On becoming a little bit more expert…

On my car radio, during the week we were doing our admissions interviews in December 2014, was a Q&A session with the astronaut Chris Hadfield.  He answered lots of questions in very inspiring fashion, including one from a schoolboy called Joe.  Joe wanted to know how Chris had stayed motivated from the first moment at which he decided that he wanted to be an astronaut (aged ten years old) to the point twenty-three years later when he was accepted into the Canadian astronaut programme.

This was Chris’s reply.  First of all, think about what interests you?  What fascinates you? What are you always dreaming about?  What bit of the library or the bookshop do you always go to first?  Think about the career possibilities which bring together those areas.  What would be your dream job based upon those interests and fascinations?

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Detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan and the Sibyl standing in a sphere of the cosmos, with the moon, sun and stars surrounding, in ‘Le chemin de long estude’ (The Path of Long Study’) from BL MS Harley 4431

I’m assuming, as you are reading this page, that one of your goals or dreams might be to study English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford.  Like dreaming of being an astronaut, this is statistically a long shot. But it is not impossible.  Chris was keen to explain that it is not enough to have talent or just to dream.  You need to combine talent and aspiration with a continual process of doing what you can to get a little bit closer to that goal.  Not putting it off till later, but becoming a little bit more expert every week.  Think of it as being in training, like training for a marathon or an Olympic medal.

So Chris told Joe to do the following:

“This weekend, start becoming more expert in that area.  Set yourself a long-term goal that lines up with what you’re dreaming about, but then start changing who you are to become more expert […] You give yourself a cool long-term goal, but then you allow yourself to succeed on an almost weekly basis in becoming better and better at it, and drawing your life towards it.”

Joe, it turned out, wanted to be a computer programmer.

“There are so many things you can do this weekend: [Chris then gave him a brilliant list of all sorts of key questions and issues current in computer programming, and told him to find out about them].  By Sunday night you won’t be a professional computer programmer, but by Sunday you will have turned yourself into someone a little closer to what you’re dreaming about.  And by Sunday night you can stand up and go ‘I had a great weekend: you should see what changes I wrought in myself this weekend’.  And that way you are not waiting to the end to succeed or to feel good about yourself: you can celebrate on a constant basis.”

So, if studying English at Oxford is your dream or goal, what can you do to get yourself, weekend by weekend or day by day, a little closer to that aim?  It goes without saying that you will need a great (but not necessarily perfect) academic record.  It goes without saying that you will need to do very well in the key parts of our application process: do well in the ELAT test (in which you analyse and compare passages of poetry and prose), send us a great piece of written work, and perform well in our interviews.  And, because we have so many applications from so many well-qualified, wonderfully talented candidates, you will have to stand out from the crowd by being well prepared.  You don’t have to be an expert, but you do have to show us that you have started on the long journey to being a bit more expert, heading towards your aim incrementally.

There are so many myths and anecdotes about how Oxford admissions tutors decide who to give their precious few places to that it’s easy to forget the selection criteria we use.  Here, for the avoidance of doubt, are the criteria which the Faculty of English here in Oxford has on its website:

We evaluate your written work according to the following criteria: literary sensibility; sensitivity to the creative use of language; evidence of careful and critical reading; an analytical approach; coherence of argument and articulacy of expression; precision, in the handling of concepts and in the evidence presented to support points; relevance to the question; originality.

We evaluate your interview performance according to the following criteria: evidence of independent reading; capacity to exchange and build on ideas; clarity of thought and expression; analytical ability; flexibility of thought; evidence of independent thinking about literature; readiness and commitment to read widely with discrimination.

It’s worth reading those two lists very slowly and carefully, thinking about how you might become a little more expert at each criteria.  Those with fixed mindsets might decide that how good they are at each of these measures is just down to how much ‘talent’ or ‘intelligence’ they were born with.  They won’t practise because they think that you can’t really improve by practising or by struggling slowly to learn something new or more difficult.  (That’s a silly idea: you wouldn’t expect someone to win a sports competition without training…).  But those with growth mindsets will know that these skills will develop and strengthen if you commit the time needed to practise them.

So at the bottom of this post is a list of things you can do, a little each week, to become a bit more of an English literature expert (note that this is NOT THE SAME as ‘BEING AN EXPERT’ – we don’t expect you to BE AN EXPERT, we just expect you to show commitment to the long process of becoming a bit more expert).  All of the suggestions below will help with the key parts of our process, UCAS personal statement, ELAT test, written work, interviews.  And all of them, I think, will help you do well in your Year 12 and 13 exams, so this will not be time wasted.  I do know how busy life is for you doing sixth-form exams, and having a part-time job perhaps, and keeping fit, and having a life, and all the rest – I really do.  But the competition for Oxford places is fierce, and so I trust you will find a way to find a little time.  Half an hour a day, or a couple of hours each weekend, is better than nothing at all.

