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21 March 2023

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#HumansofStHughs: Alexander Lowrie

In the fifth episode of our #HumansofStHughs series, second-year Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) student, Alex tells us about his experience of applying to Oxford and provides some very useful advise for prospective Oxford students.

Hey, I’m Alex and I am a second-year Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) student here at St Hugh’s (although I dropped Economics so maybe now I’m just a PP student)! I am also the LGBTQ+ Rep on the Hugh’s JCR (Junior Common Room) committee and have a keen interest in outreach and access work.

Background 

Being from a working-class background and attending state school, I was at first reluctant to even consider the idea of applying to somewhere like Oxford. It was such an abstract concept to me, especially since – coming also from an area with a very low progression to any form of higher education – no one I knew was applying. It was a pipe dream, and I thought I might as well give it a shot and see what happens! And clearly it was the right step to take. You will probably hear this from every Oxford student, but I didn’t feel like ‘Oxford material’. I didn’t think I was good enough and, therefore, didn’t seriously consider the possibility that I might be what they are looking for.

Given the fact that I felt I didn’t quite fit the mould that someone who goes to this institution does, I also felt I wouldn’t fit in. How can I relate to people who have had such different and, as I assumed, more privileged upbringings than I did? I won’t lie and say that I am friends with everyone, or that everyone here is really down to earth, but, as with any university, there is a massive range of people you will meet.

Another thing I realised when I got here was that Oxford isn’t looking for someone who has always been in the top of their class or has all 9s at GCSE; they are looking for someone who has a genuine interest in their prospective field of study as well as a capacity to think critically and constructively. This is why, as part of the admissions process, there are lots of other things which are relatively unique to Oxbridge such as admissions tests and interviews. I took the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) as part of my application, which was a combination of critical thinking and problem-solving questions. In terms of interviews, I felt massively unprepared and, again, imposter syndrome got a hold of me. However, the tutors who interviewed me were really understanding and friendly, they were just trying to help me show my potential and what I would bring to the table if offered a place. In both of these steps, they want to know how you think and how you approach the questions they’re asking you, so if you’re someone who is passionate about what they know and like then you are well on your way. This also means that, while grades do factor into decisions, they are not the only thing that colleges consider.

College life and advice

In terms of life now that I am here, things are great at Hugh’s. I won’t sugar-coat it, it was definitely a transition and a learning curve, but this is true with any new experience. I was very nervous when first coming, and for me personally there was a sizable jump up in the academic requirements compared to high school and sixth form. Also, university, by its nature, has quite a different teaching structure, but I think this is especially true of Oxford in terms of the tutorials system. However, once I had gotten settled and somewhat found my feet, I got into more of a rhythm. I think this is also important to touch on, because there is no expectation that you should instantly know what you’re doing and have everything figured out as soon as you arrive. As a second year, I still find it hard sometimes and have a few wobbles, but again this is normal, and you will constantly be adapting in order to discover what works for you. This being said, I am still able to have quite an active social life outside of studies. I am currently on the JCR and I love the work I do, and I am also working with the Ashmolean as an outreach officer and have a few other things going on outside of university which are very exciting. This speaks to the fact that it is possible to find a balance, and this will come with time.

Not knowing much about the college culture here, I did an open application as I simply liked the course and didn’t care which college I would study it at. This being said, I can genuinely say that Hugh’s is the correct place for me. In terms of community, everyone is super friendly and there’s definitely a sense of solidarity and college spirit. This is also the place that I have met people that I will hopefully have life-long friendships with and an institution that I owe a lot to. I am also quite lucky in the fact that I feel I have quite a good support system, not only from my friends but from the college and the wider university. You can think of your tutors as academic personal trainers, they are there to help you learn and progress, they aren’t out to get you. This system also extends in a financial sense. I have quite a low household income and, as such, I receive a bursary from the university. This is a massive help and there are lots of ways to get additional funding if you need it.

To end, I just want to give a few general pieces of advice. These are from my experience, so don’t take them as gospel, but they are things I think I would have liked to hear:

  • In considering applying, make sure you are doing so because you are interested in and passionate about the course you would be studying. The academics are intense, but it is easier if you actually enjoy what you are doing.
  • In applying make sure, for your own peace of mind, to prepare for the various stages. Do practice papers and get someone to do a mock interview with you. This will not only reduce anxiety for the actual thing, but it will get you thinking about what answers you could give.
  • If you receive an offer, don’t let imposter syndrome get the best of you. You were given an offer because the college and university hand-selected you. Be proud and take comfort in the fact that you wouldn’t have been selected if they didn’t think you were amazing and had the potential.

 

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