Choosing a Subject
The course you choose to study is without a doubt the most important decision you will make during the application process. After all, the primary reason you go to university is to study, and at Oxford and Cambridge in particular, your degree will take up a much larger proportion of your time than elsewhere.
So what should you study? Some of you may know already, but for many, selecting a degree course can be a tough choice. Here are some key things to consider:
1. What have you studied before?
An obvious starting point, though by no means a necessarily decisive factor, is to look at what you know, and what you have studied before. It is a lot easier to get a sense of whether you will enjoy studying, for example, Chemistry, at university if you have studied it at A-level.
That having been said, there are many courses on offer at Oxford and Cambridge that in all likelihood you will probably never have studied before (Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic immediately springs to mind), and these should by no means be ruled out on the basis of unfamiliarity. Instead you can use similar subjects you have studied to get a sense of what new subjects might be like. For instance, with the above example your experience studying a modern language might help inform your choice.
2. Course Content
This really ought to go without saying, as even within the same subject division, different courses can vary so massively as to almost be unrecognisable from each other. Geography is a great example of this. Within the multitude of undergraduate Geography degrees out there, there will be those with an explicitly scientific focus, and those with a social scientific focus. Whereas one degree might be oriented around geographical skills and areas such as climatology, glacial geography and tectonics, others might simply be all about Foucault… Make sure you look carefully through the course outline, at whether there are any compulsory papers, the content of each paper and the scope of choice available. Do not assume your chosen subject at degree level will be the same as at A-level.
For some careers, a specific degree, accredited by the relevant professional body, is required. If you are pursuing a career as a doctor, for example, you have to study Medicine. However, most courses on offer at Oxbridge would not be described as vocational in this sense, and as such will not necessarily exclude you from a particular career path.
Amongst our interviewers, we have Classicists who are now Lawyers, Biologists who now work in PR, and Computer Scientists who are now Management Consultants. Even in those disciplines that require a specific course, such as Law, there are several ways of getting into this career with conversion courses and post-graduate study, so don’t feel your options are limited.
4. What are you good at?
Play to your strengths. This is as important for actually getting a place to begin with as it is for your experience of the undergraduate course once you’ve arrived. If you’ve consistently attained top marks in English, and have been encouraged by your teachers to pursue it, it might be worth considering. Equally, if you only got a B in Maths at AS Level, it may ultimately make more sense to apply to a different subject. Most applicants tend to be strong in all areas, but if you do have particular strengths and weaknesses, it pays to be aware of them.
5. What are you passionate about?
Even factoring in the other considerations, above all you should choose something you love. Oxford and Cambridge are looking for the most intelligent and passionate individuals. They want people who are fascinated by their subject, and who they will enjoy teaching. You will come across much better in interview if you are speaking about a subject you have a passion for.
The other thing to consider is that you will spend three years studying this subject, and trust me at Oxbridge you spend a lot of time on it! It will make that 3am essay crisis a lot easier to deal with if you find the subject matter interesting. So be pragmatic up to a point, but above all do something you will enjoy. It’s your life, after all.