Oxford - Livre d'Or








Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes. * Blogroll * Strange words * More links * Bookies * Microblog * Recent comments * Humans only * Second degree * By topic * Cool posts * Writing * New post

Tags

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *



livredor
Oxford
Monday, 17 November 2008 at 09:32 pm
Tags:

Previous Entry Next Entry


j4 has been posting a series about how she ended up at Oxford, and this seems an interesting exercise, so I'm copying her idea.

I'm very much the sort of person that people expect to be at Oxford. Those expectations are not entirely fair, but the facts are: I'm intelligent in ways that show up well in conventional education and exams; my parents are both university graduates (my father was at Oxford himself), and sent me to an academically competitive girls' private school. Between all those, I've always been encouraged to think of myself as the sort of person who could do well academically, and given resources to make it easy to convince other people of this. I think when I was five or six I was talking about how I was going to be a maths professor at Oxford, having little idea what maths was or what a professor did other than being good at it.

Realistically, though, it was about midway through secondary school when it was clear that I was keeping up steadily good marks and not being thrown off course by puberty, that my teachers started taking it for granted that I would be in the Oxbridge stream. Mind you, the kind of school it was that really only meant being in the top quartile of the sixth form. I had a really hard time choosing A Levels; the only GCSE subjects I was happy to drop were English and physics, English because I couldn't stand literary analysis, and physics because the kind of people who ended up teaching physics at a girls' school tended to be a bit wet. Chemistry and maths were pretty much a given, and I let myself get talked into further maths without much persuasion. but that only left me with one more slot. I wanted to take French, but a combination of the teachers, my mother (a biologist) and my best friend Spanish M persuaded me that I'd be better off with biology. I was still really unhappy about having to give up French, though, and somehow or other it ended up happening that my French teacher took a public bet that I could get an A in French A Level if I just showed up to some of the classes and didn't bother doing any homework that looked like it was going to interfere with my important subjects. School managed to fiddle the timetable so that I could take five subjects, which wasn't really allowed, though I wasn't the only one who did. The school had I think about 80 girls going into sixth form, and they prided themselves on giving everyone total free choice in subject combinations, not forcing you to take related subjects. I think they achieved this by all the teachers spending a week in the summer vac shuffling labels around until they could make it all work like a giant sudoku.

I had some really fantastic teaching at A Level, going way beyond what was in the formal curriculum and inspiring real curiosity about the subjects. (In retrospect, physics A Level would likely have been fine, because the teachers I looked down on for their inability to control a class of recalcitrant 15-year-olds would have been fine with sixth formers who actually wanted to learn.) I learnt to speak French nearly fluently, and just started to get the hang of analytic reading that had been so opaque and deathly in English GCSE. I loved the intellectual challenge of maths and chemistry, like a complex puzzle where all the clues were properly in place and if you really exerted yourself you could come up with a satisfying solution. And I got into biology enough to understand that it wasn't just a collection of miscellaneous facts to memorize, and to discover that there was a whole field of molecular biology which was exactly like the genetics I'd loved as a kid.

There was some amount of support for Oxbridge candidates, advice on how to choose a college and practice papers for those subjects where you needed to take an entrance exam or S / Step papers. But the most useful stuff was available to everybody, interview practice and advice on filling in UCAS forms and most importantly, general confidence that we were intelligent and could expect universities to be fighting over us. I wanted to do some kind of joint honours, biology and chemistry, or biochemistry and French (still having that problem with dropping subjects I was enjoying!) but that wasn't offered at Oxford, and I didn't really want to stay in Cambridge or go for the Natural Sciences tripos. So I applied to Oxford for biochemistry, and Manchester, York, Nottingham and Sussex for weird joint honours or modular degrees. And, um, Southampton I think as an "insurance choice", somewhere that would take me if I bombed out of A Levels. I went through the Oxford prospectus trying to get "vibes" off the different colleges; I assumed that all their descriptions were exaggerated, but I could get some good ideas based on which unrealistic claims they thought worth pretending to. I ended up with a shortlist of three colleges, and since one of them was my father's old college, Merton, that seemed a reasonable deciding factor.

