Application

 Oxford

 Balliol

 Mathematics and Philosophy

 1998

 offer made

Applicant

 A-levels

 pre-qualification

 home

 N/A

 Independent – selective

 yes (8 A*,1 A)

A-levels

(A at AS)

(A at AS)

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

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

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

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

Cambridge STEP Maths

(predicted NA; gained S)

(predicted NA; gained 1)

Details about the offer

 conditional

A in Mathematics, A in Mathematics (Further)

B

yes

N/A

 offer met

Decisions about the application

The vague and ubiquitous feeling that it’s the best; the famed and fabled tutorial system; the collegiate system.

Oxford’s a nicer city – well, actually, it /is/ a city. Cambridge seems to be a university with a town built around it, whereas Oxford is a city with a university in it. And IIRC you can’t do Maths and Philosophy at Cambridge, which rather pre-empted the standard argument about the Cambridge Maths course being tougher.

I made a list of colleges and looked at the following criteria: location [OK, so it may seem superficial – but who wants to be miles away from civilization in LMH?]; number of tutors for my course [more tutors means more tuition can be done in college – more convenient]; number of places [wouldn’t like to be the only person doing my course]; applications per place [no point in making things unnecessarily hard; case in point is Keble, which (since it’s right next to the Maths Institute) has a stupidly high ratio, totally undeserved by the college as a whole]; size of college [personally, I’d avoid the very small ones]; library [size and opening hours – nothing more frustrating than starting an essay at night and being unable to get the books out]; accommodation [how many years can you live in college? living out can be a hassle (and more expensive, too)].

Having considered all that lot, Balliol emerged at the top. It’s great for Philosophy (we have 3 people doing Maths & Philosophy, 5 doing Physics & Philosophy, and many many PPE-ists – about 13, I think.) I have, of course, since found out that Balliol just /is/ the best college.

Preparation

yes

I had a mock interview with one of my maths teachers, and sporadic extra maths lessons (outside the timetable, every week or two) which weren’t specifically Oxbridge-related, but were in recognition of the fact that the A-Level syllabus is a touch limited. Amusingly enough, none of this stuff, interesting as it was, was of any use as far as getting into Oxford was concerned. And there was a teacher I could ask about STEP questions, which proved to be useful as far as taking STEP was concerned.

Maths: Know your A-Level stuff. Be prepared to work things through in the interview – don’t be afraid to write or say something because you think it might be wrong, because they want to see your thought processes: they want to see that you can go about problem-solving. They will handhold you a fair bit, and this doesn’t mean they think you’re an idiot. And do something outside the curriculum. Perhaps the easiest thing to do would be to find a first-year textbook on Analysis from a library and work through a couple of proofs in it. Make sure you know them thoroughly, so that when it comes to interview you can produce them – but don’t, for God’s sake, just memorize them. They want to see you /thinking/ as you do it. (The one I happened to have done is the convergence of (1 + 1/2 + 1/3 + 1/4 +… + 1/n) – ln n to ‘gamma’, which is about 0.577 IIRC.)

Philosophy: Do whatever you like. If you’ve done Philosophy A-level, they /will/ ask you specific questions (as happened to a friend of mine). If you haven’t, just do some reading (Descartes is very readable, as is Plato’s Republic (don’t try to read it all; it’d be a waste of time)) to show that you have an interest. [“But,” the cynic sneers, “surely if you’re that interested in the subject you’ll read books on it anyway?” Well, quite.]

Interview

no

yes

I had to send in two pieces of work, so I gave an essay on Book 1 of Plato’s Republic (which I wrote specifically for my application) and an essay I’d written for Greek on the Battle of Thermopylae. I was going on the assumption that my Maths would be OK, and that I needed to show them that I could think and write too. I have since learnt that they admit or reject joint schools Maths people on the basis of their Maths, because you can always change from (say) Maths & Philosophy to straight Maths if you can’t hack the Philosophy. But I’d still recommend a couple of decent essays rather than a Maths coursework, so the Philosophy tutor puts in a good word for you.

yes

We had a two-and-a-half-hour Maths exam; to prepare for it, I brought a couple of A-Level textbooks with me and did a bit of frantic staring at formulae. The exam was a bit like STEP; if anyone wants a copy of it (and my solutions) then just email me.

There were three tutors there, two for Maths and one for Philosophy; one of the Maths tutors didn’t say anything throughout the whole interview, but instead scribbled at a clipboard. I found this a bit intimidating at the time, but it turns out that he’s just quite shy. I was asked Maths stuff to start with, which went swimmingly (this worried me – if I’d been asked easy stuff, would I really have been able to impress them?), then a few bizarre questions from the Philosophy guy (see below).

