Application

 Cambridge

 Jesus

 Social & Political Sciences

 1999

 pooled, rejected

Applicant

 A-levels

 pre-qualification

 N/A

 N/A

 FE College

 yes (2 A*,6 A,1 C,1 D)

A-levels

(A at AS)

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

(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

N/A

Decisions about the application

Teachers at college suggested it to me, I laughed but went along to a few short meetings organised on the subject of Oxbridge applications in any case. I decided I liked the look of it, and so applied.
I would disagree with those who say “Don’t apply unless you are totally sure about applying”. I was still hardly considering university applications at the time that you have to give the Cambridge application form in, and left it too late to go to any of the college open days in the summer. I applied since I thought, “why the hell not?”. It’s as good a reason as any, and if you later decide you really do want to go to Oxbridge, all the better…unless you then get rejected. Ahem.
Many of the stereotypes are untrue, and you don’t have to be /that/ intelligent (though that said, if you’re not predicted /at least/ AAB, you’re not going to get offered a place.)

Well, :
– all my friends seemed to be applying to Cambridge
– at the time I didn’t like the idea of all the economics involved in PPE (Oxford’s equivalent of SPS). Now I think that economics actually sounds quite interesting. But so do sociology and social psycology…
– Cambridge is top of the Times university league table (though apparently PPE is more respected by employers than SPS, so that wasn’t really a very good reason at all).
– my sixth form college seemed to make it clear that Cambridge is in general harder to get into than Oxford, and that you needed higher GCSEs to get in there (though whether or not this is true is very debatable). Anyway, that helped encourage me apply to Cambridge – I thought, if I’m going to aim for the best, I’m going to aim for the best.

If you are having to choose between SPS and PPE, bear in mind one is Sociology, social psycology, politics and a bit of social anthropology. The other is politics, Philosophy and economics. So as far as SPS/PPE goes, you should really be comparing the two courses to choose between the two, perhaps more so than comparing the two universities. Not that the huge differences between the two courses really helped me in the slightest in choosing which to apply to…

I visited Girton on a trip organised by my college. I then put off thinking about which college to apply to for ages. By that time, someone else at my college had already decided to apply to Girton for SPS, and my college didn’t want two people from our college competing for the same place. As I wasn’t really sure which college I wanted to apply to in any case, I didn’t put up any protest. The person who deals with Oxbridge applications at my VIth Form College had given me a small list of colleges I might in particular take a look at, and so I got a train to Cambridge one weekend very shortly before the Cambridge application form was due in, and did just that. I thought that Jesus, one of the colleges he has suggested, “looked nice” (it does), and applied there.

Preparation

yes

There were a few brief meetings on Oxbridge applications, discussing common-sense things like getting your application form in on time, with the general purpose of just alerting people to the possibility of applying to Oxbridge. A few ex-students now at Oxbridge came in and gave a short talk for the same reason. I also had a brief interview with one of my politics teachers, which, though nothing like the real thing, did at least help me get a /little/ used to the idea of being interviewed, something I’d never really done before. I also got told to read some books by my politics teachers, and spent a few (6ish?) lunch times in the month running up to the interview debating the odd intellectual-type issue (things like “is Britain suffering from American cultural imperialism?”) with someone else from my college who was applying to do SPS at Cambridge (this was organised by my politics teacher – I’d never have got round to organsing that myself, because in a college of 1000 students a year I didn’t even know who the other person applying was).

My college said I had to write out the personal statement by hand, but it appears that that is a load of rubbish. If you have hand writing as bad as mine, print it out on a computer. Other than that, it’s pretty much common sense.

Interview

no

no

no

Get up at 4am, almost manage to get out of house before mum and dad come downstairs and say “so your interview’s today then, is it?” (I hadn’t told them the date so they didn’t try and give me too much of their advice and guidance). But my alarm clock was obviously too loud. Coats, mobile phones, numbers, advice and god knows what else thrown at me when it is far too early for me to be fully concious of the world around me. I just mumble, shove half the stuff behind my bed and go to get my bike.

The train journey is OK – I have to wait ages between each change of train, but am so tired (more from nerves than a minor lack of sleep, methinks) I don’t notice. Spend long wait at Ipswich staion alternately reading book on politics/lying down on chairs resting/straightening tie.

