Things I Wished I’d Known Before I Went to Oxbridge

Image shows Cambridge backs at dawn.

Continuing our series on applying to Oxbridge, in this article we highlight the things that journalists from The Times newspaper wish they had known before they studied at the UK’s two premier universities. Those who want to apply to Oxbridge have to do so by 15 October.

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Ben Macintyre, History, Cambridge:

Ben Macintyre has been a Times columnist since 1992. He has also written a fascinating variety of historical biographies, covering figures from ‘The Napoleon of Crime’, Adam Worth, to the wartime double agent Eddie Chapman.

“That it is possible to create a free laundry, simply by hanging your shirt by an open window overnight. This system has its own mathematical logic: a shirt hung for one night and then worn for one day, must then be hung by the open window for two days; the same shirt, when worn again, must be hung up for four days, and so on, exponentially. Drawback: by the end of term all your shirts are stiff, and some actually break into pieces.”

Helen Rumbelow, English, Oxford

Helen Rumbelow is a features editor for the Times, though she’s worked as a health correspondent, a political correspondent, a TV reviewer, and a commissioning editor as well. After graduating from Oxford, she spent a year on a Fulbright scholarship in Stanford.

Image shows King's College, Cambridge.
King’s College, Cambridge.

“That it is a Through the Looking Glass world. Outside, people are not lauded for rowing, amateur dramatics, or joining debating societies. Inside, they are. Outside, young people have fun in normal ways. Inside, you will find yourself at a bop, in a gown, or in a punt, quite possibly with someone wearing a tweed jacket.”

Oliver Kamm, PPE, Oxford

Oliver Kamm worked in the financial sector before becoming a Times columnist. His political views have sparked a lively debate: generally identifying as left-wing, he has nonetheless spoken extensively in favour of neoconservative, interventionist foreign policy.

“It’s not so much something I wish I’d known, as something I wish I’d properly grasped: the scenery of Oxford is not to be taken for granted. The Midlands city where I’d grown up had many qualities, but few of them were aesthetic. I went from it to New College, the beauty and order of whose cloisters, chapels, quads and garden remain in my mind’s eye long after the details of reading lists have unfortunately faded. Whatever else happens to you at Oxford, walking through New College, Christ Church and its meadow, Worcester College, Magdalen and the Parks is a habit to cultivate.”

Mary Bowers, History, Cambridge

Mary Bowers’ impressive array of achievements – working for a slew of top newspapers internationally – has been tragically overshadowed by a near-fatal cycling accident when she was struck by a lorry in late 2011. Her case inspired the Times to launch a campaign, ‘Cities Fit for Cycling.’

“I wish I’d known that the only thing private school kids were taught better than us (state school kids) was how to be confident. I wish I hadn’t spent most of three years thinking I must have been let in because of a computer error and that I was soon about to get found out. I wish I’d known how many other people felt the same.
I wish I’d known that it would be really difficult to make the transition from being a big fish in a small pond to a minnow in an ocean, and that no matter how hard you try, there’s always someone cleverer/prettier/more talented than you are, and probably all three. So it’s worth enjoying those three or four years rather than contemplating throwing yourself into the Cam or off the top of a turret somewhere.”

Ginny Light, Geography, Oxford

Formerly a travel writer for the Times, Ginny Light has now become a Geography teacher at the prestigious St Paul’s School in London.

Image shows punting on the river Cam.
Many Oxbridge students mention leisure activities like punting as a crucial part of their university experience.

“I wish someone had told me, before I went to Oxford, that most people there are normal. By that I mean, that instead of feeling like the most uncultured, not-very-well-read and unworldly person there, that I would find plenty in common with lots of my fellow students. I worried that people would spend all their time with their noses in the books and that I wouldn’t have the same “university experience” as my friends. Actually, Oxford students like sport, going out, shopping, chatting in coffee shops and generally hanging out, just as much as any other students, and most importantly, that they like having fun.”

Joanna Sugden, English Literature, Oxford

Joanna Sugden has worked for the Times in a variety of areas, particularly education. She is now the Editor of India Real Time, the Wall Street Journal’s online journal about India.

“I wish I had known that not everyone there is a genius and there would be people like me. I also wish I had spent more time punting and less time being petrified by finals.”

Image credits: banner; King’s; punting.