A few thoughts and tips on college admissions

September 28, 2022 06:00
Photo: Reuters

It’s THAT time of the year again – university/college admissions are well under way, and for many, such as those opting for EA/ED or applying for Oxbridge, the upcoming month (or weeks, even) would be absolutely vital. As someone who has worked with students across a range of capacities – qua debating coach, consultancy and admissions support, and general mentorship – I have a few thoughts that would hopefully be of use for prospective applicants.

First, you need to conceive of yourself not as a product to be marked, but as a story to be told. In preparing personal statements, recognise and adhere tactfully to the different specifications and foci of personal statements between the UK and the US. The US college essays – including both Common Application and supplemental essays – place a heavy premium upon candidates’ abilities to tell a holistic story about themselves, e.g. who are YOU? What are you passionate about, both academically and non-academically? What kind of individual are you – are you a myopic CV-chaser, for one, or someone who in fact seeks impacts and contributions towards the world at large over polishing one’s profile (the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but it’s always about giving and taking). In contrast, the UK statement weighs far more significantly your academic profile – not in the sense of descriptions of your awards or titles, about which admission tutors truly care far less than you may think they do; instead, it’s in the sense of getting to grips with the candidate’s track record and experience in undertaking rigorous, high-quality, and focused research. It’s not about the prizes or accolades you’ve managed to bag over the years. Instead, it’s about demonstrating that you have genuinely given one’s purported area of specialisation a healthy volume of independent thought – and sought to apply oneself accordingly. Be sure to reflect these dimensions in your statements. With the UK, you only have one shot to hit up to five universities; with the US, there is more room for tailoring and customisation, but the burdens (of writing a large volume of essays) are correspondingly far weightier and larger.

Second, read voraciously, but also read with intention. I have seen many who find themselves struggling to come up with – in their statements or otherwise – books and texts that they have read in relation to their fields. This is especially a problem for UK applicants, who are invited to pick and select a particular major PRIOR to embarking upon their first year. As for American applicants, whilst the inhibiting dimension is less conspicuous, it is unlikely that you’d do well in your essays – if it is you who are writing them – without having at least exposed yourself to a healthy range of texts, thoughts, and intellectual traditions. Read, read, read. Read anything and all of suitable quality – and this includes both non-fiction and fiction. One of the most helpful texts I have often recommended to my students – with respect to crafting their personal Common Application essays – is Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” (Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale” is another one I’d often set); read for the flow and diction, for the precision and intensity that undergird the writings here. Read for the scent and aroma of dancing letters. And channel that without coming across as ostentatious – that is, of course, in and of itself a separate challenge. Yet it is imperative that when telling your story, you tell it in ways that the readers can relate to and make sense of; the same prescription goes for those of you who are contemplating scholarship applications. Your language need not be – and shouldn’t be – flowery. But it must be authentic, captivating, and accurate. Let your true colours shine through, as opposed to a contrived performance.

Finally, on Oxbridge interviews, remember to BREATHE and BE HONEST. Interviews can be ferociously intimidating. I know that – having been on both the receiving end of them, and on the other end of the table (in administering and delivering tutorials; I do not, to be very clear, conduct interviews for admission purposes). Having observed many generations of students – successful or unsuccessful in their bids for Oxford and Cambridge, one core piece of advice I have is this: be honest about what you don’t know, but also be daring in trying to know what you think you don’t know. Underpinning both modes is the need to breathe. You are not going into an interview to intimidate or dazzle; nor are you there to accept and take anything and all said as given and gospel. You’re there to converse with a subject expert who is likely to want to observe HOW you think – as opposed to hear WHAT you think on its own; who wants to know if you’re teachable or intransigently wedded to your beliefs. So if you think you’re struggling: that’s fine! Ask questions, ask for clarifications, but the last thing you’d want to do is to sit there and clam up. Enjoy the experience, too, for it is an unrivalled opportunity for you to speak with someone who truly knows what they’re talking about.

College season can be daunting and traumatising. But nobody is perfect. We’re all just trying to be a little less imperfect – now that’s what matters, and that’s what matters the most. Soldier on, and do not hesitate to reach out if you’d like to chat!

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review