Interviews Opinion

18 Oxford offer-holders share their thoughts on the uncertainty caused by COVID-19

With the cancellation of A-level exams and the ongoing lockdown that continues to mandate social distancing rules, the coronavirus pandemic has made this one of the strangest periods in history to have an offer from Oxford. With all the nervousness, excitement, and chaos that is ensuing, we asked 18 University of Oxford offer-holders to share their experiences in the current climate.

Gabriel: Christ Church College, Russian and Arabic, Brighton

“Lockdown has been, unsurprisingly, very boring. I have been furloughed from my job and as the currency of ‘free time’ has become inflated, I have (embarrassingly) had very little to do. I thankfully finished school last year and so, like a normal person, was able to sit my exams and enjoy the sense of security in knowing my grades aren’t made up. During lockdown, so far, I have done a bit of volunteering, handing out food packages to NHS workers and such. I was on one of my shifts there that I observed an occurrence: I watched as a seagull proceeded to kill and then, messily eat a pigeon, which when you think about it, is really very interesting. So few people are out eating chips and ice cream that seagulls, having no one to steal food from, have resorted to biological fratricide, a true indicator that the lockdown has in fact, to some extent, worked.”

Rebecca: Merton College, Economics and Management, Singapore

“Greetings! I’m an offer holder from the beautiful garden city near the equator called Singapore! I’m in the middle of a ‘compulsory gap year’. I graduated from junior college in December last year after finishing my A-Levels and received my results in February. I’m incredibly lucky that the cancellation of exams did not affect my university application. Since the day I received my offer, I’ve been daydreaming about studying at Oxford. Yet, the pandemic did make my family hesitate about my university plans. Many of my friends considering university overseas have also been more cautious about making a final decision. The major concerns are the uncertainty of the pandemic, accessing medical support overseas, visas, the dangers of travelling frequently and being far far away from home during this risky time. But I’ve decided to call Oxford home for the next 3 years! Because I’ve accepted that this virus will not die down immediately almost anywhere in the world, I trust that Oxford has the capability to support us with whichever form of learning in the coming year. If the lectures are online but the tutorials are face to face, and the pandemic situation continues to stabilise, I wouldn’t think twice before flying to Oxford!”

Fionn: Balliol College, Law (Jurisprudence) , Yorkshire

“Being an Oxford offer holder currently is something rather scary, especially when, given the unprecedented nature of this situation, not even the university knows concretely what will happen, even though they are our source of information and comfort and will be for the next three or four years. This makes leaving home a rather daunting situation, and for some of us pursuing a subject we’ve never studied before in a city we’ve never lived before, even more intimidating. Yet, what I have found in the absence of any concrete future plans is a real spirit of optimism, positivity and acceptance among the offer holders population. Through Instagram, freshers pages and WhatsApp group chats, we are making the best of an unpredictable situation. Whilst COVID-19 is an obvious recurring discussion theme, the normality of talking about subjects, schools, nights out, TV, and hobbies with passionate and intelligent people has, for me, brought a certain sense of comfort. Though none of us know what will happen, we can be certain that whenever we get to Oxford, we have the determination and kindness to make it the best environment it can be, which makes me proud and excited to be part of this year’s offer holders.”

Sabrina: St. Hugh’s College, English, London

“The year planner taped to my bedroom wall is a daily reminder of everything that’s changed. The nine boxes marking the dates of my A-level exams used to spark apprehension; now they fill me with longing for a time when I felt in control of my academic future. I was lucky to achieve mock results which meet my offer, so I don’t have the same admissions anguishes as some of my friends. However, for many, the new grading system is a constant source of anxiety; despite the various statements and live Q&A sessions from Ofqual, the grading process still feels shrouded in uncertainty. A worthy distraction from my worries is my recently emailed long, summer reading list. Although definitely daunted by its size, I’m grateful to have something to keep me occupied and academically engaged over the next few months, and I’ve come to appreciate this rare privilege of having the time to read quietly in the garden without the usual distracting demands of pre-COVID life. Along with reading lists, making friends through the dedicated Oxford freshers’ 2020 Instagram page and various WhatsApp group chats has left me increasingly excited for my future, however uncertain it may currently seem.”

