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Oxbridge too far (continued) - shadows of echoes of memories of songs
j4
j4
Oxbridge too far (continued)
Continued from Part 1.

So I did heaps of work over the summer holidays, reading everything I could get my hands on, and making copious notes without really knowing what for -- normally I was reading/writing towards a specific essay, but this was more vague. Because I didn't know what I was looking for, I was looking for everything; thinking about what I was reading, making connections between things. And with Eliot, it was all connections. There was nobody to tell me that I didn't have to read every text that Eliot quotes in The Waste Land... so I went through the notes and made lists, and read all the ones I could find. Dante's Inferno, Ovid's Metamorphoses (both in translation of course!), my parents' copy of The Golden Bough. It was like a treasure hunt, tracking down references and seeing the way everything was "deeply intertwingled", as my dad said.

Then there was the actual tuition leading up to the exam (I was in the last year to take a formal entrance exam for Oxford) -- four one-to-one lessons, which in retrospect were basically Oxford tutorials. Two (Shakespeare, and whatever the option I've forgotten was) with Miss C. who was scary, and two (Eliot, and the Brontës) with Mrs G. who was amazing. I can still remember the fluttering-in-the-stomach of those one-to-one lessons, in some small empty sixth-form garret classroom. Miss C. reduced me to tears by questioning everything I thought I knew how to think and then told me I should have a bit more self-confidence. I remember shouting "How do you expect me to have self-confidence when you're always telling me I'm wrong?" at her. (I may have been academically mature, but emotionally I was a complete mess. I'd like to say the emotional side of things all got so much better when I went to university, but you guys knew me then, and have known me since, so who the hell would I be fooling anyway?) I had past papers to look through as well; I would have to take two exam papers, the 'General English' paper and the 'Critical Commentary' paper (i.e. an 'unseen' critique of a couple of poems, or short extracts of prose or drama). I do remember being really disappointed that I couldn't take the 'General Paper' which some of my friends would be taking, the one that had questions like What is courage? and Could things be otherwise?, because it looked like so much fun. (The latter was a real question, and I've carried it around with me ever since.)

Open and shut days

I can't remember when it was that I first actually visited Oxford, so this section is somewhat 'out of time'. It was probably some time during that summer between Lower and Upper Sixth -- I could find out if I was back at my parents' house, because that's where all my diaries are (I kept obsessively detailed diaries in those days) -- and it wasn't an open day, it was just my friend Jenny's dad taking her and me and Vicky to look round Oxford. It was pouring down. We wandered around some of the colleges, grey stone and green quadrangles, leaves hanging heavy with rain. I thought I'd never seen anywhere so beautiful, and if I loved it in the rain, I knew I would love it in the summer, and in the snow.

I didn't go to any open days; I didn't really know how. Lots of people in the sixth form did, but I didn't know how to catch a train on my own, and my parents wouldn't have let me anyway because they didn't trust me not to get lost, and ... I don't know. At this distance from it I don't know if the school offered to organise trips to open days and I said no, or my parents said no, or if the school just let us shift for ourselves and I didn't, or if I was still dithering about universities anyway. I don't remember how on earth I actually made my university choices, though I do remember writing off for prospectuses (the horror of trying to write proper grown-up letters which I thought would actually influence whether the university wanted me or not, because I didn't realise I could have just written "prospectus please" and my address on a post-it note and the admissions people would've still sent it out (nowadays I'd just fill in a web form or just read the prospectus online). I knew I didn't want to be too close to home or too far away. And I remember writing the UCAS 'Personal Statement' (a trauma that I didn't realise I'd have to repeat every time I applied for a job), agonising over endless rewrites, failing to fit everything I wanted to say into the box on the form, and eventually cheating by printing it out in 11.5pt instead of the specified 12pt. The struggle to print it into the right place on the form (a whole Sunday afternoon in my dad's office cursing the laser printer) -- I guess they do it all online now.

University choices

Anyway, I ended up applying to Oxford, Durham, York, Birmingham, Southampton, and Sussex. Durham was where you went if you didn't get into Oxford (yes, Durham folk, I know that's a rotten slander, but it was what Everybody Knew then), Birmingham was where Mrs G. had gone and was a cool place where they had proper gigs and things, and Southhampton and Sussex were near the seaside, hurrah!

Jenny's parents took us to Durham (their alma mater); and my parents took me to look round Southhampton and Sussex en route to a family holiday on the Isle of Wight. We did look round the campuses (or colleges in Durham's case), and it did demystify things to some extent (so you'd sleep here, and you'd have to walk around town and get to here to go to lectures...) -- and to be honest the idea of living in a town was incredibly exciting to me, living as I did in a one-shop village 5 miles from the nearest town with the last bus home at 5:30pm (you mean I could ... go out, and then... get back? without having to ask for a lift or be in by a specific time?).

