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Summer Reading: What does it actually mean and how to do it effectively

By now, even if you’re at the start of your application journey, you’re probably already tired of the phrase “reading around the subject”.

However, there’s good reason for your teachers to be talking about it week in week out, as the demonstration of academic knowledge beyond the core syllabus is so critical in the Oxbridge interview process that reading simply cannot be ignored. With the exam season soon over, you will have the summer holidays to rest and recover, but also time to do some much needed reading. This blog will focus on how to make that reading as streamlined, fun and most importantly, efficient as possible.


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What does it actually mean?

When we talk about “reading around the subject”, 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.

Action point:
When designing your initial reading list, select five or so books that cover a breadth of topics or styles relating to your subject. Of these, try to read three in the first instance – the remaining books can then serve as stand-ins if any of the others are poor reads or don’t interest you, which can bring your reading and motivation to a shuddering halt. (If you are finding a book uninteresting, it’s best to quit it and move on to another one that suits your interests better).

What if I don’t enjoy the book I’m reading?

An important tip – and one which is perhaps not very intuitive – is to put down a book if it is making for slow reading or not of particular interest and move onto the next. It is easy to get caught up in the idea that being uninterested in a certain work makes you less clever or that you’re ‘not getting it’, but we each have our own interests and it’s entirely valid to decide that a certain aspect of your chosen subject, or the way in which a certain author writes, just doesn’t suit you very well. With particularly massive tomes, feel free to pick and choose just a few chapters to read. In the interview, the most likely question you will be asked is “tell me about your favourite chapter?” or “what was the most interesting thing you learned?” They will not ask you for a synopsis of every single chapter – so don’t worry if you haven’t read them.

Action point:
It can be useful to put post-it notes in your books to mark interesting pages or chapters as you go so that you can quickly brush up in the winter before your interviews

What if the text is particularly difficult?

A big stumbling block can be dealing with texts that are dense or particularly difficult to read. This is different from texts that you don’t find interesting in that finding a text difficult does not necessarily mean that you should give up, but rather that you may need to employ particular techniques when understanding the text.
First of all, think about the fact that all texts say something or does something. Realising that inaccessibility is a hurdle to overcome, and not a road block, can help you appreciate a text’s content. Breaking texts down into paragraphs, or natural breaks in the structure, allows you to ask two questions: what is the author saying, and what is the author doing. Are they discussing gender in Shakespeare? Why are they using Viola at this point in the text? Asking questions of the text constantly will allow you to follow the structure of the argument better, and not be distracted by the sometimes confusing syntax or structure.

Secondly, consider who else has read this text and perhaps given their opinion on it. Some lecturers will advise you not to read summaries. Some supervisors will spot very quickly if you’ve lifted materials from other people’s criticism of core texts. In spite of this, however, reading other people’s summaries or criticisms can be incredibly helpful to your understanding of a difficult text. It is important to not uncritically take on board a summary or critique without having an original interpretation, as this will be found out very quickly, but summaries are a door to a greater level of understanding.

Thirdly, whilst it may seem obvious, it’s important to remember that every text is different. Not all texts will take the same energy and mental processing as others do, and understanding that your strategy for reading must adapt to the text is necessary for making sure you do the reading you need to do. Some texts can be read in one sitting and stay in the memory, while others you will need to break down paragraph by paragraph and write copious notes to understand. Tied into this is understanding the cultural lexicon of a text; knowing that Bulgakov wrote in satire of the Soviet government and Fitzgerald wrote in response to the Great Depression can help you contextualise texts to give way to greater understanding.

Action point:
Respond to the text you are trying to read. Writing summaries of texts you have read will force you to confront fully whether or not you have understood a text. Writing a response to a text will force you to think through not only what the text says, but what it does; how has the author made you change, or not change, your mind? Was the author convincing? Not only will this help you understand the text in the present, but it will allow you to understand the text in the future when it comes to reviewing your notes.

How do I go the extra mile?

Once you have selected the books you want to target, you should also make a small amount of time in your weekly schedule to read news around your chosen subject. You may have a subscription to academic magazines through school, but don’t rely just on these, since this is what most other applicants around the country will be reading. By researching independently online, there are so many more diverse resource to explore. Why not check out the BBC news page on your phone or laptop on the way to school or during your lunch break? Short articles such as these, which keep you up to speed on the most current news, which is important, since your Oxbridge interviewers will expect you to be aware of big news stories in your chosen area of study.

Action point:
In addition to news sites, there are a wide range of great online blogs and YouTube channels that are both entertaining and educational to watch. Subscribe to the more active channels and make a habit of catching up on a regular basis.

Any final tips?

As a more relaxing, and perhaps easier-going, recommendation, try watching educational TV programmes. Short insightful documentaries, centred around an interesting topic of your chosen course, will help you in stressful interview situations. Visual learning is often incredibly effective, so never underestimate the power of a good hour-long documentary!

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