AMA - 2nd year English student at Cambridge Watch

Parliament
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Hi everyone!

I opened this thread partly because I really want to help you out where I can, and partly because I need to procrastinate from doing actual work.

A bit about me: I applied to UCL, Durham, Cambridge, Warwick, and Birmingham. I was interviewed by UCL and Cambridge. I got offers from all five, and selected Cambridge as my Firm and UCL as my Insurance. That should give you an indication of which unis/what topics I can most help you with.

Ask me anything, and best of luck with your English-y endeavours
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zee35
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Hi!

Thanks so much for starting this thread! I've applied to Cambridge, Durham, UCL, and two scottish unis (so far I've gotten unconditional offers from Durham and St Andrews). Just wondering, how did you prepare for interview? Would you recommend going back and rereading some books I've put in my personal statement? How did you "read around" your subject? Also, any other tips that you feel really worked for you?

Once again, thanks so much for doing this!
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(Original post by zee35)
Hi!

Thanks so much for starting this thread! I've applied to Cambridge, Durham, UCL, and two scottish unis (so far I've gotten unconditional offers from Durham and St Andrews). Just wondering, how did you prepare for interview? Would you recommend going back and rereading some books I've put in my personal statement? How did you "read around" your subject? Also, any other tips that you feel really worked for you?

Once again, thanks so much for doing this!
1) Breadth and depth
You need to be solid on your PS stuff, even though in my experience it wasn't asked about much at interview. You also need to have other interesting stuff you can talk about for a long time in addition to the works on your personal statement, because otherwise you'll look like a bit of a one-trick pony. As for breadth, I made a wall chart from the 15th century to the present day and gave each century a box for prose and a box for poetry. The idea was to fill all the boxes with at least one thing I'd read. This showed me where my gaps and weaknesses were so I could plug them in time for interview, which turned out to be a lifesaver when one of my Cambridge interviewers just started firing 'what have you read from *insert century here*?' questions at me. Make sure that what you're reading is: a) short so you can get through it in time for interview, b) canonical, so not some weird random book you found but a well-known writer/work, and c) interesting and thematically rich, so you can talk about it in many different contexts (it's like that classic A-Level Eng Lit tip to learn multipurpose quotes so you can use them in multiple scenarios - same principle).

2) Be interesting & interested
Please for the love of God do NOT talk about any of the following unless you have something genuinely enlightening to say:
a) 'I think Jane Austen's a proto-feminist'
b) 'I think Chaucer's a proto-feminist because I've read the Wife of Bath's Tale'
c) 'I think Northanger Abbey is a parody of Gothic fiction'
d) 'I would now like to talk about the Brontes'

I know five people who've applied to Oxbridge with personal statements rammed with those sort of buzzword topics. Four were rejected without interview, and the fifth was rejected after interview. The point is that those kind of topics are DULL. They receive so many applications every year and many of them just cover the same ground (mostly ripped from the school curriculum), making the applicant forgettable and ensuring your application has a swift journey to the bin. Find some niche, interesting books to talk about, and talk about them interestingly: find cool details, make unexpected connections to other literature, and make profound observations. I did a straw poll of my friends at Cambridge and here are a few examples of what we talked about at interview to compare with the list above:

a) An application of Freud's ideas to 'Paradise Lost'
b) A comparison of the presentation of Lucifer in 'Paradise Lost' and Matthew Lewis's 'The Monk'
c) A discussion about Latino immigrant literature in the USA
d) Absurdist drama and its strange appeal
e) Why science-fiction contains so few canonical books/classics
f) A discussion of the Victorian omniscient narrator in Middlemarch
g) Don Quixote

Read things they won't have expected you to! Supplement your A-Level reading by reading around it! Get a basic handle on literary theory/criticism (F.R Leavis and Terry Eagleton for eg)!

3) Be smart
Look up your interviewers beforehand and find their research interests. Find areas of overlap with your own interests, and derail the interview onto those areas. They'll enjoy talking about their own interests, and thus you'll be a memorable candidate (if you have good stuff to say about those areas, of course).

Take your time. Make sure you listen carefully and understand their question or position before responding. If you try to wing it without truly getting what they're saying you'll hinder yourself and waste time. Don't be scared to ask for a few seconds to think about your response either - that's fine (I did it quite a lot) and shows you're really engaging with what they're saying and trying to come up with a better answer than you would if you just waded in thoughtlessly.

Be synoptic. You don't have long and you need to show you've read good stuff. Find ways to weave your wider reading into whatever's being discussed.

Argument technique - they'll play devil's advocate to stretch and test your ideas. Always defend your point of view whilst you think you have ground to stand on, though you should acknowledge their side of the argument too. However, if your position becomes untenable (and it probably will do because they're smarter than you are), roll over and change your stance. They want to give offers to people they think they can teach, not to stubborn serial debaters who believe losing an argument is grounds for ritualised suicide.

Just try to relax, too. Arrive in good time for your interviews (I must be honest- I really liked listening at the door to the previous candidates [although I know that's kinda a **** move] because it helped relax me and gave a hint of some potential questions). Make eye contact with your interviewer, and breathe deeply. It's just a conversation for twenty minutes of your life, so don't make it something it's not in your mind! Treat it as a great opportunity to get some time from a world-leading academic for FREE. Priceless
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unknowntsr
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Hey,
you mention breadth and depth but my teachers have told me to only really have depth. I have done lots of work on the books I mentioned in my PS but not a lot on anything else. What should I do>
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(Original post by unknowntsr)
Hey,
you mention breadth and depth but my teachers have told me to only really have depth. I have done lots of work on the books I mentioned in my PS but not a lot on anything else. What should I do>
In my opinion they're wrong. Based on my experience (and that of my friends), personal statements are rarely discussed except as a springboard for talking about something else. Oxbridge interviewers want to see that you're not a one-trick-pony (ie that you have more stuff to talk about than just the things on your personal statement), and that you've read more widely than would be expected for an A-Level student.

Therefore, I recommend you make a wall chart as I advised in my previous post and figure out where your gaps are. Then plug them
It's quite close to interviews now iirc, so try to read things that are short and thematically rich. A few things I'd recommend:

The Canterbury Tales - Chaucer (1400s, just read a few of the tales)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - Anon, trans. Simon Armitage (1300s, make sure you get a translation if you want to have a crack at this)
Andrew Marvell (1600s, poet, esp. 'The Garden', the Mower sequence, 'To His Coy Mistress')
Thomas Wyatt (1500s, poet, esp. 'Whoso List to Hunt', 'Avising the Bright Beams')
Paradise Lost - Milton (1600s, Book IX is the go-to one if you're short on time)
Songs of Innocence and of Experience - William Blake (1700s, poetry)

Those are some examples of short things to read that fill common gaps in applicants' breadth.
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