Interviews were in December. I dressed up smarter than I had in my life up to then, a matching tartan skirt and waistcoat and a nice blouse. Almost the only thing I remember about the interview days is meeting MK and instantly getting into the kind of deep, wonderful conversation that only happens when you're 17 and you've just met a soulmate. His future wife was up for physics and he was so busy talking to me that he didn't even notice her. At some point it got late, all my good intentions about spending the day before the interview doing more reading and making myself noticed by influential people were quite forgotten, so we decided to leave the JCR and continue the conversation in "my" room in Rose Lane. My whole upbringing had told me never ever to invite a strange man up to my room, but I was so high on wonderful conversation that I really didn't care. Of course MK had no dishonourable intentions at all, and this led to me entirely rejecting all the messages about why I should never trust men. That might have been the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction, but not assuming men are predators has stood me in good stead. And it was very liberating to be able to consciously throw out such a frequently repeated piece of life advice, it was the realization that I was my own woman and could make my own judgements, albeit based on limited experience.

I got through the interview itself on adrenalin replacing sleep. Tim Softley interviewed me, and I can't remember who else. I had been prepared to be thrown curve ball questions, and I felt very confident. I think I didn't care if I got into Oxford or not; I was fairly certain that one of the redbricks would take me, and I felt like having met MK would be worth it whatever happened. The interview was largely fair; they asked questions that probed my ability to think about biology rather than specific domain knowledge. I think the only unreasonable question I got was: I can see from your CV that you're quite religious; how do you think you will cope attending a university that has produced such famous atheists as Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkin? I was quite indignant that they thought my convictions so weak I might tremble at the prospect of being in the same city with people who didn't share my views.

Other than that, I remember the candidates buzzing with rage about the story that a candidate for Medicine from Brunei had been asked why she wanted to bother studying modern medicine that relies on the latest technology, when she would just go back to her primitive third world country and all her knowledge would be irrelevant. Even if they were trying to see how she'd react to an outrageous question that was inappropriate. The next day MK got called for interviews at pool colleges, and I got sent home.

I was annoyed with the university for keeping me on tenterhooks for weeks after that, and then demanding a firm commitment within three days when the offer finally arrived. I later learnt that they'd had nine candidates for three places, six indistinguishably excellent (really, what can you say about a bunch of 17-year-olds beyond their predicted A Level marks?) and three reasonably good, and had rejected the three weakest, offered places to the three of us who had both chemistry and biology A Levels, and pooled the rest (including MK). In a way that wasn't totally fair, because the university literature said that only chemistry was a requirement and they didn't care what subjects you did as long as you had three solid A Levels, and anyway there were pooled candidates like MK who were not English and therefore didn't take A Levels at all. In a way it was, though, because if they had nothing to choose between us, they might as well go for some minor difference that would make our lives easier when we joined the course. So I was lucky that I got good advice from my school that if you were intending to read science at uni you should have at least two science A Levels.

MK was treated very badly by his pool college, Christ Church, and ended up at Imperial. Even aside from the fact that he met his wife there, she having been turned down by Merton also, this suited him much, much better than Oxford would have done. If the aim of the admissions system was to choose the most brilliant scientists, they should certainly have picked MK over me, but if the aim was to pick the three people most likely to thrive at Oxford, they made the right choice. MK would have been very impatient with all the quaint Oxford customs and the education designed, even today, to make you a gentleman as much as to prepare you for academia, whereas the truly excellent scientific education at Imperial was exactly what he wanted.

If you have that political inclination, it's easy enough to read this and conclude that I only got into Oxford because I had a whole bunch of privileges in my life up to that point. Certainly I did have many advantages that made Oxford seem attainable and desirable. But when I got there, I found that the place was not at all filled with people like me. I met people of every different background imaginable, different countries, different social strata, different ethnic background, different ages and life situations, you name it. And you simply couldn't tell someone's background by how they took to Oxford society; the people from conventional middle-class backgrounds and private schools with lots of extra coaching weren't all mediocre but confident beyond their ability, and some of the most appallingly posh tweedy, braying types actually came from poor backgrounds and schools that didn't believe in sending their pupils to university, they just chose to adopt that persona and social set.

It seems plausible that there are some people who are at least as objectively "clever" as I am, who didn't go to Oxford because they came from the wrong backgrounds. But I think it's more likely that they never got to the point of applying in the first place, than that they were unfairly rejected because of not being middle class enough. At the same time, I did see direct evidence of unfairness, in the form of Christ Church telling MK that his inhumanly high Abitur scores were an obscure German qualification that didn't count for anything, and the way that the Merton medics were openly racist towards one candidate.

