Application

 Cambridge

 King’s

 English

 2002

 pooled, offer made (Homerton)

Applicant

 A-levels

 pre-qualification

 N/A

 N/A

 Comprehensive School

 yes (4 A*,3 A,2 B,1 C)

A-levels

(A at AS; predicted A; gained NA at A2)

(A at AS; predicted A; gained NA at A2)

(A at AS; predicted A; gained NA at A2)

Details about the offer

 conditional

AAA

yes

yes

yes

Firm – Cambridge
Insurance – haven’t decided yet. I’m tempted to put down Stirling in Scotland.

 grades pending/unknown

Decisions about the application

Since primary school I’d known that Cambridge, and to a lesser extent Oxford, were somewhat important and possessing a great reputation, but on closer inspection I found that Cambridge fulfilled for me all the traditional criteria of choosing a place of Higher Education: lovely city, lots of facilities, people there seemed nice, good number of graduates getting jobs and the English course was exactly what I wanted.

I felt Cambridge (the place) to be more inspiring and more distinctive than Oxford, which seemed just like any other city. Also, I got to know a few Oxbridge undergraduates through reading a well-known newsgroup and thought the Cambridge students friendlier and more down-to-earth.

Upon visiting Cambridge last Summer on the advice of their prospectus to choose a college, my touristy instincts pulled me towards King’s even though it wasn’t on my original shortlist (due to its being oversubscribed for English) and I suppose I ‘fell in love with it’, as people say. Subsequent discovery of its 80% state school pupils and lefty leanings sealed my decision.

Preparation

yes

No. Various sorts of help – courses at the local grammar school, mock interviews, etc. – was offered, but nothing ever materialised.

The form: I don’t see what there is to filling in the Cambridge application form that requires advice, as it just seems to me to be a case of filling in your name, address, grades, etc. That said, I strongly warn all candidates to SCOUR EVERY INCH OF THE FORM TO MAKE SURE WHICH SECTIONS NEED TO BE COMPLETED IN CAPITALS.

The interview: 1. Read lots of poetry, especially pre-20th century material.
2. Have lots of interesting things to say about your syllabus.
3. Have an interesting, slightly anecdotal story about why you applied to that particular college/university.
4. Get people – if your school can’t do it, try your family, or even your friends – to ask you questions about your subject. Even if these questions don’t come up, being able to answer them coherently and interestingly is good practice.
5. You don’t need to choose a favourite book or writer (though keep in mind at least a couple of candidates) but make sure you have a favourite period/group/style. I had a few interesting things to say about Joyce, and so kept making the odd reference to him, but nothing ever came of it.
6. Make sure to focus your preparatory efforts on the subject rather than spending weeks writing an explanation for why you only got a B in GCSE shoemaking and didn’t do the Duke of Edinburgh award.

Interview

no

yes

King’s requested two pieces of recent written work, which was lucky, as I only *had* two pieces of recent written work. They were my AS-level essay ‘Act III Scene (iii) is a Crucial Scene in Hamlet, Explore its Dramatic Importance on the Audience’ (which scored an ‘A’ grade, I recall) and another essay, actually a practice exam question, about Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings. I hoped that they would represent two sides to my writing: the former essay having been weeks in the making, drafted and redrafted a thousand times; and the latter being totally off-the-cuff, penned (it was handwritten) in one hour with no subsequent revision at all.

yes

ere was a written test at 2 o’clock. What was interesting about this is that it took place *after* my interviews. So while I was led to believe that the test existed so that what was written there could be later discussed in the interviews, this was obviously not the case for me at least.

Though, as with most students, I am not particularly fond of exams, I think I’m better at writing my thoughts down that discussing them vocally – as in, say, an interview – which is why I’m glad King’s did have a test.

Though I have no idea how well I did (particularly as the criteria for success is in being better than the other candidates) but I don’t think I could have done much better.

I won’t give the test questions here, so as not to spoil it for future Cambridge admissions test writers, but I’ll just say that question 1 was unexpected and very clever indeed, question 2 was more a typical English exam paper question and question 3 was a bit of both.

