Undergraduates walking down the street

Ella Duffy (2015) tells of her journey to study geography at the School of Geography and the Environment; through navigating the Oxbridge application process, to what it's like living in a college and learning through tutorials.

Ella Duffy

The view a lot of people have of Oxford is that it's all funny Hogwarts gowns and old posh white men sitting in stuffy offices. People much much cleverer than the rest of the population sit and debate things far outside the intellectual capability of a normal 18-year-old. Before doing some research and applying, this was my view of Oxford too; an unattainable faraway place for super smart geniuses from fancy English schools. In reality, Oxford University is just home to a bunch of people who are really keen about their subject, are intellectually curious and want to learn more!

To introduce myself, I'm a current 3rd year Geographer and from a small state school in Edinburgh. So, while Oxford is geographically far away from my home town, it's much more in reach than the average university applicant may expect. This blog post aims to talk a little bit about my own experiences of applying to Oxford Geography, and what my Oxford journey has been like as a whole.

"While the application process may seem daunting, its all worth it to study such an interesting and applicable course in such a beautiful city."

The first question that people at home always ask me is "Why Oxford? You do realise that you could get free university in Scotland, right?". This is a very good point; Scottish citizens don't pay tuition fees at Scottish universities, so making that leap to Oxford was even more of a step for me personally. I get a student loan for my fees, as most other students do, which I will pay back after university on a monthly basis once I earn over a threshold amount. What attracted me to Oxford was the world class teaching and the small group learning styles - I think I learned more in the first few weeks of first year than in a whole term of high school Geography classes! The draw of the Oxford 'brand' on the CV was also a big factor; Oxford is internationally recognised as the best university in the world so, in my mind, applying for jobs internationally post-uni would be made much easier with an Oxford degree under my belt. Looking more into life at Oxford, I really liked the idea of the college structure. In applying, you apply to a specific college within the university, and that's where a lot of your teaching is done, as well as most of your socialising and just living as a student. Colleges are essentially mini universities within the university, which makes being a student feel less like you're just one tiny person within a huge institution and more like you're part of a community.

The next question is always "Why Geography? Isn't that just colouring in? What about the career prospects? You'll have to be a Geography teacher". As much as I like being creative, I am happy to confirm that there is very little colouring in in the Oxford course and that, no, as great as Geography teachers are I don't want to be one. There are SO many career options for Geographers that aren't teaching. In my last year of high school, I was doing a mix of English, Biology and Geography and was loving all three, but really liked the breadth of Geography and the obvious real-world application of everything I was studying. By choosing Geography, I wasn't particularly limiting my options for study, and I've actually ended up using a lot of my Biology knowledge in the Biogeography modules at uni and my essay-writing skills from English have been paramount to my success. Geography is a great course for open-minded people who want to look at the big problems in ecological, physical, social and economic systems, focusing on the interrelations between human and physical worlds. The School of Geography and the Environment at Oxford covers these big problems and has a huge range of optional courses, so you can really tailor your course to your interests, which is something that attracted me to applying as I wanted to be able to pick things that were suited to me.

The application process for Oxford is a bit different from other universities. Yes, it's harder to get in to than other Russell Group universities, but it's only so stringent because tutors want to make sure they really do have people who are passionate about their subject and who suit the tutorial teaching style. When I was applying, my application consisted of a few main parts; my grades, personal statement, school reference, the test and an interview.

While the school reference is written by teachers and covers your achievements within a school environment, the personal statement is your big chance to really talk about yourself and why you'd make a great Geographer. It took me a good few attempts at rewriting and rewording to get something I was happy with, especially with the word limit meaning that I had to be super concise. I talked about my various experiences of school projects and holidays, as well as local Edinburgh issues and how all these things made me think about geographical research. From speaking to admissions staff and tutors, the key to personal statements is just to be genuine and to make sure everything is relevant to Geography! As much as it's useful to mention your various achievements, they should reflect your academic interests and relate back to Geography rather than just being closed statements.

"To prepare for the interview, I contacted my local private school and asked if they could do a mock interview with me, as my school didn't have a history of sending students to Oxbridge and didn't know much about the application process."

Probably the scariest part of anyone's Oxford application is the interview. The Geography interview mimics the tutorial style teaching and doesn't seek to quiz you on your knowledge. Instead, tutors are looking to see how you problem solve and think through new material. I had one physical and one human geography interview, with the academics that then went on to be my tutors for the 3 years. Yes, I was nervous, but in retrospect the interviews covered really interesting discussions and are just a chance for tutors to really meet you and see how you think. To prepare for the interview, I contacted my local private school and asked if they could do a mock interview with me, as my school didn't have a history of sending students to Oxbridge and didn't know much about the application process. The mock interview I had was definitely useful as it gave me an idea of the sort of questions to expect and made me less nervous for the real thing!

Fast forward a few months and I received my Oxford offer! Exciting times! I was going to Oxford! I had applied for deferred entry though, so I wouldn't actually be going to Oxford for another year and a half after receiving the letter.

After a year living in Guyana working full time for the charity Project Trust, I was off to Oxford. It's been a HUGE three years and I could write another 100 blog posts about my time at college, which lived up to its reputation as being friendly and sociable (and beautiful!). I've been involved in a lot of fun college level sport and event organisation in my time at Oxford, but my enjoyment wouldn't be possible without actually liking my course. At times, as with everyone, I hated essays and would rather have gone to the college bar than do any more cultural geography reading, but overall the flexibility and quality of teaching makes it difficult not to enjoy Oxford Geography. I've managed to do modules that were very different from each other but equally interesting; Transport and Mobilities, Island Life and Complexity. I've now completed my finals and will be graduating officially this summer, so as they say - the world is now my oyster!

Though Geography is sometimes dismissed by some other subjects as 'not a real science', I see this as a strength - Geography is honestly just the study of all the interesting intersections between humans and our environment. As a subject, its strength is that it can't be categorized into a neat box and that it occupies the space between pure science and human problem solving. I'd wholeheartedly recommend Oxford Geography to potential applicants. While the application process may seem daunting, its all worth it to study such an interesting and applicable course in such a beautiful city.

"Geography is a great course for open-minded people who want to look at the big problems in ecological, physical, social and economic systems, focusing on the interrelations between human and physical worlds."


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