  • Read this very helpful learning skills booklet for A-level students from Hodder Education.  It has lots of useful tips for how you can approach your A-level studies in ways which will help you prepare for an application to a top university.
  • Read this research report from the Sutton Trust (click ‘Report, top right) on how university tutors and school teachers sometimes have different views of what makes a good personal statement for your UCAS form.  Bear this in mind when getting advice on how to write your personal statement.
  • Grow your vocabulary. Keep a word-list of new words and definitions.  Look up words you don’t know in a dictionary (buy one!) when you come across them.   I REALLY don’t just mean technical terms, as they can often be used very superficially as a substitute for true understanding or analysis.  I mean a rich vocabulary of words which will allow you to express all manner of subtle ideas useful for discussing poetry, prose and drama.  Listen out for these sorts of words in the world all around you, find out about them, note them down.
  • Practise close reading (i.e. the careful, slow, analytical, line-by-line reading of a poem, or an extract from a play or a novel).  Don’t put this off.  Practise once a week.  Practise every day for 30 minutes in the school holidays.  Grab hold of any old anthology of poems and give it a go. This example on the University of Cambridge’s website gives you a really good method to follow.  Here are some tips from me too.  David Mikics’s recent book, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (Harvard University Press, 2013) is a brilliant guide to how to read slowly and closely.  If you’ve ever felt ‘I don’t know how I’m supposed to read this’, then Mikics’s book is perfect for you.
  • Use this great online tutorial to teach yourself (by reading the tutorials AND doing the practice) how to analyse the metre of metered poetry.  This will help you work out what poems are doing with their form, as well as with their content.
  •  Learn to be a better writer of academic prose. Think about what is good writing and what is bad writing.  Think about how your own prose might need to mature and improve in the sixth-form. Have you got to grips with punctuation and grammar properly?  There are lots of good basic books on how to improve your essay writing skills, your grammar and your prose style – any of them will do!
  • Read widely outside your exam syllabus. University College’s brilliant Staircase 12 website calls this ‘super-curricular reading’.  Make enough notes or maps of ideas so that you can come back to your earlier thoughts and revive them well enough to talk about them in an interview.   This is particularly important if you mention this reading on your UCAS statement.  We might be keen to talk to you about it, and it’s a real disappointment to us if you can’t remember it.
  • If you love Keats’s poetry (or here insert any author of your choice as you wish), read a recent biography of Keats. Read some of Keats’s letters.  Read a critical introduction or two suitable for a sixth-former.  Start to do some very simple independent research of your own with whatever materials seem relevant (remember you don’t have to know everything, just something, or ideally two or three ‘somethings’).  Buy cheap old books off the internet or get hold of them via inter-library loans.  As above, don’t just read: look things up, annotate, analyse, compare, cross-reference, explore.  Keep enough notes of your ideas so that you can revise and remember them.
  • One of the ways to start becoming an expert is to read some books on how to approach different genres in particular. Anything you can get your hands on will do.   But here are some suggestions: Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Poem (2006); Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry (2000); James Fenton’s An Introduction to English Poetry (2003); John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide (2007); John Mullan’s How Novels Work (2008); James Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008); Ronald Hayman’s How to Read a Play (1977).  Keep a record of the really useful ideas you find.
  • Find someone to argue with. In Oxford, we mostly teach English in tutorials, hour-long discussions between a tutor and one or two students.  (See the great description of English tutorials by Dr Emma Smith in the book downloadable from here).  We try to model this tutorial process in interviews, by asking candidates questions and debating ideas and texts with them.  So find the most inspirational, difficult, critical, analytical, and/or challenging teacher or adult or school friend who will give you some time, and get them to argue with you about ideas, about literature, about language.  Get them to read one of your essays and challenge you on various points.  Make sure you are listening to their points and questions carefully, and make sure you reply specifically to the content of what they say.

Now the reality of all this.  In 2014 we had 1100 applications for English and there were 231 offers of places – there were roughly 4.8 applicants per place with a 21% success rate.  So the reality is that we will say ‘no’ to the vast majority of applicants, all of whom are highly qualified and talented. Spending time becoming a bit more expert in English literature will not guarantee you a place, though it will help you in all manner of ways.  But someone, one in five someones, will show the most potential, achievement and ability when judged against our selection criteria and will be offered a place.  Why not have a try and see if it can be you?

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