Posts Tagged ‘university application’

Off to uni

November 12, 2022

I’m reminded that it’s now half a century since I applied to university. That is scary. And how different it all was way back then. You could make five choices from the 40 or so universities there were in the UK at the time, and support your application with a personal statement, much as students do today; your school wrote a reference and you waited. No change there then.

Universities rejected you if they didn’t want you; if they were interested, they usually interviewed you. Then you received offers or not. And you could accept a firm offer, as it was called, and retain a reserve offer if you didn’t get the grades for the firm offer. I applied to read Latin and French; I also applied to take a year out (it wasn’t called a gap year then; I was too young and also I wanted to earn a bit of money to keep myself once I got to uni). I had an offer from Leeds, and interviews and offers from Manchester and Liverpool. I fell in love with Liverpool as soon as I arrived at Lime Street Station, and they made me a ridiculous offer which I couldn’t not accept.

I remember very little about the actual business of A level exams; revision went smoothly as did the exams; I still haven’t forgotten the 36 sides of foolscap I covered in one day, having 3 hours of English Lit in the morning and another 3 hours of French Lit in the afternoon (or maybe it was the other way round?). Results day was a postcard from the headmaster with the comment ‘That should be good enough for Liverpool!’. It was, but having done well at English I was minded to write and ask if I could change to joint French and English. They said I could.

I managed all this at age 17 with no help from my parents, who had no idea what any of this might mean, and little advice but plenty of encouragement from my school. It felt a million miles away from the help, advice and support students needed and received when I was a sixth form tutor, and later, a head of sixth form.

The university experience was an eye-opener, with the expected helpings of sex, drugs and rock ’n roll. The first big shock was on the first day in the French department: jaws hit the desks when the Prof said casually, ‘of course, all our lectures and tutorials are in French…’ I don’t remember any greats in that department, but do remember from my studies of English Literature the wonderful lectures of Kenneth Muir, who could walk about the auditorium talking about any and all of Shakespeare’s plays as needed and the required quotations would trip effortlessly off his tongue. And the lectures of Hermione Lee, now well-known in academic and literary spheres, then in her first academic lecturing post (I think), introducing me to the hidden joys of Jane Austen.

My father, with the benefit of his meagre four winters’ schooling and the refusal of his father to let him take his education beyond primary level, had always encouraged me in learning, and told me that I should go to university one day: I did, although I was never sure he approved of what it did to me. It was a revelation, the beginning of a lifetime of study and teaching and commitment to literature. I’ve loved it and I’d do it all over again…

Fifty years on…

July 3, 2022

The older you get, the more anniversaries there are; it recently occurred to me that it’s now 50 years since I sat my A Levels… good grief! And what a simple business it all was way back then. All exams, for a start: no continuous assessment, no coursework or anything like that. Just sit in silence and write and write and write.

English literature (well, obviously); I think we’d studied eight set books and only had to write about six, so there was a choice. Othello and King Lear, Doctor Faustus, Paradise Lost 9 & 10, Chaucer’s Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Shadow of a Gunman, Andrew Marvell’s poetry… is that all of them? Don’t recall which I avoided…

French: dictation, I remember, unseen and prose translation, essay, and literature. Le Mariage de Figaro, Le Roi Se Meurt, Servitude et Grandeur Militaires, Confession de Minuit. The killer was, that French Lit and one of the English lit papers were timetabled on the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon; eight essays altogether and I remember I filled thirty-six sides of foolscap (predecessor to A4 if you need to know) that day and had a seriously sore hand.

Latin of Classical Civilisation (yes, weird title) with unseen, prose translation, a Roman history paper and set books, though I can no longer remember what they all were, apart from tiresome Livy Book 30.

I’d already passed two A levels in previous years so I knew what to expect, roughly, and I had my revision plan and just powered on through it; I certainly have no recollections of pressure from other or myself, and no stress about any of it, either. Innocent days, perhaps; the end of school, certainly. I recall getting pissed in the village pub, raiding the kitchens where we took and ate all the strawberries, a naked dip in the freezing pool and ceremonial urination on the cricket pitch. Then it was all over.

I had offers from three of the five universities I’d applied to and had fallen in love with Liverpool, so that was my first choice. With two A levels already, and since I’d originally applied to read Latin and French, my offer was one D grade, in French. Results day meant an envelope in the post and a scrawled note from my tutor saying, ‘That should be good enough for Liverpool’ (about my 2 As and a C). Done. Except my A in English Literature was making me review my options, and I knew I’d really rather read English than Latin. So I wrote and asked – I’d already made the rather unusual for those days request for deferred entry – could I change my course based on my results. That would be fine, they said.

Do I make it all sound far too easy? Maybe. I did take naturally to study, because I enjoyed the subjects and they fascinated me; I was also quite an organised student, and I had really good teachers. I put in the time and did the work; at a Catholic boarding school there were few other distractions, which meant I was rather a slow learner in other areas of life.

What I took away from the whole experience is rather more important: a deep love of literature and languages instilled by teachers with a genuine passion for their subjects, and I suspect already at that time the prospect of becoming a teacher and passing on some of that enjoyment to future students was beginning to form itself somewhere deep in my unconscious.

What I realise now is the simplicity of those days, without pressure or expectation, which students of today cannot know or enjoy; no real thoughts about what would come after university; the comfort of knowing that with my place would come a grant to cover my living expenses, and the course costs I didn’t even have to think about, because there were no tuition fees. I have often wished that such freedom was on offer nowadays, because I have always been a great believer in learning for learning’s sake, and studying what you enjoy, rather than because it will bring you a high salary. I’m aware that university students were an elite then, a very small percentage of the population rather than today’s 50%. The greater democratisation and accessibility of higher education is surely a good thing, but I’m also aware that it’s primarily a great money-making opportunity for so many different people, with the needs and rights of the actual students quite a way down the list of priorities.

I’ll finish with a line from Virgil. Forsan et olim haec meminisse juvabit…

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