06 October 2007

Applying to Oxford

As far as I know, there are no American first undergraduate degree candidates matriculating at Exeter College this year. I began to wonder why. Many American students are quite clever!

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.
a. Interview
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.

05 October 2007

Contacting Me

There are several ways you can contact me while I'm in Oxford.

First, as you probably didn't need to be told, via e-mail.

Second, by chatting over Google Chat.

Third, by calling me over Skype, when I'm on-line. My username is alison.m.fincher.

Fourth, by sending me at letter at:
The Catholic Chaplaincy
The Old Palace
Rose Place
St Aldate's
Oxford UK

And finally, but calling me on my AMERICAN cellphone. The call will forward at no expense to either of us.

But please remember that GMT is five hours ahead of EDT. And don't call me at 2am--like a certain inattentive sister whom I love--unless it's a real emergency.

For your convenience, I've posted a link to this handy time-zone calculator. For most of you, convert America/New_York to GMT to know what time it is here.

I hope to hear from all of you very soon!

04 October 2007

Academic Dress

Academic dress is a part of the Oxford University tradition. (View the three page guidelines, if you like--I did!) They are beautiful and exciting, but if you were thinking, "Oh boy! Alison gets to dress up like Hermione!" take your standards... and put them lower. At Oxford, Harry and pals would only have sleeves on their robes if they were post-graduates. On the bright side, I get an awesome Saint-Thomas-esque hat of which Harry even Dumbledore never dreamed.

There are three degrees of dressed up for students without hoods, ie me:
1. Casual dress with the robe on top, which I think looks particularly silly
2. Nice dress with robe on top, which is how I am pictured here.
3. Sub-fusc (pronounced fosc as best I can tell) with robe on top and with awesome hat, which is how I will be dressed for matriculation next week

03 October 2007

Second Impressions?

Today was the first day with real academic emphasis. I finally got to meet with my tutors and turned in my summer assignment, which I have published at literarycatechist.blogspot.com for the interested/bored.

So far, everything seems to be going well. I have honestly gotten on best with the English undergraduate freshers so far. It's really nice--at GW, I was impressed by the complex and knowledgeable conversations I had as a new student about politics. Oxford is like that, but with a much wider variety of topics. We had a discussion about the varying merits of Jane Austen's novels this afternoon which was quite refreshing.

Friday morning, I will be participating in a photo shoot contest. I plan to bring my own camera and then to post a large number of pictures so you will be able to see more of this beautiful city. For now, please find yourself entertained by the following anecdote:

Walking home down St Aldate's Street, I pass Christ Church College. Christ Church College is one of the largest and richest schools in Oxford, which not only means it looks like Hogwarts, but was actually the film set for the Hogwarts dining hall.

Little boy: Look Mum! That's wear Harry Potter lives.
Mum: No, darling. I don't think Harry Potter is in there.

01 October 2007

First Impressions

I hope you'll forgive the complete self-centeredness of this post. My goal for this blog, I think, is eventually to reflect on being an American in England, making generalizations and writing things of actual substance. But for now, I think there is a wide enough interested audience (ie, my mother) to justify a few posts just about my and my initial experiences.

My first day as a student at Exeter College, Oxford went quite well, although I must admit that it is bizarre to be at "freshers" week, doing the "Yea! I'm in college now" thing all over again. I felt socially awkward the first time.

The most exciting event of the day was probably buying my academic gown and dressing up to go see the head of the college, the Rector--photos will follow soon.

My favorite part, though, was finally getting to meet all of the other English students. It was nice to be able to discuss substantial things beyond, "What's your name?" and "What are studying?" It seems to be much easier for people with common interests to communicate, even about things outside of that shared field.

I had an interesting conversation tonight with a young man from (Old?) Jersey--which I have only just learned is NOT a part of England. After thirty minutes or so of conversation, he brought up abortion, an issue that makes clear fairly quickly that I am a conservative theist. He started to ask me, "Are you a Christian?" but stopped and checked himself before revising his question to, "Are your opinions shaped by religious beliefs?" Needless to say, I was amused by his British--but not English--diplomacy.

The conversation, though, was really refreshing. This young man really wanted to know why I believe, or perhaps how I can believe. And he actually listened to my answer, even though he is an atheist. I normally don't get to go very far into my, "I tried to be agnostic but found Christianity to be logically reasonable argument," before people begin to laugh. But this young man kept a very open mind. It was a far cry from GW to actually have a conversation from two opposite viewpoints rather than a shouting match.

I hope Oxford will be like that. I hope I am in an environment where the students at least are very willing to learn about new ideas. Of course, that means I must strive to be more of one myself.

Coming soon: pictures of Exeter, Oxford, and Alison in her academic gown!

30 September 2007

I'm Here!

I did it! I made it to Oxford with 100 lbs. of luggage all by myself, although at times I was reminded of the moment in The Prisoner of Azkaban when Harry and Ron miss the train, pushing their carts blindly toward it to no avail. But now it is ten o’clock and I’m nestled snugly in my little room at the Oxford University Catholic student center

This is what the five hundred-year-old part of the building--the Old Palace, Rose Place--looks like...

... and this is what my part of the building looks like.

As you can see, the space is small, but functional and cozy…

…even if I do have the saddest bookcase that ever existed.

I do at least have my own sink...

…and an incredible view.

I will post more pictures and information about my goings and comings as soon as I can suffice it to say, I have met several other second undergraduate students and I feel very reassured about my decision to come here.