Anna Sykes is a British student who is currently in her first year studying English Literature at the University of York. Here, she gives some useful insights into her Oxford University application experience...
When applying for university last year, I decided to apply to Oxford for English Language and Literature and was given the opportunity to interview at Mansfield College. The experience of applying and interviewing at Oxford was a very valuable one and I hope to pass on some of the things I learnt in this article.
Decisions decisions decisions…
An Oxford degree can be very different to a degree at other universities in many ways; for example, some teaching is done in smaller tutorial groups, rather than just in lectures and seminars, and there tends to be a higher number of contact hours. Therefore, it’s important to make sure that you are applying for a degree that is well suited to you, rather than just for the name and prestige.
Once you’ve decided that you definitely want to apply, you have to choose a college. Colleges are smaller living and teaching communities within the university and choosing one suited to your personality is vital. The Unifrog Oxbridge tool is really useful for gaining an understanding of the colleges and making a shortlist of colleges you want to visit at an open day.
The application process
While most universities only require a UCAS application, Oxford asks for three things before the interview stage: a UCAS application, a sample of written work and an admissions test. However, not all subjects require a sample of written work, so check on Oxford’s website for details for your course.
- UCAS application: Your personal statement has to really emphasise both your passion and aptitude for your chosen subject, so make sure you talk about your wider reading and any achievements you have relating to the subject. If you’re studying English, for example, you may want to start with a particular theme or literary technique that interests you and write about the texts you’ve enjoyed that relate to it.
- Written work: Your written work should show off your writing at its best, so make sure you choose a piece that you and your teachers believe reflects this.
- Admissions tests: Oxford admissions tests usually take place at the start of November. To prepare for this, it’s vital that you look at and complete various past papers to familiarise yourself with the test. It’s also a good idea to ask your subject teacher to mark them and give you feedback.
How I prepared
Since one of your interviews is based completely on your personal statement and written work, I made sure to really familiarise myself with the texts that I’d mentioned, thinking deeply about the themes explored in them and how they could be linked together.
For most subjects, including English, one interview is based around unseen materials. For English, you are given an unseen poem and to prepare for this I looked at various poems online and practised working through and analysing them. A wide selection of poems can be found on websites such as Poetry Foundation (https://www.poetryfoundation.org).
As well as independent preparation, I really valued having a practice interview as it helped me get used to the type of questions that I was going to be asked. Your school may set this up for you but if not, ask your subject teacher or Head of Year if they can interview you.
I also found it helpful to read interview experiences online to help familiarise myself with the process.
My interview experience
While interviewing, you will be staying in your college. I found this terrifying at first; however, I soon saw it as a great opportunity to meet others in my position and experience a taster of university life.
While in Oxford, you’ll have two or more interviews. The first interview I had was my unseen poetry interview. I really loved the poem that I was given and was able to work through it and provide some very analytical views on it. The tutors helped me work through the poem and it was a very open and collaborative experience. However, my second interview didn’t go as well and I found myself unable to answer many of the questions, creating quite an awkward atmosphere. Despite this, I tried to stay calm and managed to give more confident and perceptive answers towards the end of the interview. While I felt like I responded well to analysis questions on the unseen poem, I struggled when the tutors challenged the views I had expressed in my written work. Therefore, it might be a good idea to have thought about alternate views to the ones that you have expressed in both your personal statement and written work.
My 3 top tips:
- Make the most of the support you’re offered by your school or college, as well as online resources such as Unifrog. This can help you feel more prepared and confident throughout the process.
- Push yourself to constantly think deeper. Oxford are looking for students who are always pushing themselves within their chosen subject so, when reading, keep asking yourself questions such as ‘what is meant by this?’ or ‘how could I this link to another text?’
- Make sure you get the most out of the application process. Even if you aren’t given an offer, interviewing at Oxford is a huge achievement and it's a great opportunity for you to gain valuable interview skills, as well as a deeper understanding of your subject.