Get to college. Go into some little porters room thing, very warm, said hello to cat which is sleeping in a box on the desk. Tell it that it could probably do better in the interview than I could. Wait for a minute. The cat wakes up. Worry if I should go and look for someone. Don’t. Porter arrives. Try to ask where I should go, realise I have only said a couple of sentences all morning and my voice isn’t working, porter still understands and gives a long list of directions as to where the waiting room is, where the interview rooms are, etc. Try to remember them. Go to waiting room, and are a few other nervous people sitting about waiting for interviews. Offered biscuits and hot drinks by porter. Too nervous to do anything other than say “no thanks”. I swear that if I try to make myself a hot drink I will probably spill hot water everywhere. Anyway, find that some of the people are waiting for computer science interviews, others social and political science interviews like myself. We don’t talk much – just look about nervously. I pick up a paper from the table and flick through it. Someone else prods the pile of papers, and decides not. Some other applicant walks in, merrily offering everyone tic tacs. I can’t understand how she is so confident. I happen to look in mirror a few minutes before my first interview. I am completely white. My brain feels completely numb – I really can’t think properly.

I have my first interview at 9:30. I meet one of the interviewers on the stairs up to the interview room. I am told to wait outside the door. I can hear the two people who are to interview me talking inside, but I can’t hear what they were saying. I just stand on the narrow spiral staircase with my hands behind my back, watch the college flag flying and other applicants arriving through ther main entrance. After an incredibly long 5 minutes, I am called into the room. I say good morning, and shake the interviewers hand. The person I had met on the stairs is sitting in chair.

He asks me a few introductory questions, such as “What subjects are you studying?” (I think as a failed attempt to calm my nerves and get me used to the interview), before the real interview gets under way. Every single question asked is on politics – and I should think the interviewers therefore expect me to be really good, being interviewed on what I did for A-level. I am not. I’d read most of the politics book they’d told me to, but it had no relevance at all to any of the questions they asked. The man is a what I would imagine to be a stereotypical Cambridge professor – he uses his hands a lot to accomany phrases like “if we just bring this discussion BACK a little” or “If we could just FOCUS on this point”. The woman I’d met on the stairs says nothing, furiously scribbling on a notepad. I can’t believe how badly I answer the questions – its not even as though they are particularly hard. I blunder my way through, making numerous mistakes, and constantly say “oh, yes, I see what you mean, I was wrong”, or at least words to that effect. I sound terrible – nerves have reduced my vocabularly by at least half. I can’t remember the word “sovreignty”, pretty important when discussing further integration with the European Union – the one thing the woman asks about during the course of the entire interview. I seem to remember saying at one point something like “Er, yeah, there’s some word for it…erm…but I’m afraid I can’t remember it right now”.

Interviewer asks if I have any questions. I’d been planning to think of something either on the train, whilst waiting or during the interview. I hadnt been able to. I just say no, I understand everything OK, I’d read the prospectus, or something stupid like that. At the beginning of the interview, when asked how I’d got to Cambridge, I described how I had got the train and had therefore got up at 4am. The man concluded the interview by saying “For someone who got up at 4’o clock, you did very well”. My face smiled. My brain went “If that’s a compliment I’m a Brazillian burrowing termite with a penchant for exotic cheeses”.

I go back to the candidate waiting room. Still too nervous to attempt to make a hot drink using the machine, but having got the worst (or so I thought) interview out of the way, I have a couple of the biscuits. I also chat a bit more with the other candidates that I am competing with. Some grammar school student said they’d got their 3 As at A-level already, and were working as a waiter. They also ask me if there were lot of Essex girls at my college. I describe how everyone had a label in Essex, and have a go at explaining the concepts of “gary boy”, “greebo”, etc. to him. He laughs.
Another candidate says they’d already been interviewed by the person I was about to see. They say the man is “OK”, but offer little other advice. I had just had their interviewer, and so I tell them a (little) bit about the sort of questions I had been asked. After a while the the grammar school person goes off to the interview I had already had before coming back. He refuses to comment on what had happened saying it had gone OK but as you couldn’t change it now there was no point in discussing it. I argued that its good to discuss things, that it helps you relax, put your mind at rest. I think I was doing quite well with my argument – but he had no choice in where I go for the next 3 years, so my ability to argue a point is pretty worthless.

Go off to my second interview. I wait outside – but this time in a room with a seat – for quite some time. Eventually the person being interviewed comes out. Once the interviewer had walked past, girl collapses head first on to the sofa in front of me. I ask how it went. She was the girl with the tic tacs. She says “Oh, he as cool. He’s a nice guy”. She then laughs rather mysteriously, and walks off. I wait in the room for a little while longer, before the interviewer comes back, a cup of coffee in his hand. He says “I need caffeine”. I smile. Walking into the interview room, I feel far better than I had for the last one. It was the personal interview – questions about why I had chosen that college, what I had written on my UCAS form, what the BTCV actually does, fairly simple, I had it all worked out. I had it all sorted. The girl had said he was cool. We sit down. The interviewer flicks through a file of my reference and application form.

