Student Ambassador blog

Some of our Student Ambassadors give their perspective on life as a Merton undergraduate, and why you should apply.
  • Don’t talk yourself out of applying, says first year history student Rob Lentz
  • Is Merton really 'Where fun goes to die'? asks Charlotte Fields, a first year reading medicine
  • Second year historian Jack Allsopp has the low-down on studying Humanities at Oxford
  • Elena Grant, a second year medicine undergraduate describes what it's like being a Scottish student at Oxford

 


Don’t talk yourself out of applying

For a large part of my life, the idea of going to Oxford University was in my eyes an entirely unattainable, abstract concept on a pedestal that was far too high for the likes of me.

Throughout my time at my local secondary school, I had resolutely discarded applying to Oxford as an option. With no actual evidence, I completely subscribed to and believed all of the stereotypes about it – full of posh Etonians, a place of constant and unrelenting hard work, complete lack of social activity, and so on – and convinced myself that Oxford wasn’t for me.

What I wanted from university was the same as anyone else: a good and valuable degree, but also an enjoyable three years that I would always look back upon happily. I feared that going to Oxford, if I somehow managed to get a place, would mean three confined years of constant reading, writing essays, and spending most nights sleeping at a desk in a dimly-lit library, alongside people with whom I had nothing in common. Writing this article now, it’s hard to believe I was so close-minded, simply based off an idea of 'Oxford' that I had zero grounding in reality.

After being pleasantly surprised by my GCSE results, I was gradually persuaded to visit Oxford on an Open Day; I am very thankful that I did. Coming up to Oxford completely erased my misguided perceptions of the university, hence why I would urge those who are still on the fence about an Oxford application to visit if you can, and absorb as much as you can.

For myself, the repeated assurances by the students and tutors at each of the colleges that I visited that Oxford was not as archaic as I had assumed was highly persuasive. It became clear to me that the university almost couldn’t care less about the background of an applicant: Oxford simply wants those who genuinely care about a subject, and will do well in their exams. There is a drive to ensure academic ability and interest are the sole factors in determining who gets a place; since coming up, it has been transparently clear that there is in fact no Oxford 'type'.

Although I finally managed to recognise how foolhardy I had been to dismiss Oxford, this realisation came a little too late. My first year of sixth form was, to be quite blunt, a train wreck. Realising this, I chose to restart sixth form entirely; while I knew this would mean I could achieve better grades and get into a good university, it seemed to completely write off any chance of making it to the dreaming spires.

However, despite me having to take a less-than-direct route through sixth form, admissions staff at the various colleges that I visited on study days still suggested that it was worth applying, and I think this is where an important point comes to light: even if you think that you’ve in some way closed the Oxford route off to yourself – perhaps due to a few dodgy exams, feeling like you haven’t read enough, that you don’t stand as much of a chance as someone else from your college, or whatever else it may be – it’s only by applying that you can know whether or not you could get a place, and that is definitely a chance that is worth taking.

The vast swathe of the negative ideas people have of Oxford University are false, and I myself am a clear example of this, and you learn that as you discover more. One of the most significant and damaging misconceptions is that if you aren’t from the 'correct' socio-economic background, you can’t get in. Quite simply, that is not true. Since getting a place and starting last October, I’ve been stunned and surprised to find that Oxford is full of an immense variety of different personalities from diverse backgrounds; all of the fears that for a long period had led me to turn Oxford into an impossibility in my mind have been resolutely proven wrong.

Don’t let the media representation, the stories you’ve heard in the common room, make up your mind for you. Visit Oxford, read the prospectus, look at the college websites, and decide for yourself.

Rob Lentz
First Year History

“Where fun goes to die?”

Coming from a state school background as the first person from my sixth form to go to Oxford, I knew very little about the college system when I applied.

Initially I applied to Worcester, because it was one of the very few I’d heard of (credit to Emma Watson), I knew it had nice gardens and a good location, and saw no point researching colleges further than that because I didn’t think I’d get in. For Medicine, as with most science subjects, you’re assigned a second college for interviews and mine happened to be Merton. When I received an offer from Merton I was ecstatic, but also confused, and decided it was time to do some research into the college. I’m a sociable person, so imagine the horror 17-year-old me felt when my Google search of 'Merton, Oxford' described it as the place where 'fun goes to die'.

In that moment I was adamant that I was just going to turn down the offer and go to a nice, 'normal' university, but thankfully my mum managed to make me see sense.

