An Offer-Holder's Guide to Applying for English at OxbridgeWatch this thread
I applied to Cambridge this year and am lucky enough to be starting in October 2022. I feel like my perspective of the process has completely changed from a year ago, and I'd love to pass on the tips I've noted down.
This first post will cover reading and personal statement stuff, with links to resources and a reading list. Much of it is snippets of advice I've collected over the months, but I've tried to organise it into something comprehensive.
I'll follow this up with tips on the ELAT, interview etc – but in the meantime good luck with your English-y endeavours!
TIPS ON THE PERSONAL STATEMENT, FOR ENGLISH APPLICANTS
To jump to a section: 1-3 general structure of the PS and guide to reading, 4-5 general qualities of good and bad personal statements, 6-9 qualities of the best personal statements, 10-12 resources, 13 a reading list.
I'll start with writing the PS itself to give a sense of what your reading should be driving towards.
1. The introduction should be no more than 4 lines (a punchy 1-2 line opening is ideal), and should establish your view on the significance of literature and why you want to study it at undergraduate level. For instance, you might argue that literature is valuable as it holds a mirror up to society/ offers insight into human nature/ is transmutable. As it’s an Oxbridge personal statement, make sure you have robust evidence and further arguments to justify your view: interviewers are likely to grill you on your opening lines.
2. The main body of the statement should cover 3 areas of interest. These could be themes – power, morality, the hero, love, say – but also periods such as Modernism, the Epic, Romanticism, 19th century, or even particular writers like Chaucer or Milton. Ensure that you’re getting breadth across the canon: Oxford in particular places emphasis on a chronological understanding of how English literature has developed, from the Anglo-Saxons right up to the present day. This reading will not be exhaustive: you’re not trying to cover every canonical text from the 1300s (this would make your degree pointless, lol, and you'd lack the necessary depth), but aim to read major works to give yourself a broad overview of literature. Key texts/ writers to familiarise yourself imo with are:
- Greek tragedy (almost essential if you’re applying to Cambridge imo. Part II ‘tragedy’ at Cambridge is broken down into Greek Tragedy, Shakespearean Tragedy, and Modern Tragedy. Each is studied separately and then compared/ contrasted. If you can do so in your own reading, you’ll almost certainly impress your interviewers.
- Paradise Lost (Books I (on Satan’s description of hell) and IX (on the fall of Adam and Eve are sufficient).
- Shakespeare (read plays which link nicely – the Roman plays (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus/ Coriolanus) would work. Tragedies are best, as you can compare/ contrast them to Greek and modern forms where appropriate.
- Romantic poets (esp. Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads and Keats’ odes – the idea of the Romantic imagination seen in Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge’s work might be fruitful)
- Victorian poets (Matthew Arnold, Christina Rossetti, Hardy – all useful)
- Modern tragedy (this includes classics like Death of a Salesman, Things Fall Apart, and Yeats’ plays – but in Part II at Cambridge the tragedy paper invites you to compare whatever forms of tragic literature most interest you. You determine what ‘tragic’ constitutes, and if you can compare modern texts back to earlier tragic forms with a justified argument, this will really impress).
The reading list I've written below should be useful in pointing you to main texts, but it's by no means exhaustive – seek out more unusual texts to give your application flair.
3. So, once you’ve gained breadth across the canon, this should be followed by depth. Find niche areas of interest which other applicants are unlikely to have covered and zoom in. Think about how these depth texts link to the canonical texts you’ve read, and note down original ideas that can be deployed in a personal statement or whipped out at the interview. This balance between breadth and depth is crucial in allowing you to compare across the canon whilst being able to talk in detail about texts and writers.
