Application

 Oxford

 St Catherine’s

 Computer Science

 1999

 rejected

Applicant

 Scottish Highers/Advanced Highers

 pre-qualification

 N/A

 N/A

 Comprehensive School

 yes

Scottish Highers/Advanced Highers

( predicted B; gained A)

( predicted A; gained A)

( predicted A; gained A)

( predicted A; gained A)

( predicted A; gained A)

Also CSYS: Maths, Pure Maths, Modern Studies, Computing

Other universities

N/A

Decisions about the application

Basically, I thought that if I didn’t then I’d live to regret it, and have to live with thoughts of ‘What if?’.

If you want to do CompSci at Cambridge, you have to combine it with 50% Natural science or 75% Maths. As I hate sciences other than Maths and Computing, and I’m not good enough at Maths to do a Cambridge Maths degree, I chose Oxford. Also, I disliked the entire Tripos system, and didn’t like the entire Cambridge atmosphere – even although I openly admit my impressions of Cambridge are based wholly on prejudice, never having set foot in the city. Finally, Oxford appealed to me since it has loads of successful and powerful people amongst her alumni.

Applying to Oxford was a very last minute decision for me. I hadn’t really thought about it until September – when I started using the newsgroup alt.uk.a-levels. The application had to be submitted by the end of the month, so no time to visit open days or whatever, besides my parents were totally against the idea of applying there. I just skimmed through the online versions of the prospectus and alternative prospectus and chose somewhere that appealed to me, then asked for feedback on a.u.a. The summary of St Catz in the Alternative prospectus finalised my decision for me:
‘Funky buildings and no crap traditions’.
Also, the relatively low apps/place ratio for the Maths group of subjects at the college attracted me, until I discovered when I got to interview that applicants were being interviewed for one place in CompSci.

Preparation

no

None whatsoever. I had very little idea how much was normal before I spoke to people at interviews.

Interview

no

no

yes

There was a two and a half hour Maths exam not so long after you arrive, and shock horror, calculators are banned! The Colleges Admissions Office publishes specimen papers so you have an idea of what to expect, but these are nothing like what you get. Also, if you aren’t doing A-level (like me), then you will have to research the A-level syallabus very carefully. I got questions on statistics and probability, and as any fellow Scots will know we do very little of either. Furthermore, read ahead in your Maths books. There was loads on Calculus topics we had only done a couple of weeks beforehand (Intergration by parts, Logarithmic Differentitation). God knows what I would have done if we weren’t doing our CSYS Maths course at quick speed (we do it in half a year instead of an entire year). Oh yes, and unlike me, remember this is an exam and despite what Oxford say, you have to revise. Though I do think they add a “distance travelled” score onto your result, so that people who haven’t done further maths or whatever are not at a disadvantage.

Where do I start? Arriving is probably a good place. I got there on Sunday at 11, and applicants arrived up until 12. After lunch there was the Maths exam at 2-4:30 and the evening to yourself. The next day, I had my first interview (and only CompSci interview) scheduled – at 20:25. I had to skip out of a welcome talk by the college master to reach the college library by that time, where I was to wait outside to be ‘collected’ by the tutor. I wasn’t collected until quarter to nine, and my 25 minute interview lasted until quarter to ten. The tutor who interviewed me was not a college tutor in CompSci, but instead a Russian guy who was there for a year. The interview started by the interviewer criticising some web sites I had mentioned on my personal statement, but I think this was a test to see how I responded. He then moved onto very bizarre logic puzzles that I had no idea how to do. They were really too strange to describe or remember. One was about finding factors, another was about having n bricks and k baskets, with k different colours of bricks and a limit on how many different colours of bricks one can put into a basket. You then had to prove various things. I did awful. Halfway through the interview, the guy said to me ‘it’s getting late and I will understand if you want to go, but I have to make a decision, so can you stay a little longer’. As much as I wanted to say no, obviously replied with a polite ‘yes, no problem’. The interview ended after he got a little impatent with my ignorance, shot his hand up in the air and yelled ‘that’s enough!. He then proceded to pick up his clip board and start writing. That was my prompt to leave. Many myths about Oxbridge interviews came true. Whenever I asked for clarification or said I had a difficulty, he always sighed and proceded to tell me the answer with a tone of voice that spoke for itself: “you’re a bit thick, aren’t you?”, continually pointing out how easy the question was. When I came out, I was completely furious with myself, and thought “Is this Oxford?”. Thankfully I was wrong.