In reality Merton is nothing like that. On the first day my dad kept joking about spotting piles of dead fun in random places, but as soon as I arrived I was directed to the JCR (Junior Common Room – like a mini-students union) Entz reps (the social secretaries of College) to get my Freshers' Week tickets. Like any college there are people with different interests - some go out three nights a week, some spend their time playing university or college sport, and others opt for games nights in the TV room; and everyone can enjoy themselves. There are many choices for how to spend your time, and that is a choice that belongs to you.

The JCR Entz reps also organise Bops; which is a quaint name for fancy-dress themed parties for people to chat and dance, and generally socialise; fancy-dress can feel a little silly to begin with, but these parties are actually great fun, and we’re all silly together! Friends at other colleges have told me that we have some of the best bops in the uni, and Merton has four per term whereas other colleges normally have two! Who sounds more fun now?

Another worry I had about Merton was its size, but I really love the community that comes with having a relatively small college. The years above were super-welcoming, everyone knows each other and you’ll always bump into someone to chat with. It's great when you’re having a stressful day or missing home to be surrounded by friendly faces. I worried about not fitting in but quickly made some really close friends after bonding over fancy-dress shopping and outfits for the next freshers' event!

The workload for Medicine is, unsurprisingly, intense, but no more so at Merton than any other college, and the same goes for other subjects too. There are some weeks where you end up mega-busy and others less so, but for exams everyone needs to know the same syllabus and students at all colleges are taught the same by the faculties. Everyone should come to Oxford knowing they’ll have to continue working hard and no matter how hard they try to hide it, everyone does!

So, no, there are not piles of 'dead fun' lying around and people aren’t just hidden away in their rooms all day. All the colleges have little reputations that other colleges tease them with, but Merton's is no more deserved than that of any other – and I can't imagine being anywhere else!

Charlotte Fields
First Year Medicine

Studying Humanities at Oxford

Hi! I am Jack, a second year historian, and I am here to give you the low-down on doing a degree in a Humanities subject at Merton.

This is an incredible college where you can flourish academically, learning so much about yourself and your subject, make incredible friends, and take up some really incredible opportunities, all whilst living in a stunning space over 750 years old.

I can offer a flavour of what it is like to study not only History, but also (fairly) similar subjects like English, Modern Languages, Classics and the like, and, hopefully, give a bit of advice. Firstly, there is no such thing as the 'perfect' student, as everyone approaches work in a different way. Therefore, you will discover what works best for you here, and this will be a combination of trying things out for yourself, making mistakes, and taking advice from friends, those from the years above (like me!) and tutors. Don’t be scared of your fellow students, we are all equally as nervous, and equally as talented. Look at the other Mertonians on your course as friends and as people here to offer mutual support, rather than competition.

Now on to the specifics: I typically have 4-5 hours of contact a week, comprising of a few lectures and one, maybe two, tutorials (standard for historians). So although other Humanities subjects will have more contact than this, we are all similar in the sense that we have far less time supervised than the average lab-bound scientist, though it's important to note that there is no divide between arts and science students, we all socialise together. This is both a blessing and a curse: the opportunity to structure your own day can open up the opportunity to fit in your work around lots of other fun commitments, but beware the perils of procrastination!

It is likely that at some point in your first year, a long night and much of the subsequent morning will be spent frantically producing an essay. The infamous 'essay crisis' afflicts every student at some point, and with some moral support from friends, a stockpile of indulgent food and a bit of creativity, the deadline is more often than not met. However, it's important not to rely upon this method too often, therefore I would recommend learning to plan in specific times in the week where you want to do your reading, and leave yourself, especially in first term, a good 24 hours for just writing.

In terms of actually getting through the books, it's worth noting too that reading lists are often scarier on paper and dealing with them over the course of a tutorial cycle is doable. The way to 'read' 8-10 books a week is not by meticulously studying a book line by line, but through finding articles which express what's going on in a shorter and more concise way, finding a good textbook that can give you a lot of the 'facts', as well as developing the art of skim reading, using book reviews and reading introductions and conclusions. These skills come with practice, everyone is learning just like you.

Most importantly, never be afraid to ask your tutor for support. They devised your reading list for a reason, and can always suggest positive ways to tackle it. Similarly, if you are having a bad week, most tutors will be willing to give you an extension and will be kind and considerate if something has gone wrong. Nevertheless, as far as possible, deadlines are set for a reason so try your best to meet them. Oxford courses are designed to be challenging, and thus they will stretch you intellectually, but also at times emotionally and physically. Merton has an excellent welfare provision where academic and pastoral support can be sought. However, most, if not all, of the time the workload is manageable so revel in the opportunities you have to engage in really interesting material and stretch your intellectual horizons!

