Government & Politics A Level And Beyond

Dosser’s Dream or Prep for PPE?


Let’s face it, the social sciences seem to have received something of a reputation in recent years for not being quite as ‘hard-core’ as the more traditional subjects, particularly the natural sciences. Social sciences in secondary education generally appear to have been cast as the very epitome of all that is wrong with today’s school system: modern; trendy; more focussed on assessing the opinions of the students who are taking the subject in question’s A level exams than on hard facts. And woe betide any young person naïve and foolish enough to invest their student loan in a degree in a social science subject! “Where’s the job at the end of that?” one hears various disapproving parties mutter. Those not in the know might be forgiven for assuming that anyone undertaking a politics, sociology, anthropology or psychology degree was a work-shy freeloader, bleeding the state’s resources dry, rather than a committed student, keen to better understand the world we live in.


This article presumes you want to get on in the world; get good grades; go to a red-brick university; maybe even try for Oxbridge; then have a satisfying career afterwards. If so, are social science subjects to be avoided? In short, no. Social sciences are rather like wine: done well, they can be the perfect conversation starter; the ideal partner to grand thought and the forger of wonderful relations with useful people. Done badly, they can produce at best, insipid and, at worst, completely asinine results. Having seen many students traverse the more tricky parts of the A level Politics syllabus in recent years with varying degrees of prowess, I can honestly say that taking such a subject requires equivalent levels of application and skill as any other and, what’s more, it enables the best students to take abstract ideas and analyse them in a way which the top graduate employers are looking for.


People do not get into Oxbridge because they are clever. They undoubtedly are clever, of course, but so are lots of others. Neither do people get into Oxbridge because they are good at interviews. In fact, people get into Oxbridge because they have an incredible, undying and all-consuming passion for the subject they want to study. They can talk about elements of it with joy and vigour, with confidence yet without hubris, in a small room across a tiny table with someone who, some years before, probably did exactly the same thing in another small room somewhere. In short, they get in to Oxbridge because they are a bit like the people who are interviewing them. Do you have that all-consuming interest in Politics? If so, have the courage of your convictions and take the A level if at all possible! Show the interviewers that you are committed to the subject, not that your school told you to keep your options open and do English, History and Maths. This nation might not need lots more social science graduates, but it desperately needs good ones: to be the thinkers and do-ers of governments of the future; to analyse society and hold it to account; to formulate company policies; to run public services better; to use their expertise in the law; in short, to change the world.


Let’s assume for a minute then that this article has persuaded you: you’re studying Government & Politics A level and you’re thinking of applying for either the traditional PPE at Oxford or the excellently diverse HSPS at Cambridge.


Tips to help you prepare for an interview

  • Both courses cover a variety of disciplines and neither university expects you to know everything about each subject. What they do expect is that you are able to talk about relevant points that you have thought about in some depth. Get in the practice of analysing the daily news in terms of what its implications are for politics in general. What would a classical liberal think of student fees increases? What would Marx have to say about ISIS? What would Keynes make of the situation in Greece?
  • Have courage in your argument, but don’t be bullish with it in interview. Debating with good grace is always impressive. What is not, is either being overawed by your company and not proffering opinion, or insisting you are completely right in the face of considerably educated opposition.
  • Lots of schools choose now not to opt for political ideology modules at A2. This is because they are harder to study than American politics or global issues, but in many ways it leaves potential candidates with no grounding in political philosophy. If this is you, get yourself this book: ‘An Introduction to Political Philosophy’, by Jonathan Wolff. Read it, apply it in your exams and in your interview, and – if you get in – you will be able to better understand the concepts of political philosophy which some supervisors and tutors might assume are already embedded.
  • If you are thinking about going into the law at some point, keep your notes from the first year of A level Politics forever! Obviously, things do change. However, Constitutional Law (a vital part of any Law conversion course) is made an awful lot easier if you can remember what the Lord Chancellor does…
  • Enjoy your A level! If you don’t, you definitely won’t enjoy the degree. A levels are an amazing opportunity to mine a talented subject specialist (ie. your teacher or possibly your tutor!) for ideas, information and analysis. You do not get this ever again to such an extent. Use it!


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Additional resources:

The Transatlantic Relationship
Politics Easter Revision
The Politics of Subject Choice: A Classical Apology

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