4. There are several pitfalls to avoid when writing the personal statement. Firstly, make sure you’re not simply name-dropping texts with no analysis, expansion, or broader point. You need to make insightful comments on texts, link ideas together, and broaden out to an overarching point – the ‘so what?’ test is useful for this. Secondly, avoid vague remarks about texts or authors, for eg. ‘Virginia Woolf is very interesting and subversive’. You need to be incisive in your comments and explore fresh, original ideas. Thirdly, be mindful of tone and style. Avoid clichés (‘fascinated’, ‘intrigued’, ‘absorbed’), lengthy sentences with lots of sub-clauses, and verbosity. Admissions tutors will see right through woolly language, so be economical with your words – not just for the sake of concision but also to fit within the character limit! Fourthly, maintain a balance between breadth and depth in each paragraph. It’s far better to write in depth on two or three texts/ authors than to skim over six or seven, and remember that your remaining ideas can be brought out at the interview. Finally, your paragraphs should not be centred around your A-Level texts. These should either be used as a springboard into wider reading, or should be left out entirely. The curriculum studied at A-Level tends to be very narrow, and tutors want to see that you’ve escaped its confines and read to an undergraduate level.
5. Better personal statements will do the following. Firstly, write meaningfully and in depth about texts. This means using quotes, drilling down into specific ideas or language, comparing, and then applying the ‘so what?’ test. The ‘point, evidence, explanation, novelty’ structure can help with this: the ‘point’ is your argument, ‘evidence’ is detail from texts, ‘explanation’ is the significance of the evidence, and ‘novelty’ can be an original idea about the text or an unusual comparison to another text. Secondly, write ‘layered’ paragraphs which combine poetry, prose, drama, lectures, and podcasts. It’s not at all essential to address all these areas in one paragraph (you’d likely lose ‘depth’) or even in the whole statement, but keep in mind the different modes at play. Thirdly, ensure you have a point to each paragraph. There should be an overarching theme that lashes together all the ideas in each paragraph – this is the ’so what’. Has your worldview been changed by an area of reading? Have you recognised how literature can function in a different way? Remember to avoid sweeping or unconvincing statements – you want to demonstrate sensitivity and intellectual flexibility whilst offering sensible points. Finally, remember it is a personal statement! there should be a strong presence of ‘I’ throughout.
6. The best personal statements will link texts together and show a holistic view of literature. You could link texts within time periods or genres, comparing and contrasting them, or discuss seemingly disparate texts. You might set older texts against modern retellings - e.g. Berg as a retelling of Oedipus. When linking, ensure you are not comparing for the sake of it, and that comparison is detailed and supports your overarching topic sentence. See here https://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/university/personal-statements/english/english-language-and-literature-1] for an example, which makes an original link between two (very different) texts in the second paragraph.
7. These personal statements will also incorporate fresh, original ideas – this is the ‘novelty’ aspect in your paragraphs, and is essential in demonstrating independent critical thinking. Phrases such as ‘to me, …’, ‘in my view…’ facilitate original insight and criticism. See here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mvs69QRp8Ks] for a paragraph with lots of original opinion, as well as one that employs exemplar structure.
8. The very best personal statements structure each paragraph as a journey. You want to show how your understanding of literature has evolved, and more likely transformed, as you’ve read beyond the curriculum. Noting down ideas over the months can be useful in charting how your perspective has changed – see here https://www.circatutors.com/free-advice/english-literature-personal-statement] for an example which charts the evolution of their views, as well as broadening out to a wider point at the end of the paragraph:
9. Finally, challenging quotes from critics can be useful in advancing your own critical position. This is by no means essential, but helps to nuance your argument and shows engagement with the debates around literature.
10. Example Oxbridge personal statements:
11. Resources for further personal statement advice:
12. Resources for criticism to pair with reading
- E-Magazine (accessible articles on a range of literary and linguistic topics)
- Connell Guides (short guides on literary texts) – need login for website, but if you type ‘[text] [connell guides] [pdf]’ on google (e.g. Heart of Darkness Connell Guides pdf) usually a free pdf comes up!
- Cambridge Companions (critical guides on a huge variety of literature)
- Massolit (videos of literary lectures) - http://www.massolit.io/
13. READING LIST
I've organised this list into categories or movements, roughly chronologically from the most recent backwards, and alphabetically by author within each category. It's by no means exhaustive, and some authors could have been put in more than one category, but I've avoided such repetition.
