Application

 Oxford

 Merton

 English Language and Literature

 2005

 offer made

Applicant

 A-levels

 pre-qualification

 home

 United Kingdom

 Comprehensive School

 yes (6 A*,4 A,1 B)

A-levels

(A at AS (245 UMS))

(A at AS (261 UMS); predicted A; gained A at A2)

(A at AS (247 UMS); predicted A; gained A at A2)

(A at AS (290 UMS); predicted A; gained A at A2)

(A at AS (300 UMS); predicted A; gained A at A2)

(A at AS (269 UMS); predicted A; gained A at A2)

Advanced Extension Awards

(predicted Distinction; gained Distinction)

Also completed a diploma from Trinity College, London (ATCL)in music performance.

Details about the offer

 conditional

A in English Language, A in English Literature

AAA, Unusually, offer did not specifically exclude General Studies (despite Merton not recognising the qualification). I can only assume this was an administrative oversight.

yes

yes

yes

My decision was largely influenced by the specifics of the various English courses offered. The scope and flexibility of the Oxford course was particularly appealing. I would be lying, however, if I said that the perceived ‘prestige’ of Oxford wasn’t a factor also.

 offer met

Decisions about the application

Simply put, I thought Oxbridge offered the best courses available. I had no previous ambitions to apply to Oxford (in fact I was somewhat ambivalent to the idea of University in general), but the courses looked interesting and I thought I could enjoy myself best at either of these institutions, as opposed to another university.

Living within shouting distance of Oxford, I knew the city well before I applied, and the lively, cosmopolitan nature of the place was appealing. In the interests of fairness I visited Cambridge before applying, and although the city was undeniably beautiful, its smaller size made it feel somewhat cloistered and less stimulating. Having looked at the courses also, the breadth of the Oxford syllabus was very attractive, although I envy the flexibility of the Cambridge ‘tripos’ system.

I wavered between English and History for a long time before applying. Ultimately the decision was made after my English Lit AS result proved better than my History, and, perhaps more importantly, by a general ‘gut instinct’ that English was the course I wanted to study.

The college choice was fantastically difficult. I knew I wanted to apply to an older college, preferably in the very centre of Oxford, but one where I could work and relax in peace. I eventually narrowed my choice down to Magdalen, Merton, and St. John’s. Choosing between these three was difficult, and eventually it took an open day visit to confirm Merton as my preference. There was something just ‘right’ about the college’s atmosphere; quiet, but central, and with a strong work-ethic which appealed to me. I was a little put off initially by the rumours of ‘work-a-holic’ students who never had any fun, but this was instantly (and quite comprehensibly!) disproved at interview when everyone made me feel welcome. As a post-script – thought of competition/applicant ratios did enter my mind, but I tried to discount them as an unreliably, and ultimately self-defeating way of making an application. I simply applied to the college I felt I would be happy attending, and tried not to worry about the statistics.

Preparation

yes

My school provided a couple of preparatory interviews (some more helpful than others). These were nowhere near Oxford levels of intensity, but were useful in that they gave me a chance to put my thoughts into words, and prepared me for the style, if not the substance, of university interviews.

Read widely around your subject in the weeks leading up to interview. Familiarise yourself particularly with any specific works mentioned in your Personal Statement, or written submissions – you will most likely be questioned on them. With this as a starting point, you may find it useful to branch out, thus showing an interest beyond your school’s syllabus. For example, if you have studied or read ‘Jane Eyre’, you might find it profitable to read other works by Charlotte Bronte, such as ‘Vilette’, so you can call on them for comparison in interview.

Interview

no

yes

I had to submit two marked essays not written specifically for Oxbridge. Although it did not specify this, I thought it a good idea to submit essays on contrasting topics, with my first on Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, and the second on Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’. It’s not necessary to do this, but I thought it showed a little variety and breadth. My one big piece of advice is to make sure that you post off your work in plenty of time, and with the necessary stamps. I forgot to put enough stamps on my submission, and so they never reached the college. Needless to say, frantically faxing copies of your essays to Oxford two weeks after the deadline was not the greatest of starts.

yes

Not strictly an exam, but in all of my interviews at various colleges I was required to comment on a piece of writing, usually poetry, and even more usually a sonnet.

