Holland Park Linguistics tutor Rhys E. J. Danino advises on how to make the most of lockdown for university applications.
Lockdown is an unusual time to study. The formality of a physical classroom has for most people disappeared. Contact time with teachers and lecturers is probably more limited than it has been for most of school life. And you are likely more in control of structuring your own timetable than ever before. It’s interesting that many of these conditions are also hallmarks of university life. It’s easy – advisable, even – to treat this period as a trial-run for how university study is going to work, and to see how it suits you. Everyone will structure that time in a slightly different way – and perhaps we’ll look at that in another blog post – but for now, students in the late stages of GCSE, or in their early A-Level/IB preparation, will be considering what they want their university path to be.
This blog post is intended for those students: it will discuss how to make the most of lockdown, what can be done in terms of university preparation, and how to break beyond your curriculum and better explore your preferred subject. It is intended primarily for students yet to submit their application, though some information will also be applicable to students about to head to university, or just thinking about applying.
Treat this post as a summary. There is not necessarily anything new or revolutionary in it; instead, it is intended to serve as a reminder, or a template. Your biggest enemy in lockdown is distraction. It’s pervasive. I’ve probably logged on to Reddit at least three times since starting to write this post. It happens to us all. And that’s why structure – your structure, whatever works for you – is so crucial.
There are 5 points below – ordered (roughly) from most to least important.
1: Keeping up with your school curriculum
I know it sounds boring and a little stiff – and almost futile if exams are cancelled. But this is not the case. Universities know which exams you will have studied, and they will expect a certain level of knowledge based on those exams. So there’s no “get out of jail free” card on the horizon! You know better than me what your strengths in your chosen subjects are – and also your weaknesses. Target both. This is a good time to consolidate existing knowledge, and also to bolster topics which need more time or attention.
You could almost treat it like standard exam revision, if you like … just without the exam. You’ll need this knowledge on hand at university too, so make life easy for your future self.
This is actually something I had to do as part of my schooling, though under different circumstances. In the last year of sixth form, my French teacher fell ill and it took several months to find a replacement. In that time, my classmates and I used the tools we had – past papers, the exam syllabus, textbooks, notes, and online resources (more about those later) – and essentially taught ourselves for that time. And it paid off. Building and covering your own curriculum can be done. If you don’t fancy doing it alone, find a friend and see if they’re keen to work remotely with you. Note that I was working with classmates, and found it more manageable; you know what they say about “a problem shared”.
2: Breaking out of the curriculum
Cast your mind back: at some point, you made a decision to pursue the subjects that you now pursue. (This is especially the case for A-Levels.) Why did you pick them? It’s common for everyday school pressures – work, deadlines, weird timetables – to cloud that. Well, good news! Those are mostly gone at the moment, so use this time to get that spark back. Remind yourself why you love those subjects – and why you want to pursue them at university. Do you have a particular area in your field which particularly captivates you? One that you think the exams neglect? Or perhaps (as was the case for me with Linguistics) you’re picking up a new discipling at university. What excites you?
Now is the time to investigate those things. I’d suggest – no joke – that you take your favourite subject and start with Wikipedia. There’s a reason why it’s so tempting to fall down a Wikipedia rabbithole from time to time: it’s because you’re enjoying yourself. There is no such thing as useless information. Good Wiki articles also have a bibliography section: unearth it, and keep digging.
As well as this, books for consumption by the general public are also very fair game – and, unlike some textbooks, those are designed to be engaging. Ever read “Gut” by Giulia Enders? I didn’t speak for almost a day when on holiday in Spain, because I was too busy learning how intestines work. Find that book for your subject – you’ll need to do some googling – and swallow it.
This sort of preparation is especially useful if you are likely to have a university interview in your subject. Not only do universities love to see extracurricular reading on a personal statement, but interviewers very often ask about it. When I provide mock interviews for students, a question I always ask is “what non-syllabus stuff are you enjoying about your subject?” As you can imagine, the answer – or, worse, a lack thereof – is often extremely revealing.
3: Get away from the books
I’d like you to reread that last question in the paragraph above. It says “stuff”, not “books”, and “enjoying”, not “reading”. This is a deliberate choice of words on my part. We’re past the point where books are the sole source of information on any given subject. Don’t get me wrong: you’ll be doing plenty of reading at university. But the time for that will come; for now, use anything and everything you can to glean more knowledge about your subject area. It’s all for the taking.