General Useful Literary Overviews
· The Poetry Handbook: a Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism by John Lennard
· The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Christopher Ricks
· The Cambridge Companions series (available on many of the movements, authors and texts below)
· Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton
· Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory by Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle
· A History of English Literature by Michael Alexander
· Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Blind Assassin, The Penelopiad
· John Barth – The Sot-Weed Factor, Chimera, Lost in the Funhouse
· John Fowles – The French Lieutenant’s Woman
· Michael Frayn – Spies
· Joseph Heller – Catch-22
· Ian McEwan – Enduring Love, Atonement
· Thomas Pynchon – Gravity’s Rainbow
· Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five
Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Prose
· Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People
· Kingsley Amis – Lucky Jim
· Martin Amis – Money, London Fields
· Anthony Burgess – A Clockwork Orange, The Kingdom of the Wicked
· A.S. Byatt – Possession, The Children’s Book
· JM Coetzee – Disgrace, Life & Times of Michael K
· Graham Greene – Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair
· Aldous Huxley – Point Counter Point, Brave New World, Island
· Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go, An Artist of the Floating World, The Remains of the Day
· Henry James - The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, The Turn of the Screw, What Maisie Knew,
The Bostonians, Washington Square
· Doris Lessing – The Grass is Singing, The Golden Notebook
· George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm, Burmese Days, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia
· Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Beloved
· Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses
· Zadie Smith – White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty
· Alice Walker – The Colour Purple, Meridian, The Third Life of Grange Copeland
· Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited, A Handful of Dust, Scoop
· H.G. Wells – The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man
Twentieth Century Poetry
· W.H. Auden – Selected Poems
· Seamus Heaney – Death of a Naturalist
· Ted Hughes – Crow, The Hawk in the Rain, Birthday Letters
· Sylvia Plath – Ariel, Selected Poems
· Philip Larkin – Selected Poems
· Louis MacNeice – Selected Poems
· Anne Stevenson – Selected Poems
· Dylan Thomas – Selected Poems
· W.B. Yeats – Selected Poems
Twentieth Century Drama
· Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot, Endgame
· Alan Bennett – The History Boys, The Lady in the Van, The Habit of Art
· Caryll Churchill – Top Girls, Serious Money, A Number
· John Osborne – Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer
· Harold Pinter – The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, Betrayal
· Martin McDonagh – The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Pillowman, The Beauty Queen of Leenane
· Willy Russell – Shirley Valentine, Educating Rita, Blood Brothers, Our Day Out
· George Bernard Shaw – Man and Superman, Pygmalion, The Apple Cart
· Tom Stoppard – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Arcadia
· J.M. Synge – The Playboy of the Western World
The Lost Generation
· F Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, The Beautiful and the Damned, This Side of Paradise
· Ernest Hemmingway – The Sun also Rises, A Moveable Feast, The Old Man and the Sea
· John Steinbeck – East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl
· Arthur Miller – Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons, A View From the Bridge
· Eugene O’Neill – Mourning Becomes Electra, The Great God Brown, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night
· Tennessee Williams – A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie
· Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness, The Secret Agent
· T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land and other poems
· William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!, The Sound and the Fury
· James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, Ulysses
· Gertrude Stein – The Makings of Americans, Tender Buttons
· Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves
· Wallace Stevens – Harmonium, Ideas of Order, The Rock
· J.G. Ballard – Empire of the Sun
· Pat Barker - Regeneration
· Sebastian Faulks – Birdsong
· Ernest Hemmingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls
· Wilfred Owen – Selected Poems
· Jessie Pope – Jessie Pope’s War Poems
· Erich Maria Remarque – All Quiet on the Western Front
· Siegfried Sassoon – Selected Poems
· R.C. Sherriff – Journey’s End
Victorian and Early Twentieth Century Realism
· Jane Austen – Emma, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice
· Charles Dickens – David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby
· George Eliot – Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch
· E.M. Forster – A Room with a View, Howard’s End, A Passage to India
· Elizabeth Gaskell – North and South, Mary Barton
· Thomas Hardy – Tess of the D’urbervilles, Jude the Obscure