“Go through that door in the corner, up some Harry Potter-ish stairs to your right and there you’ll find the door”. After spending about 14 months worrying about my interviews, the experience itself was amazingly informal. In both (the first taking place I believe in a fellow’s study – very Educating Rita – the second in a student bedroom!) I was greeted at the door by one of the interviewers, who shook my hand and led me inside to a comfortable chair in a pleasant, modern room where I was given a few words of introduction and made to feel as calm as possible. It all seemed more like a conversation than a question-and-answer session, and it was only after one of the two asked “do you have any questions of your own, then?” that I remembered I was actually at the end of an incredibly important interview.

The only other things I can think to mention are: there were two pieces of unseen poetry, one for each interview. In the first interview I was given ‘The Song’ and asked what I thought it was about, then questioned on some of the phrases used, what specific terms meant. In the second I was asked to comment on ‘The Disappearing Island’. During the first interview I felt pressured to say something sooner rather than later, much less so at the second.

Oh, and the interviews lasted about 30 minutes each, though time flew rather than dragged.

I made a note of the interview questions I remembered as soon as I got home, specifically for inclusion on this website – hence the somewhat comprehensive nature of what follows… Interview 1: It seemed as if the interviewers were playing a bit of good cop/bad cop. Easy enough at first: “Describe your school” “Why King’s?” “Why Cambridge?” “Do you have any brothers or sisters at university?” “Did either of your parents go to university?” Tell us about your English classes” “What were some books you have read recently outside your A-level course?” Amongst my list was classic medieval play Sir Gawain and the Green Knight “Did you study that on your own?” Yes, it was a translation “So you haven’t read it in the original Anglo-Saxon then?” “What books are you studying currently on your A-level course?” Then the harder stuff, as the tide of conversation turns towards Othello. I studied Hamlet at AS “How are Hamlet and Othello different as characters?” I mentioned at some point about Othello being a noble black man corrupted by evil white men “That’s *one* interpretation. Wouldn’t you say however it is very much a modern interpretation?” I rambled on about Coleridge and alternative interpretations, but ended up restating that IMO Othello was a noble man who was the victim of Iago’s machinations “So you consider Othello the victim then? I would have said *Desdemona* was more like the victim, after all, she was *killed* by Othello” But they’re all victims of Iago really “Would you say Iago is a victim?” The unseen poetry is brought out. “What do you think this poem is about?” “What do you think is meant by ‘a maiden true, and fair’?” Someone honest and virtuous “And faithful, as well?” “What do you think is meant by ‘two, three’ at the end?” “That’s all. Do you have any questions you would like to ask us?” Interview 2: “How do you feel your last interview went?” “I apologise if we go over some of the same ground – what questions did they ask you?” they asked me why I applied to Cambridge, to King’s, what my school was like, then they asked about Othello, about a piece of unseen poetry… “what texts are you currently studying at A-level?” Othello, war poets, Songs of Innocence & Experience, I’m writing an essay about Richard Llewellyn and Patrick McCabe… “there’s lots of poetry there, but do you read any pre-20th century poetry on your own?” Yes “which authors do you like?” the Romantics, especially Wordsworth and Coleridge. Now we were into the real ‘English’ part of the interview again, and I felt a lot more confident discussing my particular area of interest than I had Othello (as I’d missed a lot of the reading of that play in class through illness, etc.) “What do you find particularly interesting about Coleridge?” I mentioned the poem The Lime Tree Bower My Prison “Can you remember any particular imagery from that poem? Don’t worry if you can’t” “You mentioned that Wordsworth writes more about inanimate objects. Now, imagine I hadn’t read any Wordsworth, what’s of interest to me about inanimate objects? I might think his poems are about stones or something…” “Would you say Wordsworth is religious?” Yes “Would you say Wordsworth is Pantheistic?” Silence “Do you know what Pantheistic means?” “So if Wordsworth is religious, then why doesn’t he write about God?” Now, despite all the idiotic things I’ve probably said by now, all the holes in my knowledge that have been unearthed and the great amount of time that it has been shown that I need to root around in the Mothers’ Union jumble sale that is my mind to come up with anything of any value or insight, I’m already feeling a *lot* happier. I’ve been discussing a subject I like, the interviewers seem genuinely interested in what I have to say and I feel a resonance of sorts with them. The unseen poetry is brought out. “What do you think the poem is about? Take as long as you want, as it’s quite difficult” “Where do you think the evidence is in the text that it is all a metaphor?” “Do you know what firmament means?” “What does the cauldron symbolise, do you think?” “What does the breaking up of the island symbolise?” “Do you have any questions you’d like to ask?” And that was it. No questions were asked about my philosophy on life, my political allegiances, my hobbies, anything to do with my UCAS personal statement, anything to do with either of the essays I sent in or anything else I had been told that was par for the course.

