Mr C Dodd – Staff Editor
This month The GSAL Journal caught up with 2018 GSAL leaver and successful Oxbridge applicant Sami Creswick (English, Cambridge). Mr Dodd was asking the questions.
Hi Sami! Thank you for taking the time to chat to me today and congratulations on securing a place to study English at Cambridge.
How’s life been since you left GSAL? Did you go anywhere nice over the summer?
Much less stressful post A-Levels, although the pressure did return when I received my reading lists! I went inter-railing around Europe in mid-July which was an incredible experience, but not one I’m keen to repeat in similar 40 degree heat.
In one word, how did it feel when you finally knew that you would be going to Cambridge?
You will shortly be going up to Cambridge to start your degree. What are you most excited about?
I think I’m most excited to meet all the people and really get stuck in to all the extra-curricular activities Cambridge offers. Everyone knows that Oxbridge has a lot to offer academically but the overwhelming sense I’ve got from alumni and current students is that you find your real friends and opportunities in all the incredible societies. I really want to join the Cambridge Union in particular.
Least excited about?
Any early morning lectures, supervisions etc.
I’ve seen photographs of Downing College, where you will be based. It looks like a stately home. If you could be one character from a period drama, who would it be and why?
I thought the same thing when I first saw Downing! I think I would probably be Natasha from War and Peace because I love Tolstoy’s characterisation (I’m hoping to add a Russian Literature module from the MML Tripos to my course) and I’ve loved every interpretation of her I’ve seen, from Audrey Hepburn’s to the Broadway musical ‘Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.’
Is it true that you will have servants during your time at Cambridge?
I wish! We do have “bedders” who, I think, help clean the room and empty the bins but, unfortunately, I don’t think there will be anyone waiting on me hand and foot.
On a more serious note, what advice would you give to a student thinking about applying to study English at university?
My main advice to any applicant would be to ensure that they love the subject before they apply. I think it’s easy for people to fall into a trap of picking a subject to play the numbers game, or because they think it will offer them more opportunities as a graduate. In my experience, however, the admissions officers and fellows are looking for candidates who have a reciprocal passion for the subject and if your enthusiasm is forced, it is going to really damage your chances of getting accepted. For an English student in particular, assuming that you do get in, a lot of the course you design yourself around your literary interests, and you have to do the reading in your own time. So if you’re not completely passionate about literature and wiling to dedicate the next three years of your life to doing it every day, firstly your chances of getting in are diminished because admissions officers are looking for that level of dedication, but also your chances of success as a student seem diminished as well.
Other than working incredibly hard to get top exam grades, what else did you do to strengthen your application to Cambridge?
I wrote an essay for a Cambridge essay competition and did a literature-focused EPQ so I had a couple of topics that I knew about in detail and that were interesting enough to discuss at interview. I also have a lot of experience with theatre, and this was a strength as, while it is an extra-curricular interest, it dovetails really well with literature and the interpretation of texts. I think the trick is really just to do what you’re passionate about and then figure out how it connects with either your subject or your participation in University life, and it will always reflect well on you.
Oxbridge interviews are quite daunting. Please tell me briefly about your experience of the process.
My interview was on the 11th December. I had had three mock interviews, so I felt relatively prepared. By far the worst part of the interview experience was the wait outside the Fellows’ office, because I just felt really nervous and sick and got myself in a state about going in. This was exacerbated by the fact they were running about half an hour behind so I had a long wait time and it was just horrendous. The actual interview was a really, really pleasant experience, and made me feel ridiculous for being so anxious. The Fellows were completely lovely and obviously weren’t trying to trip me up but to help me think through the questions they gave me. It was very conversational, and not like an interrogation at all. I had wide ranging questions, and questions on two previously unseen passages. The interview really seemed to be about your ability to articulate judgements and think through problems, far more than it was about getting anything “right” or showing off your pre-existing knowledge.
You must really love reading. What is the worst book you’ve ever read?
‘The Grapes of Wrath’, which was, unfortunately, one of my A-Level texts. Reading this book was a torturous experience and I hope that I never see it again.
And the very best?
‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino, because it uses a postmodernist narrative which would normally, in my experience, make a text almost unreadable for a casual reader, but is, actually, a really pleasant reading experience. It also makes you question the experience of reading and ends ambiguously, so you can pretty much never stop thinking about it.
When you’re not studying, what else are you looking forward to doing during your time at Cambridge?
I’m looking forward to exploring all the societies I can join, particularly those associated with theatre, literature, journalism and debating, such as the Union I mentioned above. I’m also really looking forward to formals, and all the other typical Cambridge experiences. All these traditions are a really interesting and unique part of Oxbridge, so I’m really excited for those.
And finally, any words of wisdom for the current crop of GSAL students?
Just be forward-thinking; working hard and planning now means you can relax later, and will be much better for your mental health. Also, it isn’t just about what you learn at school; your passion for learning outside the classroom and just generally being curious about your subject (and beyond) in the wider world is what makes a great applicant. Good Luck!
Many thanks, and best wishes for the future. Mr Dodd
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