Go Higher: 'I'm pretty sure one of the PhDs was laughing at me'

State school pupil Imogen McSmith applied to study at Oxford – and found that it was an awkward encounter with elitism
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The Independent Online

"It was scary, but I'm glad I did it. Last December, I spent half a week at a centuries-old Oxford college for an experience a relative handful of teenagers have to endure: an Oxbridge interview. There were about nine of us competing for a few places to study Classics.

Before this interview, I had met a limited number of prospective Classics students, as I was the only pupil at my school (a comprehensive in London) doing any A-level subject even remotely related to Classics. And, even though both my Latin teachers were brilliant at supporting me throughout the ordeal, the school in general was unaccustomed to entering students to study Classical subjects.

I was understandably nervous about meeting the other interviewees, sure they would know far more about the finer points of Latin grammar and the ins-and-outs of the ancient world than I could ever hope to.

The actual encounter was awkward, for me at least. The majority of them were from public schools and my own south London state school was most unimpressive when compared with their list of prestigious colleges. They also happened to all know each other, after having played rugby in some sort of inter-school tournament. While they discussed mutual friends and how the rest of the season went, I silently panicked.

After a few more days together, I warmed a bit more to my fellow Classicists – apart from one sweater-vest-wearing Etonian rugby player, who for some reason had three surnames.

The whole exam and interview process itself is now a bit of a blur. I remember sitting a translation exam almost as soon as I arrived and, I'll be honest, I was a bit unnerved. I wasn't expecting to be tested the minute I walked through the door.

In fact, after initially scanning over the passage, I almost felt like just getting the train home again.

The interview was even worse. It's more than a little nerve-wracking to discuss your own amateur knowledge of a subject with two people who have been studying and teaching it for years, and I'm pretty sure one of the PhDs was laughing at me at one point.

The week between returning to London and receiving my letter I can recall repeatedly telling myself not to think about it. But, as always with these things, the more one tries not to think about it, the more one inevitably does. Plus I was continually being asked about it.

Unfortunately as well, the day I was due to hear back from Oxford was also the day that my cousin had decided to get married and, when I got the rejection letter I was feeling a little disheartened, thinking I would have to put on a show of happiness.

In fact, seeing my family was a good remedy. I was so distracted by family reunions, meeting my newest cousin, and being mortified by my Dad's dancing, that I barely spared a thought for Oxford.

I think I was also mollified by knowing I already had a place at Exeter University, where I will (fingers crossed) be beginning my degree in September.

Seven months later, I am in the tortuous two-month long limbo between the final exam and results day.

I still love the city of Oxford and am sorry that I won't be able to study in that scenic and historical city. But I have accepted that I'm not going to grace its hallowed halls this year."

Life as a first-year by Nick McSmith

'You are all in the same boat and there's a feeling of mutual curiosity'

The most illuminating lesson from my first year at university was just how many people there are in the world – even within Aberystwyth – everyone different. Coming from London, I understood this. But being in a small town, I wasn't expecting such an array of personalities, nationalities and common interests.

It also becomes surprisingly easy to talk to fellow students, particularly in the first few weeks when you are all in the same boat and there's a feeling of mutual curiosity towards the future and each other.

The best opportunities to make friends came through the huge variety of social and sports clubs. At the fair in the first week, I saw stalls advertising everything from the sci-fi appreciation society to football teams. I chose the football. This proved to be a fast and effective way of meeting new and older students, which was very helpful in settling in.

In terms of study, you are pretty much left to your own devices in every aspect of coursework and essay writing. This can be a strange-but-refreshing contrast to school years. You feel you are putting in your own thoughts, rather than just being a sponge, trying to take everything in and then churn it out come exam time.

The writer is studying at Aberystwyth University