Oxford: the application process

The audience of this post is very niche, but don't worry I'll be back to my usual existentialism soon. Its just something I thought was both worth documenting and was probably quite helpful.
I also don't think there is a magic formula for getting in to Oxford, I just sort of went for it so I'm not sure I can give many tips other than my personal experience, but if you have any other questions hmu!

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As of October, I am beginning a History degree at the University of Oxford (??!!). I am going to Mansfield college (the college I applied to) and, if you don't know about the collegiate system of Oxbridge I'd recommend reading this.

I applied to Oxford in my gap year with my achieved A-levels. I think this worked pretty strongly in my favour. By September of my gap, I had read more, was more self-assured, confident, aware of my passion for History, had more to cover in terms of PS and submitted essays and had just learned so many more skills. I also had my A-levels, which helped immensely.
On applying in a gap year I would say, it made it easier because there was no gamble in me as a candidate (I had my grades) but it was also a very difficult process as I had minimal support. There was no grooming or preening to be moulded into the perfect candidate, I just threw myself into it with no idea what to expect.

There are several components to Oxford application:
Application (before October 15th, unlike other uni's which is January 15th) (personal statement, reference)
Written work
HAT (2nd November)
Interview (called (or not) for interview up to a week before (interviews are held at the beginning of December))

Choosing Oxford
School never encouraged me to to apply to Oxford. I don't think they thought I was capable or it was worth the extra pressure and, to be honest, they never really pushed for Oxbridge applications, despite many being able. I had always questioned whether I could get in and, in August, when I opened my A-levels and screamed with utter surprise, I thought "shit, well I probably should give it a shot". At the time, I'd already set my heart on another uni so to me, Oxford was like "well, I'll never know if I don't try". I was slightly intimidated by the strength of passion towards the uni by other candidates, it made me feel undeserving of the opportunity. It wasn't until I got there, for the interview, that I thought "I really want this". It felt so unattainable and distant from the world I knew so I couldn't really imagine myself there. But it now feels like the dream.
Grades had a lot of influence over my decision to apply. A few people have asked me whether their grades could equate to a place of Oxbridge and, honestly its impossible to say. Whilst you have to show academic aptitude, there, again, isn't a specific formula.  It differs for every candidate and there are so many other factors considered (personal statement, reference, contextual data, HAT score, written work, interview performance, predicted/achieved grades, your passion for the subject, whether you'd thrive in Oxford, whether the tutors want to teach you etc).

My GSCE's:  5*, 5A's, 2B's inc. an A in History
A-levels: A*A*A* (History, English Lit, Geography)
(I've included these to perhaps contextualise idk)

Unlike some people, Oxford wasn't something I'd had my heart set on from birth, but I am now unbelievably excited to begin in October. I now can't imagine myself going anywhere else–I still have to pinch myself that its real.

Choosing History
My decision to study History was, perhaps, a late one. I adored it but (for some mad reason) was set on studying French and Politics. Luckily, I was persuaded to take a gap year and reconsider. By late November 2016 it clicked that History was the one–I think both my coursework and my History teacher played a big role in this. I would constantly find facts (such as: 5th February marked the 10,316th day since the Berlin wall fell. This was the exact same number of days it stood for. Cool?!) and opinions and events that I was desperate to share with other people but no one in my class was quite as passionate as me. I loved debating and debunking published view points and discovering astronomical facts to develop my arguments. In reality, I'm still apprehensive about my decision but that is okay. In terms of where to apply for my course, I chose cities and universities I knew I'd be happy at and courses that offered a lot of choice (I also applied to Leeds, Durham and UCL, and received offers from them all, if anyones interested)



Choosing the College
As my application was a bit of a whim, I chose a pretty arbitrary factor when narrowing down. Basically, I went off state school acceptance. I figured I'd be most positively considered and feel most at home where there are the most people from schools like me. It would, as much as possible, replicate the world I have been brought up in. Mansfield has an 91% state school acceptance rate and I really like the ethos and atmosphere of the college. Other factors people consider when choosing their college: reputation, position in the Norrington Table, architecture, tradition (or lack of), ethos, accommodation, food–generally they're pretty arbitrary reasons.

