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Thinking About Studying English at University?

English is one the most sought-after degree subjects in the UK- and for good reason. Whilst allowing you to study a range of different, exciting and largely enjoyable material, an English student at Oxford or Cambridge will also gain a prestigious degree and key skills that are valued by employers. This includes critical thinking, excellent verbal and written communication skills, and the ability to create a precise argument, just to name a few.

With an endless number of books to choose from, it can be daunting to begin the application process for English at university. Below are some of our top tips for finding your interests in such a broad field, as well as getting used to the kinds of things you will be studying at Oxford or Cambridge.

1. FIND YOUR AREA OF INTEREST

The best way to tackle such a broad subject is to narrow it down to a few specific authors, themes, genres or time periods that spark your interest. No one (not even the tutors at Oxford or Cambridge) will expect you to have read every book ever, so start with what you have already read.

What are your favourite fiction books? Have you read a poem recently that resonated with you? Which plays do you enjoy watching? Are there any texts that you wish you studied at school at school?

Once you have identified what you are interested in, think about WHY. What is it about these particular areas of literature that make you feel excited, happy, emotional, etc.?

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2. WIDEN YOUR READING

After you have zoomed in on the texts that interest you and why, zoom out a bit and widen your reading in these areas. It is important that you can go beyond your school curriculum or the books that you are already familiar with. If you are struggling to find similar texts to the ones that you are interested in, you could ask your teacher for suggestions, search on the internet or browse the section in your local library. Keep in mind that poetry is often overlooked by university applicants, so make sure to include it in your reading.

Try to read literature from different people and perspectives. For example, if you are interested in literature from a certain historical period, you could look at what women were writing alongside their widely-read male counterparts. Tutors at Oxford and Cambridge will be looking for prospective students who are not just familiar with the predominantly dead, white and male literary canon but are intrigued by alternative and perhaps lesser-known texts.

Make sure to note down what you notice when you are reading around your chosen subject. How is the text similar/different to the one you were originally interested in? What do you like/dislike about it? Is there anything that stands out to you? Are there any important contextual features? 

3. EXPLORE LITERARY THEORY

It may not seem like the most exciting thing in the world at first, but literary theory is important for understanding the functions of texts, authors and readers. If you study English and Oxford or Cambridge, you will most likely be taking a module on theory, so it is a good idea to at least be familiar with one or two of the concepts to see if it is something that interests you.

Below are some books that provide a general introduction to literary theory. You do not need to read them front to back, but they are good to flick through:
● Peter Barry, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory
● Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory

There is no need to try and grasp the complex philosophies of Barthes or Baktin (that’s what university is for), but you might enjoy looking at different general theoretical approaches such as feminist, postcolonial, ecocritical or Marxist. For example, if you are intrigued by how race is presented in literature have a look at the postcolonial approach, and so on.

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4. WATCH PLAYS

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Plays are written for an audience, so watching and listening to a play will give you a valuable experience that is totally different to just reading it. From the setting of the stage, to the costumes,, to the dialogue and movement of characters, there are many aspects of drama that are difficult to imagine through reading. Watching a play will give you an insight into a different, yet equally significant form of literature.

If you are lucky enough to live near a theatre, take a look at what they are putting on. Many small drama companies will also put on intimate shows, so find out if there are any in your local area. If you cannot go and watch a play in person, do not fret! There are plenty of free recordings online, and many well-known plays can be found on YouTube.

Have a notebook and pen to hand as you watch. What stands out to you? What do you think of how the play has been adapted by this particular director or cast? How do the visual or auditory aspects of the play change its meaning? 
 

5. DISCUSS WITH OTHERS

A great way to develop your ideas is to discuss them with other people who are interested in literature. This way, you can get comfortable forming your own arguments whilst listening to the opinions of others, as well as preparing yourself to talk about literature in an interview setting.

Does your friend love a book that you despise? Ask them why! Does your teacher strongly believe in one particular interpretation of the poem you are studying? Challenge them (politely, of course)! Notice connections between the literature that you have read and the social, political and economic environment around you and use them to spark literary conversations.

You do not have to look very far to notice the influence of literature in your everyday life, from our favourite films and television shows to the Shakespearean idioms we use constantly. Your friend may be intrigued to find out that their favourite 90s RomCom, Clueless, is based on Jane Austen’s Emma!

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