When I received that fateful email from The Queen’s College, Oxford, I had to resist the temptation to jump out of my chair. Getting a place in their English Language and Literature programme was one of my wildest dreams, and to be honest, almost two years after that day, it still feels surreal. Oxford (and Oxbridge in general) may seem like an enigma outside of its dreaming spires and cobbled paths, so here’s a glimpse into what life in Oxford is like!
Making the transition to a brand-new academic style was the first hurdle I had to cross. Since Oxbridge and the UK universities in general offer highly specialised courses, there’s not much outside your chosen subject you’ll need to know once you start your course. The UK universities really emphasise passion for one’s subject, so if you’re keen on delving very deeply into it, the UK, and especially Oxbridge, is a good fit! I realised in Year 6 under the tutelage of Mdm Runima and Mr Paul Tan that I was really passionate about Literature, and experiences like the EE (I did a History EE under the mentorship of Mr Norman Chua, who was the best mentor I could ever have gotten) made me realise that I enjoyed the challenge of independent academic research and writing. Oxford has one of the largest and most developed English faculties in the world, so needless to say it was a dream to earn a place here.
Oxford (and Cambridge as well, actually) prides itself on its tutorial system, where students present their finished essays (humanities subjects) or problem sheets (maths and science subjects) to a world-class academic or professor, usually with only one or two other students present (and sometimes alone). There’s no room to hide, so it can be nerve-wrecking at first, but it’s also a great opportunity to learn from the best, and get really personalised feedback on your work! Furthermore, it’s great if you have interests in specific topics and want to delve into them deeply. My tutorial partner and I had really different areas of interest, and my tutor was accommodating enough to help each of us find our niches – I never thought I’d write on Victorian periodicals, or compare Pre-Raphaelite paintings with poetry! The tutorial system is really effective in stretching us and challenging our ideas and arguments. Oxford also has world-class libraries and resources in general, so it’s a great place to study pretty much any subject.
Oxford is prescriptive about its examination papers (each is taught as its own “module” of sorts), with only a few chances to choose what papers you take. However, depending on your subject, you may get some leeway to structure your own course within each paper – for example, I got to make choices as to the authors/topics I wanted to focus on within a specific paper.
All term-time work isn’t counted in your final degree. Most students have Prelims in their first year – exams that you must pass but also don’t count towards your final degree. The final examinations at the end of your course can count for as much as 100% of your degree, or even less than 50% (the other half coming from submitted work, like a dissertation). We also sit for termly mock papers called collections, which test you on work you did the previous term, but likewise don’t count for anything and are simply for you to practise (in my case, even holding a pen and writing for three hours takes effort, because all my weekly essays are typed…).
There’s a great deal of independence given to plan your schedule, because contact hours with your tutors/time spent at lectures may not take up a significant portion of the week. Hence, it’s up to you to be self-disciplined and choose how much effort you want to put into your work – generally, most of my friends and I manage to fit our work and a healthy number of extra-curricular activities into our schedules!
As an English student, I write about one or two 2,000-word essays a week, each of which involves reading both primary and secondary texts, writing, and editing. As time goes by it gets much faster, and since all term-time work doesn’t count towards your degree, it’s a great chance to experiment, make mistakes and just enjoy the experience. I then have a tutorial for each essay, where I get feedback and discuss my ideas with my tutor. I also have one or two classes a week, in which I usually have to analyse a passage or study some readings beforehand. It’s definitely rigorous, but becomes more manageable over time. Lectures are also held every day – compulsory for science and Maths students (as core curriculum is covered) and usually optional for humanities students. I usually choose lectures that pertain to my areas of interest. My week is very self-directed, and pretty much all the learning takes place independently – I see my tutors only during classes and tutorials.
Your day-to-day experience can really depend on your subject. My boyfriend is a science student and his schedule is very different from mine – he attends compulsory lectures every day, and his tutorials involve the discussion of the solutions to problem sheets. He also has compulsory weekly lab sessions that take up half a day each. While my week is very self-directed, his schedule has more structure, and the curriculum itself is more standardised throughout the entire cohort (whereas humanities students all sit for the same paper but may delve deeper into specific areas of knowledge within the scope of the paper, based on what their tutors teach them).
