From Dubai to Oxford

Ruchita Raghunath, a student at GEMS Wellington Academy — Silicon Oasis, discusses her journey from application to receiving her conditional offer to attend the University of Oxford.

Thanking the student helper, I cautiously shut the door of my room behind me and took in my surroundings of what was to be my accommodation for the next three days — Oxford University.

While I attended my interviews as a potential candidate for History and Politics at St Edmund Hall — affectionately referred to as Teddy Hall — I would have never dreamed of receiving an offer letter just a month later. The journey to Oxford was fraught with twists and turns that had to be thoughtfully navigated. The journey was not a sprint, but a marathon.

My marathon began once I had completed in-depth research into my preferred course and college, followed by the personal statement which I began writing over the summer after Year 12. I had it proofread by several people who knew my personality as well as the University requirements.

As October rolled around, I had registered for and sat Oxford’s History Aptitude Test (HAT). I was also required to send off a piece of written work to the admissions tutors and I selected an extract of my history extended essay. I met my history teacher who advised which sections work the best as an extract. GEMS was also incredibly supportive during the process as my school counsellor registered me for a mock interview with Oxbridge alumni, giving me an idea of the pressure that a candidate could face.

Despite not finishing my essay as well as walking out of the examination room feeling as though a blank page would have been more articulate, I was sent an email inviting me to an interview at St Edmund Hall a week later.

This was largely the moment when the pressure of applications began to set in.

Preparing for the interview made the process seem bizarrely frightening. I began reading around my subjects: keeping up with the news, reading different perspectives on widely debated political issues, listening to podcasts of historians on a range of subjects, from the domestic policies of Henry VIII to the causes of the Arab Spring. I repeatedly read through my personal statement and highlighted areas which could be points for further questioning during the interview.

A seven-hour flight and an hour-long coach trip later, I found myself standing, reasonably flummoxed, at the gates of St Edmund Hall. I was to attend two interviews over the next two days: one for history and one for politics. I was also required to arrive at the common room an hour before my interview to receive my pre-reading extract on which I would be questioned.

This was perhaps the most nerve-wrecking portion of the entire process because there is a good chance that your interviewer may well be the author of your textbook, or the author of half of the books on your reading list, which makes the prospect of having an academic conversation with them seem incredibly daunting.

I quite enjoyed my first interview. In my attempt to decode the cryptic messages hidden within my pre-reading extract, my anxiety seemed to give way to my curiosity. The three interviewers in the room asked me questions which expanded my thinking and perspective. However, the next day there was no pre-reading to calm my nerves. Although my two interviewers were lovely, I walked out feeling utterly confused and disoriented.

Having been on, and survived, this admission process I have formulated a list of tips for future students who may wish to attempt the same.

  1. Get the grades The grades from your secondary education qualification, such as GCSEs or any other board qualification, must be top-notch for tutors to even consider your application. Predicted grades are crucial in establishing yourself as a serious Oxbridge candidate and will be featured as a weighted factor in your application portfolio, along with your admissions test score, written work (if you are required to send in any), and your interview.
  2. Passion matters! Passion for your subject will define your performance in the other aspects of the application. It will also make your workload considerably lighter since the work you put in to prepare for admissions tests and interviews will essentially be what you love doing in your spare time. Additionally, the interviewers notice when a candidate is not genuinely passionate about their subject.
  3. Start early Oxbridge requires you to pass several phases as an applicant. You need to give yourself enough time to complete these to your full potential. Leaving all the aspects of the application to the last minute could compromise the quality of your application.
  4. Draft, redraft, repeat Oxbridge personal statements are extremely academic: they don’t just want to know about your passion for your subject, they want to know how you have acted on that passion. What books have you read? What internships/work experience have you undertaken? What has made you actively reflect on your subject? I recommend having someone who knows you or someone who knows Oxbridge requirements to read over your personal statement and provide a different perspective, whether it be a parent, sibling, teacher, school counsellor, or friend.
  5. Go through past papers A large determining factor of whether you receive an interview, will be your admissions test score. Practising early with past papers found on Oxford’s website is one of the best ways to prepare for this. It is essential to identify the skills that the admissions test requires and concentrate on finetuning these.
  6. Consider your written work Candidates applying for certain subjects, mainly the arts and the humanities, are required to send in written work that they have completed during their academic year. I recommend speaking to your subject teacher to discuss your strongest piece of writing.
  7. Reach out to the online community Oxvlogs is one YouTube channel which gives a candidate a variety of tips from different perspectives, illustrating the entire interview format and what candidates could do to prepare. The Student Room is also a helpful platform where candidates discuss helpful advice and where questions are answered, sometimes by Oxford admissions themselves. Brasenose College is very active on The Student Room.
  8. Read and research Read around your subject and try to practise conveying your opinion on subjects. For STEM majors, one can always go over high school content and brush up on certain skills. However, interviewers are going to test you on your intellectual versatility and tenacity in unfamiliar situations; how you can form well-reasoned arguments based on the information you are given and how you challenge received ideas and information.
  9. Stay calm No matter how exceptional you may be, it will be impossible to challenge your thinking during an interview, let alone articulate your thoughts, if you have been reduced to a bundle of nerves. In your free time, head down to the college common room and have a chat with other candidates being interviewed. This is an extraordinary environment to be in: you have the privilege of fraternising with exceptional minds, in the world’s oldest English-speaking college. Explore the rich culture and history that Oxford has to offer!
  10. Oxbridge is not the be-all and end-all At the end of the day, Oxford is just a university. It is easy to get caught in the quagmire of applications and the intense marathon of completing the application phases. But don’t lose heart. The admissions tutors at Oxford know best when it comes to selecting candidates: they will admit students who they know will thrive in this environment, based on the type of student and type of learner a candidate is. If you do happen to receive a rejection from Oxford, this is not a definitive judgement on your potential or capabilities.