My other interviews were much nicer, and they were all Maths. The first was on the next day. It was with a Maths professor at St Catz who was really friendly. He always confirmed you knew about a certain area of Math before he asked you questions on it (ie. do you know what a trigonometric function is?) and offered the chance to ask questions at the end, where I enquired about the split between Maths work and Computing work in 2nd and 3rd years, which the prospectus is unclear about. The 3rd interview I was scheduled for was at St Peters the next day. The interviewer there was really friendly too, and it was rather unremarkable, though I didn’t like that college very much since they charged 20p for a cup of tea which was completely horrible.
When I arrived back at St Catz at around 10:30, there was a notice up asking me to go to another Maths interview at St Catz that day, which was really similar to the one before but the questions were a bit more abstract. And that’s it. After that I had lunch then went home!

Where do I start? Arriving is probably a good place. I got there on Sunday at 11, and applicants arrived up until 12. After lunch there was the Maths exam at 2-4:30 and the evening to yourself. The next day, I had my first interview (and only CompSci interview) scheduled – at 20:25. I had to skip out of a welcome talk by the college master to reach the college library by that time, where I was to wait outside to be ‘collected’ by the tutor. I wasn’t collected until quarter to nine, and my 25 minute interview lasted until quarter to ten. The tutor who interviewed me was not a college tutor in CompSci, but instead a Russian guy who was there for a year. The interview started by the interviewer criticising some web sites I had mentioned on my personal statement, but I think this was a test to see how I responded. He then moved onto very bizarre logic puzzles that I had no idea how to do. They were really too strange to describe or remember. One was about finding factors, another was about having n bricks and k baskets, with k different colours of bricks and a limit on how many different colours of bricks one can put into a basket. You then had to prove various things. I did awful. Halfway through the interview, the guy said to me ‘it’s getting late and I will understand if you want to go, but I have to make a decision, so can you stay a little longer’. As much as I wanted to say no, obviously replied with a polite ‘yes, no problem’. The interview ended after he got a little impatent with my ignorance, shot his hand up in the air and yelled ‘that’s enough!. He then proceded to pick up his clip board and start writing. That was my prompt to leave. Many myths about Oxbridge interviews came true. Whenever I asked for clarification or said I had a difficulty, he always sighed and proceded to tell me the answer with a tone of voice that spoke for itself: “you’re a bit thick, aren’t you?”, continually pointing out how easy the question was. When I came out, I was completely furious with myself, and thought “Is this Oxford?”. Thankfully I was wrong.

My other interviews were much nicer, and they were all Maths. The first was on the next day. It was with a Maths professor at St Catz who was really friendly. He always confirmed you knew about a certain area of Math before he asked you questions on it (ie. do you know what a trigonometric function is?) and offered the chance to ask questions at the end, where I enquired about the split between Maths work and Computing work in 2nd and 3rd years, which the prospectus is unclear about. The 3rd interview I was scheduled for was at St Peters the next day. The interviewer there was really friendly too, and it was rather unremarkable, though I didn’t like that college very much since they charged 20p for a cup of tea which was completely horrible.
When I arrived back at St Catz at around 10:30, there was a notice up asking me to go to another Maths interview at St Catz that day, which was really similar to the one before but the questions were a bit more abstract. And that’s it. After that I had lunch then went home!

I wore a shirt and tie. I wasn’t going to, but *everyone* else was wearing that and I felt a bit left out if I didn’t.

Impressions

Interviews were the first time I had been to Oxford, and when I first arrived I thought, ‘Why the hell did I apply to St Catz?’. But once you’ve been there for an hour, you realise it is an absolutely wonderful place with a great atmosphere. The architecture you thought was horrible starts to look amazing, so I’d recommend it to anyone. I visited certain other colleges when I was there, and they were no where near as friendly as St Catz.

The room was small, but had a huge window filling an entire wall (yes – floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall!) that looked over the quad, which made up for the size.

Excellent

The first one (the CompSci tutor) seemed quite scary! But I think that was just his technique.. the others were really freindly and helpful.

Didn’t seem to do much (no offence). At many other colleges, the JCR committee seemed to arrange loads of things for applicants to do, but they didn’t. They didn’t speak to us either and just sat by themselves watching videos… We didn’t really mind though!

Final stage

I knew the letter was coming on Monday, but the post hadn’t arrived by the time I had left school. I proceded through school, having the most awful last period. I was 20 minutes late getting out, and just knew there was going to be bad news. To make things worse, there was the school Christmas dance three hours after I received “the letter”.

Looking back

Absolutely. I’d advise anyone to apply. Oxford is a place quite unlike any other, and the interview was a great learning experience as well as great fun. Also, I made loads of friends there, some of whom I still keep in touch with.

You need to start thinking about applying long before I did. The evidence I’ve seen, particularily in my own school, is that you need to start thinking about it around May, make sure you attend the open days, organise practice interviews and do loads and loads and loads of background reading.
Otherwise you don’t stand a chance (unless you are lucky).