Application

 Cambridge

 Queens’

 Philosophy

 2005

 offer made

Applicant

 A-levels

 pre-qualification

 home

 United Kingdom

 Independent – selective

 yes (6 A*,3 A)

A-levels

(A at AS (266 UMS))

(A at AS (289 UMS))

(A at AS (299 UMS); predicted A; gained A at A2)

(A at AS (268 UMS); predicted A; gained A at A2)

(A at AS (267 UMS); predicted A; gained A at A2)

(A at AS (288 UMS); predicted A; gained A at A2)

Details about the offer

 conditional

A in Mathematics, A in Philosophy

AAA

yes

no

 offer met

Decisions about the application

I can’t say I really thought about which universities to apply to much before the end of GCSEs; however, when I came to consider applications it surprised me just how strong my preconceptions were. Consequently, my initial reasons were fairly shallow and based mainly on prestige and received opinion. Having looked further into the actual facts of the matter I began to establish some fairly strong justification for most of this received opinion. Firstly, the potential for one-to-one tuition with an expert in the field seemed to be something few other places really offered. Secondly, you hear so much about the interviews that I almost felt the need to apply just ‘to see what its really like’. You get the feeling that all other educational qualifications are being gradually devalued, but there is something more permanent about getting through an interview- something that no amount of grade inflation can take away from you. Finally, i’d say my school had a fairly large impact. It just seemed that if you find yourself within a certain proportion of the year group then you should apply to Oxbridge: the teachers start suggesting it, and i guess you just go along with it.

Well this choice was pretty easy for me; the fact was that I wanted to study philosophy, and only Cambridge allows you to do that on its own. Having said that, I was initially tempted by PPP at Oxford, but through my own laziness I never really took the idea beyond the drawing board. I never seem able to do well in more than one subject at a time unless they are closely related, so I thought it best to concentrate on solely philosophy. Other factors would be the location and knowing people already there. I must confess that I have never been to Oxford, but from pictures and other’s reports it seems like the Cambridge experience is slightly more me.

Well, the official line is that philosophy combines all the subjects i like and focuses on the elements within those subjects that i most enjoy; which i guess is true. I have a fairly scientific mind, but i also enjoy expressing myself in essays. Philosophy gave me that opportunity. It seems that philosophy students always appear more suited to their course than others: i enjoy thinking about things on a level that most people dismiss as irrelevant, and in that sense i felt that the level of abstraction within philosophy was something to should be able to cope with. There is also the ‘philosophy of…’ nature of philosophy. Philosophy itself is really a mechanism more or less devoid of necessary content. This makes it a fairly broad course in terms of content, but one in which you never feel the skills you learn as unrelated.
Probably the real reason i applied for philosophy is that i know others at Cambridge doing natural sciences (my original choice) and the work load seems immense, and immensely prescribed. Philosophy seems more manageable and gives a lot more scope for time management. In addition to this, i had a fairly persuasive philosophy teacher who pretty much told me that I would be applying; in fact, if it hadn’t worked out, I would probably be quite annoyed with him…

I have two main reasons for applying to this college, neither of which really apply to anyone else, but i’ll write them anyway. Firstly, I have a family member who went there (i.e. would leave the year before I arrive), which naturally put it in contention and at least caused me to consider it. Secondly, the aforementioned philosophy teacher told me that someone from my school who had gone to that college and done that subject had done very well; consequently, in his trademark way, informed me of my intentions to apply. Once again, were it not going to be my decision anyway, the intervention would not have been appreciated. As it was however, I was fairly relieved to not have to make the decision entirely on my own. It’s impossible to weigh up fairly all of the 25ish colleges, so you have to start somewhere. Having gone to an open day at the college I realised that I was unlikely to find anywhere I preferred and thus my decision was confirmed. On a more general note, plus points of the college were: three years accomodation on site, gym and squash courts, location, architecture and reputation both academic and general kudos.

Preparation

yes

We had little group meetings on a couple of friday afternoons where we met up with others applying for similar subjects and generally discussed our subjects. These were surprisingly helpful despite the apparently mismatched groups. I also had a couple of practice interviews, the philosophy one was very useful and gave me a bit more confidence discussing philosophy; the general chats, however, were less useful as it was generally with a teacher who assumed they knew philosophy, when really all they had done was read some Marx about twenty years ago. Having said that, you can never tell someone why you like your subject too many times, so I suggest you try that.