What it comes down to is that Oxford is going to end up with several uniformly excellent candidates for each place available, and almost any means of choosing between them is going to have the potential for unfairness. That doesn't mean that unfairness is a good thing, of course. But I don't think it's as simple as the system being rigged to favour people from posh schools.


Whereaboooots: Oxford
Moooood: coldcold
Tuuuuune: Flogging Molly: You won't make a fool out of me
Discussion: 16 contributions | Contribute something
Tags:

Previous Entry Next Entry




Contribute something
View all comments chronologically



(no subject) - monanotlisa (11/17/08 10:33 pm)
livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:November 18th, 2008 07:28 am (UTC)
9 hours after journal entry, 07:28 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
It's been over ten years since I made it a big priority to know the exact exam mark distribution of everyone of my acquaintance. I know MK was geeky enough to have pored over the statistics and got a rough idea of how many people had comparable marks to him, and it was a small handful each year. I have a memory of an average of 18 some being mentioned, but Wikipedia says that Abitur is marked on a scale of 1 to 15, not 1 to 20 as I thought.
(Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
rho: default
From:rho
Date:November 17th, 2008 11:10 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 11:10 pm (rho's time)
(Link)
There were 9 candidates for 5 places for physics at Oriel when I applied. Of those, 3 got in, and 2 were pooled over from other colleges. I think that the biggest difference between me and the others there was how calm I was over the whole thing. I wasn't worried or anxious, I was able to think over everything asked in the interview and basically just be myself, rather than trying to put on a show.

This was doubtless partly due to the fact that I'm a generally laid back sort of person, and doubtless also in part down to the fact that I was really really smart, so I could be confident rather than anxious in that respect. I think a big aspect of it, though, was that I'd been well prepared for it by my school with mock interviews and such like, so I knew what to expect.

Unrelatedly, I'm rather envious that you got to study French alongside your sciences and maths at A-level. I chose double maths and physics (since I knew I was likely to be applying to Oxford for physics and they were the obvious A-levels for that) and then wanted to carry on with either French or Russian as well, but that couldn't be timetabled so I ended up with chemistry as well.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: complicated
From:livredor
Date:November 18th, 2008 07:35 am (UTC)
9 hours after journal entry, 07:35 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
Yeah, I was really lucky with the French. Partly because the school had a degree of timetable flexibility that was pretty unusual even in small, selective private schools, and partly because of this ridiculous thing with teachers betting on my marks so that I could bend the system and do five A Levels. Having the highest mark in the exam board for A Level French has been absolutely useless in my subsequent career, but personally it was incredibly satisfying, and I really like being able to read French newspapers and novels. If the school hadn't been both helpful in accommodating me, and strict in not allowing me to make foolish choices, I'd have ended up doing French instead of biology, and would have missed out on a really great career path. So I am very grateful for that.

It does sound like you were an ideal candidate for interview, being laid-back, intellectually confident and well-prepared. I don't know how it would be possible to give those advantages to someone who was equally bright but didn't have them, or to fail to take them into account as an interviewer.
(Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
lisekit: default
From:lisekit
Date:November 17th, 2008 11:48 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry
(Link)
I think it's more likely that they never got to the point of applying in the first place, than that they were unfairly rejected because of not being middle class enough.

I must go and pull out some references, but I'm given to understand by admissions folk that there's plenty of evidence that this is the biggest problem currently facing Oxbridge in terms of promoting a representive mix of students at undergrad level - not that candidates from state schools are applyig and not getting in, but that they're not applying in the first instance. There's work being done to address this, but more needs to happen in this arena to support stae school applicants.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:November 18th, 2008 10:55 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 10:55 pm (livredor's time)
(Link)
This is what I've always understood to be the case, yeah. I'm a little sceptical, because obviously Oxford would say that. But it seems both plausible and congruent with what I saw of Oxford. Ironically, I think the media making a lot of noise about how Oxford is biased against state school pupils makes the situation worse, because it's more likely to put people off applying than to make Oxford want to admit a lot of people who don't meet their standards.
(Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
From:ext_72852
Date:November 18th, 2008 12:41 am (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry
(Link)
hm. At the time I applied to Cambridge we had the impression that people from state schools had an advantage because Oxbridge were trying to up their state school stats. As someone who had been privately schooled up until sixth form and then gone to state school we suspected I might be a good candidate: essentially a private school pupil, but state for their stats.

