Hello, and welcome to our new guest series on the blog: applying to Oxford for various subjects. There will be a guest contributor every day writing about their personal experience of applying to Oxford for their own subject.
Today’s guest poster is fourth-year student Naomi talking about her personal experience with applying for Classics.
I may be slightly biased when I say this, but Oxford is definitely the best place you can come to study Classics. When it comes to range and depth of things you can study at undergraduate level the options are simply unparalleled anywhere else. It is a hugely demanding course at the same time, with a heavy focus on language work, so I would recommend that you love Classics and reading Latin and Greek literature before you come so that you can be sure you will enjoy it and be motivated to study intensively for four years – and get through several sets of challenging examinations. It is difficult, but 100% worth it for anyone who really wants to get stuck in to the ancient world, from any angle, whether language, literature, history, philosophy, art, archaeology, or linguistics.
The personal statement is your chance to show prospective tutors why (and how much) you love Classics so that they can be sure that you have the motivation to excel at the course. You can mention texts that you have studied at A Level, but I would recommend that you go beyond this. There are plenty of easy ways to do this: if you loved reading one of Cicero’s speeches in your Latin A Level, go ahead and read a few more of Cicero’s speeches; make notes on comparisons with the speech you have studied and learn detail about the cultural and historical background to the speeches. Enjoyed reading Ovid? Try reading other love elegists, such as Catullus and Propertius, and think about how the genre works and how each author puts their own spin on it. Your Classics teachers will be able to give you plenty of recommendations for how you can broaden your knowledge of a specific genre or historical period.
I would highly recommend that you focus your reading on close analysis of the primary texts as opposed to secondary literature (this is not to say that Mary Beard and Robin Lane Fox aren’t hugely helpful in giving you an overview of all sorts of things you might cover during your degree). But the Oxford course focuses so heavily on a deep and detailed knowledge of the ancient texts that you really need to show that you are fascinated by them to have a chance of getting in. You should definitely have read the Iliad and the Aeneid in translation before your interview, as these are both so core to Classics in general, but especially to the Mods course in the first half of your degree.
Finally, I would recommend that you choose some texts that are a little ‘different’ to cover in your personal statement. This need not be scary: I just mean that you probably shouldn’t spend your entire personal statement talking about Euripides’ Medea, because many applicants have probably read it. To make yourself stand out it’s a good idea to mention something on your statement that is not on the typical introductory Classics reading list. Any Classics teacher should be able to help you with this – if not, feel free to drop me an email at and I would be happy to give you some recommendations. So for example if you love Roman History, why not try reading some Sallust as well as Suetonius and Tacitus; if you love Greek Tragedy, try a more unusual Euripides play (Iphigeneia at Aulis?); if you love the epic genre, move beyond Homer and Virgil and look at some less canonical works – Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica or Lucan’s Pharsalia, for instance.
There are many ways you can show you really love Classics and immerse yourself in it – if you live near London, there are often student productions of Greek plays, and there are the triennial Oxford & Cambridge Greek plays (performed in Greek!) – if you can get to these, I would hugely recommend them. If you are able to travel to Italy or Greece, definitely go and get inspired by seeing the monuments in the flesh. You can also enter essay competitions put on by Fitzwilliam College Cambridge and St. John’s College Oxford – even if you don’t win a prize, the research you will do and the broad nature of the questions will definitely prepare you for the Oxford interview and course (and could also be good fodder for your written work entries); or enter a school essay competition/do an EPQ on a Classical subject. Go to Latin/Greek camp at Wells School/Bryanston and meet fellow classics enthusiasts and immerse yourself in reading texts and learning from the best (the tutors at these camps could genuinely end up teaching you at university). Experiencing Classics in different ways will help you get more enthusiastic about it – and the more genuinely enthusiastic you are, the more likely that is to come across in your writing 🙂
You will have to submit 2 pieces of work, of up to 2,000 words apiece (though it doesn’t really matter that much if you go slightly over this – it is a guideline). You may be asked questions about what you have written; you may not (I wasn’t!). I would recommend that you use essays about Classics – which can be difficult to come by given that there aren’t many essays to write in Latin and Greek A levels.
You could ask your teacher to give you a more broad ranging question on the text you are studying so that you have a chance to write something that resembles more of an essay than a commentary. If you have entered any competitions, these kind of essays may be suitable to submit.
The purpose of submitting the work is so that the tutors can see an example of how you write, your analytical skills and how you can present and structure an argument. I would recommend that you ask your teachers to tell you which pieces of work they think are your best – as it can be sometimes difficult to tell by yourself, and you want to make sure that you submit the best work you have produced.