Under Pressure: The Exam

The exam was terrifying. Two papers, one on a Tuesday afternoon and the second on a Wednesday morning; I can't remember how long they were -- 2 or 3 hours? I was horribly nervous, but I had a good luck card from my fan club (a bunch of Lower Fifths who liked my poetry -- hey, everybody reading this already hates me for living in some kind of crazy privileged Ivory Malory Towers, I may as well tell the truth here) and my Good Luck Bear, and I'd done loads of exams before. ... But when it came to it, I had that total 'exam paralysis' feeling where I felt like I'd sat for ages not knowing what to write. I wrote pages and pages but it felt as though nothing quite clicked. I came out of the exam feeling physically sick, I was convinced that I'd failed worse than anybody had ever failed anything before and I'd never be able to face going back to school again, let alone university. I cried for hours and hours. I remember going for a walk round the village in the dark to try to calm down, and not being able to stop crying. I'm not even sure, at this distance from the event, whether I was upset about not getting into Oxford (which I thought was inevitable now) or just failing. I think mostly the latter; failing my teacher, failing my parents. I should say that I didn't have huge pressure from my parents or anything; I don't remember them every being anything other than kind and supportive. There was a lot of pressure from the school, but not specifically about getting into Oxford; just general academic pressure, a focus on grades and marks (I remember nearly falling out with friends over differences of 5% in exams), exams every summer, that sort of thing.

But to come back to the exam. I barely slept at all that night; I just carried on feeling sick and hopeless. My parents persuaded me to go into school, and I went straight to the corridor outside the staffroom (you weren't allowed to knock, but you were allowed to hang around there & wait to see if anybody came in or out) to see if I could find Mrs G. and tell her I'd FAILED ALREADY. Of course I did find her (I'm sure she was expecting something like this), and I don't remember what she said but just being around her was comforting. She gave me some kind of silly Kinder Surprise toy to take in as a lucky mascot (I already had my Good Luck Bear, but he didn't seem to have been much luck), and told me to do my best, & said that if it was awful, I didn't have to go straight back to lessons afterwards, but it was English straight after so I could come and join them if I wanted. And off I went to do the other paper.

And it was great: the sort of exam where you know you're writing well and your only frustration is not being able to get everything down fast enough. I clutched that tiny toy in my sweaty left palm and wrote until my right hand felt all squashed, side after side of lined A4, and when the exam was over I felt good about it, not just relieved but actually ... kind of ... happy. I bounced into the English lesson that was halfway through and said "Sorry I'm late, I've been doing the Oxford entrance exam". (It really is a wonder that nobody just took me down to the canal and drowned me, in retrospect.)

The waiting game

So then there was just the waiting. For the exam was only the first hurdle; after that there was the interview. I remember us all desperately waiting to hear about interviews, but I don't actually remember getting the letter or anything. I remember buying interview suits: a dark turquoise velvet skirt-suit (I suppose I could have worn trousers, but we weren't allowed to at school), and a scarlet crushed-velvet suit. (I wish I had photos.... actually, no, I'm quite glad I don't. I do still have the scarlet suit, though.)

We all got interviews, all of us who did the Oxford exam (Cambridge didn't have an exam, but I think they all got interviews as well), but we didn't all go up to Oxford together, probably because we were all going for different subjects and different colleges. None of us had had much idea how to choose Colleges; the school offered some advice on which colleges had previously accepted girls from our school (or previously rejected them), but there was an air of mystery and superstition about the whole thing. One girl decided that she was going to rule out any with a religious name because she was an atheist. To be honest, it was no worse a strategy than any that the rest of us adopted. I had only chosen one college -- Hertford, because it had the Bridge of Sighs and seemed to have lots of good English tutors -- and had had two others allocated to me (Lady Margaret Hall and St Catherine's, which I knew nothing about). My parents drove me to Hertford, and I went to the 'common room' where we all had to wait, and Becca from school was there too so at least I knew somebody. I tried to make conversation and at least find another person who was going for English, but they all seemed to be Geographers like Becca, though I did meet a chap who lived in the town where I'd lived when I was tiny. Small world. They all seemed quite normal people, but it was a bit like being suddenly thrown into a new school, and I hadn't had to deal with that for 7 years. There were basically three conversations, "Where do you come from?", "What subject are you doing?" and "I'm so nervous I think I'm going to die". The TV was on in the background, showing The Day Today.

I got a huge booklet of poems to look through before my interview, and was allowed to take them off to my room (my room! I'd never even stayed in a hotel before except one night when I was about 10 and shared a room with my parents and my sister, so the empty room with just my tiny suitcase in it was another strangeness) to read and "be prepared to discuss two of them in detail" -- that is, more 'prac crit', but spoken rather than written. I was delighted to find that one of them was "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost, which we'd 'done' at GCSE, and I picked another poem that I didn't know, something by Paul Muldoon. In retrospect, the Robert Frost was a bit of a false friend -- 'doing' a poem at GCSE (when you still get points for knowing what the big words mean) is not the same as talking about that poem to Tom Paulin.