Surprisingly relaxed, but always with an undertone of serious interrogation. In short, it wasn’t the full-on grilling that I expected, but neither was it the ‘cosy chat’ which some of the college literature suggested. The focus in all my interviews was unwaveringly academic, with none of the generic ‘Why English?’/’Why Oxford?’ type questions which had featured in many of my practice interviews.

I had two interviews at Merton, two at Magdalen, and one at Jesus. In the Merton and Magdalen interviews, the first usually consisted of a more general discussion of my reading, and my thoughts about literaure as a whole. These were generally not too taxing. The second, however, was the real ‘meat’ of the interviews, with close examination of text provided shortly before the interview. These were challenging, but actually very rewarding as the conversations had a much more definite focus. At Magdalen in particular, where I was asked to compare four passages simultaneously, the analysis sometimes made your brain hurt, but the sense of achievement when you created something approaching a working conclusion was amazing.

As I’ve said, there was none of the ‘warm-up’ questioning that is often regurgitated during practice sessions (my first question asked me to analyse the links between the arts of literature and music!). Questions, therefore, always had a specific literary focus, even in the more general interview, often asking you to think of a work you had read or studied in terms of a socio-historic context, or the context of other works published at the same time. In the passage analysis, I noticed a favourite questioning technique was to ask a fairly open-ended question as an opening gambit, such as ‘What is the message of the poem?’, thus allowing you comment on whatever aspect of the poem you chose, perhaps forming some preliminary conclusions. The interviewer would then add some new information, often related to context, and would ask you to reconsider your analysis. Presumably, this was to test your ability to adapt you way of thinking with the inclusion of new information.

Comfort was my priority. Oxford can be bitterly cold in December, so I traipsed in to my interviews in the warmest jumper I could find. Needless to say, I saw a great many people wearing suits, and if that’s what you feel comfortable in then fine. The best advice, I think, is to dress sensibly, avoiding clothing which is likely to make you feel self-conscious, or anything which is going to distract you, e.g. a starchy collar. Relatively smart jeans, i.e. not torn, and a comfortable sweater was the most common dress-code I encountered.

Impressions

Merton was ancient, architecturally astounding without being intimidating, and spacious. The students I met were largely friendly, and refreshingly far-removed from the Oxford stereotype I had been dreading. Magdalen, likewise, was very beautiful, with student helpers who were, if possible, even more friendly than those at Merton. Jesus, however, was something of a disappointment. When I was called for interview there it was at very short notice, and the college seemed ill-prepared for me. It took a long time for me to find my interview room, and when I finally arrived I was made to wait outside in the cold (it was 8pm by this time) for 20 minutes or so. I’m sure the interview process at Jesus is usually very efficient, but on this occasion, I think it could have been better.

Merton rooms were large, well-furnished, comfortable, and, most pleasingly, warm. Facilities were also very good, including a good bar and positively luxurious wood-panelled JCR. Merton’s reputation for excellent food is also thoroughly deserved. Magdalen’s student accommodation was probably the best that I’ve seen at any college, and was easily a match for Merton’s in terms of space and ammenities. I did not see any of the Jesus rooms or facilities.

As said, Merton food was of a very good standard, and I was well-fed during my time there.

Very friendly on the whole. Admittedly I rarely saw them outside of the interview setting, but during those sessions they seemed attentive, and interested in what I had to say – which was both flattering and terrifying.

Welcoming, friendly, and (largely!) well-organised. Merton presented quite a diverse range of students, with many international undergraduates, and students from quite a variety of different backgrounds. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few public school ‘hearties’, but these were far from being in the majority, and most were actually very friendly when you got to know them.

Final stage

In a word, anxiety. My best advice would be to try not to dwell on it, and find some other activity or past-time to distract you. Ultimately, whatever the outcome, you have lost nothing by applying, and at the very least have gained a set of experiences you are unlikely to forget.

I remember arriving home, knowing that several other people at my school (one of whom had applied to Merton) had already recieved offers, and wondering whether the same could possibly happen to me. I did not hold out much hope, so decided to get the news as quickly as a possible (none of this ‘judging’ the letter for size or weight as a clue to its contents!). Needless to say I was overjoyed, and rather surprised, to get an offer, and the usual round of huggings and celebrations followed.

Looking back

Yes. Short and simple there…

Don’t Panic 🙂 In the end, you have nothing to lose by applying. You might even enjoy it.