Then I began to think about the application process and several travails came to mind that seem peculiar to American students.
I want to apply for Oxford. What should I do now?:
1. Stop spending your extra money.
Now. Instantly cancel your i-Tunes and Netflixs accounts. Call your girlfriend and tell her you won't be taking her out tonight. Oxford is amazingly expensive for American students. (British students have their educations almost entirely funded by the government and the colleges at the university.) You have to be able to tell the university how you will pay for your degree on your application! And don't count on US federal loans, some of which won't work for overseas study.
Oxford will be a sacrifice--for you and for your parents. You will have to give things up in the States to have the money to spend in the UK. You will probably have to take a job during your breaks, which means you will have to work very hard to finish all of the work tutors assign during your time away from the university. And you may have to live in Oxford at the lowest cost possible, which may mean skipping some nights out and eating most of your meals in the hall.
Make sure Oxford is worth it to you. It was to me.
2. Be certain--or nearly so--of what you want.
I didn't realize before I came here that English students were asked to specialize in specific subjects by high school. That means, when it comes time for university, they are prepared to apply for a specific subject. Americans are not.
'Liberal arts' at Oxford does not mean that you are required, over the course of two years, to take a variety of courses to help you 'find yourself.' In Oxford, you hit the ground running in a specific subject. You take few or no classes outside of your discipline, although there are some very cool combinations like 'Philosophy, Politics, and Economics' or 'English and Classics' that you might like to explore.
Though not impossible, it is very difficult to change courses. Oxford is not a good school for the indecisive.
3. Start thinking about your application for 2008 now.
Oxford undergraduate applications are due a full three months before most undergraduate applications are due in January. By the end of this school year, you should already know who's writing your teacher recommendations. Before summer vacation is over, you should have your essay drafts finished.
Applications are due in October.
4. UCAS is not made for Oxford or Cambridge.
All English universities require students to apply through a universal system called the UCAS. It is a web-based service into which you will type your information. It is also the service which will notify you if you are accepted and through which you must accept the offer of admission. But the UCAS application, though required, is not comprehensive for Oxford. Other essays, recommendations, etc. may be required.
It is your responsibility to check the Oxford website to make sure you've submitted everything necessary to Oxford.
5. Don't count on the Oxford website to user-friendly.
Oxford's website is a tangled mass of information. It's all useful and relevant, but finding it is a bit tricky. Spend some time making sure you've read the entire thing.
Everything you need is on the Oxford website, but it will take you some time to find it. Call or e-mail the university if you aren't clear about something.
6. Oxford doesn't care how 'well-rounded' you are.
Oxford, by all of the admission of professors I have heard so far, is looking specifically for 'clever people.' Fortunately, they strive very hard to ensure that doesn't imply 'People from schools where most of the students are clever,' so students from unknown schools may actually have a better chance at Oxford than some American universities. They don't intentionally accept good athletes or student council presidents. The interview will not give you an opportunity to show the interviewer much about your personality. They want to know, on your application and in your interview, if you can think... and if you can be taught to think better.
Academics are almost all that matter to those who read Oxford applications.
7. Be prepared for a few special challenges for overseas applicants.
In England, no one realizes that it might possibly take more than six hours to get somewhere for more than $40. You may get a letter inviting you to interview in two weeks. You will either need to pay an inordinate amount to travel to the Oxford University Press' office in New York City or be willing to do a phone interview. Although I know nothing about phone interviews, I cannot imagine they make as solid an impression. On the other hand, it may give you an opportunity to speak with a tutor under whom you are more likely to be studying.
b. Picking a college
Another advantage of going to interview is that you are generally able to look around the school and get a feel for all of the colleges. Oxford is divided into thirty-nine different colleges and seven private halls, which are mostly like colleges in most ways. You will have to choose one to three to indicate on your application, although you may also choose to be considered for any open space in the department if you would like. Different colleges have different attitudes toward life, academics, and themselves. They will be in different parts of the city and look and feel different. They will have different specializations and may even offer a different number of courses.
My college, Exeter, is a small medieval school--the fourth oldest on the city. It has particularly strong English and science tutors. People here are laid back (about life, not academics) and there isn't much social pressure. Schools generally foster these types of sentiments intentionally, so their websites are pretty revealing. You can also try to get your hands on an alternative prospectus if you need more guidance.
Picking a college is important because it will determine the community in which you will live and the tutors under which you will study, at least to some degree. But don't get too worried about the decision. Even after all that work, you may or may not get into one of the colleges you choose; Oxford may shuffle you around if too many qualified people apply for the same program in the same college.
This advice certainly won't get you into Oxford, but it should at least set you on the right path for an application. Never hesitate to ask if you have questions.