Downing (open application, allocated college)








 United Kingdom

 Grammar School

 yes (1 A*,5 A,5 B,1 C)


(A at AS)

(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)

Other universities


Decisions about the application

“Do it if you’ll regret not doing it,” I say. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t apply so I had to – I didn’t have anything to lose really! How many students are lucky enough to even get the opportunity to apply? Not many! I knew the chances were slim, but I believe you can only learn from every experience.

Cambridge just appealed to me more for some reason, especially as it was no.1 for my subject. It seemed the more popular choice in my year and when I visited it I really liked it – gorgeous!

I had visited Churchill but didn’t like it. Downing was situated right next to the Geography Faculty, had nice architecture and had an “average” applicants:places ratio. It seemed like a traditional college but a not too formal one.



Not really – over a quarter of my year (60 or so pupils) were applying so the teachers didn’t have time to do any individual tuition. It was up to you to go ask for help so I spoke to my teachers about possible questions/topics. The school does do an practice interview scheme with a former university lecturer and Oxford graduate who specialises in giving mock interviews – at Ł10 a go!

Work on your personal statement (I think I did about ten drafts!) as it will make you stand out, especially as it is the only part of the UCAS form that comes directly from you. Show your other interests. The interviewers even complimented me on mine, which was nice. Keep in mind that most interviewees will have predictions of AAA or higher, so it is obvious that you’re academically able. The interviewers, therefore, are looking for other facets of your personality.

The interview: * Make sure you’re up to date with the latest news stories, especially the geographical ones.
* Ensure you know all the A-Level work you’ve done to date and be prepared to talk about it.
* Revise the clich̩s Рglobal warming etc.
* Read Geography Review or National Geographic.
* Read a book (something that contains some Geography!).





Rising at 6:45am on a Tuesday morning after a night of last-minute Geography revision didn’t make me feel too good. Especially when I had a 7:45am train from King’s Cross to catch. Luckily, my usually unpunctual self managed to make it there with enough time to buy myself a copy of The Guardian before boarding my train. I passed the time by immersing myself in the day’s latest stories, but if you are particularly bored, you can always play the “Spot the Interviewee” game (ie look for any other teenager shifting uneasily in a freshly ironed suit, carrying a rucksack and/or textbook).

I got to Cambridge 45 minutes before my first interview. Downing, the college nearest to the station, was relatively easy to find – the locals are more than helpful (and probably used to unusually smart teenagers asking them for directions to colleges) – but it still took me a good 15 minutes to arrive, by foot, at the Porter’s Lodge.

I reported to the Porter’s Lodge and was given a map, notifying me of the waiting room and where my two interviews were, and a lunch token. (Take the chance to peek at the list of applicants on the desk – it will give you a good indication of the scale of the competition for your subject.) After being slightly bewildered by the long list of twenty or so Geographers, I proceeded to the Wilkins Room, where I would wait for my interviews.

Inside the Wilkins Room was a table surrounded by chairs with a display on the right, plastered with photographs of Downing students, a few of whom were present to “put us at ease.” The students did a good job (well, they were getting paid Ł3.60/hour for chatting to us) as I could vividly imagine the deadly silence that would’ve settled upon the roomful of nervous applicants if the students had been absent. Tea and biscuits were available but I opted against, in case the Bourbon Creams decided to have a disagreement with my stomach mid-interview. Instead, I chatted to the students and other interviewees – a valid remedy for nerves, in my opinion.

“Hi, what are you applying for?”
“Where you from?”
“Are you nervous?”

The predictable icebreaker questions ensued and to my surprise, my expectations of any snooty independent show-offs were unfounded. Everyone I spoke to was lovely, if slightly middle class and very well spoken. The first guy I met was called Dan, a prospective medic from Holland. I discovered that he attends my headmaster’s previous school, which was interesting. I also met a guy called Lawrence, who whispered to me, “You’re the only other state kid I’ve met today!”

Waiting outside Room B3 for my first interview with Dr. Adams, DoS for Geography, was the longest ten minutes of my life. You can hear the tantalising inaudible murmurs from behind the door but all you can do is sit, or pace about as I did, and wait. As Dr. Adams called me in, I greeted him with a smile and handshake. I entered a rather nice cream-coloured study room and he told me to sit on the rather nice red sofa, whilst he sat himself on the matching red sofa opposite me. He sat cross-legged, whilst making notes on his lap. He started off with some general questions, in particular my extra-curricular study of Chinese, amongst others:

“So why did you choose your A-Levels?”
“Tell me about what you study in A-Level Media Studies.”
“How is a book/text taught differently in Media Studies compared with, say, English or French?”
“When does a book/text stop being literature and become media?”

At this moment my panic button went off. Firstly, the question was totally unexpected, especially in a Geography interview, and secondly, I didn’t have a clue to the answer. It sounded like a potential essay title. He was basically asking me, “What is Media Studies?” I later conjured up the following three hypothesises on the reason behind such a quizzing over Media Studies (I anticipate the first one to be the most likely):

i) He was subtly attempting to dismiss Media Studies as a “non-traditional” subject (another potential Geographer had been questioned on his study of Physical Education at Advanced Level).
ii) He was genuinely interested in Media Studies.
iii) He was trying to gauge how academically demanding Media Studies is, and thus judge the competence of the individual being interviewed.

He then picked up on a sweeping comment I made on the difference between Human and Physical Geography and that sparked a mini-debate on the issue.

“Can Human Geography be taught without any Physical?”