Maths: I was asked, as I think were almost all the Maths candidates, to draw the graph of (ln x)/x. Once I’d done that, I was asked to find solutions of the equation a^b = b^a, the idea being to relate this to the previous question by taking logs. (During this I’d also done some differentiation and general algebraic stuff, which I presume is why they were the only specific questions I was asked.) Then I was asked if there was anything I’d done recently in Maths outside the syllabus, which there was. (Only a few days beforehand, my maths teacher had gone on a digression in a lesson, which was lucky. I’m not sure what I’d have said otherwise…) Philosophy: this guy struck me as being a complete weirdo. Now that I know him a bit better, I can confirm that he is a touch eccentric, but then who isn’t? His questions weren’t related in any tangible way to any of the books I said I’d read on my UCAS and Oxford forms, which came as a bit of a surprise. He just said, “I see you’ve been reading the Republic? [Pause for eloquent nod] OK”, before moving on to something completely different. He asked me to suppose that I had really painful gouty feet, and that he wanted to get out of the room. “Why shouldn’t I step on your gouty feet,if I’d have to go out of my way to avoid them?” I muttered something vague about utilitarianism, which of course didn’t go unchallenged. When I’d made a (not very good) defence of utilitarianism (bear in mind here that I hadn’t, and still haven’t, read any Mill), much of which was based on other people’s dislike of him if he did that sort of thing, he said: “OK. Suppose I have a retreat in the country that no one knows about. Suppose I take you off there, and no one knows that I have done so. Why shouldn’t I make you my slave there?” This was slightly worrying, coming from a possible tutor-to-be. I honestly can’t remember what I said to that. “HELP!”, quite possibly. I was asked absolutely nothing about anything I’d put in my Personal Statement; absolutely nothing about current affairs; and absolutely nothing about myself and my interests. That was really strange compared to what I’d expected. And as I said, the Philosophy questions were so general that my frantic thumbing through a Dictionary of Philosophy before the interview was time well misspent.

I didn’t wear a suit, because I hate suits. I went wearing what I’d have been wearing if I’d been at home. As far as I was concerned, if the tutors took my clothes into account when making their decision, I didn’t want them as my tutors, because I hate idiocy when it comes from supposedly intelligent people.

Impressions

Seemed friendly. (An impression since borne out by the reality.)

Freshers are mostly housed on the 3 staircases in the crappy-looking 60s-built addition to the college (to make room for which they demolished a Victorian part of the college, methinks). Rooms there are OK, but nothing to write home about. Mine’s better… Facilities: the JCR and TV room are being entirely refurbished this Easter at a cost of about Ł20K, so they should be excellent when that’s done. There are three washing machines and three tumble dryers, which doesn’t sound like a lot but is actually enough. Our bar is one of, if not the, best in Oxford. It’s student-run, so it’s not run by tight money-grabbing bar stewards [groan…] like many other college bars are.

Edible but not great

Balliol food is over-priced. If you’re coming to Oxford with the intention of eating sumptuously, go to Merton. Here, it’s passable. Sometimes it’s even good…

Well, they were just hanging around… Ahem. My three Maths tutors are really nice – from what I hear, they’re among the nicest tutors in the college. They don’t have heart attacks when (not ‘if’, note…) you don’t hand work in, and they’re never dismissive if you’re being, well, thick. My two Philosophy tutors have been great too. In fact, I have absolutely no complaints about any of my tutors. (Bear in mind, though, that that’s rarely the case; from what I’ve seen, the Physics tutors are a bit sadistic in their work requirements.)

The ones who got in are (mostly) a really friendly and personable bunch. Of course, there are one or two complete tossers, but then in a group of 120 freshers there’s bound to be a couple of people you really don’t get on with. (That’s why I wouldn’t go for a small college; the more people there are in your college, the more really good friends you’ll make. You do meet people from other colleges, but obviously your main initial source of friends is within your own college.)

Final stage

It didn’t come as that much of a shock, really, because the interview and exam had gone so well that I was quietly confident. I went upstairs and told my brother that I hadn’t got in, then went back downstairs and started to read all the stuff in the envelope. (Such is my wonderful sense of humour…) When you get the letter, it’s presumably really obvious whether you’ve got in or not (unless you’re taking a gap year), because if you get in they send you loads of introductory crap with it.

Looking back

Yes, because I love it here.

Apart from what I’ve said above, I’d say: choose your college carefully. It’s often said that you’ll enjoy yourself wherever you go, and to a large extent this is true, but I know people who have adopted Balliol as their college because they can’t stand their own. Girls, don’t apply to St Hilda’s unless you a) are sure you won’t get a place anywhere else [the apps:places ratio there is sillily low, for obvious reasons] or b) have a burning desire to be in an all-girls college. (One of my adopted friends is at St Hilda’s. The other is at Jesus, which she dislikes because it’s so anal about lots of things. (Details temporarily forgotten))