Will – English
Journey to Oxford
Coming from a single parent family and attending a state school in a deprived area of the Midlands, Oxford was never particularly something I really considered until around Sixth Form, when one teacher suggested I should keep one eye on the prospect of applying. I ended up taking the plunge after umming and ahhing over whether it would be a realistic thing to apply for (it is — and it’s only one option on your UCAS form!) and the rest is history…
Why did you choose to study your course? What is your favourite thing about it?
I was only ever going to study English at University — it had always been my favourite subject right through school so was just the right fit. What’s lovely about the English course at Oxford is its flexibility and opportunities it gives you to follow your nose and write tutorial and exam essays on what you’ve particularly liked over the course, whatever that may be. In my first year I went from writing on Old English poetry to the very different Alan Bennett and Willy Russell, just because I’d always loved their writing, in their presentation of 1980s menopausal women! I even wrote a tutorial essay in Hilary term last year basically saying every last reason why I thought the poet we’d read in class last week needed to calm down, get in the real world and stop being so highfalutin — pretty unpretentious. It’s all there for you to play with!
Why did you decide to apply to St Edmund Hall? What is your favourite thing about it now you’re here?
I never actually applied to Teddy Hall, simply because on the open day my mom said, ‘shall we look there, looks nice?’ and I said, ‘it’s not on my list — sporty apparently.’ But I shouldn’t have discounted it so quickly! Teddy Hall is such a lovely community with a very friendly and welcoming student body (it helps that the Freshers all basically live on top of each other in the college accommodation blocks, you get to know faces quickly!) and the English tutors are some of the loveliest you’ll meet. It’s great for drama people like me in that aside from sports it’s got a great drama society, a really lovely Creative Writing group (which I’m running this year!) and strong opportunities to show off your musical talents in college too.
How is your course taught?
The English course basically hinges on two fundamentals, the class and the tutorial, with you being able to pick and choose your lectures depending on what actually interests you (there’s only a couple of ‘mandatory’ or ‘recommended’ series usually). Classes take place in college with all your fellow Teddy Hall English students and offer a place to discuss your reading for that week or absorb and ask questions about a certain literary context relevant for that paper (papers are usually based on a period, e.g. literature from 1550-1660).
Meanwhile, the tutorial usually takes place with 2-3 people and your tutor, discussing, reflecting on and reshaping the ideas from your tutorial essay for that week; they are so useful in furthering your understanding and, ultimately, for your exam essays! Your essays should, in theory, take about three days to read material for and then write, but (particularly in first year) your classes often help to quickly shape your ideas for that week. I typically have around two classes and one tutorial a week, although on a busy week you might have two essays to do for tutorials on two different papers.
Describe your average Oxford day…
In second year, I probably walk the 15 minutes from my house down near Folly Bridge into college (a lot of second years live in Cowley, the student-area of town), and then might spend the morning in the college library (which is lovely!) or head to a couple of lectures at the English faculty.
Then I grab some lunch (praise the joys of the Tesco meal deal!), and on the days that I have classes get back to college to start at 2pm. At 3, when the class finishes, I might head home to do a bit of chill reading or just sort myself out for the week, do a bit of admin, see how I can be best productive (but probably fail to be!).
Generally speaking, the tutors say if you try to stick to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 philosophy for your work hours, you can’t go too far wrong, and then have 8 hours to get up to whatever other aspects of student life you want!
In the evenings I’ll do some extra-curricular stuff: spend time with friends, go to and run Teddy’s Creative Writing Group on a Wednesday night, go to drinks in the college bar, head to a formal dinner in college or get ready for a night out at one of Oxford’s clubs or a college bop. It’s a fun time!
What helped you prepare for the admissions process?
After sending off my personal statement, I took a look at and tried to complete some past ELAT papers, trying to time myself to see how much I could get down on the page in the allowed time (have a guess how well I got on at not saying ‘just another five minutes’…).
I also watched a few interview taster videos which helped to set my mind at rest about the interview process given at that point I felt like I was going in pretty blind (I was the first person from my school to get in to Oxford in ten years, so didn’t really have anyone to refer to!).
Really though, what was most helpful in both writing my personal statement and in the interviews themselves was just trying to absorb a wide range of literature and again, as you do in the course itself, following my nose. The tutors are most interested in what interests you, not expecting you to come in and regurgitate a load of information on the texts you think might ‘look good’ to them, because the stuff you like will incite the most natural discussion and give the best picture of you. To help with my A Level course I’d been to a local cinema to see a screening of Margaret Atwood in Conversation from the National Theatre for about a fiver, and the couple of lines of poetry that she closed the discussion with came in handy right at the end of my final interview and made me feel like I could’ve done a decent job in there.
I also mentioned in my personal statement (theatre kid that I am) that an article on the hybridisation of Shakespeare that I’d read early in Year 12 had prompted me to write an essay (of sorts!) on the adaptation of Romeo and Juliet into West Side Story.
You can ask college Access and Outreach officers for some semblance interview questions if you fancy chatting to someone about them and getting a bit of practice in vocalising your thoughts (although I still have trouble with this in class now!), but your interview will be really tailored to what it is you’ve written about in your application, so as long as you can talk a bit about and have absorbed some of what interests you, you’ll be absolutely fine!
What was the biggest misconception you had about studying at Oxford before you came?
That the Oxford environment was one for people far cleverer and better-educated than me, a bit pretentious, and too much hard work with no play. While some days I might still think I’m blundering through a bit while other people seem to just know what they’re doing (not true!), I know now that that was a complete misconception: there are some really down to earth people, especially in a college like Teddy, who are really chill, can be from similar backgrounds, and are down to go out and have fun in the evenings or stay in to socialise, do whatever you enjoy, that you can feel on a level with. I belong at Oxford just as much as they do!
What would you tell your 17-year-old self about applying to and studying at Oxford/St Edmund Hall now?
Stop umming and ahhing, have some faith in yourself, you can do this. Apply! Look, you’re here now!