In the article below, Lincoln College Oxford alumni and Keystone Tutor Rory outlines the best approach to take when applying to study English at Oxford, with plenty of hard-won insights from his own successful application process thrown in!
English at Oxford: The Application Process
It is essential that you start considering your application as early as possible! I would suggest kicking things off in May of Year 12. Research when Oxford University is hosting open days (or, as is currently the case, virtual open days). These will tend to take place throughout the summer.
Be clear on the requirements
Before applying to study English at Oxford, you’ll need to be confident of attaining AAA at A-level (or 38 at IB, with 6-6-6 in your HL subjects). You’ll need a personal statement and an academic reference to submit with your UCAS application by the mid-October deadline. You’ll then need to sit the English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT) in early November, and submit a sample of your own analytical writing, marked by a teacher, shortly after that.
Ah, the personal statement: the nemesis of all university applicants. One of the big issues with this 4,000-character document is that its name is rather misleading (at least so far as Oxford English applications go). It would be much better labelled the impersonal statement, as you want to be talking about yourself as little as possible. Rather, you should aim to create a literary essay, that skips between nuggets of wider reading you’ve found interesting over the past few years. Just be sure to have some kind of thematic link between texts and paragraphs, so that the piece doesn’t feel too jumpy. As an example of what I mean, you can view a copy of my own personal statement. (Please don’t judge the mismatched speech marks around Holy Sonnet XIV... apparently the admissions body didn’t mind)!
You can, of course, talk about work experience or seminars you’ve attended, but only if this is relevant to English. If you’re desperate to talk about your underwater tuba-playing, or your presidency of the left-handed ping-pong society, I’d save this for the last couple of sentences.
Selecting a College
Here’s a secret about choosing a college: it really doesn’t matter. The staff and architecture of a college are unlikely to determine your happiness: your college cohort certainly will. And, as you have no control over the latter, there’s little point worrying.
However, there are a few pointers I can offer here that you may want to bear in mind. Firstly, I would avoid applying to the same college as someone else in your school. I believe that, officially, this shouldn’t make a difference to your application... but I’m sure colleges keep an eye on “oversubscription”.
Secondly, if you don’t want to choose a college at random, you could consider things like location (how central the college is, or its proximity to your lecture halls), how many years they provide student accommodation for, what their library’s like (I attended Lincoln, which has a beautiful, Grade I-listed library), what the English tutors specialise in, or even the reputation of the food (I can confirm the rumour that New College’s is below average). The open day you attend is a good time to figure some of this out!
Nearly every undergraduate college offers English, so you’re spoilt for choice. Just be aware that, come interview day, you might be called to interview at a different college too. So don’t pin all your hopes and dreams on “College X” — you’ll end up loving “College Y” regardless!
Give your English teacher plenty of notice. A more in-depth guide on the teacher reference can be found on the Oxford University website. I’d suggest sending this link to your teacher. One important point to note is that this year, teachers may discuss COVID as a mitigating circumstance.
Once your UCAS application has been sent off, ask your school’s Exam Office to register you as a candidate for the ELAT, and to provide you with your candidate number.
The test itself is nothing to worry about. It’s deliberately designed to be a pretty accessible exam, which seeks to answer two simple questions: can you read well and write well?
You’ll be presented with six passages on a similar theme, and will have 90 minutes to compare two of them. That’s it.
The only effective preparation I can think of is to hone your close reading skills. Perhaps ask your English teacher for some timed unseen comparison exercises, or tackle one I’ve made. Past papers for the ELAT can be found on the Oxford University website.
The final element of your application will be a sample of written work, ideally marked by a teacher. Don’t spend too long agonising over what to send. My advice would be to choose a timed essay written in the course of your English studies that best reflects your close analysis skills, as well as a broader appreciation of the text’s structure and socio-literary context. I submitted a timed essay on “Civilisation versus Barbarism” in A Handful of Dust, a text we studied in sixth form.
Once you’ve sent off an electronic copy of your writing, be sure to retain the original. There’s a chance they may discuss your writing sample with you at interview - though this wasn’t the case for me.
English at Oxford: The Interview
Once you’ve sent off your UCAS application, sat the ELAT, and submitted your writing sample, you can take a breather. Things are out of your hands, for now. In late November or early December, you should hear back from Oxford as to whether or not you’ve been called for interview. If so, congratulations - you’re at the final hurdle!
