“Taking it Personally”: Finding your Feelings in an Oxbridge Arts Application
We are, as a society, overwhelmingly institutionalised. This, of course, has many benefits – we stick to deadlines, go to school and go to work most days, and are able abide by the law. Thus our nation is able to run smoothly, safely, economically and effectively.
The resultant notion, however, that school and work is dictated by rules and a strict dogma of what is right and wrong, has, in my wide experience of coaching Oxbridge hopefuls with their applications, discouraged a sense of individuality and bravery when it comes to approaching academia and school work in general.
Of course the basic rules or “laws” of academic studies have to be rigorously instilled within us to allow for a comprehensive command over the various disciplines we are asked to master throughout our school careers.
However, it is one’s ability to then manipulate, and in fact transcend these very “laws” in question that becomes the crucial and often missing link in an Oxbridge Application. For instance, a successful Law candidate, as a supervisor I spoke to at Cambridge informed me, will not only be able to memorize the series and orders of laws in the set textbook, but will then take pleasure in playing around with them when persuading their individual stamp on things.
Oxbridge already knows you “know” lots of things – you wouldn’t be applying without a very strong academic record, inexhaustible proof of your ability to know/memorize/retain. Those assessing your application are looking for candidates to override what they’ve simply been taught to form their own creative opinions on subjects that have been taught for centuries.
On this subject, my sitting in on two mock History interviews was enlightening. Both candidates were presented with sources, from which they were asked to deduce a sort of historical narrative or “story”. The weaker of the two approached each source as an undeniable packet of lawful information (a series of facts, if you will), while the stronger approached each source like a distrustful detective, allowing them to maintain a sense of individual agency from the sources themselves. History, after all, is not a subject that tells us what or how the world was, but is, rather, a way in which a wide plethora of different people can form their own personal reading of what has happened in the past. So when asked about a historical episode at interview, always bear in mind your own unique view of the world, instead of just trying to show off what you “know.” It’s instead about your feelings and reactions towards “what you know.” After all, every Oxbridge academic will tell you that his or her work is a deeply personal venture.
When I conduct mock interviews for the History of Art, I am always looking for questions or images that the candidate will never have seen or considered. Those that are fearful of such images are the ones that tend to be less successful, as their worry that this specific lack of knowledge will be of hindrance to their application takes over. This should never be the case. The best candidates respond to the images emotionally (even though they’ve never seen them before), telling me exactly how they feel about them in that moment. And that’s when an Oxbridge interviewer gets excited – it is the glimmers of individual free thought outside the strict “laws” of schoolwork that makes a strong application, and ultimately, a successful student at Oxbridge.
So my one piece of advice when it comes to an application to Oxford or Cambridge is to remember why you love your subject, and to figure out what exactly it is YOU feel, as an individual, about it and its surrounding issues. Practice going around art galleries, watching the news, reading articles and books with this frame of mind, and you’ll be in good shape by the time of your interview.
Oxbridge Arts Application was written by an Cambridge Graduate who is a Tavistock Tutor