The Classics Aptitude Test (CAT)
The Classics Aptitude Test consists in translating texts which are approximately of an A2 standard in the languages you are studying to A2, in both prose and verse. In order to prepare for this, I would recommend finding some old-school books with translation passages which are generally harder than your standard John Taylor books, and ask your Classics teachers kindly if they will mark them for you. Alternatively, you could pick a book of the Aeneid that you particularly like in translation and grab a commentary and try and read the whole thing. This will help you prepare for Mods, be immensely useful for interviews, and really improve your translation skills. You could also do this for a Cicero speech (you study the pro Caelio at Mods and this is a fairly easy one to get into), some Herodotus (book VII might be a good place to start) and Euripides.
Do not worry – if you don’t study any languages yet you will take a language aptitude test and will have a separate interview at the Faculty to go through it, which should be generally supportive – they are looking to evaluate your capacity to learn an ancient language very intensively in your first year, so it is important that you are prepared for this! You will be able to find a sample paper on the Faculty website so definitely give that a go before you sit the test, but it is not really something you can revise for, so do not worry about it too much!
To prepare for interviews make sure you reread the things you mentioned on your personal statement as well as your written work – as you may or may not be asked about them, but you will definitely be expected to know about them in detail if you have talked about them somewhere in your application. Try and have some practice interviews with your Classics teachers and Classics teachers at other local schools so that you can have a go with someone unfamiliar – it is great to have had the experience of talking about Classics with someone you don’t know at all.
Take a look at this website which explains that you won’t be faced with questions about texts you have never said you know anything about. You simply won’t be asked about the different personas of Catullus if nowhere in your application have you said anything about his writing. Tutors will base discussion on what you claim to know.
Be aware that you will almost definitely have a philosophy component – either as one whole interview or as a part of one, because philosophy is a compulsory part of Mods. This can be quite daunting to people who have never studied philosophy before (it was for me). To put your mind at rest it might be worth reading an introductory book about philosophy or two – if you have any friends studying A level Philosophy they should be able to recommend you something easy to read that will make you think about a few issues (you could try Simon Blackburn’s Think). You may be presented with an argument and asked to analyse how logical it is, and whether the premises lead to the conclusion. You could also be faced with a seemingly random question which is not all too different from the sensationalist questions the media presents about Oxford interviews. The key here will be to remember to remain calm and think logically through the question and what the question is really getting at. So for example, if you were asked why the sky is blue, the interviewer might really be trying to get at the distinction between perception and reality (they are definitely not looking for a scientific explanation). So you might go on to discuss how the senses can be deceiving (e.g. a stick can look bent underwater) and likewise the air seems to be colourless but when you look at the sky it seems blue… this might imply that our senses are unreliable in a more profound way and that we need to search for knowledge in a different way, that does not rely on our eyesight or hearing. Take your time if you are faced with a question like this; they are not expecting you to be a philosophical genius, but just that you have an ability to think and have a cogent, coherent and clear discussion with them about a philosophical issue.
All colleges run interviews in different ways but you are also likely to receive a passage to read, probably with a translation (they have already tested your translation skills in the CAT test so don’t really need to do it again in most colleges). They might ask you about the style, context, or just what information you can draw out from the text. You are unlikely to be expected to know who the author is, but may be expected to use your general knowledge of Classics to be able to make a guess at the time period it comes from. If you can’t though – don’t worry. Just keep smiling and do your best to get as much out of the text as you can.
Other questions will probably be based on things that you have already written something about, and will usually start out quite general and hone in on more specific aspects of texts so that the tutors can see how deeply you have engaged with the texts and whether you can recall the plot/information about the characters to help support an argument. The running theme through this advice page really does focus on making sure you know the texts well – this is the absolute best thing you can do to prove that you have the aptitude and eagerness to succeed at an Oxford Classics degree.
Try not to overanalyse your interviews as it is always difficult to know how you have performed. If you have felt stretched, that is probably a great thing as it means that you have meaningfully engaged with the questions. Sometimes the interviews that feel like that they have gone the worst actually really show off your potential to cope with difficult circumstances. Above all, try to enjoy chatting with the world experts about a subject you are passionate about (easier said than done, I know). And if you have burning questions about Classics or the Oxford course, feel free to ask them (so long as the info is not readily available online).
I am always happy to answer questions or give advice to potential applicants so please do not hesitate to get in touch with me if you would like to! Good luck!