. Probably with the added bonus of a more manageable ego if I'm honest. Because Oxford has to be kept in proportion. And maybe that's the biggest secret of all.

1 comment:

Aries327 said...

Thanks Corinne. Although, I have to tell you: I'm American and don't understand the A Level stuff. I've been reading three blogs (including yours, now) written by British people. Only one has talked about A levels and I still don't understand it. I suppose I should look it up on the web.

But here's the other stuff I haven't been able to figure out: how to apply for a PhD program at Oxford and/or Cambridge. I've done my undergraduate work in English literature and some of my graduate work in American Studies in a program that encompassed literature, writing and folkore (mainly folklore). So now I have a Master of arts and want to get a doctor of philosophy. I'm not sure about the application process. Do they require stellar grades? Because I didn't get them (I got above average grades, just not straight A's). But I'm a hard worker and a high achiever. Like you say, I'm madly passionate about the subjects I love and work hard to not only know the information, but to retain it and apply it to my life (and unfortunately for them, to those around me).

I'd like to go to Oxford or Cambridge. If not to one of those schools, perhaps to another school in GB. I'm a bit of an anglophile and would love to spend two or three years of my life in England. I'm just confused about all the different terminology and methods of applying to universities there. I have an acquaintance who studied at Leeds or Leicester or something. I suppose I should ask her.

Anyway, you're great. Thanks for taking the time to do this lengthy post.