Every Oxbridge student belongs to a college, which is responsible for organising teaching, providing you with housing and meals, and in general is your home community for the entire length of your degree. While the curriculum for each subject is standardised across all colleges, tutors determine how their own students will be taught, which influences your academic experience, and your social experience will definitely be shaped by your college as well since you’ll be living with, eating with and mixing with the people in your college. Each college has a unique culture (for example, Wadham College is very liberal; St Edmund Hall is very sporty) so none is better than the other! Colleges differ mostly in practical provisions, such as housing – some provide student accommodation for all years of your degree, in some others, you’ll have to rent a house somewhere in the city with friends for at least one year. It’s also possible to mix with people outside college through uni-wide societies, or meeting up with fellow Singaporeans from other colleges – I’d say that I spend quite a lot of time mingling with friends outside college, yet have quite a close-knit group of friends in college as well.
The students here are predominantly British, but there’s a very sizeable international student population as well. There are plenty of Singaporeans in Oxford (at least 30-40 in every batch), and we’ve got an active Singapore society in the form of OUMSSA, which organises plenty of events during term time. Lately we’ve also acquired a sizeable and bonded AC community, and it’s always nice reminiscing about days at Wah Chee! Many Singaporeans choose to mingle mainly with fellow Singaporeans, but it’s perfectly alright and feasible not to if you wish, and most people are generally friendly and nice to chat with despite any initial culture shock/divide. The community here is very welcoming, and I’ve never experienced any racism, other than the occasional micro-aggression (usually coming from someone who means well and is genuinely not sure, but people are generally open to learning).
The clubbing and drinking scene can get very intense, but again, it’s really up to you to set your own boundaries. I personally don’t drink or club, and have never faced ridicule for it, and my friends who drink are always able to choose how much they’re comfortable with. People here are generally respectful of others’ beliefs, and because there’s such a diversity of students in Oxford, finding a community you’re comfortable with is definitely possible.
Despite the seeming intensity of the whole uni, I’ve found it less intimidating than I initially expected – how intense you want to be is really up to you. Some take their studies very seriously, but most people are pretty social, and take part in plenty of social events and join clubs and societies to meet people. Work is always going to be tough, but having a supportive community of friends goes a very long way.
Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, and hence has some quite quirky traditions! We sit for exams and attend matriculation ceremonies in sub fusc, or academic dress – full suit for guys, and white blouse + dark bottoms for girls, with a gown on top (kind of like a loose vest or cape). We also wear our gowns for formal dinners and official events. It’s quite funny to see everyone dressed so uniformly for exams when we all dress so differently normally!
Most colleges have regular formal dinners (formals) – these are fancier dinners that take place separately from normal meals, and usually are three or four-course culinary affairs where everyone dresses up and generally has a good time catching up. Whether you choose to go for them or not, it’s a great chance to invite friends to your college, or try food from another college, and enjoy a nice meal.
The city is steeped in history and many of the buildings in the city centre are very old – no high-rise blocks! It’s common to walk down the street with church bells ringing continuously (especially on Sundays), while dodging the giant crowds of tourists around the most historic buildings. Being a pretty old and compact city, the most popular modes of transport are walking and cycling, so you’ll see bikes on every corner.
There are so many clubs and societies here that it gets overwhelming – everything from sports to all kinds of music to Quidditch and Pokemon societies. At the start of the academic year, there’s a Freshers’ Fair where every single university club puts up a booth, and everyone signs up for the mailing lists for anything they may be interested in. Naturally competitive sports and auditioning groups/societies will be more intense, but there are also many very laid-back and chill activities that you’re free to just pop in and out of throughout the term. Personally I’ve been involved with the Oxford University Malaysian and Singaporean Students’ Association (OUMSSA) and Oxford Student Minds, a mental health charity. Depending on how much time you want to devote to studies or non-academic activities, it’s up to you how much you’d like to take on. I know some who move between three or four societies; others choose not to join any so they can focus on their work. Many also choose to attend networking events and career fairs to help with job prospects, since many companies visit Oxford throughout the year.
Travelling is also a popular option. Since most colleges make students vacate their rooms during the vacations (which are very long), and the UK is so close to Europe, it’s quite affordable and feasible to travel around with friends. I visited Copenhagen after my exams, and went on a ski trip to France organised by OUMSSA after my first term, both on quite a budget! If you’re averse to flying, London is just 1.5 hours away by bus and 1 hour by train, so it makes a popular weekend destination. Oxford is a beautiful and historical city with plenty to see and do, so there’s no shortage of interesting things to do in and around town as well.
