Arts Blog, having spent more time than most holed up in academic institutions with quill in one hand and parchment in the other, always gets a shiver down its spine at this time of year. ‘Exam Season…’, Arts Blog thinks to itself (mimicking, as best it can, the voice of the bloke who does the trailers for 24: Jack is Back and the Too Fast, Too Furious franchise), ‘…Is Upon Us!’. Over the course of its academic career, Arts Blog likes to think it became a battle-worn examination warrior, year on year sheathing its pen in its pencil-case, tucking its ruler into its trousers, and blue-tacking its crib-sheet to the inside of the toilet (third cubicle from the left in the gents on the second floor), before heading into School Hall to slay the latest questions on Jane Austen or the Russian Revolution. Admittedly, Arts Blog hasn’t done any kind of public exam since it stepped out, ruddy-faced and covered in ink, into the Real World all those moons ago – but nonetheless the annual shiver, drilled remorselessly into Arts Blog’s spine over many summers, still returns.
Arts Blog’s mentioning of these annual vertebrate spasms is not intended as a cry for medical help (although it is about time Arts Blog went for a check-up – Arts Blog can never be too careful), but instead as a Word of Warning: get your priorities in order (yes, Arts Blog is aware that that is technically five Words of Warning). There would be little point in putting in all this time and effort into choosing colleges and subjects, writing essays and personal statements, and reading books if you take your eye off the ball and don’t focus on the initial task in hand: namely, getting the required grades for Oxbridge entry over the course of the next month or so. So Arts Blog strongly recommends that you heed its advice, and forget about Oxbridge for now – at least until the final ‘i’ is dotted and the final ’t’ wearily crossed on the exam paper. Those exam results are the seat reservation slip to go along with your Oxbridge ticket, without which the Admissions-Tutor-cum-Ticket-Inspector will be forced to eject you at the next station, or ask you to pay the full fare on the day of travel (railcards not accepted). One of these days, reader, Arts Blog will dream up a metaphor worth writing home about. One of these days…
Arts Blog’s Catch-22
So, Words of Warning about how you shouldn’t take your eye off the ball accurately counted and solemnly delivered, Arts Blog will now continue as normal, and suggest ways in which you can take your eye off the ball (one of which, it could be argued, is reading Arts Blog, leaving Arts Blog in something of a Catch-22).
This month Arts Blog, not satisfied with its efforts from last month, is going to talk about reading again. As you may recall, last month Arts Blog discussed how to go about narrowing down the millions of books that are available on your subject area into more manageable, bite-size chunks, and how to effectively target your reading. This month, Arts Blog is going to discuss how you go about interacting with that reading to get the most out of it, and make the whole thing a more engaging experience. It is, as Arts Blog has mentioned before, crucial to enjoy your reading, so that sitting down with a book each day of the next few months doesn’t become a chore – and whilst Arts Blog offers no guarantees, it would say with some degree of certainty that employing some of the following tactics will help to ensure that reading is as engaging and interesting a process as possible.
The Three Categories of Reading according to Arts Blog
It might be helpful to think about the reading that you do as being divided into three separate, but very much inter-related, categories. Regardless of which subject you are applying for, those categories could be described as follows:
Primary Category: the initial, or original, text. In English, for example, this might be a poem by John Donne or a novel by Charlotte Brontë. In History, it might be a contemporary newspaper article or diary entry. In History of Art it might be a painting by Rembrandt or a sculpture by Rodin.
Secondary Category: a commentary, or critical analysis of the original text. Using the above examples – possibly a book discussing themes in Donne’s poetry or Brontë’s novels, an article by an historian analysing the accuracy or otherwise of the newspaper/diary, or a piece critiquing the work of Rembrandt or Rodin.
Tertiary Category: general theoretical or philosophical writings. Work not concerned with any specific text within the subject area (and perhaps not even directly related to the subject), but which can be used to throw light on it. So, for example, the work of contemporary philosophers such as Hobbes might be relatable to a study of Rembrandt, or the work of Marx might give a new angle when discussing an historical event.
Arts Blog’s Recipe for Success
These categories are somewhat broad brushstrokes, but understanding the manner in which they interact is very helpful indeed. However, the important thing is not just that you are aware how they interact with each other, but also that you as the reader interact with each of them. A key part of any successful Oxbridge application is individuality of thought. The admissions tutors/ticket inspectors at all the colleges will want to see that you have not only read plenty, but that you have thought about, and formed opinions on, the plenty that you have read.
So each time you read an original ‘Primary Category’ text, take a few minutes after you have closed the book to consider what you’ve read – maybe even jot down a few ideas. When you read a text from the ‘Secondary Category’, be asking yourself if you agree with it as you go along – after all, just because A thinks B about C, doesn’t mean that you have to agree (useful little rhyme there as an aide memoir – Arts Blog is a poet and isn’t even aware of the fact). And any time you read a ‘Tertiary Category’ text, ask yourself how you can apply that to your subject – does it support the thoughts you jotted down a few seconds ago, or does it throw a new light on them? Finally, the way in which you think about those texts, and the way those texts relate to each other can also be interlinked. So a secondary critical text might draw upon a tertiary theoretical text in order to disagree with a primary original text… and you might disagree with that.
This kind of engaged, critical and independent thinking is what will set you apart come interview day, and it is groundwork that you can start laying now. It may perhaps seem oddly simple to divide texts and ideas into these categories, but such organisation of thought has a couple of benefits. Firstly, it can give you clarity, and enable you to be more secure on where you stand in the argument which, in turn, will help you structure and formulate arguments of your own. Secondly, understanding where each text you read is coming from and how it relates to others will make the entire reading process more engaging for you: treating texts as an ongoing discussion in which you also play a part is, Arts Blog is sure you agree, far more interesting than sitting back, taking each text in isolation, and not drawing up the dots between them. The more you engage, the more you read, the more you think – the whole thing can be a positive upward spiral if you approach it in the right way. You read it here first.
But, as Arts Blog has been making abundantly and hypocritically clear, you shouldn’t have been reading it anyway. Now go and revise.