The first places I turn, if I want to learn more about a new topic, are audiobooks and podcasts. I listen to a pile of them. There’s definitely something about your subject – yes, even the niche subjects – and you can do other things whilst you listen (I like to walk, for example). Let the information osmose its way to you.
You could also take a dive into YouTube if you like. I recommend, as an illustration, that all Linguistics applicants go and devour Tom Scott’s videos on the subject. There are also some fantastic discussion sites or forums floating around. I mentioned Reddit earlier, for instance. There is a section of Reddit called AskHistorians, a forum which provides academic-level answers to general history questions. My favourite question was “would a Roman be able, if they had the recipe, to make a cheeseburger?”; the answer was fascinating. I’ve lost countless hours there – and I’m not even a historian. Again, go on a hunt and see what you can find…the best resource of course is Holland Park Education themselves, who are running their online courses and group activities for all ages. If you don’t see something you are specifically looking for, just give them a call and they can help.
There are also sites which take a more rigid, more lecture-like approach to this sort of study. There are places like Udemy, The Khan Academy, Brilliant, Skillshare, and The Great Courses. All take a slightly more academic bent than, say, a podcast – but if you’d like someone to do the structuring for you, this is worth a look. Note that most of these sites are not free (some offer introductory trials, though) – so use your best judgment before committing.
4: University admissions tests
At the time of writing this post – early May 2020 – it looks like the majority of university admissions tests will be going ahead. It also seems to be the case, since there appears to be no decrease in applications to top universities, that the admissions test will continue to play a central role in the decision-making process. So get ahead of the game.
Many of the tests intend to stretch a student beyond the curriculum (points 2 and 3 above will help). Many also follow quite a standard format, and contain similar questions each year. Now is the time to take a first look, and get acquainted with what you will be expected to do.
If the tests seem a little daunting (and, in all honesty, they should; no test is designed to be a cakewalk), you can begin preparation straight away. Some of the bigger tests – such as the BMAT or the TSA – have unofficial books available which you may find useful. If not (perhaps the test is quite new, or is a less commonly-sat test), past papers and specifications are usually available from university websites. Familiarity and practice are key to minimising surprises on test day; you can gain these through experience and repetition.
5: Building a strong personal statement
I’ve left this until last, because it’s probably the least important – but also the most fun. There is evidence that universities are interested in the whole person, not just the grades achieved. The personal statement (and, if applicable, an interview) are how universities assess a student’s “demeanour”. For instance, about half of my interview at Oxford for Spanish was not about Spanish at all – but instead about Icelandic. Why? I had mentioned it on the personal statement (and, because I was interviewed near the end of the day, I rather suspect the interviewers were quite pleased to have something fresh to talk about!).
Everything we’ve mentioned above – extracurricular reading, extracurricular not-reading, test preparation, special interests – can be included here, so use the (comparatively) free rein that lockdown gives you to explore as widely as you can. From there, select a couple and consider how you would present them in both a personal statement and an interview. Space is extremely limited in the P.S., and time is tight in an interview – so be discerning. Make it easy for the admissions folks to see what makes you both different and desirable as a candidate.
This can also include other pursuits that you enjoy – music, art, sport, drama, whatever – but remember that these, whilst fun, are almost never the make-or-break item on a personal statement. So try not to overemphasise these, compared to other facets of your preparation.
I’d like to remind you again that the suggestions above are only a template. As with university study itself, the onus is on you, the student, to consider what is most useful and relevant to you – and then to build a plan accordingly. If you feel sufficiently prepared for your curriculum knowledge, feel free to amp up your extracurricular explorations (but it never hurts, of course, to do a double-check on the syllabus). If you are a little daunted by the admissions test, take time to prepare. Build an action plan.
Remember that, when it comes to university preparation lockdown can be turned your advantage. In most years, it’s in the summer holidays that students devote their attention to this. Provided that you use it effectively, time will be on your side. Work hard and, as best you can, have fun; these are of equal value.
Rhys is an Oxfordshire-based tutor who has specialised in Spanish, Linguistics, and Oxbridge admissions since 2012. When not working, he can usually be found in the kitchen or trying to master snooker (it is not going well).