The interview dates will be in mid-December, scheduled for when all of the undergraduates depart for the Christmas holidays. This academic year, of course, they were all conducted online. With luck, face-to-face interviews will be reinstated for 2021.
Each college has a team of undergrads to look after you during your stay, and they’ll be able to make sure you get to the correct room promptly. Otherwise, your time is your own. If you’re more of an extrovert, you’ll probably just want to chill out with some of the other candidates. Or you might decide to read over your personal statement for the thousandth time in your room. Whatever floats your boat.
Going into the interview, you’ll want to have two things at the forefront of your mind. Number one, you should know all the texts mentioned in your personal statement comprehensively. If time allows, I’d recommend rereading them during the application process. Number two, remember that it is in the interest of the interviewers to get the best out of you. They are not your enemies, and are simply there to assess your potential to thrive reading English at Oxford.
Usually, you will sit two interviews (if you’re called to another college, you might sit three or even four). Before each interview, you’ll have about twenty minutes to read and annotate a text (often, one of these text will be prose, the other poetry). These texts will form the basis for the first half of each interview. The rest will be based on your personal statement or writing sample. Additionally, I’d recommend having one other “back-up” text to discuss. Towards the end of my second interview, we still had a few minutes left, and the interviewer asked me what else I’d recently been reading. Spontaneous questions like that can throw you off, if you don’t have something primed and ready to go.
Once you’re in the interview room, at least from my experience, there will be two subject tutors sitting with you. One leads the interview, whilst the other silently takes notes, occasionally throwing out a question of their own if their interest is piqued. I’d suggest researching who the subject tutors are at your preferred college, to gain a sense of their academic specialities. This may help you gauge the authors or periods they’ll be most interested in during the interview.
English at Oxford: Interview Questions
Here’s an example of the kind of question you might be asked:
“In your personal statement, you mentioned that you enjoy reading the poetry of John Donne. You’re probably aware that he’s described as a metaphysical poet. What do you think this means?”
This, I think, is a fairly typical question. It refers directly to the personal statement, and is actually opening a lot of potential avenues for the candidate. If you know that it was John Dryden who first observed that Donne blended his amorous verse with “metaphysics”, or that it was Samuel Johnson who soon after coined the term “metaphysical poets”, then by all means say that! If not, then you might instead consider what metaphysical means: beyond the physical. So in what ways is John Donne a poet who explores things “beyond the physical”? A great opportunity opens up to talk about his conceits, and how he often represents one entity or concept through an ingenious, elaborate metaphor. Perhaps he uses such figurative language to explore an underlying connectivity between all things. Or you could be more cynical, claiming that the elaborate, high-blown analogies only serve to dress-up base desires, as in “The Flea”. Really, the possibilities are endless, and the interviewer will not expect you to have read volumes of niche academia. They simply want to know what you have read, and whether you’ve thought about that reading deeply.
What is it like studying English at Oxford? – Interview with Keystone Tutor Rory
Prior to joining Keystone, Rory read English Language and Literature at Lincoln College, Oxford (2014-2017).
How long have you worked for Keystone?
I’ve worked at Keystone for almost three-and-a-half years now.
What do you like most about working with Keystone?
It has to be the pedagogical freedom. Tutoring allows for a lot of flexibility in how you teach each individual student. Classrooms often don’t have this luxury, as they need to ensure that every member of the class is progressing at a prescribed pace. But a tutor can challenge and extend high-achieving students, whilst also dedicating the necessary time to their more gradual learners.
What preparation did you do in advance of the interview for Oxford?
With regards to preparation, I think it’s important to revise the texts that you’re willing to speak about. In other words, anything you’ve mentioned in your personal statement, anything you’re studying in sixth form, as well as whatever “wider reading” you think might be helpful to bring up. I’d also recommend doing a bit of reading around your texts. Do a Wikipedia check on an author, and gather details about their life. Is there a decent biography available? What other authors are they usually grouped with? Are they part of a literary “school”? The more reading the better. But remember — the interviews are not long, and you won’t be able to ramble on for twenty minutes fact-dropping your entire knowledge of, say, Early Modern theatre. So, focus your time and energy on what they are likely to ask you about, given what you have already told them.