Yeah, my claim to fame, there; when I was 17, Tom Paulin proved that he knew more than I did. He leaned back in his chair and said things like "do you really think so?" and of course I didn't know if I really thought so, and backtracked, and got myself into a worse mess than I'd started out in. Trying to talk about anything by an Irish poet was clearly a mistake, too. He and Charlotte Brewer had (whether by accident or by design) positioned themselves so that I couldn't look at both of them at once, and I felt like I didn't know whether I was coming or going. It was horrible. I was miserable and tearful after it, but nowhere near as bad as after the exam; for one thing, everybody else in the 'JCR' who was 'up for interview' (in the space of a few hours we'd already started to absorb the jargon) agreed that Tom Paulin had made everybody cry. I knew I hadn't got into Hertford, but that was okay, because my other two choices (the choices I hadn't made) would interview me, and I'd have another chance, and I'd have a better idea of what to do.

How did you know who else was going to interview you? My memory of the whole process was that it was fairly weird and confusing for someone who'd literally never been anywhere on their own before. You had to keep an eye on the noticeboards to find out whether you had any more interviews at other colleges, and if you did, you just had to get there ... on your own? All the way across a town you'd never been to before? How? They couldn't possibly expect people to do that, it was clearly unfair. I watched the noticeboard, but nothing came up that day; I walked into town but didn't dare go any further than Broad Street because I didn't think I'd be able to find my way back. It had snowed, and my new interview shoes had no grips on the soles so I was sliding around all over the place, so instead I just sat in the JCR with a book (The Riders by Tim Winton), and talked to people a bit. I couldn't do anything about the interviews except wait until tomorrow, and in the meantime, there was the evening's entertainment... I remember going to a pub near Hertford (in retrospect it must have been the King's Arms), and then coming back to Hertford bar, and there was a lot of drinking (I'd done plenty of that before, so I wasn't totally out of my depth). I got talking to a nice guy called Jacob who was also up for English; he had a Dr Who scarf and he was funny and interesting and enjoyed talking about literature but also had, y'know, normal conversation. I remember people playing on the pub quiz machine, and (I've told this story before, but it really does sum up a lot of the Oxford Thing for me) people were arguing over the answers, as they do, and one guy shouted "Of course it's fucking Sophocles", and I thought I want to stay here. Just realising that the room was full of people who were intelligent and interesting and fun, who didn't think doing homework was 'totally gay', but who weren't boring swots. People who could go to the pub and swear and still know about Ancient Greek. At home all my going-to-the-pub had been with friends who, while good friends, weren't as interested in the academic side of life; all my talking-about-school-stuff had been either with teachers (because I was a swot) or with people who didn't really do so much of the going-to-the-pub side of things. I realised you could have both. I've always been greedy.

So... morning (and a slight hangover) dawned, and Becca gave me a raised-eyebrow look when I turned up at breakfast at the same time as the nice guy called Jacob, and I carried on waiting to find out when the next interview would be. Nothing. No notices on the noticeboard, no hint from anybody, just lots of sitting around in the JCR. In the end someone told me that I could go home, so I did -- I can't remember but I must have phoned my parents & got them to pick me up -- with my suitcase and my mostly-finished book and Jacob's phone number. I didn't really know what to think by that point: either Hertford had accepted me after all, or they'd rejected me so completely that neither of the other colleges wanted to interview me either.

As it happened, it was neither of those things. The next day, I got a phone call in the evening. "This is Pembroke College," it said. (I'd never heard of them; were they a proper Oxford College?) "We'd like to interview you. Can you come back tomorrow?" Cue panic; phoning teachers, working out arrangements. My mum would have to drive me back to Oxford (I'm not sure if she wasn't working at that point or if she managed to take leave at short notice), and I'd have to miss a school Carol Service (you have no idea how distressed I was about that), but I could get there and do the interview.

I was cross with Oxford, and cross with Pembroke College for dragging me back (why couldn't they have interviewed me while I was there?). I don't remember feeling nervous at all this time; I'd done this before, they'd messed me around, and I was going to go there and Show Them. So my mum dropped me off and went to wander round Oxford for an hour or so, while I went up a rickety old staircase and got handed some more 'unseen' poems to study (only two this time, so no agonies of choice -- T. S. Eliot's "The Boston Evening Transcript", and an unattributed poem which I've not been able to find since & can't remember enough about to google for) and shown to a chair to sit on and wait. One other girl was there for interview at the same time, a rather snooty-looking girl called Megan; I tried to make conversation with her, but she obviously wasn't keen to talk to me.

This interview was very different from the previous one, both from their side and from mine: I was much less nervous, marching into the room in my scarlet crushed-velvet suit determined that I wasn't going to bend over backwards for Oxford after it had messed me around; but this seemed to be a totally different Oxford. The room was smaller and more cosy, the two interviewers were sitting on a sofa on one side of the room and I sat on a sofa opposite -- no worries about where to look -- and they were both charming, smiling people. "I'm so sorry to have called you back like this, it must have been very inconvenient," said one of them. "Yes, it was a bit," I said, still on the defensive. But then we had a chat about the poems, and I leaned back in my sofa and said pretentious things, and they asked me questions about my entrance exam paper and I even managed to pretend I remembered what on earth I'd written, and before I knew it it was all over and they were saying cheerful goodbyes.

