How to get into Oxford University
Matthew Schaffel, a sixth form student at Bolton School Boys’ Division, explains how he successfully applied to read classics at Brasenose College, Oxford University
What made you want to study at Oxford?
I have always been motivated by the idea of competing with the best on an intellectual level; throughout my time at school, I have found that competition drives me a great deal. Naturally, a place like Oxford – with its reputation for academic rigour – really appealed to me.
What was the application process like?
As part of the examination process I had to complete an admissions test, and also two interviews in Oxford. The application process was pretty gruelling, and it was quite an effort balancing the application process and my school work. The admissions test was a source of particular angst for me, and I spent most of the October half-term preparing for it. The idea of having to translate two pieces of complex, unmodified Latin, was a real motivator for me to work hard in the build-up to this exam.
I had two interviews at Brasenose, both of which were intellectually strenuous, but also, for the most part, quite enjoyable. Given the breadth of the classical world, the topic of discussion ranged from philosophical discussions about whether it is rational to fear death, to the question of whether the Romans’ sense of humour was the same as our own.
How did Bolton School help you prepare?
A great deal. I am very grateful to all the members of staff at Bolton School who helped me throughout the process. The two members of staff who played the greatest role were Dr Reeson (the former Boys’ Division head of classics) and Mr Lamb (the current Boys’ Division head of classics); I met weekly with Dr Reeson last year, and Mr Lamb this year. We worked through translations and past papers for the admissions test together, and also focused on my interview technique and broadening my general knowledge. Mrs Hone, in Girls’ Division, supplied me with a broader knowledge of Latin poetry – despite my reservations – and Dr Holland also gave me weekly translation lessons, which helped put me on the spot and encouraged me to really think about my translation technique.
Do you feel that extracurricular activities helped you to achieve an offer?
Yes, I would say the Latin reading group, run by Mr Jackson, really helped me develop a passion for classics from lower down in the school. It also put me in contact with Andy Lee, currently studying classics at Brasenose, who was most helpful throughout the application process. I would also say the Latin reading competition last year, when I performed an extract of Cicero’s Pro Milone in Latin (I can still remember the words), helped me come to the realisation that classics was an area of academic study that particularly interested me.
How did you feel when you received the offer?
I felt pleased to have received an offer from such a prestigious university. However, I know I would not have been able to do it without the support I had received both at home and from school. I think my focus changed pretty quickly towards my A-Level studies, and towards making sure I met the grades that are attached to my offer.
Do you have any other advice or comments for future Oxbridge applicants, based on your experiences?
I would say work as hard as you possibly can, but also be realistic and don’t be too hard on yourself. I would also focus more on interview technique than knowledge of your subject for the interviews. Obviously, it is important to have a basic knowledge of your subject area, but all the interviewers will want to see how your brain works in an unfamiliar environment. If you can get in contact with Old Boltonians at the respective university, having someone to talk to about the process, and who can empathise, with your situation is also really helpful.
What are your plans for the future beyond university?
I am not entirely sure. I want to do something impactful with my career, and also help as many people as I can. This may be something classics-related, and I certainly see a benefit of applying the lessons of the classical world to today, but I am open to anything!