The sudden closure of schools and colleges in March 2020 plunged my year group’s A Level results into uncertainty. By the summer, I was filled with trepidation when it became clear that grades were to be moderated based on schools’ historic performance, which would surely result in higher achievers at schools with below-average performance, like mine, being marked down. Thankfully, I escaped that fate and the government soon U-turned to reinstate centre-assessed grades anyway. My results were good – but perhaps unremarkable by Oxford standards.
I’d already decided to do a gap year: not of the gallivanting-around-Thailand-riding-elephants kind, but more out of necessity because I needed to earn money to cover living costs at university. I got a job as an English and French teacher in a small town named Miranda de Ebro in northern Spain. Through September and October, I had to juggle settling into my first full-time job in a foreign country during the pandemic whilst also working my way through an Oxford application.
It might seem as though I had left it until the last minute, but I was making a post-results application, which meant that I had met entry requirements and was free from any uncertainty surrounding my grades. A somewhat double edged sword – which necessitated a gap year of some kind and applying without teachers’ help.I prepared for the TSA exam by doing a couple of past papers available online and a timed essay question. More preparation may be advisable, but I was short of time. The questions test skills you already have (though practice helps), so the main challenges are time management and close reading. I wrote my essay on the topical subject of scientists making public policy. I think I made strong arguments and wrote coherently; since you are only given thirty minutes, planning is essential.
Interviews came around at the beginning of December, which I was thankfully able to do from my bedroom on Microsoft Teams. The philosophy interview was first, and I was sent some material ten minutes beforehand. The problem solving was accessible and the conversation arrived at the philosophy of language, specifically the trade-off between precision and brevity.Note that I’ve said ‘conversation’; if you view the interview as a conversation about things you’re interested in, with someone who cares (which is rare in daily encounters), then you will probably do much better than if you view it as a job interview.
Then came the economics interview, the hardest of the three. I struggled with a mathematical puzzle, but I asked for help and eventually arrived at the right answer. Admittedly, I wouldn’t have got it on my own in two minutes, but there’s no shame in that and this shows that Oxford are not looking for infallible child prodigies.
The politics interview seemed to go well, but as students of more subjective courses like politics know, it can be hard to gauge your own performance.
The acceptance letter came in January during a lesson, after receiving the ominously vague UCAS email that my application had been updated. I logged in to UCAS to look, despite my waiting students, and repeatedly checked to make sure I hadn’t misread the offer of a place. I’d prepared myself for rejection, mainly as my course has an acceptance rate of 11%. I was thrilled.
On reflection, it is of course better to begin your application as soon as possible, and perhaps not to be reading Descartes’ ‘Meditations’ for hours the night before your interview. That said, real life sometimes has other ideas, and most successful applicants don’t write their personal statements two years in advance or take 6 A Levels aged 13.