I knew it had gone better than the Hertford interview, but I was still surprised and amazed when I got the coveted two-E offer.

My parents said "well done", but also said they'd have loved me anyway even if I hadn't got in; I was kind of disappointed that they weren't more unequivocally delighted. I didn't want them to be reasonable about it, I wanted them to be over the moon! "Your parents must be so proud," people kept saying, and I had to say, "Um, I guess they are, maybe, I don't know," at which grown-ups gave me funny looks. But the main thing was... I was going to Oxford! And so were Jenny and Vicky and Debbie! In fact all but one of the Oxford applicants in my year got offered a place; the one who was rejected was Liz who had applied to do Ancient and Modern History, for which there was only about one place. She'd known it was a difficult option, but she was utterly devastated when she didn't get in. She wasn't a close friend of mine, so I can't remember what she did instead. One of the others, however, turned down her place -- Sarah P., who got offered a place at St. Hilda's, and decided that she'd never really wanted to go to Oxford anyway and certainly didn't want to spend another four years in an all-female environment. It was one of the big controversies of the Upper Sixth (I know, "Controversy in the Upper Sixth" sounds like an Angela Brazil novel): Sarah was adamant that she didn't want to go, and the Head and all her teachers were insistent that she had to. I remember our form teacher telling her "you'll regret it all your life if you don't go", and I remember arguing with the teacher and saying that going to Oxford when you didn't want to was like buying designer jeans that you didn't want to wear just because of the label. I'm pleased to say that Sarah stuck to her guns and went to Leeds instead (and the one time afterwards I met her again she said she was absolutely loving the course and the city).

Meanwhile, those of us with our two-E offers were feeling quite smug comparing ourselves to the Cambridge girls, who all had three-A offers or higher. Amanda who was going to do Physics got an offer conditional on getting three As and two 2s (S-Levels pass grades were either 1 or 2, as far as I can remember), which was clearly insane! (In the end she got five As -- including getting 100% on several modules -- and two 1s, of course.) Of course, the two-E offer made all the other offers a bit of a joke. I'd been offered AAB by Birmingham and ABC by Southampton; Durham and Sussex had said they weren't going to make me an offer until I had the results of the Oxford application, and York hadn't replied at all. In the end I only kept the Oxford offer, as if I didn't get two Es I didn't know what I'd do. Of course, I knew (Everybody Knew) that the Oxford two-E offer was a lie, and if you didn't get three As they wouldn't take you -- got to keep the pressure on! -- but we didn't have to tell the Cambridge girls that.

General Studies and university choices

No, this isn't the debate about whether General Studies should be allowed to 'count' as an A-Level for the purposes of offers (it didn't, generally), so bear with me.

General Studies at our school was a bit of an odd fish; we had lessons jointly with the Grammar School (boys! in lessons!! And male teachers!!!) and as far as I can tell any teacher could teach anything they wanted under the umbrella of GS. (This bore no relation whatsoever to the actual GS paper; that was covered by separate lessons in General English, General Maths, and General French for those who weren't taking those subjects anyway.) The subjects they chose were a peculiar mix of general knowledge, 'improving' topics for discussion, and finishing-school classes -- everything from "Four Nineteenth Century Thinkers" to ballroom dancing, from wine-tasting to "Is genetic modification a good thing?" The set I was in quickly got a reputation for being the "liveliest" GS set, by which I think they meant "argumentative".

One of these strange made-up courses, taught by a mad old Welsh bloke who had actually already retired but came back to torment pupils occasionally, was called "What is wrong with your generation?" and was apparently an attempt to compensate for the fact that most of us didn't read the Daily Mail. He cheerfully told us in the course of some debate or other that foreign people should go back where they came from, and we told him that in that case he should go back to Wales. I still don't know if he was actually a mad old bigot or whether he was just trying to hone our debating skills.

Anyway, somehow the subject of university came up, and he said (I paraphrase, but only slightly) that only stupid people should go to ex-polytechnics and do silly subjects like media studies; clever people should go to Oxford or Cambridge and do real subjects like English or History or Physics. All of us disagreed with him, and said so at some length; we argued that the less "traditional" courses could be more progressive and more relevant and more vocational; that they weren't any less good, just different; that not everybody who could go to Oxford wanted to go to Oxford (my designer jeans analogy may have got another airing); and so on and so forth (no, we didn't have any really impressive arguments). Eventually he said with a bit of a sneer "so what are you lot going to do at university then?" and we went round the group: Oxford (English), Oxford (Physics), Oxford (History), Oxford (Chemistry) ... Looking back, I suspect that a) he knew damn well that we were the Oxbridge set, and b) he was trolling. But we felt we'd won by proving that we weren't just arguing with him because we were going to ex-polytechnics (whatever they were), and that we could go to Oxford without having to look down on people who weren't going to Oxford.