“All pretty basic”, he says, “nothing I particularly need to ask about here”. “Anything you want to bring my attention to in here? Any questions you want to ask? Anything you want to discuss?”. I pause for a few seconds. What the hell! “Surprise me” would have been better (I had, after all, bought a lighter, and placed it in my suit pocket, in preparation for just such an event). Isn’t the subject interview supposed to be the bad one? I ask what sort of questions or discussion topics he is looking for, trying to buy time. I am brilliantly proving my ability to think on my feet, oh yes. He says “Well, I just want something we can talk about. Any issue you would like to discuss? What interests you?”. I want to shout “Ask me a bloody proper question, you fool! What the hell do you mean, what interests me! Look at my bloody form and ask me a question about one of the things that I’ve put down there!” Except he’s already said that my form is “pretty basic”, and he has no real questiosn to ask there.

Not having the faintest idea what he wants me to say, but not wanting to use yet another “be more specific, give me help” type response I say “Well, I want to join the navy, so I suppose that stuff to do with the armed forces kind of interests me”. Yes, those were pretty much my exact words. He gives yet another incredibly general, no guidance at all response, something like “Well, if that’s what you want to talk about, I just want to discuss something. Whatever interests you”. I look for any expression on his face to see if I am along the right lines or not, but he looks completely blank – if anything he seems a bit annoyed he is having to interview people when he could have been doing something else, his questions having the tone of “hurry up, I’ve go better things to do”. He says “maybe you’d like to tell me your opinion on the army recruiting form prison?”. I think, sod this, and vaguely attempt to have an opinion on the forces recruiting from prisons. We discuss the idea for a short time, before he asks something like “What else interests you?”. Having been given no guidance as to whether my last suggestion had been the sort of thing he had been looking for, and with my mind compeltely numb from the stress of going in to an interview fairly confident before finding it to be akin to a “surprise me” type thing, I mention that I thought people should probably use public transport more (oh my God, what a stupid topic). He starts saying how people in rural areas rely on cars. We discuss the issue, him destroying any argument I make, me nervously saying “I see your point, yes, but what I’m trying to say is….er…um”. He asks “Do you think in the future scientists wil be able to invent something to sort the whole transport issue out”. I think “ask me what the BTCV does! Please! Ask me why I chose Jesus college and not Girton!”. Anyway, the interview ends, he also asks if I had any questions, I reply vaguely “not really” or something.

I go back to the main waiting room for my bag. I am smiling – at least it is over. When I walk in the room there are far more people than before. The two people who had had the interview I had just done, and the grammar school person, all grin inanley. I think “Hang on, you could have warned me! You could have told me it wasn’t like what you expect an admissions tutor interview to be! Fools!”. I tell them all how bad it had been. The new arrivals stare transfixed, the two people who already had the interview just grin even more and agree. Well, I suppose we are competing for just a couple of places – but I hardly feel like serious competition. I make a few jokes aboout the interview. Everyone laughs. I seem to have 10 times the conversation ability now all the interviews are over. The grammar school person says “Goodbye” as I leave the door. I say “See you…<pause>…actually, I very much doubt I’ll see you next year, but…hey!”, and walk off. My competition smiles as much as ever. I continue on to the train station.

First, subject interview (the exact wording may be wrong, it was quite a time ago now): – What subjects are you studying at A-level? – How would you define socialism? (my response was /totally/ awful. Something like “Its all about fairness and living happily together, working towards a common goal and all that stuff, you know”. Really, I said that.) – Is it not to do with equality? – Are fairness and equality the same thing? – Why do you think Labour did so badly in General Election during the 1980s? (I’m pretty sure this was a delibrately easy question chosen after my /totally/ awful resonse to the first question) – What sort of loony policies do you refer to? (obviously leading from my answer to the above question) – What is clause 4? – Is Singapore a nation state? – Is Scotland a nation state? – Will the EU diminish Britain’s status as a nation state in the future? – Will increasing internationalism decrease the importance of nation states? – Is control of the media important to the idea of the nation state? – What is the difference between a state and a nation state? 2nd, non-subject interview: – How does studying physics help with the various humanties studies subjects you are studying? – Do you have any questions? Anything you would you like to discuss? (oh dear)

I was going to just wear jeans and a shirt, in a “if they don’t want me because of what I’m wearing, I don’t want them” fashion, but I wimped out and ended up wearing a full suit and tie, and even buying some new shoes because I didn’t have any smart shoes to go with suits at the time. I got the suit especially for the interview, as well, although it was actually my Dad’s, except it didn’t fit him any more, so except for the cost of the shoes and getting the trouser legs slighty lengthened it wasn’t as pointlessly expensive as it sounds. Plus, I knew I was going to need a suit for an interview with the Royal Navy a few months later, who specifically ask all candidates to wear a suit.