· D.H. Lawrence – Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Lady Chatterly’s Lover
· William Thackeray – Vanity Fair, The Luck of Barry Lyndon
Victorian/Nineteenth Century Poetry
· Matthew Arnold – Selected Poems
· Elizabeth Barrett Browning – Sonnets from the Portuguese
· Robert Browning – Selected Poems, The Ring and the Book
· Emily Dickinson – Selected Poems
· Gerard Manley Hopkins – Selected Poems
· Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – Selected Poems
· Christina Rossetti – Goblin Market, Selected Poems
· Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Selected Poems
· Alfred Lord Tennyson – In Memoriam, The Lady of Shalott
· Jane Austen – Northanger Abbey
· Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre
· Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights
· Angela Carter – The Bloody Chamber and other Stories, The Magic Toyshop, Fireworks
· Charlotte Perkins Gilman – The Yellow Wallpaper
· Edgar Allen Poe – The Complete Tales of Mystery and Imagination, The Raven and other poems
· Ann Radcliffe – The Mysteries of Udolpho
· Mary Shelley - Frankenstein
· Horace Walpole – The Castle of Otranto
· Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
· William Blake – Songs of Innocence and of Experience
· Lord Byron – Selected Poems
· Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Selected Poems
· William Cowper – Selected Poems
· Thomas Gray – Selected Poems
· Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter
· John Keats – Selected Poems
· Percy Bysshe Shelley – Selected Poems
· William Wordsworth – Selected Poems
· Daniel Defoe – Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe, A Journal of the Plague Year
· Henry Fielding – Tom Jones
· Samuel Richardson – Pamela, Clarissa
· Laurence Sterne – The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy
Neoclassicism and The Restoration
· Aphra Behn – The Rover
· John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress
· John Dryden – Selected Poems
· Samuel Johnson – Selected Poetry and Prose
· Ben Jonson – Volpone
· John Milton – Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained
· Alexander Pope – The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad
· Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal
· Thomas Kyd – The Spanish Tragedy
· Christopher Marlowe – Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta
· Thomas Middleton – Women Beware Women, The Changeling
· William Shakespeare – King Lear, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra
· John Webster – The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil
Renaissance (Elizabethan and Jacobean) Poetry
· John Donne – Selected Poems, The Holy Sonnets
· George Herbert – Selected Poems
· Sir Philip Sidney – The Major Works, The Old Arcadia, Astrophil and Stella
· William Shakespeare - Sonnets
· Edmund Spenser – The Faerie Queene
· Sir Thomas Wyatt – Selected Poems
· Geoffrey Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde
· The Gawain Poet (anonymous) – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Patience, Purity
· William Langland – Piers Plowman
· Thomas Malory – Le Morte D’Artur
· Morality Plays (author unknown) – Mankind, Everyman
I'm following this up with tips on the UCAS application partly because it's been a couple of weeks, and partly to procrastinate from revision. It would have made more sense for this precede personal statement stuff, but imo it's far less important than getting started with reading (I started over the Xmas holidays a year before the interview, and it took a LOT of time to learn how/ what to read, lol -- giving yourself space to try out different things is crucial).
1. GCSEs: in truth, they're really not that important (provided your predicted A2s are strong), especially for this year's applicants who didn't sit them. Oxford does place a little more weight on them, so Cambridge might be a better idea if only if your GCSEs are well off "Oxbridge-standard", but even the ELAT is more important and you can't change them now. In short, don't stress about GCSE results! It's far more productive to concentrate your efforts on reading, ELAT prep, interview prep etc.
2. Predicted A2s: you'll need to meet the entry criteria (AAA for Ox A*AA for Cam). Beyond this, predicted grades don't count for much. Remember that everyone else applying will almost certainly have A*AA-A*A*A* (probably the upper end): the A*A*A* kids who perform worse than A*AA at interview will be the rejects.
3. SAQ (for Cam only): Largely an admin tick-box exercise. Just remember that you'll have to put all your A-Level texts in, so don't try to pass off one of these in your PS/ interview as wider reading. (On a side note, make sure the photo you'll have to put on it is one you'd be fine with on your ID card (which it will be if you make it to cam). I didn't really think I'd get an offer, so I was fine with my sister taking a cr*p one of me in my sweaty sports kit when I got home...)
Everything else is probably intuitive. What I want to stress is that you only need
1) A 4 (C-grade) in GCSE Maths and Eng. Lang.
2) Compatible predicted grades
3) A willingness to read well beyond the A-Level curriculum to an undergraduate level.
Anything else will help your application, but isn't necessary to gain a place.