It all seemed quite simple then; he was the voice of outdated nonsense, whereas we knew that friends were more important than qualifications, and everything followed from that. Simple. These days, I don't think I'd even dare take part in the debate; I'd probably just turn it into a joke and then change the subject.

Good grief, I didn't realise I'd gone on so long. To be continued, if anybody (including me) can bear it...

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From: bibliogirl Date: November 16th, 2008 08:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ahh... interviews. I fondly remember (for some value of "fondly") the interview at Hertford which nobody bothered to tell me about until somewhat after it should have happened; the older students who were shepherding us around came and dragged me out of the JCR and the interview took place a couple of hours late, and needless to say it did not go especially well. Thankfully the one at Pembroke went rather better, although I still haven't entirely forgiven them for buggering up that Christmas rather thoroughly. (Everyone else applying for Oxbridge from my school -- four to each -- got their offer letters on Christmas Eve. Mine didn't turn up until 30/12.)
shermarama From: shermarama Date: November 16th, 2008 09:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
See, I went to a private school til 16 and then went to my local sixth form college for A levels. The school I went to tried very hard in terms of spiffing uniform and making us do speech & drama lessons but it was mostly rubbish. It was a long way away so the massive amounts of time I spent on a school coach every day cut me off from local kids and I spent a lot of time with no-one to talk to in the evenings and hated it. I couldn't wait to get out. The sixth form college was like the start of my life, as far as I was concerned. The teaching was *much better*. There were real people doing real things, in a real town that was a short bus ride away from my house. I could go record-shopping in lunchtime. I worked in my dad's warehouse on a Saturday morning. I went to Durham, (because I didn't get into Oxford, of course) and that felt like a stifling regression to schooldays; I moved to Brighton, and it felt like life had started again. And really, of the three universities I attended as an undergrad, the best teaching and the most useful courses were to be found at the ex-poly, Brighton.

In short, I find it hard to be jealous of people that went to top schools; how can I be jealous of someone who, at seventeen, didn't know how to navigate across a town, or get a train somewhere? I really don't like the idea of exclusive private schools and the universities that are extensions of private schools because, well, when do you get to learn about the rest of life, then?
j4 From: j4 Date: November 16th, 2008 10:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I find it hard to be jealous of people that went to top schools; how can I be jealous of someone who, at seventeen, didn't know how to navigate across a town, or get a train somewhere? I really don't like the idea of exclusive private schools and the universities that are extensions of private schools because, well, when do you get to learn about the rest of life, then?

Well, I'm glad you're not jealous (and I hope I never suggested that anybody should be) but my lack of navigation skills was nothing to do with the school; most other people of my age did all kinds of things on their own. It was basically a combination of the fact that we lived in a tiny village with very few buses, so I basically had to get lifts if I wanted to go anywhere (no, I couldn't drive), and my parents were a bit over-protective in a basically self-perpetuating way (they didn't trust me not to go places on my own, so I didn't go anywhere on my own, so I didn't know how to find my way around, so they were probably right to assume I would get lost...). I don't see how that would've been any different if I'd gone to the state school! All the schools were in the nearest town with any shops in! And I went record-shopping at lunchtime from school (Friday afternoons at the bric-a-brac market), but that was the town I knew. I didn't know how you were supposed to suddenly know your way round a new town -- I still don't know how some people seem to do that so easily! -- and I don't think it had ever occurred to me that it was okay to buy a map and carry it around with you, because I'd never known anybody who did that (actually, people still laugh at me for doing that, but I don't care any more).

When I went to Oxford for real, I started going places and doing stuff. Oxford in no way felt like an extension of school -- it was like a new life. And I went on a train on my own to visit friends in the first Christmas holidays, and of course it wasn't that hard, and I was a bit cross that it'd been presented to me as something difficult and dangerous when actually it was fairly easy, but mostly I was just delighted that there was this whole new world of Being Able To Go Places! With a Railcard! Paying for tickets with money that was actually mine! (That is, student loan... so, er, not actually mine.) And to me Oxford was in a huge great big city (the one all the Londoners whinged about because it was, like, so tiny, and there were no proper clubs, blah blah blah), it was new and wonderful and different and full of exciting stuff. But being at Oxford is the next instalment...

As for "when do you get to learn about the rest of life" -- um, when does anybody ever stop learning about it? Different people learn things at different times and different rates. I learnt all sorts of things at school, some of them practical and useful and some not; but mostly I learned how to learn things. And to be honest, given that it took me one train journey to learn how to get a train somewhere, I'm quite glad my school taught me things that it would take me longer to learn now, and left me to figure out the easy stuff for myself.
qatsi From: qatsi Date: November 16th, 2008 09:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
None of us had had much idea how to choose Colleges ... One girl decided that she was going to rule out any with a religious name because she was an atheist. To be honest, it was no worse a strategy than any that the rest of us adopted.