Personal Statement/reference
Admittedly, I didn't find my personal statement much of a chore. My main issue was, of course, cutting it down. General ideas I outlined were:
Reasons why I loved History/why History was important, what sparked my love of History, which periods I liked and why (generally referencing to school topics), books I'd read, places I'd been, opinions I'd challenged and a very brief outline of my gap year.
I was terrified about the supposed lack of reading in my personal statement. In everything article about Oxbridge applications they warned of the unattainable numbers of books you had to have read from the most ridiculous chronological spectrum to prove your worth. Mine were not 'conventional' historical arguments (2 were testimony, 1 more opinion based but by a lawyer not a historian, 1 fictional (but of significant contextual relevance) and an article by an historian) but they were the books I'd found most interesting. Essentially, I just wrote about what I was passionate about.
I definitely came to the conclusion that its not what you've read, what you've seen, what you've experienced but what it taught you.

HAT (History Admissions Test, sat by all Oxford History applicants)
The HAT is a 2 hour exam that consists of 3 questions, with 2 being source based and one an open ended essay. The sources are generally nothing you've ever seen before about a period you know nothing about. That actually makes it easier because you are simply analysing and inferring from what is present. My sources were about the history of emotions and a fictional letter written as a social and political commentary. I focussed on questioning everything: what is this source telling me? what is it not telling me? what do I need to know? what can I infer? why? what does that tell me about this? what influence does the provenance have? how does this alter the view point?
The essay question was a dream. The essay title essentially presents a question and asks you to answer it in relation to any period of history you know. Mine was "Did change come primarily from the top, from the bottom or from any other level of society?" which fitted my preferred topic perfectly (Gorbachev's role in the collapse of the USSR).
This question provides a lot of free reign which can be both daunting and liberating. They're not testing how much you know but how you use it. I tackled it like I would an A-level essay, outlining my key argument and the factors that supported it, along with other factors and their limited significance and throwing in the infamous twist. Had this question not suited the collapse of the USSR so perfectly, the exam would have undoubtedly gone tits up.
In terms of preparation, I was pretty lost. I couldn't viably revise a whole A-level course. I did all the past papers, analysing, reading the mark scheme, and analysing again. I made plans of all the essays and went over the key arguments of my A-level work. I knew I was most confident with and passionate about the USSR and would try, under almost any circumstance, to twist the question to suit it, so I pretty much just focussed on my arguments surrounding that.
On the day, despite being the only person sitting the exam, I just went in there and tried to prove I loved history. I actually really enjoyed the exam.



Essay/submitted work
I regretted my written work so much. I remember lying in the bath, after I'd got home from my interview, crying because I knew I'd messed up all my chances. I uhmed and ahed for literal months about what to send. They say they want a 2000 word essay of A2 standard, marked and written under normal conditions. I couldn't write anything for the sole purpose of application because of course there was no one to mark it so, to me, the best option seemed a revision essay. But, after talking and overthinking, I knew I should have sent in my coursework which I was passionate about, proud of, interested in and had received immense praise for. Instead I sent in an essay about whether the changes of 1921 were the leading cause of Stalin's increasing power between 1928 and 1953. It was a fine essay but could have been better. I was asked about the essay in my interview and, despite not being able to remember a single thing about the 5-year plans, it wasn't as catastrophic as it felt.

Interview
I got invited to interview a week prior. My interviews ran from the 5th-8th December and I stayed in college. I knew absolutely no one attending the interviews, had no idea where I was going or what I was doing. Turning up alone was daunting but amazingly rewarding and overall the experience was very enjoyable. It was mostly spent with other candidates asking "so what are you here for?" etc but people were lovely and, because everyone is alone and nervous, throwing yourself into that environment is actually relatively easy. Contrary to almost every other candidate, I spent the time exploring and going to coffee shops and the pub and shopping and reading with a girl who had also applied in her gap year. We both did very little to prepare when we were actually in Oxford, perhaps because we felt more assured in our abilities. Que sera sera and all that. She had also been through the interview process before so did a lot to reassure me that there really is little you can do to prepare.  The most valuable use of my time, I decided, was to see if I actually wanted to live in Oxford and make myself feel relaxed. It paid off.
(I think most other candidates actually spent their time doing the A-level work they were missing out on which is pretty essential. Obviously, neither of us had any).