Josh: Regent’s Park College, Theology, Surrey

“As a student with learning difficulties I initially sighed a breath of relief when I saw that exams had been cancelled. However, within minutes the panic had set in. What would that mean for my grades? What would happen to my University offers? Where will I be in the autumn? A string of questions I suspect every student has faced. The uncertainty has been hard at times, and it would have been easy to become engrossed in it all. Nonetheless, I have stayed busy and focused on that which I can control, such as drafting some preliminary budgets for Uni and thinking up a shopping list. Looking at current circumstances it seems that Freshers week is going to be very limited, but, hopefully, with the harshest part of this pandemic behind us, when October comes we will all be able to enjoy what is available to us.”

Vanshika: St. Hugh’s College, Human Sciences, India

“In many ways, it’s been an incredibly surreal year: receiving an offer, facing COVID-19, and having IB exams cancelled. It’s a lot to take in! But my offer, and the prospect of attending Oxford this October, is definitely keeping me going. It’s the first time that my school has received an Oxford offer so everyone’s quite excited, so much so that they’ve given me the unofficial role of college counsellor for the year below. Apart from helping juniors with applications, I’ve done some pandemic relief work, picked up some books from the recommended reading list for Human Sciences, and devoted time to newfound interests including cooking, sketching, reviewing films, and learning instruments. It’s also been really nice to have Zoom calls with prospective fellow Human Scientists and people at St. Hugh’s because we’re all in the same rocky and unsteady boat, especially us IB kids. The entire grading system has been flipped on its head so it’s safe to say I’m both confused and nervous! Still, whether or not I manage to meet my conditions, I think just the experience of giving the interview, getting an offer, and meeting really cool people, has been well worth it.”

Molayo: St. Hugh’s College, Human Sciences, Kent

“Being an Oxford offer holder has been a weird experience for me. Being on a gap year, exams aren’t a worry for me, and also having the experience of an unsuccessful application to Oxbridge a year prior has made it easier to appreciate the opportunity to study at Oxford. Despite this, it’s easy to worry about the current situation. The possibilities of an ‘online freshers’ and having to remain at home are daunting, alongside wondering how I’ll find my place as a gap year student, with many of my friends a year ahead. However, in being an Oxford offer holder, I seem to have stumbled upon an online community which has been a welcome distraction from all of that. That which was at first a small community on Facebook and Discord (which I discovered shortly after getting in), has sprouted into a large network over Instagram, Facebook, Discord, WhatsApp, LinkedIn and probably other platforms I don’t know about! All the different activities, from Zoom chats to playing Risk with Discord users have helped me make friends, and as a result, I look forward to starting at Oxford in October!”

Jessye: Jesus College, Biology, Devon

“Since the beginning of lockdown I have found it difficult to accept the sudden loss of certainty and control I’d always expected I would have over my future. I have also been dealing with an intense frustration over my powerlessness, which is amplified by my age, plagued often with thoughts of ‘What if I was a few years older, could I have helped more? Could I have aided the vaccine trials?.’ Such a jarring sense of loss and powerlessness is something everyone is experiencing, but I would say it is particularly affecting young people. However I have also seen an adaptive response to this crisis that makes me very proud to be in this generation. I have been amazed to already experience a supportive online Oxford community that I will be grateful for, whether or not I ever make it through the doors.”

Kay: Keble College, English, Stratford-upon-Avon 

“Two weeks after Boris Johnson announced the cancellation of A-Levels, my school stopped setting Year 13s work. Keble College hadn’t yet released their reading lists. For the first time since I was 10, I had no work to do. My last-ever English lesson came suddenly, and we discussed how we felt as though our purpose had been taken from us. In the bubble of my privileged upper-class, all-girls grammar school, people were sobbing in the corridors, mourning the loss of control over something which we’d grown accustomed to judging our worth on. I can’t remember with any clarity any time in my life before I was working towards an academic goal, and I’m confident that it is the same for many other offer holders who will be reading this. Personally, I underwent higher level SAT’s, the 11 plus, had yearly exam weeks at my school, GCSEs, an EPQ, coursework and of course: A-Levels. As despondent as I felt at the time, I realised something as time passed and the death count rose:I will never again have as much time as I do now. I intend to make the most of that, conscious that others can’t.”

