In a world full of distractions, there are few more satisfying ways to spend your time than immersed in a good book. But studying literature at university is about more than wiling away your days in the company of great authors; it’s a rigorous and exacting discipline that will stretch the way you think about language and about art. So how can you prepare yourself for this kind of course, and, just as importantly, how can you prove to admissions tutors that you’re prepared?
Firstly, there’s nothing more important in this regard than good grades, so the priority should always be school work. But literature courses are some of the most competitive in the country. Admissions tutors will receive thousands of applications from qualified candidates. If you’re on-top of your school work, therefore, it’s worth investing some time in super-curricular activities. When a university is choosing between you and a candidate of a similar level, this might give you the edge.
Are super-curricular activities the same as extra-curricular activities?
Extra-curricular activities are things like sport, drama and volunteering that aren’t directly related to your studies. They have an important place on any personal statement because they can demonstrate personal qualities like determination and resilience that can help you succeed at university. Super-curricular activities, on the other hand, are directly related to the subject you want to pursue. They include things like extra-reading, attending talks and visiting museums; anything, in other words, that can help you stretch your learning over above what you’re doing in class. Hence the prefix ‘super’, which means over, or on top of.
Why are super-curricular activities important for English?
When deciding between applicants, admissions tutors will be focused on academics. Extra-curricular activities can demonstrate personal qualities that will help you at university, but super-curriculars can demonstrate your aptitude and passion for a subject more directly. If an admissions tutor is choosing between two candidates with similar grades, they will probably go for the one who has done super-curricular learning.
More and more universities are asking candidates to interviews before offering them a place. Most of the questions they’ll ask will be subject related. Again, there’s no substitute for knowing what you’re doing at school inside-out. But super-curricular learning can help you feel more confident in talking more broadly about the subject, allowing you to bring in references to other books you’ve read or experiences that you’ve had that have enriched your understanding of literature.
If you’re lucky enough to be offered a place, you’ll be glad that you invested some time in super-curriculars. Literature is taught quite differently at school and university. A-Levels and IB courses have strict mark-schemes to help examiners differentiate between candidates. But universities are a little more flexible in the way they credit responses. If you’ve only ever thought about your subject in connection to mark-schemes, then this can come as a shock, but, if you’ve done some super-curriculars, then you’ll be aware that there’s more to being a good literary critic than grade boundaries and areas of study.
Finally, don’t forget that super-curriculars are fun. If you want to study literature at university, you’ll enjoy the subject and you’ll find it rewarding to explore it further. It can also help you learn more about yourself, developing your understanding of what books you like, and what you might like to specialise in when the times comes to write a dissertation.
Quality not quantity
Before deciding on super-curriculars, it’s important to remember not to over-stretch yourself. Doing too many might distract you from your studies. In any case, you will get more out of them when you focus on a few. Remember that personal statements are not long, and a lot of it will be spent discussing your school work. It’s far better to devote a paragraph to an in-depth discussion of one or two super-curriculars rather than a list of several.
So what kinds of things count?
So long as it’s related to literature, it’s a super-curricular, but the most obvious place to start is with wider reading.
It’s best to focus on primary texts, so novels, poems and plays that are considered literary. Primary texts can be anything from a fragment of an Anglo-Saxon poem to a Victorian novel, but it’s wise to focus on a specific area. Find a genre or period you’re interested in and read widely within that field. And try to find something you enjoy. Whilst it’s important to make sure that what you’re reading is of good quality, there’s no point slogging through an enormous tome if you’re only understanding every other word. University courses prepare you to read and appreciate difficult texts. Admissions tutors are not looking for experts; they’re looking for students who want to learn. And if you can talk passionately about an author you genuinely love, that’ll count for a lot.
Once you’ve found a field you’re interested in, seek out some secondary texts. These are books written by critics about other books or about literary theory. They can range in quality from popular non-fiction, which includes books by non-academic writers, to peer-reviewed academic criticism written by authors who hold posts at universities. The former can be found in either the literature or non-fiction section at good book shops, while the latter can be found in specialist libraries or on websites like Jstor or Project Muse, some of which require subscriptions.
Both kinds of secondary texts can be good, but neither are risk free. Non-specialist texts can be easier to read, but they can also be quite general. Academic criticism is more rigorous, but it can also be quite densely written and full of technical terms. It can be discouraging to wade through an academic article and find that you’ve understood none of it and, if this happens to you, don’t worry. Try reading it again, or seek out a middle ground. A book written by an academic for the mass market, like James Shapiro’s 1599 or John Mullan’s The Artful Dickens, might provide a good balance.
Depending on where you live in the country, you will be able to go to lectures on literary topics, readings by authors or literary festivals. Bookshops will often host writers who are promoting books, and this can be a great way to find out more about contemporary writing. Universities, museums and galleries will also occasionally hold public lectures, so check what’s on at an institution near you. If there’s a theatre within reach, book tickets to see good quality drama by reputed authors or new playwrights.
Some institutions like the British Library, The Globe Theatre, The Royal Society of Literature and Gresham College offer short courses for secondary level students. These can be in-person or online. Quality ones will often cost money, but you might get more out of it than you will a free one.
Universities like Oxford and Yale also offer open courses that are taught by literature specialists. These can be quite high level, but they’re worth a try for the ambitious.
A great way to learn more about a writer is by visiting the places in which they worked. Wordsworth’s House in Grasmere, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayr, Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford and Monk’s House where Virginia Woolf lived in Sussex, can all make for fun days out with a bit of learning thrown in too.
- The Penguin Short History of English Literature by Stephen Coote
- Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton
- The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg
- The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt
- 1599 by James Shapiro
- The Artful Dickens by John Mullan
- English Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Bate
- Project Muse
- Oxford University's Staircase 12
- Yale Open Courses
- Harvard University’s Free Online Courses
- BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time
- BBC Radio 3’s Words and Music
- LRB Bookshop Podcast
- The TLS Podcast
- Inside the New York Times Review of Books
- Between the Covers
- New Yorker Fiction Podcast
English University Entrance Tuition
Please do get in touch with Keystone Tutors if you are looking for an English tutor to further support your university preparation. Our tutors have extensive experience with the ELAT and English entrance to top UK universities, both through having successfully sat the test and then gone on to tutor it.