None of us who got into Oxford ever expected to get in, and the only thing we did was to put our best foot forward and hope for the best. If you’re very passionate about your chosen subject and want to delve very deeply into it, that’s more than good enough to apply! Oxford really emphasises academic rigour, so they’ll be looking for evidence of interest in your chosen subject (e.g. external reading, projects related to your subject) and intellectual curiosity.
The personal statement is the platform for you to make the argument that you’re highly suitable for your chosen course, and in the case of Oxbridge, often a springboard for what will be discussed in your interview. They’re not looking for anything not related to your course, so most personal statements contain only academic achievements and activities related to the subject (e.g. Dean’s List). If you’re applying for something like Law or a subject not covered in school, they’re probably seeking evidence of interest (e.g. external reading, internships) and academic skills – experiences like the EE hone research and analysis skills.
I also sat for an admissions test. Most Oxford courses require you to take a test, be it the Thinking Skills Assessment (PPE, Economics & Management, Chemistry), LNAT (Law), BMAT (Medicine, Biomedical Sciences), Physics Aptitude Test (any Physics-related courses) etc. I sat for the English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT), which both Oxford and Cambridge use for their English courses. It was a 1.5-hour test where we were given six unseen passages and asked to compare two or three of them. These tests are pretty skills-based and used as a quantitative screening measure before interviews, so I didn’t do much except mentally prepare myself and flip through a book on practical criticism/look through past papers online.
The infamous interviews are a source of terror for many, but they’re really to see if you’ll thrive in a tutorial setting. They’re very academic, and will probably involve discussion of only your subject for the whole 30 mins. I was given an unseen poem to read 20 mins before the interview and discussed it in-depth with the tutors; in my second interview, I was asked about the books I’d mentioned in my personal statement, which ranged from everything to local literature to Romeo and Juliet. I didn’t get any questions about anything unrelated to my course. My lawyer friends were given cases to read, and the scientists usually receive a problem to work out the solution to. Your thought process is what really matters, not so much getting the right answer right away, so it helps to be comfortable verbalising it. Ultimately, they’re seeking students they want to teach, and an openness to learning is always warmly welcomed! I think it helps to treat it like a lesson or real tutorial, in which you’re there to learn and discuss something you’re passionate about.
I flew to the UK for my interviews and had the chance to stay in the college I applied to (Queen’s) for free, and hence met my future tutors in person. However, this was mainly because I happened to be in the UK for a family holiday around interview season. Most Singaporeans interview by Skype at RI, which takes place in early December (the same period as the in-person interviews in the UK), and it won’t affect your chances of admission – pretty much all the Singaporeans who are here now interviewed on Skype.
I’ve come to realise that I’ll never have to know how to draw a demand-supply curve, differentiate equations or think about chemical reactions ever again, but it’s the skills gleaned during IB that still apply and help me to get through my weekly 2000-word essays – resilience and persistence from late nights of editing my IAs and EE, academic discipline in citing and footnoting my work/presenting it neatly, and in general, just narrowing down my own academic interests, from all the times I had to choose IA and EE topics. The most difficult IB experiences – IOC and the TOK presentation – helped me to find my voice and express my opinions more confidently. It was also during the IB experience that I found my academic interests and started exploring my passions, in a safe and nurturing environment. Best of all, AC taught me the importance of work-life balance, and how important friends and your community are when you’re going through tough times.
I carry pieces of AC with me in the way I speak, write and behave, and am proud to have come from a school that challenges you to become the best person you are, intellectually, emotionally and socially. The IB and ACS(I) experiences prepare us for way more than just university – they prepare us for life. To anyone who is reading this: I urge you to make the most of and enjoy the IB years, no matter how tough they may be, because they will be some of the most rewarding years of your life. IB is just the start of the rest of your life, and ACS(I) prepares you well for what’s ahead. Don’t be afraid to dare greatly – you never know where you may end up!
Claire Soh is a graduate from the Class of 2015, currently reading English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford. If she’s not busy with Chaucer or Dickens, she’ll be on the prowl for the best cafes in Oxford, or watching old Mediacorp dramas.