What was the English interview like at Oxford?
I had two interviews. The first was a dream. The professor interviewing me was a leading John Donne scholar; Donne happens to be my favourite poet, so we had plenty to talk about. We actually ended up speaking very little about the text I’d been set to read beforehand, and the whole thing felt like a friendly, literary discussion: one in which I was learning, but also being pushed to think deeply about certain ideas.
Interview two, on the other hand, was a brutal affair. Most of it was taken up by the obscure poem I’d been furiously combing over pre-interview. I sort-of understood what it was about, and was sort-of able to answer their questions. I do recall a couple of excruciating moments, the first being when I was repeatedly told my answers were wrong (when I landed upon they were looking for, the professor exclaimed, “At last!”). I also got a little flustered towards the end, and named the wrong poem, earning a bemused look from the professor. So I left the second interview feeling like I’d been good-copped-bad-copped.
However, I’ve since learned from that second interviewer (who ended being my Old English professor), that interrogative interviews can often be a sign that things are going well. They might make you feel uneasy, and challenge you in a way you’re unaccustomed to. But often, the professor simply feels that they can get something genuinely interesting out of you, and that want to see how far you can be stretched within the allotted thirty minutes.
What was it like studying English at Oxford? What did you enjoy most?
If you do end up reading English at Oxford, I cannot emphasise this piece of advice enough: do the summer reading. I think I only read David Copperfield, believing I’d have plenty of time for the rest after I arrived. Alas, my laissez-faire attitude meant I spent the whole of first term playing catch-up. I still have nightmares about reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch from dawn to dusk.
Without a doubt, the leap in workload from A-level is astronomical. In sixth form, you maybe did two 3,000-word essays for coursework, across a couple of terms (or even a year). At Oxford, you‘ll be writing about 3,000 words a week. This is on top of reading primary texts, critical material, and attending lectures. If that all sounds overwhelming, I agree. It was for me, in my first term. However, I learned from my mistake, and spent the Christmas holidays poring over Joyce and Woolf and Forster.
Second term proved a lot more manageable, as did each subsequent term after that. So, be sure to work through that reading list! It will help ease your entry into uni, and better allow you to balance going out and meeting new friends alongside your studies.
I also want to highlight how awesome it is to be able to discuss your favourite works of literature with leading experts on those texts. There were several tutorials where you genuinely felt you were operating at your maximum academic potential, and those moments have stayed with me since.
What are your top tips for someone thinking about applying to read English at Oxford?
Here are some final pointers I’d offer to anyone thinking about reading English at Oxford:
Do you care enough? Yes, it’s nice to say you went to Oxford. But if you don’t genuinely love literature, you‘ll probably end up finding much of term time a slog. The following question might be a good place to start: does the thought of reading the complete works of Shakespeare in one summer fill you with despair or jubilation?
Read, read, read. From speaking to a few professors, they are always impressed when a student has gone off the beaten track of their A-level syllabus and explored other works of literature that interest them. Just be sure to do a little background reading on the author too!
Reach out. Do you know anyone who studied English at Oxford? Has a teacher at your school helped someone through the process before? Ask them for advice! Everyone’s individual experience of the course is different, so you’ll need a few different perspectives to get a well-rounded idea of what it’s actually like.
When it comes to the ELAT and set pre-interview extracts, close-reading is your best friend. Professors at Oxford know that they can teach you about particular authors and periods; they don’t expect you to have amassed all of that knowledge independently. But they do expect you to have the nuts-and-bolts of literary analysis secure. Do you know your epanorthosis from your apotheosis? Can you discuss the sound qualities of a poem in a persuasive and meaningful way? Brush up on your knowledge of literary techniques, and have a go at articulating how certain authors create effects through their narrative styles.
Finally, don’t stress! Focus on what you can control (your reading, keeping to application deadlines) and keep a cool head.
I hope you have found the above helpful and good luck with your application!
Tutors for ELAT Preparation
Please do get in touch with Keystone Tutors if you are looking for a tutor to support your English application for Oxford University. We offer University interview training, advisory support and we have a range of specialist tutors who can assist students approaching the ELAT.