The college I went to [Queen's] gave us a questionnaire about our time there for interview. The first question was "I chose Queen's ..." with about a dozen different answers. The first option was "with a pin", which I think rather sums up the proces unless you happen to come from a background where there is a history of selecting certain colleges. (Though there was no history of applications to Oxford from my comprehensive school - a stone's throw in space and a number of years in time from the infamous Laura Spence case - and I quite truthfully picked "because of its traditional connections with the North of England".)

As for the interview itself, I recall afterwards that among the physicists there seemed to be two groups of people: those who "thought it had gone OK" (including me) and those who didn't. The other thing that emerged was that those who hadn't taken the entrance exam were presented a 1-hour test prior to interview, with the more difficult questions from the paper. Ouch!

I remember the "notice boards" and their importance, and at the appointed hour I left, because my name was not on any list. Just as well they didn't want me back, as it was a 5-hour train journey back home.

I would have gone to Birmingham if I had not got into Oxford; I preferred it to Manchester, which felt as if it had an atmosphere of Oxbridge rejects. In the end, as I had already taken A-level Maths in the Lower Sixth, I got a "one E" offer.

Edited at 2008-11-16 09:53 pm (UTC)
From: bibliogirl Date: November 17th, 2008 12:03 am (UTC) (Link)
I had taken one A-level by the point at which I got my Oxford offer, but for reasons too long and dull to go into here, I had taken it twice, and Oxford gave me an unconditional offer. Quite what they'd've done had I failed all the rest of the A-levels and thus not had enough to actually matriculate, I have no idea...
jiggery_pokery From: jiggery_pokery Date: November 16th, 2008 10:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Again, I'd happily read more if you wanted to write more. Much of this rings true for me - the mixture of benign and ridiculous interviews, having a terrible entrance exam followed by a wonderful one, not really knowing what to do with yourself while you were hanging around Oxford waiting for possible interviews and so on.

At a risk of having the dread A-level conversation at twice the age it ought (if ever) to be hand, were English entrance papers ever marked as such (as opposed to being used as starting-points for discussion) and if so, did you ever find out your marks?
lnr From: lnr Date: November 16th, 2008 10:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
I never found out my marks for the maths ones.
jiggery_pokery From: jiggery_pokery Date: November 16th, 2008 10:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Can't remember whether my marks were sent to me or to my school and passed on by them. (Also, I may have fallen through the cracks in other ways, not least by taking a gap year between sixth form and university.) Essentially I had a very indistinguised paper one and a rather better paper two, when I found I could do all four probability-and-statistics questions. Perhaps this should have been a clue to them that - as proved to be the case - I can do prob'n'stats, sometimes, when I'm lucky, and couldn't do any of the rest. :-)
nou From: nou Date: November 16th, 2008 11:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't think they were meant to be shared. I only know where I came (in the middle) because one of the people who interviewed me (not at Corpus) remembered me and told me in the course of conversation when we accidentally met a few years later.
jvvw From: jvvw Date: November 17th, 2008 06:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have a feeling that they sent information to the school, whether that was just the full marks or what they felt like telling them. I'm pretty sure that it was via school that I found out details of how I'd done but don't remember ever knowing my exact marks.

j4 From: j4 Date: November 16th, 2008 10:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't know if they were marked as such, but AFAIR most of our term essays weren't (we got comments rather than grades) so I suspect not. I certainly didn't find out the mark if they were.

Bear in mind that on the Gen. Lit. paper (as for any of the mods/schools essay papers) there's a choice of about 50 essay questions, of which you choose 3, and many of them don't even specify which author(s) you can write about in response to the question, so people's answers will be wildly different. To be honest I don't know how they ever mark them at all...! :-}

Did you find out yours then?
covertmusic From: covertmusic Date: November 16th, 2008 10:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't have much constructive to add, really, I'm afraid - my own personal history is a salty mix of disgust and despair, so I try to delude myself and imagine it all happened to some other bugger - but this is wonderful stuff, evocative and thought-provoking, and if you'll keep writing I'll keep reading.

My own interview process was awkward, just as I was - still am - and like much of my past, I don't remember as much of it as you do. I do remember lying on my bed in North Court in Jesus, listening to a tinny little set of Walkman speakers (The Bends inevitably; I was pretty recently seventeen, in my defence), thumbing through a copy of Q, sick and anxious and somehow hopeful, and dreaming of who I'd be if I escaped, and dreaming about what escape might be. It wasn't, in the end, because some things you can't run fast enough to run away from, and some things you carry with you.

There was a girl there I'd met before, though - I'd seen her at some schools debating competition in Durham. She was from Warrington, and a bit Gothy, and friendly; I liked her, anyway. Not as much as you liked Jacob, from the sound of things, but still. I was - who am I kidding, am - so very competitive and suspicious. All I wanted to do was beat everyone, prove myself and feel justified and worthwhile. But not her; I wanted her to win too.

She must not have gotten in, or she must have turned the place down, because I never saw her again.

