Letter 3 – 14.09.18 THAT Oxford Story

Friday 14th September 2018

“Every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being re-directed to something better” – Dr Steve Maraboli

Okay so if you know me personally, no, this isn’t THAT Oxford story – I’m not sharing that with the world… or not yet. This is my whole Oxford story- from application to… well… rejection.

I mentioned in my last post that my Year 10 English teacher had once said to my mum that ‘Sophie should study English lit at Oxford‘. And it’s true, that was probably one of the reasons why I’m doing an English degree now. I was never set on going to university- instead, I would’ve preferred moving to London and beginning a career in the performing arts (if only it was that simple). However, I went to a very academically demanding grammar school where I achieved extremely good GCSE results, and so not going to university seemed like a waste. And frankly, when I got to sixth form I wanted to go to university- adults always reminisced about their university days, and the lifestyle seemed appealing.

And so it was decided; I was going to university, but where?

My English teacher’s comment, combined with my GCSE results, meant that I was placed on the expected Oxbridge applicants list at my school, and so I went to open days and lectures at both Oxford and Cambridge to help me decide which one to apply for. What’s funny is that I always said that I preferred Cambridge, however in the end, Oxford felt more familiar (probably because my brother went there and it was much closer so I had been many times). And so at the last minute, I sent off my personal statement to Oxford.

The process of applying to Oxbridge is soooo much longer than for other universities. For most, you send off your predicted grades along with your personal statement and then await their offer. For Oxford (English at least), there were many more stages to the process…

  1. Send off your personal statement and predicted grades (same as everywhere)
  2. THEN send off a sample of some of your recent written work
  3. THEN sit the ELAT entrance exam
  4. THEN (if you get this far) attend your dreaded Oxford Interviews…

Interviews at Oxford include a full on field trip. When you choose to apply here you either submit an open application to any college, or you select one college from the 30-odd options which will be like your ‘home’ for your 3/4 years. I had chosen St John’s (which on reflection was one of three colleges my brother told me NOT to apply to because they were notoriously hard to get into), oh well. I had attended a selective English study day there and the fact it was a big college with lots of English tutors appealed to me, and so I applied.

Me in St John's

This meant that at the start of December I took the train from my hometown up to Oxford, walked to St John’s with my brother and began my interview experience. You are given a room inside college, which gives you a sense of what you could be living in during your first year. That sense for me unfortunately was a little underwhelming. The college boasted some impressive buildings with some lovely rooms, however my top-floor room in Tommy White building 1 was narrower than the winding corridor leading to it. Still, it didn’t put me off the college entirely, and I waved goodbye to my brother and headed to the JCR (junior common room) to meet some of the other interview candidates. There I met Leo and Caroline, and we hung out together for most of that day.

I was in Oxford for 3 and a 1/2 days, and seeing as my interviews only took place on one of those days and were only 2 hours long in total, that left looooads of time for making friends. One of the definite bonuses of the stay in college was the food. Lucky for me (who isn’t a big meat eater), St John’s had lots of options and always something with chicken (which was the only meat I liked!). We were given three big complimentary meals a day, which we ate in the dining hall which resembles the Great Hall in Harry Potter (no surprise seeing as that was actually filmed in Oxford).

Another great thing about the interview experience (particularly at St John’s) was meeting international applicants. I met people from France, Vienna, Ecuador and Berlin to name a few, and as someone who has never lived anywhere except South-East England, it was amazing hearing people’s stories who had already lived and travelled around half the world.

In fact, here’s a quick list of my top 5 things to do when in Oxford:

  1. Go to the Covered Market- this is number one for sure because the Covered Market is home to the infamous Ben’s Cookies. Now if you’ve never had a Ben’s Cookie then OMGSKFJFIE BUY ONE! As a massive cookies fan, there is never a time when I visit Oxford and don’t get a melt-in-the-middle chocolate chip cookie from this heavenly shop. Trust me, it’s a must.
  2. Visit Blackwell’s- Blackwell’s is Oxford’s best bookshop, and actually kinda famous. Although the chain now has 45 stores, Oxford’s was the first. The main room, named ‘The Norrington Room’ has more than 160,000 books on over 3 miles worth of shelving- pretty cool (particularly to an English student).
  3. Try and look inside some colleges- if you’re 17/18, a great trick to pull is to say that you are a ‘prospective’ student, and generally they will let you look around most of the college for free. Many parts of Oxford colleges are open to the public at certain times of day, and it’s pretty cool to have a little look around them and spot some students in action.
  4. Go to the Bodleian library/ Radcliffe Camera- even if you don’t go inside either of them, the area surrounding them is extremely picturesque as you have the walls of Jesus college around you, and besides, the Radcliffe camera appears on half of the tourist postcards from Oxford, so you may as well see it in person.
  5. Go shopping- Oxford has lots of cute high street shops as well as the new shopping centre Westgate which has looooads of popular brand shops. And if you happen to be there at Christmas, the Christmas market on Broad Street makes for some cute photo opportunities.
christmas market

However, the experience wasn’t all fun conversation and matches of table tennis. Then it came to the interviews themselves.

In the UK, you always hear Oxford and Cambridge interview horror stories, and coming from someone who’s experienced it, yes it’s bad, but it’s also not THAT bad.

The questions they asked were all relevant to English and the things I had said on my personal statement. They were just very very very hard (or at least I felt they were). The way it goes for an English interview at St John’s (as it is slightly different for each college), was that half a hour before my scheduled interview I was given a poem to sit in silence and read through. I was allowed to make annotations, and then was escorted to my interview. The first part of each of my two interviews consisted of two tutors asking me questions about aspects of the poems.

I was prepared to list a whole load of linguistic devices which I had identified- but that is NOT what they want to hear. During your interviews, the interviewers are generally much more interested in hearing about ideas, critical thinking and deep analysis, and whether you can show that you’ve understood possible different meanings of the text. So you really can’t fake your knowledge, they can tell whether someone is truly passionate about their subject or whether they can just make it seem that way on paper.

So yeah, it didn’t go that well. The high point for me was definitely when I was asked ‘tell me about the moral implications of Gloucester’s fall in Act blah blah of King Lear’, to which I replied, ‘I’m sorry but I’m actually studying Hamlet’ and was met back with ‘but SURELY you’ve read King Lear’.

Yeah, in that moment I knew I wasn’t cut out for Oxford.

Still, the beauty of the experience was that for four days I could pretend I was an Oxford student, walking around the immensely beautiful buildings whilst making some true friends and without having the stress of ACTUALLY being an Oxford student.

Going back home afterwards, I knew that it could be a yes or a no and honestly, I wasn’t really that bothered. So when I opened my email in January to be met with rejection, yes I cried a little bit, but I knew that it was actually the right thing.

Oxford isn’t for everyone.

When talking to my brother about whether he thought it was seriously the place for me (whilst he was embarking on his third year as a PhysPhil student there), he said you have to have a real love and dedication for your subject to the point where you can handle constantly feeling that your work isn’t good enough. And I knew that, as much as I love English, I couldn’t deal with the pressure and constant demand to ‘be better’ that Oxford required. Choosing your university is such an important decision, and I firmly believe that every thing happens for a reason, so yes I was rejected, but that doesn’t mean I’m not good enough to do an English degree- just maybe not at Oxford.

And so I firmed Exeter. And I hope the next few weeks will confirm that it really is the place for me 🙂

P.S. If you have ever applied for anything and been rejected, don’t let it affect the way you see yourself and how much you’re worth. Rejection happens all the time, and most of the time, it will lead you to something better, so don’t give up xx

Sophie Xx

Ben's cookies my photos