Wayne: Jesus College, Engineering, London

“It has still not sunk in. Lockdown, cancellation of exams and everything that comes with it. On the up-side, I am very fortunate to be able to spend a lot more time with family, especially given that I might be moving out for university in October. I was genuinely looking forward to exams and the anticlimactic end to further education was a tad painful because of the build up of hours of hard work and effort. Among not being able to see friends and extended family, one of the worst things about lockdown has to be securing some amazing internships just to have them cancelled or moved online. The way in which we have all come together as offer holders has really helped through the un. From Instagram pages to Whatsapp group chats, a student in the same boat as you is only a click away. I think most of us – myself included – want to be able to move into student accommodation in October at the very least. With all of the uncertainty, who knows what freshers will look like. Hopefully small gatherings will be allowed at the very least.”

Leah: St. Anne’s College, English and German, Lancashire

“I thought that the imposter syndrome would gradually fade once I’d got my A-Level results and felt I deserved to be there, but here we are. I think I reached my peak of nervousness on the 14th of January: Judgement Day. I think now whatever happens I know that I did actually get a place, which was the ultimate goal. Nobody can take that away from me, not even the virus! I’ve found that there’s actually a lot of positivity in having this time. Oxford does this excellent thing of making so many resources available online like 3D tours of the colleges, videos, podcasts so I can immerse myself in Oxford from the comfort of my bed for the time being. I’ve also just been enjoying so much outside of academia: watching my favourite comedies, painting, and reading. The best thing, however, has been the introduction to all the lovely freshers who are in exactly the same boat and who have all worked so hard to get to the same point as me. There’s so much respect, admiration and excitement in our little group chats and it reminds me that I’m not alone and that my future is still bright and full of endless possibilities.”

Jacob: Lady Margaret Hall, PPE, Cumbria

“A few months ago, our maths teacher was five minutes late for our lesson. Apologising, she explained, ‘There was an urgent meeting because the exam boards have cancelled all exams’. We stared at her, incredulous. The silence was deafening. “Got you!” she laughed and casually moved onto the next normal distribution exercise. Her austere joke has not withstood the test of time! A week later, it was announced that schools would be shutting indefinitely and, by the way, all exams are cancelled too. They said the words, the banner flashed up on the news, but for a moment, its meaning didn’t sink in. After two years working late doing homework, waking early to revise, and worrying about the finer intricacies of the English prison reform movement of the early 18th Century (history coursework!), the rug was pulled from under us. That was it. In a moment, our raison d’être was taken from us. In an alternative world, we’d be sitting exams now, going through that rite of passage. I’d have passed my driving test, we would be looking forward to the prom and interrailing. But this has shown that nothing is inevitable. If we do get a Freshers week- and I really hope we do, one way or another- then we won’t take it for granted.”

Zarah: St. Hugh’s College, English, London

“Life was so different for us a few months ago. I remember coming back from the offer holder day at St Hugh’s so excited for university and thinking right I need to work harder and revise and get my grades and all that. It’s funny: I didn’t know that I would be finishing school early, writing emotional goodbye cards to my teachers and saying bye to my school friends in a matter of 4 weeks from that day. I feel like this quarantine time has gotten a lot of us offer holders interacting with each other which wouldn’t have been as possible in normal circumstances or exam season. It’s really nice to feel like you are already part of a community despite never meeting these people and not even knowing if you will get to meet in the sort of traditional fun freshers week way. On the bright side, at least now I have extra time than what I would have had to get through my long reading list! I’m staying optimistic about this unconventional future that awaits us. All we can do is hope for the best.”