Impressions

Quite quiet, quite large, just in general very “nice”, for want of a better word. Read my description of the interview day – friendly porters, big comfy leather chairs, tea, coffee and big plates full of biscuits for all the interviewees.

The first two people who interviewed me (SPS tutors) seemed very nice – they just did, somehow, fit in with the rest of Jesus’s “niceness”. The Senior Tutor who interviewed me second wasn’t quite so genial and happy, but you can hardly draw definitive conclusions from one 20 minute interview in anything but normal circumstances, and he was still a reasonably friendly interviewer.

Didn’t really see much of them – I came, I failed two interviews, I went. Back before tea time, as it were.

Final stage

I was expecting a rejection, but unfortuantly I’d decided that I really, really liked Cambridge. So I was in a kind of limbo up until I got the letter. Which was a *You have been pooled*. I mean, how much did they want to delay the final result? Really? As for the final rejection letter I received a few weeks later, it wasn’t a surprise at all, because if you are put in the pool and don’t get pulled out of the pool by a certain date (can’t remember it right now) you are all but guaranteed the final letter being a rejection – the extra time waiting after that is the time it takes for all your papers to be sent back from the pool to the college to which you originally applied, and then for that college to write you a rejection letter.
I never really expected to be accepted, but I wasn’t exactly all that happy about it.
I.e, I was not surprised when I got the rejection the letter, but I didn’t exactly laugh it off either.

Looking back

Yes, because I would really have loved to get in. I think I would tackle the interviews in a very different way, though.

I was given a choice of books in a letter I got a few weeks before the interview, and told to read one. I decided to read a little bit of 3 of the books from the list, including about 1/2 of one on politics. When I got to the interview, I discovered the only reason I had been told to choose a particular book was so that they would know which general subject area to ask questions in – in my case, “politics”, in a very broad sense. I was never asked any questions on the book.
I did a fair amount (well, about 6 hours is a fair amount as far as I’m concerned) of backgroud reading for the interview, because I wasn’t even entirely sure what social anthropology /was/, and I wasn’t so entirely sure about sociology either. In the event, my background reading helped me very little, except for a brief summary of socialism that I forgot /completely/ due to nerves at interview in any case.
All the same, I think perhaps a bit of reading before the interview is probably handy for many SPS interviews. And make sure you have at least one practice interview before you go, as well – even if it’s nothing like the real thing, if you’re like me, you’ll need to get used to talking to some relative stranger about your personal interests. If you’re hugely confident, this probably isn’t so much of an issue.

My biggest, biggest, biggest piece of advice, though, is /think of a few topics that you might like to discuss/. I knew I was going to have to think on my feet to supply answers to very difficult questions, but I didn’t know I’d have to supply the questions as well, and what happened in the 2nd interview took me /completely/ by surprise. My college has not yet received any feedback on my interviews from Cambridge, so I can’t be sure if my truly terrible performance in the 2nd interview was what was responsible for my rejection (the 1st wasn’t much better, after all)- some have told me that personal interviews never count for much in any case – but if I had just thought of a few discussion topics, I would have fared far better. The way I feel is that it must have appeared I had no interests in anything, or that I didn’t really care that much about what I am interested in. This is not true. Oh, and this leads into another piece of advice. If like me, you are completely taken aback by a question, or your nerves mean that you can instantly come up with a brilliant answer to a question, then *stop and think*. I know a number of people who left 30 second pauses between being asked questions and then answering those questions, and they got in, because they took the time to think that was required to come up with a good answer. *Do not* always just say the first thing that comes into your head, if you know that it is probably wrong. That’s what I did…

Go for it. If you decide you don’t really want to go, then it’s still a very interesting experience. If you decide you do want to go to Oxbridge, then great.

As for interviews:
1. Think of some conversation topics (probably related to the subject you will be studying) before the interview
2. Take reasonably long pauses to think of answers, if you need them
3. You should probably prepare some questions to ask at the end of your interviews as well, though I’m not sure if that could actually make the difference between getting a place and not getting a place
4. Oh, and: don’t be nervous.