Limit your reading to two or three books in detail and really learn them as if they were a set text for A Level. I ended up giving a list of about 8 authors when asked what I had been reading and they just picked one and spoke about that, which left 7 of those authors as a waste of time and the other one a distant memory that I had to try rapidly to reacquaint myself with. Also, just talk at anyone who will (or won’t listen) about why you like your subject and just explain things to everyone you know: if your parents still want to listen to you talk about your subject then you haven’t done enough.

Interview

no

no

yes

There was a written test with ten or so logic questions of the form: All X is Z, some Z is S, therefore, X… etc. The written test was basically a pretty straight forward philosophical line of thought that they wanted you to explore (for more info, see ‘The Philosophy Gym’).

I was pretty happy with the way my interviews went; stylistically, they were shocking, but the content i managed to get across was fairly advanced and, in that respect, I felt that I gave a pretty good account of myself. I spoke to some of the other potential philosophers in the waiting room about the interviews they had just had and I was just about to take. It sounded as though the topics discussed were generally dictated by the candidate, and the ones I was versed on faired quite well compared to those that the others had been discussing, which made me feel a little more confident.

I had the academic one first, which basically consisted of 20 minutes discussing books I had read followed by another 20 minutes discussing my answer to the written test. As mentioned, they asked what I had been reading and i delivered my list, to which they replied by asking me about one. What made it even worse was that it was the Philosopher I mentioned on my section 10 and I hadnt read any of him since then. This meant three months of preparation had left me with little reward, but i still think the reading improved my appreciation of the subject, which i hope showed through. At this point, i feel its worth pointing out that this interview really didn’t seem go all that smoothly. There were a lot of silences where I put on the pretence of deep thought when i was really thinking: ‘I heard that question, and I understood it, so why can’t I remember what he said?- and more to the point, why am I not answering it?’. I said some vaguely intelligent points, but my interviewers really gave nothing away. The second half of this interview was with the other interviewer (they were both in the room all the time, but the 3-piece-suite was arranged so I could only see one of them at a time from my sofa), as mentioned, this was about my written test. He basically asked me to expand on what I had written, I also pointed out a couple of ambiguities in the question/topic, one of which i am very proud of: I got a professional philosopher to look out of the window in thought whilst stroking his chin, which was a good sign I thought.
The second interview was far more general; much of it consisted of checking the subjects I was doing and to what level. There was a little discussion about sport and extra curriculars. He also asked me if I thought I was going to get the grades (I resisted the temptation to say no in the vain attempt that I would get a lower offer), and whether I would mind if they deferred my place (I said I’d rather not, which he seemed satisfied with). There were, however, two difficult questions thrown into this interview: the first was about the philosopher after whom our school philosophical society was named. I had purposely not mentioned the name on my sections 10, but some teacher of infinite wisdom had felt the need to put it in my reference. Luckily, I had foreseen this question and gave a correct, if slightly hesistant, answer. The second of the ‘difficult’ questions really shouldn’t have been so. It was basically asking me what I would do if I had a completely free day with no obligations. This sounds simple enough, but he really built it up and I felt very pressured to give a Cambridge-philosopher-level answer. I had an intermediate conclusion that i would probably try something completely new, because I had the vague idea that no obligations somehow prevented me doing anything i wanted to do, or anything that would benefit me in the future. After much stuttering I came up with the conclusion that every act involved some form of obligation to your own desires or future self. To this I appended the idea that whilst there may be nothing I am obliged to do, there are always things that I am obliged to not do, and on such an abstract question these two sets become somewhat blurred. I’m not sure what the interviewer thought of my answer; I can’t help but feel he was only asking out of interest, and he probably just thinks I’m a bit weird now.

My basic intention was to create the impression that I was someone who would fit in well; in that respect, I wanted my interview to feel as much as possible like a supervision for my interviewers. I was also fully aware of the effect the clothes you wear can have. Consequently, I went for smartish casual: not jeans, a shirt and a jumper with brown leather shoes. There were others dressed in pinstripe suits, and others dressed in oversized jeans and death metal t-shirts- I like to think that I was somewhere in the middle. This tactic was inspired by a desire to look intellectually confident but not arrogant, and hopefully to be dressed just slightly smarter than my interviewers in the desperate attempt to say ‘I could be one of you, but I recognise the importance of the interview’. As to whether that worked, I have no idea.