I didn't really prepare for interviews; for sciences, I could either do it or I couldn't. My interviews went pretty well, though they mostly went by in a blur - these small offices and stern faces - and I got the typical 3A offer. I'd have been off to Bristol (unconditional) otherwise; my other offers were Glasgow, Aberdeen, St. Andrews and Durham (all unconditionals).

Somewhere I imagine those other quantum covertmusics - the one who went somewhere else, the one who applied for English Lit, the one who kept drinking, the one who learnt to shut up and listen - and I dream of gathering all of us together and asking myself what I would have changed.

But would I even understand myself?
uon From: uon Date: November 16th, 2008 11:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
He leaned back in his chair and said things like "do you really think so?"

Auuuugh. Dear Christ. I think I would still be having nightmares about this if it had happened to me.
lnr From: lnr Date: November 16th, 2008 11:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ha, I may well have been one of the people in the college bar shouting at the quiz machine: though we were all better at the science questions. That or playing darts very badly for the second team :-). I think the lads I used to hang out with there were the only really big tie I had with college: rather than with other random bunches of people from all over the place. At least after my first year anyway. Oh, that and the computer room. *ahem*

I'd totally forgotten about the noticeboard aspect of interviews though. I do remember the sitting around in the common room though, reading the papers and trying desperately to feel more confident than I was. And not feel completely *dorky* in my interview outfit.

Hertford (oddly enough) was actually my best interview. Christchurch was scary and I felt completely alone as the students there had just told me where to go and left me sitting there on a hard chair outside a room with no-one else around. And I completely messed up at Wadham: they had a very friendly bunch of students greeting people and showing them around and someone outside had told me the answer to one of the questions they like to ask, and when they did go and ask it I should have just confessed, rather than coming out with the answer and having no idea at all as to why that was the case. I think this may be the first time I've owned up to that. I guess I was just too scared to admit I didn't know something.
katstevens From: katstevens Date: November 16th, 2008 11:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
Our AS-level General Studies was hilarious (i.e. pointless), but still mandatory. We did an Applied Maths paper (equivalent to getting a C at GCSE), a max-2-sides-of-A4 Ethics essay question (such as 'some people think abortion is bad, discuss'), a max-2-sides-of-A4 Arts essay question ('discuss a piece of art that has influenced you' - I chose Nevermind, oh dear) and best of all, a multiple-choice General Knowledge paper which was so bloody random that dudes who picked 'C' for the ones they didn't know got reasonably good marks. The Maths one was multiple-choice as well, come to think of it. I don't think I have included it on any CV or application EVER.
hairyears From: hairyears Date: November 17th, 2008 02:11 am (UTC) (Link)


Abandon all thoughts that obtaining tuition from your school was 'cheating' - our headmaster got an actual budget for the 'S' levels and the Oxford exam tuition for the four of us who did it... And I am well aware that this was some kind of miracle of political and administrative manouvring.

And, one year, he was called a class traitor to his face by a senior trade union official who did his level best to get that budget blocked by his placemen in the Local Education Authority. Thankfully Big Moo had sufficient autonomy over his own budget to defend his own 'pet projects' - unusual in a secular school - and a near-total intolerance of threats. Plus, of course, considerable political influence of his own. Other schools and other heads were not so lucky; some did not permit an "elitist clique" of teachers to coach the Oxbridge pupils on a 'lunchtimes and after school' basis... Which meant, of course, that the only Oxford preparation going in those oh-so-egalitarian schools was privately-funded tuition for the rich.

And that, I definitely would call cheating. One of the reasons, in fact, that I didn't go to MumbleMumbleUnnamedExamFactory school that sent a rugby team to Oxford and to Cambridge every year - I dislike the sense that others in the same class and on the same team are paying to clamber over my head. Imagine, if you will, getting into the first rugby XV by sheer sweat and ability and then losing your place to someone who developed his skills just that crucial fraction beyond you by private tuition from your team coach and paid-for sessions in the gym in the same bloody building. It is, of course, no different to simply paying to go to a better-resourced school - but rather grating when the inequality is pushed into your face.

Still, that was then and this is now. Without an entrance exam to give objective proof of my abilities (or, perhaps, to give a telling measure of how far behind the state sector schools have now fallen in preparing able pupils for a genuinely demanding university education) I doubt that I would ever have got in. And with it, and the structure it provided for tuition, I am certain that those extra lessons made the difference. If that had been the only game in town I would've found a way; and there would've been no game at all if all that could be coached was interviewing and the hope that I would look generally promising.

And when I got there, the Golden Children from the private schools were all so polished and confident and effortless in all they did, and it was only in the second year that half of them revealed their limitations - bright, hardworking, and well-drilled, but lacking in the brilliance and the fire and the vital experience of overcoming obstacles. I fell behind with my own problems and for my own reasons, but none of us ragtown kids from comprehensives suffered from that dreadful sense that we had run out of something when the course demanded more of us than mere schooling.