In terms of interview prep, I re-read some of my books (and the arguments, ideas and notes I'd written for all), went over my essay numerous times and altered my argument, dissected my personal statement and read. In hindsight, this is almost all you can do to prepare. You have no control over what they ask you, and it will most likely not be what you are expecting. Just read over everything you've written and think about how your arguments have changed.
At Mansfield, everyone was given 2 interviews spread over 2 days (this varies college to college) and a potential third interview if you'd been pooled to another college. My first interview was about my written work and my personal statement and my second was about my personal statement and a source. Both lasted 20 minutes and were really enjoyable. The tutors were so lovely and it was very informal. I was asked "What's the difference between History and Memory?" (still no idea), "What causes persecution?", "What do you know about 10th Century anti-Semitism?" (nothing), "What's the value of personal testimony?" and many others that have been forgotten in the blur of the week. Most of my replies were pretty vague, I didn't use anywhere near enough historical evidence to back them up, and if I did it all related to Stalinist Russia or a random episode of the Guilty Feminist that popped into my head. I mostly talked about things I believed or knew or examples I understood, taking their question and putting it into my own context (e.g. I don't know why people were persecuted in the 10th Century for being Jewish but I do know why they were persecuted in the 20th Century). For the history and memory question, I had no answer. I posed one idea, challenged it, contradicted myself then got confused. I basically talked through my thought process, because I'd read an article that told me, if all else fails, to do that. The tutors were really supportive, taking my ideas, expanding the and guiding me when I was lost. There were moments of silence, moments when I went down a path and thought "what the fuck am I saying?" and moments where I had no idea where to even begin.
The source was 10/10. I was given 2 minutes to analyse it then had to answer some questions and dissect its purpose and validity. It was about curing 15th Century stomach cramps. It pulled on themes of religion and wealth and superstition and had an unknown origin. I love analysing sources so was pretty happy when I was presented with it. This is the one part of the interview that I thought went well.

In terms of clothing (something I spent many hours obsessing over) I wore some cigarette style trousers with a black jumper/a striped top and black suede Oxford brogues (lol appropriate). To my second interview I forgot to change my shoes and ended wearing my trainers but I also figured they couldn't care less about what I wore.
I was told that in my interview I couldn't: chew gum, fiddle, touch my hair, look away, fidget, wear trainers, click my pen, but I did all these things. Because when your lost in academic intensity, these feel like the most banal rules.

I had no idea how the interview went, it was impossible to tell. I spent hours dissecting the experience and thinking of all the things I did wrong and the arguments I should have made. I remember crying in a coffee shop on my last day because I realised how much I wanted to go and how badly I'd screwed up.



Decision
Decisions were made on the 10th January and, to my shock, were received by email. I was expecting a painful day at work to return to a letter but I received a response at 9am. I was home alone and simply refreshed my emails out of habit (not expecting to see their deicison). I spent the morning with pent up energy and no one to tell, repeatedly thinking "what?!". I genuinely couldn't (and still can't) believe it.

I remember receiving an email from OxbridgeAdmissions that advertised a mock-Skype interview for £600. It felt entirely disheartened, screaming that "wealth remains the only pass into this elite club". The £90 train tickets to my interview made me wince so being offered a £600 SKYPE interview felt like an insult. But now I am on the other side, I hope my experience dispels some of the myths of application. I wasn't preened or prepped, I didn't have a mock interview or advice on the exam, I came from a sub-standard school that sent a maximum of 1 candidate to Oxbridge a year. I didn't spend every breathing hour reading my way through the history of the world since BC, I just spoke and wrote profusely about what I was passionate about and took the experience as it came. Daily, I question how I managed to get a place and feel completely stupid and have a serious case of imposter syndrome– I'm not even there yet.
I still don't know how I got in and it there feels to be so many aspects of luck involved but hey, you never know if you don't try.

If you have any other questions or there's anything I haven't mentioned, message me on twitter/insta!

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***My attitude might sound quite blasé, I promise I'm not. I'm just trying to give a realistic experience.

4 comments

  1. Katie, I’d firstly like to say well done for getting into Oxford again, it’s such an amazing achievement! This post was so informative, I don’t think I’ve actually read a post about the Oxford interviews that is as well written as this. Being in year 12 I have started thinking about uni choices and after going on a study day to Oxford in October I absolutely adored the city and the lecture we had about the Silk Road (although I was slightly intimidated by some of the other people there who seemed to end up asking questions left right and centre about the Oxford application process). Whether I’ll apply or not I’m not sure, but I just love learning new things and since starting college I didn’t realise how much I actually did. I can’t wait to read all your posts about Oxford and how you’re getting on! x

    Eleanorclaudie.com

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    1. AH I'm so glad it was so helpful, so much about Oxford applications can be so intimidating and, in my experience, completely false so I wanted to tell my own version haha. Certainly sounds like a possibility, I know what you mean about being intimidated but just remind yourself you are just as worthy as them, have just as much chance as them! You've got so long to decide and so many things will change in that time :) xx

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  2. I might have missed the news but you're going to the oxford??!!
    That's actually so amazing & congratulations <3 <3
    http://sputniksweetheartn.blogspot.com.au/

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Katie