Impressions

Queens’ was pretty much everything I imagined a cambridge college should be, and in that respect I didn’t think it would disappoint me if I did end up there. When I visited on an open day it didn’t disappoint. It has a good divide between old attractive buildings and modern, more comfortable buildings. The best bit about this was the clear division between the old and the new. One side of the river is almost exclusively old courtyards and the other side has all the new facilities. My one piece of advice when considering Queens’ is to actually get inside the grounds, the only buildings you can see from the outside are the most ugly, and all you get to suggest the beauty of the other half is the mathematical bridge across the river. Leaving the asthetics aside, the general attitude towards admissions portrayed at the open day seemed fair and transparent. There was little in terms of favouritism for particular schools and backgrounds.

Pretty much, the ugly buildings have the best kitted out rooms, which often seems the way at universities. Having said that, apparently few of second years go for the accommodation in these less attractive buildings, which means either they develop resistance to student accommodation and feel able to sacrifice comfort for beauty, or I didn’t see a large enough variety of rooms to have a very valid opinion- I tend to favour the latter. When you first arrive it seems important to have ensuite, but from what I have heard you soon realise that a walk across the hallway to the shower is not going to kill you.

I was fairly impressed. It certainly seemed as if it was the kind of food that could support you for a whole term. Also, having attended a formal at the college, the catering staff certainly seem to be of a very high standard, and when less constrained by budget they produced an amazing meal. I suppose this means that the food you get is presumably of a good quality for the price you are paying, and that is all you can really ask.

Well, the only two I had much to do with and were actually fellows of the college were the admissions tutor, and the ex-admissions tutor. The both seemed fairly nice, but you could tell that their experiences of seeing so many applications through the system had somewhat hardened them to apparent significance of the whole event. I’d say thats a good thing, and i’m sure in different circumstances (i.e. not interview days) they would be as friendly as you would expect. Both my subject interviewers were external, and both were extremely friendly. I can’t imagine how they could have made the interview less daunting, which bodes well for the years to come when one of them will be my director of studies.

On the open day their seemed to be a disproportionate number of Christian Union members about, which surprised me slightly; however, when you consider that the open day was a good few weeks after the end of term and the sort of people who would volunteer for such an event, the result is less surprising. They all seemed very friendly, something they assured us was symptomatic of the people at Queens’- something I have found no reason to doubt.

Final stage

For me, my final year of school was about waiting for big decisions to be made by others about my life. This was true when I waited to find out if I got an interview, when I waited to find out if I had an offer, and finally when I waited to find out if I had got the grades. It wasn’t all that terrible, but it was always at the back of my mind, and I didn’t feel like I could relax until I knew the outcome of a various stages. There was a lot of counting down involved and, because of my optimistic/pessimistic nature, all the various stages seemed roughly equivalent. It’s not an enjoyable experience, but that shouldn’t stop you applying.

It was even more of a cliche than I had imagined was possible. I woke on the third of january to the sound of the post falling on the doormat. I didn’t really think much of it, but went down to check anyway. It was a small envelope, with only a single sheet inside; I didn’t think it was a good sign. I opened it and saw the words ‘including maths and philosophy’ leap out at me in bold print; that, however, was a good sign. I then read it from the first line, and it became clear that I had received an offer. It was an amazing feeling and the true magnitude of it took a very long time to sink in. I don’t think it really will until i arrive there in October.

Looking back

Absolutely, even if I weren’t to get in, the process itself is immensely useful for both experience and character building. By preparing for something so single mindedly you really find out what you think about your subject and why. You understand what you can achieve in a relatively short space of time. Also, at school, it introduced me to people I wouldn’t otherwise have got to know- people with perhaps more in common with me than those I spend most of my time with.

Apply with the full intention to get in. That doesn’t have to mean you are arrogant, but you have to believe you can get in, and do all the preparation wholeheartedly. At my school there were those who chose to not try too hard in their application in case they didn’t get in; consequently and invariably, they didn’t. If you have the grades and you like the sound of the course, then apply. If you like a college, then apply to it. Don’t try and play the game to increase your odds. It’s their job to accept the best for the course, and the pool goes a long way to achieving that.