If I remember correctly (and I may not – it’s been a long time since Arts Blog did its Oxbridge application, and Arts Blog isn’t as young as it used to be), we are now in the thick of things, and, in many ways, bang in the middle of the most daunting part of the whole application process. Yes, the interviews are pretty scary, and yes, penning a Personal Statement is quite intimidating, but Arts Blog seems to distinctly recollect (and, as it says, this takes some effort as Arts Blog is getting on a bit) that this part isn’t too easy either. At this stage, it’s quite possible that universities in general – and Oxbridge colleges and faculty buildings in particular – all loom out at you through a fug of confusion, like separate yet disarmingly similar and impenetrable castles, their drawbridges raised and moats brimming so that none may enter. But fear not! Before this metaphor becomes any more stretched, Arts Blog is here on its zimmer, to helpfully divide up the application process into small, bite-size chunks with the express purpose of making the whole thing seem a bit more manageable. Hopefully, over the next few months, you’ll find here some useful advice in the form of a step-by-step guide, which should dispel some of that fug – and this week, we’re looking at subject choices.
It’s important (especially if you’re Arts Blog’s age), to take things one step at a time throughout the application process – and not to try and run before you can walk. It’s easy to feel that you have to get ahead of the game, and start researching colleges, application figures, professors etc. without delay (schools are sometimes unhelpful in all this, throwing statistics and dire warnings of competition at you at every opportunity) – but the truth is that this can do more harm than good. By trying to jump through Hoop 3 before you’ve even got to Hoop 1, you can find that you have actually narrowed down the possibilities on offer to you, and set yourself on a route that, further down the line, is very hard to redirect. The first, and most important question, then, is this: regardless of whether you want to go to Oxbridge, and regardless of which of the many Oxbridge colleges you may end up applying to, what do you actually Want To Study?
Arts Blog is aware that this question seems deafeningly obvious, but there are some important points that can stand reiteration, and are worthy of serious thought. Firstly, and you’ll have heard this before, the subject you choose needs to be your passion. But this is not just because, a few months down the line, some Oxbridge professors will be assessing your passion in a small, rickety room full of books (although they will) – the need for passion is more immediate than that. Whichever subject you choose, you will need to carry it with you between now and December: a huge amount of a successful application is carried out by the applicant, alone, with a book. Unfortunately, no-one else can motivate you to do that but yourself. Sitting and reading, especially with a hectic school schedule to contend with, takes self-discipline – and that self-discipline is easy as long as it isn’t a chore. Choose the right subject, and it won’t be – choose the wrong one, and you can easily find yourself resenting the whole process. The importance of subject-choice really can’t be stressed enough.
So how do you choose the right subject? Well, it’s trickier than you might think. At first glance, an academic career can appear to be a gradual narrowing-down process from GCSE, through AS and A Levels, to your degree. At GCSE you might (if you’re anything like Arts Blog) have been counting down the days before you can stop going to Science lessons, and by the end of your A Levels, you may decide that, out of English, History and Theology (for example), your preferred subject is History – that’s the one you get the best marks in, the one you enjoy reading about, and, to top it all off, the teacher is Really Cool. So you should apply for History, right? Wrong (well, not necessarily wrong, but not necessarily right either). The choices on offer to you at university are far more diverse than the choices available to you at A Level, so be careful not to lured into making the obvious connection. Similarly, the range of subjects on offer to you within a course is huge – a university course is very flexible, and in some cases papers can be borrowed from other subjects, which just adds to the choice on offer. By thinking in detail, and looking carefully at which course suits you best, you can actively increase your chances of success. Why? Because the more carefully you analyse your own interests, the more likely you are to keep up that level of self-discipline mentioned above, AND the more carefully tailored your choice, the less competition there is likely to be. Don’t get Arts Blog wrong – all Oxbridge courses are competitive, but matching your own interests up to the right course in a considered manner is a crucial step, and one that far from all Oxbridge applicants take.
So the million dollar question is, ‘How do you go about that matching process?’ Well, there are two basic stages: Look At Yourself, and Do Your Research. By ‘look at yourself’, Arts Blog doesn’t mean ‘saunter over to the nearest mirror’ (in fact, Arts Blog tries to avoid doing this at all costs). No – let’s take, as an example, our History student from above. If he/she were to look at him/herself, he/she might find that he/she has a far greater interest in certain areas of History than others. For example, Modern History post 1900 might be fascinating, but Medieval History far less so, and within Modern History, British Political History might be of acute interest. If that were to be the case, then it could be argued that History – in which, to an extent, a wide knowledge-base is compulsory – isn’t actually the right subject choice. A course in Politics, HSPS, PPE or even Sociology or Education might enable our imaginary applicant to pursue his/her particular interest much more efficiently – whilst maintaining an element of historical study as well. At this point, then, Do Your Research. The faculty websites have all the information you could possibly need: course details, areas of study, compulsory papers and options for non-compulsory ones, which papers can be borrowed from other faculties, etc. etc. etc.. If you know what your interests are, the options are all there – but you can’t match yourself to them unless you’ve analysed your interests (i.e. Looked At Yourself) first. And, needless to say, a good knowledge of the course, and a good reason for wanting to apply, are crucial when it comes to interview.
One of the joys of studying the arts (if Arts Blog could be permitted a moment of misty-eyed reflection) is that all the subjects intertwine. One cannot study English without some History, and one cannot study History without a knowledge of Politics; one cannot study Politics without an understanding of Sociology, and that requires some Philosophy. And so on. All this means is that dividing up your concept of the subjects on offer, as if you were selecting from the A Level range, is unhelpful – because choosing English as your degree doesn’t mean you can’t pursue an interest in History. In fact, it would be enormously helpful if you did. So opening up your mind to the possibilities on offer, and doing your best to find the right combination (which somewhere, somehow, will be available – there’s too much choice for it not to be) is the crucial first step in this whole process. Don’t underestimate it.