(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:November 18th, 2008 10:59 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 10:59 pm (livredor's time)
(Link)
This is certainly common knowledge among people who obsess over such things, and I think it may even be true for at least some colleges. This is precisely why I'm really suspicious of quotas and targets for students from "disadvantaged" backgrounds. At best it leads to tokenism, and very often it means taking on people who technically fit the criteria but don't actually need the help. I think the key rule here is that any numerical performance measure will inevitably get gamed by people who want to improve the stats rather than actually achieving the goal.
(Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
From:ext_72852
Date:November 20th, 2008 04:07 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry
(Link)
I don't think we (by which I mean me, my school, my mum) were obsessing especially (although the head admitted to pulling strings to get my sister accepted at Oxford - he was very annoyed when she rejected the place), but we'd obviously picked the idea up from somewhere.

Looking back at those days what really strikes me is how different it would have been with the internet around (I know it _was_ around in '99, but we didn't have it). I picked my college without having seen it after a grey day wandering around the centre of Cambridge pretending to be a student; the head of sixth form assured me it was a lovely red brick college and I'd like it (and the head knows one of the physics tutors, not that that has anything to do with anything, oh no). I can't imagine vaguely ticking a box based merely on that much information now.


(Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
forestofglory: default
From:forestofglory
Date:November 18th, 2008 12:10 pm (UTC)
13 hours after journal entry, 04:10 am (forestofglory's time)
(Link)
Wow. Personly I kinda hate being asked about this (especaily the why didn't you go to UC Berkeley instead version -- yes I applied to UCB but only because it was an extra box to tick on my UC Davis application. And yes I did get in. It was great ego bost of worth the extra money I guess. But I would have gone to Davis.) Plus the full story involes how I nearly droped out of high school so is not good I just met you chat.

But as then 22 year old form Califorina it was fairly differnt for me applying to Cambridge. I didn't get any interview prep. for one thing.

(Also NatSci + Devote Jews == problems I think seeing as a good chunk of my classes have been on Saturdays)
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
ceb: default
From:ceb
Date:November 18th, 2008 10:30 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 10:30 pm (ceb's time)
(Link)
There was an observant jew in my physics lectures; the technicians used to record the Saturday lectures for him.
(Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:November 19th, 2008 07:24 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 07:24 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
I didn't mean to oblige you to answer if you hate talking about it! I think when I was in my last year at Oxford I couldn't have been less interested in talking about my school background and the admissions process. But now I'm talking about stuff that happened, ooh, 12 years ago and more, so it's ancient history and can be interesting to compare notes and take a trip down memory lane a bit.

Of course it's entirely different if you apply as a mature, foreign student. You're not part of a system where Oxbridge is in some ways the focus of education. Did you not do practice interviews because of your particular background, or because American schools don't interview applicants?

I am not sure what I would have done about Saturday lectures. A lot of my religious identity was formed at Oxford, so I think if I'd ended up at Cambridge I would have been less picky about keeping Shabbat the way I ended up doing. I wouldn't have been happy about it, but would have seen it as necessary for my education.
(Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
forestofglory: default
From:forestofglory
Date:November 19th, 2008 09:03 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 01:03 am (forestofglory's time)
(Link)
It's really that I hate being asked about it at get-to-know-you venues. Telling people about being depressed doesn't make a good 1st impression.

American schools don't interview applicants in a meaningful way. I remember when my friend was applying for Brown (on the east coast) she had an interview where she basicly just talked to an alumna, I don't think it had much weight for her application. The US is really big. Many people go to college somewhere they have to fly to. Physicaly interviewing people would be tricky for colleges.

I don't know what the typical experience is though -- at the time I wanted nothing to do with it, so I didn't pay a lot of attention.

I think I'd like to transition to keeping Shabbat to some degree. However I don't think this going to happen till after I'm done with my degree. I just don't have time to think about it properly now.
(Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
lavendersparkle: queens'
From:lavendersparkle
Date:November 18th, 2008 02:19 pm (UTC)
16 hours after journal entry, 02:19 pm (lavendersparkle's time)
(Link)
some of the most appallingly posh tweedy, braying types actually came from poor backgrounds and schools that didn't believe in sending their pupils to university, they just chose to adopt that persona and social set.