I felt I was venturing into Geography taboo territory and reversed the roles by asking Dr. Adams if he thought there was a split between the two geographical disciplines. I concluded by stating that all Geography is intertwined in some way or another. I can’t really remember much else apart from him asking me what topic particularly fascinated me. My reply: continental drift (completely off the top of my head and probably not the best reply as I had stated on my personal statement that I was interested in TNCs. Oops).

Apart from a few slight grins, Dr. Adams managed to remain emotionless for most of the half-hour and thus I walked out of the room feeling rather clueless. All I got was a second handshake and “Go and enjoy the sunshine!”

My second interview was with Dr. Bravo, Downing’s other DoS for Geography, and Dr. Millett, the Admissions Tutor. I was feeling more relaxed this time round, having had an hour’s break in between. I walked in, the mandatory handshakes followed, and I was told to sit in a rather low and small chair in the corner of a typical lecturer’s office – dark, brown, old, covered in paperwork. Dr. Bravo was to my left and Dr. Millett a metre in front of me.

My Personal Statement was used as a starting point as they informed me that they had enjoyed reading it, which was promising.

“Why Downing?”

My answer revolved mainly around Downing being in close proximity to the Geography Faculty, leaving me “more time to do Geography.” The bearded Dr. Millett amusingly imitated my comment on the subject of shaving. I replied with a ‘joke’ that I’d made the effort to shave today. I then talked about Downing’s stunning architecture, which I informed them was neo-classical.

“What is neo-classical?”

I hesitated and said, “[It refers to] the Roman times?” It turns out I was somewhat correct. “Erm… I’m trying to think what ‘neo’ means,” I continued.
“It means ‘new’,” informed Dr. Millett.
“Oh! So it basically means ‘modern classical’,” I reciprocated, attempting to show that I was learning from him. I’d read that one purpose of the interview is to create a mock set-up of an infamous Cambridge tutorial. Earlier on, Dr. Millett had asked me to answer the questions so that a non-Geographer (ie him) could understand, perhaps suggesting the fact that teaching is not only from tutor-to-pupil but a two-way system.

The questions continued. They picked up on my voluntary work with Tower Hamlets. I linked this to the topic of multiculturalism. They asked me about my borough – Islington – so I discussed gentrification. I tried to link everything back to Geography, since I’d written that it was my “passion” (something Dr. Millett picked up on).

“What flaws are there with maps?”
“Is there any particular place in the world that interests you?”

The interview seemed to flow better than the first one. Perhaps it was due to fewer nerves, the presence of three people in the room, or because they asked me questions I’d prepared for. Still, I got no chance to mention any extra reading I’d done (I was met with, “Let’s get back to the original question,” when I tried to do so) and, to my pleasant surprise, Afghanistan, Terminal 5 and global warming weren’t touched on at all. However, I walked out of the room pleased that I’d done my best and knowing that a good experience, if nothing else, had come out of it.

* “So why did you choose your A-Levels?” * “Tell me about what you study in A-Level Media Studies.” * “How is a book/text taught differently in Media Studies compared with, say, in English or French?” * “When does a book/text stop being literature and become media?” * “Can Human Geography be taught without any Physical knowledge?” * “What do you want to be in the future?” * “What geographical topic particularly interests you?” * “Why Downing?” * “What is neo-classical?” * “What flaws are there with maps?” * “Is there any particular place in the world that interests you?”

Black blazer, shiny blue shirt, shiny purple tie, black trousers, black shoes. I contemplated wearing something a bit ‘different’ (ie knitwear/tank top) but decided not to risk it, so I went with the classic suit. A friend at Cambridge informed me that nothing else would be suitable, especially at a formal college like Downing. Remember: you’re being interviewed by academics, not fashion designers.


I had visited Churchill but didn’t particularly like it. It was too concrete and reminded me of 1960s comprehensive redevelopment (sorry). Downing was lovely – neo-classical (modern classic), to be precise. It’s very spacious and built in rectangle shapes (I think), with several neatly mown grass courtyards.


Despite repeated warnings from the students, I thought it was rather nice (well, it was free)! I had some tasty kebabs with rice and some not-so-nice pineapple crumble. Still, Pizza Hut’s only across the road.

Eccentric, friendly, intelligent.

Eccentric, friendly, intelligent.

Final stage

I woke up on the 28th December, still fatigued from sales shopping the previous day. I came downstairs to check if I had any post, not expecting anything. As I entered the living room, I saw a bright white rectangular envelope on the table. I picked it up. It was from Cambridge but there was, unusually, no “Downing College” stamp on it.

I took it outside and opened it on the stairs. As I tore it open, my eyes focused on the word “disappointment” on the fold of the letter… so I knew what was coming.

Disappointed but not surprised, I went back to bed.

Looking back

Of course I would. I don’t regret applying. Though I may have applied to a different, less competitive college.

* If you’re doing a “non-traditional” subject (eg Media Studies or Theatre Studies), make sure you’re doing three more traditional A-Levels along side it.
* If your school has a history for sending students to Oxbridge, think about applying to a college where students from your school have previously been accepted, especially if it’s for your subject.
* If you consider yourself a strong candidate, then apply to wherever you wish. If you’re less confident, apply somewhere less competitive. However, there’s no point applying to a college you dislike. (Research on the Internet.)
* Research your college and think of reasons why you chose it, eg good drama.
* Once you receive knowledge of who your interviewers will be, look them up on the Internet and find out their specialist subjects. This may give you an idea of which direction the interview may take.
* Talk to people! I’m sure everyone has had experience of some kind of interview before. Talking about it will lessen your nerves and increase your confidence.
* Be confident and enthusiastic.
* Enjoy yourself!