Ultimately our betters - for so the less-gifted-but-overpriveleged believed themselves to be - had cheated themselves: they would've done just as well to go to a Red-Brick university or overseas, because their dull careers today reflect their limitations and in no way make good use of their expensive and damnably-demanding education. It opened doors of course: but the genuinely brilliant careers reflect the ones from state and private schools who showed the flash of brilliance from within, and made good use of it in a university run for them - us - and not for overschooled accountancy trainees and middle managers.

My own opinions, of course; but I have a few years' observation and the advantage of a systematic follow-up of all my fellow-students. There were some genuinely brilliant students from private schools, and they were superbly prepared for Oxford - far better so than us - but they were accompanied in their stroll into the quad for the Matriculation photo by pupils who were bright and brilliantly-polished but something less than brilliant.





Edited at 2008-11-17 02:15 am (UTC)
lnr From: lnr Date: November 17th, 2008 12:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, this comprehensive lass ran out of brilliance and ability long before the second year. I think you're over-generalising.
addedentry From: addedentry Date: November 17th, 2008 01:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ditto.
fivemack From: fivemack Date: November 17th, 2008 06:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
It took me until the first year of the PhD, but it's a bloody annoying wall to run into, and my metaphorical nose still hurts.
ceb From: ceb Date: November 18th, 2008 10:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
What she said. You can't take 600 people who were all top of their class, put them together, and expect them to still all be top of the class. Maybe you did stay up there, in which case good for you, but hard work and life experience can't buy you that kind of brilliance any more than money can.
lishablog From: lishablog Date: November 17th, 2008 06:57 am (UTC) (Link)
I love this. I miss hanging out in Oxford. For three years I lived near Slough (first in Stoke Poges and then in Maidenhead) and Oxford was a frequent weekend trip for us. The geek cool factor for us American ex-pats was huge and the used book stores just delicious.

You also churn up many of my own memories of getting into a difficult university. I didn't have the interviews for the university itself, but rather for scholarships. One of those interviews was a big group thing where there were 5 or 6 of us in the hot seats and 4 judges sitting behind a long desk. They asked questions and then we each took turns answering. The third question in, they asked and then I had to think of my answer while everyone else answered. When they got to me, I opened my mouth to speak and burst into tears instead. How freaking embarrassing!!

And I was no 17 year old. I was 23 and had 2 kids already. OY! But it's OK. One of the judges called me over afterward and told me how she did the same thing when she was interviewed for a Fulbright. These things happen, she assured me, and I'd handled myself just fine. She got her Fulbright, and I got my scholarship.

I wish that I could get myself back into academics and go to Oxford for grad school...
vinaigrettegirl From: vinaigrettegirl Date: November 17th, 2008 09:36 am (UTC) (Link)
I met Tom Paulin socially at college and realised later my host had set me up because he knew I'm half Jewish, at least by antecedents, and of course am Amercian, and Paulin at that time had a reputation for loathing both of those categories of person. He was outstandingly, breathtakingly rude. It's his stock in trade, and the fact that Oxford encourages him to peddle it is one of the aspects of Oxford which I like the least.
simont From: simont Date: November 17th, 2008 09:57 am (UTC) (Link)
He and Charlotte Brewer had (whether by accident or by design) positioned themselves so that I couldn't look at both of them at once

This happened to me in my interview too (Trinity, Cambridge, maths). The two interviewers sat at either end of a long thin table, and I got to sit half way along on one side, so I had to keep turning my head back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match.

I'm therefore inclined to suspect that it's a well-known deliberate tactic of interviewers, although (a) I'm not entirely sure what desirable thing it's supposed to achieve, and (b) I suspect two examples shouldn't make me that much more certain than one. (But then, I ditched the degree-level statistics course within a week of starting it, so who knows?)
addedentry From: addedentry Date: November 17th, 2008 01:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
The maths tutors at Hertford tried it on me, too. I think that if I went to a job interview tomorrow with that seating arrangement then I'd have the confidence to say 'I'm sorry, I can't see you both at once'. But if it tests initiative, it's an unfair test for an Oxbridge don to perform on a seventeen-year-old!
juggzy From: juggzy Date: November 17th, 2008 10:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
You've got to question the mental stability of a professor/lecturer/type who uses power arrangement seating on 17 year olds. It's the crassest kind of bullying, and no, what doesn't kill you doesn't make you tough, it just makes the dispenser of the disagreeableness a cunt. Big fish in small ponds. There is absolutely no need for Paulin to have behaved like that.
keirf From: keirf Date: November 18th, 2008 03:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
In one of my maths interviews the interviewers were sitting in comfortable arm chairs, and I had to sit on a fairly small wooden stool with my knees nearly touching my chin, looking up at them like I was a small kid. I thought it was rather funny at the time.
keirf From: keirf Date: November 17th, 2008 12:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm thoroughly enjoying these reminiscences. Please do continue.
brrm From: brrm Date: November 17th, 2008 06:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have a terrible memory for recalling things like this in my life, but your accounts are bringing back echoes. Please carry on! :-)
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