A few weeks ago Rowan Pelling wrote a piece about watching the undergraduates arrive in Cambridge for michaelmas, and commented that the scruffy ones dropping their 'h's were generally public school boys and the smartly dressed ones with perfect home counties accents were typically from rough inner city comps.

I don't know whether you've ever met my husband; he's a comprehensive school educated tweed wearer although I don't think that he brays. I think donnish is quite a good description of him. To give you the picture, on a typical winter day he'd be dressed in beautifully polished brown brogues, brown corduroy trousers, a tweed jacket in a discreet shade, a moss green knitted jumper, a pale blue shirt and a knitted tie. Outdoors this outfit would be topped off with a brown trilby. He gives off such a strong impression of a middle class upbringing that people seem to be incapable of believing that he could ever have even met a working class person. This has disadvantaged him in his hopes of being ordained because, even when they have in front of them his biographical factual details they seem to just ignore that he was entirely state school educated or that the church he regularly attended before university was on a council estate or that he took kids from inner city Wandsworth on D of E expeditions. The year he spent working as a low paid shop assistant was met with the comment "But it was a bookshop; that's quite middle class." A priest he knows suggested that his current job, washing up and serving in a cafe for minimum wage, should help his ordination prospects but he quips that the selectors will probably dismiss it as a middle class cafe.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:November 19th, 2008 12:27 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 12:27 pm (livredor's time)
(Link)
This kind of thing makes me really mad, not your comment, I mean, but the whole history of stupid assumptions which led to your husband's employment situation. To a very small extent, it's sort of true that if the admission people perceive him as middle class and out of touch, then so may his congregants, but even so, that's not a reason why he can't be a good priest! I am firmly convinced that class is more about other people's perceptions of you than your own identity.

I don't think the personae that people adopt at university are completely topsy turvy with everybody trying to be opposite to their upbringing. It's just that big universities are a playground where you can explore identity without much censure, so some people are going to project a strong connection with their real background and others are going to hide that completely. This means that unlike in most other parts of society you really can't judge anything from first impressions.
(Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)
lavendersparkle: modest me
From:lavendersparkle
Date:November 19th, 2008 06:47 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 06:47 pm (lavendersparkle's time)
(Link)
it's sort of true that if the admission people perceive him as middle class and out of touch, then so may his congregants

I think that it is unlikely that selection panels will necessarily perceive priests in the same way that working class congregations do.

Selection panels are typically made up of middle-aged middle-class people who have an idea in their head that the priesthood shouldn't be 'too middle-class' without having too clear an idea what 'too middle-class' means or what the problem with the priesthood being 'too middle-class' really is. So they shy away from candidates who have characteristics that they consider to be 'too middle-class' regardless of their background.
There's no guarantee that these would be the same characteristics that a working-class congregation would view as disagreeably too middle-class.

Firstly, a congregation environment is a very different situation to an assessment centre, so different qualities will be more prominent and valued at each.

Secondly, I'm not convinced that a middle-class selection panel are going to be very good at telling the different between someone who genuinely has an affinity with working class people and someone who's faking it, whereas this would be far more obvious to a working class congregation, in a similar way to how I'd have much more difficulty telling a fake Jordie accent than someone from Newcastle would. A 'working class boy made good' may well seem more middle class in an interview situation because he's learnt that presenting as more middle class in interviews the way to get ahead. On top of that, if the selectors have not seriously examined their attitudes towards class they may just feel more comfortable around candidates from certain backgrounds without being aware that that's why they find certain candidates more appealingly. This can result in panels who don't want the priesthood to be 'too middle-class' selecting lots of middle-class candidates who are good at mockney accents.

Another problem which makes these things topsey turvey is the opportunities for pastoral experience. One of the things which made the panel view Alec as 'too middle-class' was that he spent last year working for a church in an incredibly affluent upper-middle class area. However, churches with rich congregations are the only ones which can afford to pay pastoral assistants. Lay pastoral work with poorer people is almost always unpaid. This means that the only people who can dedicate a considerable amount of time to such work are those who have a different source of income. This year Alec is organising to work with a church on a council estate for a couple of days a week to improve his CV for the next selection panel. Here's the punchline: the only reason he can afford to do this is because he's got a paid part-time job with a middle-class church and can be financially supported by his middle-class wife.
(Reply to this comment) (Up thread) (Parent) (Thread)



Contribute something
View all comments chronologically