Studying at Oxford is undoubtedly very different to any academic experience any has had before. This massive change can seem daunting at times, but the transition to degree-level work is a great opportunity as well as a challenge. It’s the chance to explore your subject from so many different angles and perspectives, to see your subject’s breadth in a way that is impossible at school, and then later in your degree hone in on areas of interest your probably didn’t even consider or knew existed when you were a fresher.

Finally, your degree is one (big) part of your wider Merton experience. Get involved in sport, student politics, drama, or whatever it is that interests you. These opportunities will complement your degree, and make your time here more enjoyable.

Jack Allsopp
Second Year Historian

Being a Scottish student at Oxford

Hello! My name’s Elena and I’m a second-year studying History at Merton. I come from Edinburgh and am going to tell you a wee bit about what it's like being a Scottish student at Oxford.

When first beginning to consider university, Oxford's early/complex application process and sheer distance from Scotland, not to mention the tuition fees, can all seem like barriers to applying. Please, please don’t let these factors put you off, and consider Oxford as an option that you can take! I promise you, Oxford is not the stereotype that it appears to be: the student body is an exciting, diverse, and regionally mixed one.

The decision to pay for a university education that is free in Scotland is a personal choice, and one that I did not take lightly. I have not regretted it. If you think the course at Oxford is the dream one for you, don’t rule it out based on tuition fees alone. Applying is worth consideration, especially as there are forms of financial help, whether this be a governmental loan to pay back or university bursary. When I did some research, I learnt that due to college subsidisation of accommodation and food costs, living costs in Oxford were far cheaper than the Scottish universities I applied to.

The distance from home can also be off-putting, however, the terms are short (3 x 8 weeks), it will feel like no time at all until you’re back home again (you’ll soon find any excuse you can to get back to the dreaming spires). It’s true, however, that travel is both time- and money-guzzling. When I was choosing where to apply in England, (if at all), I chose very early on to consider Oxford over Cambridge, based on little more than pretty pictures of the Radcliffe Camera (History Faculty library), as it wasn’t possible to go down south for both Open Days. The online resources provided by the universities and colleges are great, so if you can’t make it to the Open Days (June and September) don’t worry, you’re not at a disadvantage!

It can be a scary feeling to decide where to live for the next 3-4 years, especially when using online information alone. I had no idea about the differences between colleges and in the end my dad and I picked one fairly randomly (based on age, location, choir and food). Treat colleges like choosing a hall of residence and think about what environment you’d like to live in. Finally, differences in educational systems might worry you, however, Oxford understands how Highers/Advanced Highers work, gives offers based on them, and does understand that (subject dependent) you will be learning different content to the A-level system.

The interview process may seem shrouded in mystery to you at this point—it certainly was to me—but the online resources provided by Oxford are super-helpful. A point worth making is that when you go down for interviews, you will be given accommodation and food by the college you are being interviewed by! (This is something I’ve been asked before: unless specified, you don’t need to bring a sleeping bag/bed linen or a tent to stay in, they’ve got you covered!) Furthermore, an aspect of the interview process that might be unique to Scottish students is age. I was 16 when I did my interviews: I remember arriving and finding that there were 19-year-olds being interviewed for the same course at the same time… scary stuff! Don’t let your age put you off applying, I went in straight after school and was 17 for my first term. Equally I know Scots who applied for deferred entry and took a gap year after school to allow them time to mature and enjoy the world a little bit before going on to do a degree. Both paths are viable and fantastic options.

Let me impart three pieces of, hopefully, wisdom to the Scottish student about to embark on their degree:

You will become an expert at light packing and cramming belongings into as few suitcases as possible… trust me, even I managed.

You will become skilled beyond your years at managing public transport across the UK, especially if you take the train (splitticketing.com is your friend!), in which case you will become very familiar with the stops of Preston and Lancaster in the North of England (where, invariably, the trains almost always encounter some technical hitch, an experience that unites the Scottish student body).

You’re about to learn way more about English geography than you ever thought you would… I embarrassed myself many times during Fresher’s Week… turns out that even though I thought Yorkshire was in the middle of England it actually classifies as 'the North', that the Midlands is a thing, and that there’s more to the South than just London.

Applying to Oxford is one of the best choices I have ever made, and I would strongly encourage you to do so if you love your subject and would like to spend three years studying it in a crazily beautiful city! Best of luck with your applications, finishing off Advanced Highers, and for the future!

Elena Grant
Second Year Medicine