I get it, I really do. School all day, homework, extra-curricular activities, sports, some family commitments and then a little social life… what time is left for reading? However, as the exams approach with the summer holidays following swiftly behind, now is the time to assess two key activities that are key to your Oxbridge application. The first activity is that of reading, which I will focus on today, and the second is a summer work experience/internship which will be the focus of next month’s blog.
A core part of your preparation for Oxbridge (as I am sure you all have heard many times now!) is extra-curricular reading or “reading around the subject”. Why is this important? Well, the idea is that the best students will not only have a rock-solid knowledge and understanding of the core curriculum, but will be aware of and educated on topics not covered in their school studies, or have advanced their learning of core topics to a beyond A-level standard. This idea holds significant weight with Oxbridge, and they actively seek students who have sought to engage with their subject beyond what they learn at school.
While the concept is simple, execution can be more difficult. What I find with most students is that even when they carve out time in their week to do reading, they are not using that time in the most efficient manner. Often, a long list of 10+ science books are selected for reading over the summer and students are often amazed when they can barely finish a quarter of the list by summer end. Remember – even the best written science book won’t have you flipping pages as fast as a Harry Potter book! To handle this I recommend a multi-faceted approach. First, spend some time carefully selecting a reasonable reading list of books. Depending on your own innate reading speed, I would aim for ~5 books. Speak to your teachers and read reviews online to find good books that are readable and engaging. However, if you start reading a book and after a chapter or two you are really struggling, do not be afraid to stop that book and pick something else up! There is no point getting bogged down in reading material that you do not find engaging. Not only are you wasting your reading time but it is unlikely you will retain much of the information from reading… which leads to the next key point: take notes.
I know taking notes sounds like extra work but in fact this will save you an enormous amount of time down the road. In short, if you read a whole book in May, you will likely have forgotten 95% of its specifics by the time your interview rolls around in December. As such, as you read a book place post-it notes or other bookmarks on interesting pages and examples that will allow you to quickly look back over them come interview season. Highlight anecdotes, write a few bullets on the inside cover of the book (as long as you own it!) or in a separate notebook. In short, by the time you finish the book, you should have a quickly accessible record of the top 3 things you like about the book, as well as one criticism of what the book could do better and why.
In addition, why limit yourselves to just books? Many of you have subscriptions to New Scientist through school, but why read the same material as everyone else in the country? By going online, you have so many excellent science resources to explore! For a simple and quick fix (I recommend 5 mins daily, on your phone while on the bus going to school) check out the BBC news science, health and technology pages. These short articles can bring you up to speed on the most current science news which is important, as your Oxbridge interviewers will expect you to be aware of the year’s big science news stories! As a final, more relaxing recommendation I have two words: David Attenborough. His nature documentaries are probably one of the key reasons why I got into Cambridge! These excellent documentaries are jam-packed full of excellent examples that can be used in interview situations.