Blue trainers – I didn’t have enough room in my suitcase for my nice shoes – thick grey-blue jumper, light grey shirt, nicer trousers than the ones I’m wearing now and a new coat. For the second interview I removed my jumper beforehand, as it was something of a hike to the room and I was gasping and sweating by the time I arrived there.

Impressions

King’s possesses an incredible beauty and also an incredible power to intimidate. When sitting in the JCR, waiting for your interview and trying not to be sick with nerves, you don’t want to dwell on the seemingly insurmountable task of getting into Cambridge. This is not easy however when all the windows seem to face towards King’s chapel – *the* symbol of Cambridge’s legacy, importance and grandeur. So if you are a nervous person, either apply somewhere less grand or sit with your back to the window.

On a more prosaic note, the facilities were fine as far as I could see (love the red bar!) but I somehow managed to miss every one of the guided tours and so didn’t get much of a look at the college really. My room was nicely furnished – desk, table, comfy chair, lots of shelves, bedside table, good size en suite bathroom – and twice as big as my bedroom at home (though I’m told this was comparatively small for student rooms at other universities). Unfortunately it looked on to Queens’ college bar and so was horrendously noisy until about 4am.

Good

Well, I was absolutely sick with nerves, ended up eating something that at home would have made me a bit ill anyway and yet was perfectly all right at the end of it, so I think that justifies a ‘good’ rating.

Dr Ellman: very pleasant, cheerful American woman who did one of the readings for the ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ service from King’s on BBC2 on Christmas Eve. Seemed genuinely entertained by one of my anecdotes. Dr de Bolla: Large, laconic man. Grunted (though he might have just had a cold) which was quite disconcerting, and seemed to make solely critical comments. Possibly playing the ‘bad cop’ to Dr Ellman’s ‘good cop’. Dr Berry and Dr Uhlig-Hoeser: could not have been nicer. Made me feel really comfortable during my second interview and listened attentively to and seemed interested in what I had to say.

I hardly saw any of them. All the interview candidates I spoke to were very nice – even the intimidating public/grammar school ones with RP accents and tweed jumpers were willing to have a chat about this and that.

Final stage

The pool letter at first reads just like a rejection letter – “Dear so-and-so, we consider you a highly qualified candidate yet unfortunately we are oversubscribed and are unable to offer you a place at King’s College…” before mercifully turning out to be a pool. The result is you feel dreadfully nervous (before opening it), then miserable, then incredibly relieved (at discovering it’s a pool letter), then rather happy, then slightly disappointed, then nervous all over again – but with an element of optimism, even though only 1 in 5 poollees are fished out again.

I learnt about my offer from Homerton via a telephone call. The pool letter had said that phone calls alerting students to second interviews would take place on the 5th, so I’d been waiting beside the phone since… ooh… the 3rd almost without moving, then just as I begin to calm down and drift elsewhere, the telephone rang. At first it was just surreal – putting so much thought and effort into the Cambridge application process only for someone to calmly give me an offer without a (second) interview. It was only about four or five hours later that the reality sunk in!

Looking back

Yes. Even if I hadn’t got an offer, I enjoyed spending the time I did in Cambridge the city, which is a lovely place. On the other hand, I would have perhaps chosen some different universities for my remaining UCAS five – at the time I felt a bit of pressure to put down a couple of nearby unis just to please my parents.

Be interested in what you’re doing – ultimately you’re applying to Cambridge because they do your subject better than most places. And speak to the other candidates – firstly, you have a perfect opener (“so, what are you studying?”) and since people have probably been isolated from their friends for at least 24 hours they’ll be glad to speak to someone. Secondly, more so than anything else this will dispell the subconscious image of the typical Cambridge student as being a genius, a prodigy and most of all someone who isn’t you. Once that image has gone, hopefully you’ll be more confident that you yourself can get into the university, and so when it comes to your interview you’ll be more prepared to be yourself rather than trying to impersonate some hypothetical ideal student.