Kwabena: Corpus Christi College, History and Politics, London 

“I think I’m in a very uncertain position as an offer holder, especially now exams have been cancelled. I was working as hard as I could in the run-up to the real thing, yet now it seems my many mistakes are now being used to calculate a grade that could heavily affect my future. I haven’t been the best academically. To be honest, when I hear stories of students with exemplary teachers who inspired them to apply, I almost feel jealous. I don’t have the best relationship with one of my teachers, and now the thought of that teacher deciding my grade has been a major source of anxiety during this lockdown. I’ve been trying to do as much as I can to distract myself from this thought, but sometimes the fear just cripples me, and my initial excitement at the prospect of arriving at Oxford is often clouded over by this. This lockdown has really made me value my education more, and from now on I want to put as much effort into everything as possible, because you never know what might happen that could throw you off.”

Pia: Oriel College, Theology and Religion, Austria 

“No A-Levels, schools are closing. My friends and I were standing in front of Tesco’s when we heard the big news. But as if the fact that I wouldn’t have to sit the exams, which I’d been working towards for so long, wasn’t already shocking enough, being from Austria I also found out that I would be stuck in the UK for an unforeseeable amount of time. The uncertainty about where I would live, how my grades would be established and what would happen with uni was overwhelming at first, and it took time to get used to all those unexpected changes. However although the uncertainty was nerve-racking at times, it taught me to be more relaxed about the future and trust that eventually everything will work out in one way or the other. I ended up being the only student at school for more than two months, which turned out to actually be lots of fun. Not having the exam stress allowed me to do things I usually never have time for, and surprisingly time has passed really quickly. I can’t wait to hopefully start at Oxford!”

Karishma: Wadham College, Law (Jurisprudence), Slough

“Initially, I struggled to accept the cancellation of A-levels and I wondered why I was so attached to sitting these exams. I concluded there were two main reasons. Firstly, A Levels were an opportunity to prove to myself that I was ‘good enough’ for Oxford university – it seems I already had a mild case of imposter syndrome. Secondly, the fact my results are out of my control is unsettling and makes the future seem uncertain. I am now left with wondering if these grades will be a fair reflection of my hard work and frustrated at the fact that these results will almost unavoidably be viewed as less valuable. Personally, the worst part of being an offer holder in lockdown is knowing that your future is now out of your hands and it is so easy to feel lost, with little purpose, floating in an extended transition between school and university not knowing if you will make it through. That being said, the free time has led to the creation of many offer holder chats, zoom calls and interview throwbacks creating a sense of excitement for what life will be like when we hopefully join our colleges in October.”

František: Corpus Christi College, Law (Jurisprudence), Czech Republic

“Having dreamt of an offer from Oxford pretty much since middle school, I’ve imagined many scenarios of what it all might feel and be like. Truth be told, I never quite imagined anything like the current situation. As a student of the German International Abitur, I fortunately managed to write most of my final exams back in February and my orals will go ahead as scheduled. However, my school is a place, where up until last year, we always had lessons from 8am to 4pm, with few breaks. We only write an exam a semester and the majority of what we learn comes from fairly interactive lessons. Everything has turned around since our lockdown and for many, it’s the first time that they need to learn to manage all of their time and work on their own. It’s definitely challenging, especially with the Czech Republic’s harsh and long-lasting measures, but it has shown everyone, including myself, what life at university and after that will be like, which, despite its hardships and unpleasantries, is an experience I will alway value.”

Jodie: St. Peter’s College, Spanish, Bedfordshire

“When the exams were cancelled, although it was somewhat disappointing, I was actually overwhelmingly relieved. I never envied the stress and tears my siblings experienced during their A-levels so I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders! It almost seems more fair that I will be judged on the work I have produced throughout the year as opposed to a single exam that is more like a memory test. Even though these circumstances are uncertain at least I’m not torturing myself by constantly worrying about the possibility of a rogue question throwing me off and ruining my grade. In regards to uni, as a potential fresher it is quite worrying not knowing how normal life will be by September. First year seems to me like the foundation of your time at university; it’s when we settle in, transition to independence and hopefully make solid friendships so we can move out in second year. It would be such a shame to limit the experience we have looked forward to for so long and worked so hard to achieve. Ultimately, this is a pandemic and everyone has to make sacrifices for it.”

Anvee Bhutani

Anvee Bhutani is Senior Media Editor of The Oxford Blue and was formerly both News Editor and Events Director. She is a penultimate year student at Magdalen College reading Human Sciences and is originally from San Francisco, California.