Orient Expression

11 December, 2008

Aaaaaaand relax…

Filed under: Cambridge — pyrotyger @ 5:23 pm
Tags: , , ,

I’ve avoided blogging about Cambridge ever since I submitted my application. It’s been such a big part of my life, but I’ve always maintained that this blog was to be about more than What I Did On My Holidays.

More than that, as my optimism varied from day to day, I wanted to avoid committing anything to the cyber-ether that would later cause me to look back and cringe. I have complete and historical editorial control over my posts, of course, but as a matter of principle I try not to tinker with or remove old posts except to correct typos or formatting. Quite apart from anything else, it’ll be interesting to see how the blog – both my writing style and the way I think – develops over the months and, possibly, years.

However, the deed is done – the interview took place yesterday, and it’s time to record the events that led up to it, for posterity and for the sake of those who read this thing and might be curious. So, here’s a potted history of my attempt to insinuate my way into possibly the world’s most prestigious academic institution.

  • Having made the decision to apply, I had a couple of weeks to get the UCAS form completed and submitted.
  • I consulted all and sundry regarding my Personal Statement, and the end result was pretty good. Thanks go to the dysfunctor and various good friends and colleagues for critical commentary.
  • The written reference presented a tricky choice of referees. The inestimably wise Dr Coates, my tutor at Birmingham Uni; my good-humoured Japanese Tutor, Hiromi; or my incomparably supportive line-manager, Gill. For one reason and another, Gill ended up providing my glowing reference.
  • Deciding which college to nominate was tricky. I was tempted to do so on the basis of application requirements (essays, tests, interviews etc), especially upon seeing that Trinity Hall seem to rely principally on the Thinking Skills Assessment (a form of testing at which I excel), but upon the Chair of Studies‘ advice I eventually went with Wolfson College – a college open only to mature (over-21) students.
  • Shortly after submitting the application, I was requested to complete the online Supplementary Application Questionnaire, specifically for Cambridge applicants. Another several hundred words of selling myself ensued, and I was nearly late submitting this as I had difficulty obtaining a suitable photo. (As I was amused to discover later, the print-out received by the interview panel was of such low resomolution that it may as well have been a photo of my cat)
  • Many agonising days of waiting later, I received a letter from Dr Sally Church inviting me to an interview with her and Dr Barak Kushner on Weds 10th December, 4pm. I was also requested to provide two examples of marked essays by the preceding Friday. Since I hadn’t written an academic essay (not that would be suitable for Humanities, at least) since my GCSEs ten years ago, this was a problem…
  • A brief email exchange with Dr Church resulted in a request to provide a 1500-word essay entitled “Discuss the nature of society-state relations in the modern world in any region of your choice.” I had a week to research and write it (including the stag-weekend in Amsterdam) and I’m pretty pleased with the result. Again, many thanks to friends & family for their support and advice. The dysfunctor‘s girlfriend, Chisa, was particularly kind in putting me in touch with a fellow academic in the field, although I was sadly too rushed to take advantage of this.

The day finally came, and I got the train down to Cambridge, suited up and looking dashing. It’s always nice to know that you can brush up well when the need arises. Lucky tie and everything.
I managed to keep my nerves under control for most of the day – I usually do well at interview – but upon stepping off the train I suddenly felt an unholy lurch in the pit of my stomach. I’ve never been so anxious about anything before, which is a strange thing to admit; there were more serious, more important and more uncertain occasions in my life, I’m sure, but right then it was hard to remember any. It probably wouldn’t have done me any good if I had, either.

I have a friend who suffers from occasional panic-attacks, and he’s tried to describe them to me before. I’ve never had such a thing, but right then I think I understood a little of how it feels.

Anyway, I managed to control my bladder and stop shivering, and sat with a calming cuppa tea for half an hour or so. As I walked up to the faculty for the interview, a well-worded, well-timed text from a friend arrived to soothe me. I had five minutes to sit in the common-room with a couple of other young prospectives (for Chinese), and I realised that I was in a far better place than they were. I had chance to reflect on my previous Cambridge interview, back in 1998, and how I had been successful on that occasion, and was far better prepared and equipped this time to face the panel.

As it turned out, the panel was so much more relaxed and informal than I was expecting, too. I finally got to meet Dr Church – a pleasant, quiet lady, whom I feel may even have been a little more intimidated by the interview situation than I was – and the other interviewer, Dr Kushner. He was a very likeable man, with an air of intelligent confidence when he spoke. His enthusiasm was clear, in spite of the late interview, and he seemed quite eager to discuss everything from the ideas raised in my essay to the possibility of studying Taiko during the 3rd year in Japan.

Generally speaking, I think I presented myself fairly well – enthusiastic, intelligent and affable, if a little green. Most importantly, I think I demonstrated a genuine interest in the subject, and established that I’m already learning what I can. Beyond being a bit more coherent with my ideas, it’s hard to know what more they would’ve been looking for.

I’m by no means certain that the interview was a success. However, I got the impression that they weren’t just “giving me a chance”; rather, that they were already hopeful and wanted to see if I lived up to their expectations. If I read it right, I think my chances are decent.
Anyway, a couple of things were said which gave me good reason to be hopeful:

  1. When discussing the possible difficulties of being a mature student among a small class of 18-year-olds, many of whom would have joined “principally to pursue an interest in Anime”, Dr Kushner intimated that it was more about gregariousness and personality than age, and that I seemed like the sort of person who’d get on fine. It felt like a vote of confidence.
  2. More significantly, my prior studies of the language were raised. It was suggested that I may find the first year “boring” if my knowledge and fluency in Japanese were of a sufficient level, since students are expected to enter with no prior knowledge. The notion of direct-entry to second year was raised, and that made me feel that they were seriously looking at how and where to fit me into the syllabus.

Good signs, then, and I don’t think I really made a tit of myself at any point. It’s hard to gauge how well they took me, but I felt that I got on with them pretty well, and got to express myself. They tested me a little – follow-up questions to throwaway comments – but I think I kept the ball rolling in the right direction.

Anyway, time for me to stop worrying about it now. The deed is done, and I’ve devoted quite enough energy to this application now. It’s out of my hands. Time to focus on the next event in this month’s hectic schedule – my best friend’s wedding.

I think I’ll need a holiday after this Holiday Season. Roll on January…

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