Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
MotherofAllCorgis

How can I strengthen my application to Oxbridge?

Recommended Posts

Hi everyone,

This might be early to ask given that I am just finishing second year of undergrad but I just want to know if there is anything I should do now or soon to strengthen my grad application to Oxford and Cambridge for their MSt and MPhil in history. I also have a bunch of questions as well!

So I currently study history and minor in political science at a highly reputable Canadian university (if that matters). I have a 3.8 GPA right now and I expect I can maintain this if not raise it a bit by the time I graduate.

I don't really have an history related ECs or work experience. In terms of awards, I have been on the Dean's List every year so far and received a huge entrance scholarship to the university I am currently at. Also got a few small monetary scholarships thanks to my GPA.

Although it isn't related closely to my historical period of study, I also do have some training in ancient languages (Latin and Greek). 

I haven't really narrowed my historical interests just yet. I am mostly interested in British history from the 1800s to the 1990s. I plan on using the summer of my 4th year to apply so that I have lots of time.

I have some questions below! 

1. Do I need research experience to be a competitive applicant? By that I mean publications or to work under a prof and help them with their research. 

2. How important is it to do a senior thesis? Okay so I have been told that in giving their conditional offers, Oxford often specifies a grade you have to get on the dissertation. But what if I did not or cannot do one (for any reason)? A related question is, how "original" does this senior thesis have to be? Brand new perspectives/research?

3. What would you say is the most important part of the application? LOR? GPA? Personal Statement/Research Proposal? Writing samples? 

4. Do they heavily consider the GPA in your history major or do they care way more about your cGPA?

5. Given my research interests are still very wide, is it a dumb idea to look at some of the history faculty at Oxbridge and tailor my interests to theirs? Like, you probably don't want to get heavily invested in studying medieval depictions of the Black Death if there are no faculty with similar research interests.

That's it for now I think. 

Thanks!  

Edited by MotherofAllCorgis

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

1. For acceptance, no. But you do need a writing sample that shows off your research skills, meaning that you need experience writing research papers, plus if you're hoping to secure funding you'll be competing against a whole new tier of overachievers, some of whom will have prior graduate degrees and serious publications (or, failing that, degrees from Harvard, Princeton, etc., which Oxford and Cambridge love).

2. As with all research, the more you do of it and the more original it is, the better. If you can complete a major research project, do it. If not, find some other way to demonstrate research potential, e.g. by writing a seminar paper.

3. I'm not responsible for admissions at any university, let alone Oxford or Cambridge, but I would imagine your writing sample and research proposal. Pay particular attention to your research proposal when applying to UK institutions and make sure it demonstrates a clear sense of purpose (which is less necessary in US admissions) and fit.

4. UK universities usually specify GPA cutoffs for admission (3.6 for the courses I applied to if I remember correctly). Those are sometimes flexible, but make sure you're as close to meeting them as possible. Beyond that, I doubt your grades matter much.

5. Letting the faculty roster of a particular university shape your interests is a bad idea, yes. There's no guarantee the faculty members you model your work after will even be there when you apply.

Source: I also wanted to get a master's degree in the UK after studying at Oxford as a visiting student in undergrad and researched the application process seriously. I was accepted to master's programmes in history at both Oxford and Cambridge and received funding from Cambridge. However, ultimately I did not matriculate, so my expertise is very limited.

I can tell you this, however. Getting into a master's programme at Oxford or Cambridge is not that hard. Getting money, on the other hand, is a bloodbath.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks a lot for your answer!

Although you make a good point that you shouldn't shape your interests based on the current faculty, wouldn't it be wise to check (just before you apply) that there are potential supervisors for your interests? And then if not, try to change your interests up a bit?

Can you also explain more on purpose and "fit?"  Like fit with the program / supervisor? Why do UK admissions care more about it?

For your writing samples, what do you recommend submitting? A revised highly graded essay from a course? What they are looking for is not primarily original research but more like the ability to use primary sources well?

What makes you say that getting into an Oxbridge masters program isn't that hard? High acceptance rates?

Also, if you don't mind me asking, how did you show that you had research potential?  And why did you turn down Cambridge with funding? 

 

Lastly, going into 3rd year, do you have any advice for me? Anything I should start doing soon (or now)?

Edited by MotherofAllCorgis

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Yes, of course checking to make sure there's an advisor likely to take you is important, but your interests should be driving the school search process, not the other way around.

By purpose and fit I mean a clear and specific research proposal or at the very least specific examples of skills you're hoping to acquire as a student and classes/resources you'd make use of. In my experience, UK universities expect you to have a slightly more concrete idea of what you want to do than US schools, but this is a generalization and I may be wrong about it. Re. fit, demonstrate you're familiar with the course requirements and opportunities and would be well positioned to make use of them.

At the master's level, advisor fit, as in the overlap between your interests and your advisor's, is less important. As long as you occupy the same broad category, e.g. cultural history of the early Middle Ages or women's history in early modern France, your prospective advisor should be okay with taking you on. In fact, at Cambridge you're not required to request an advisor and may not get your desired advisor if you do, which is one more argument against picking an advisor before you've picked your research interests. (I don't remember right now if that's how it works at Oxford too.)

Not sure what the distinction between 'original research' and 'using primary sources well' is. You want to do both. How do you use primary sources well without doing ingenious things with them, which is what original research is? (You could be editing unedited sources that you discovered in an archive, I suppose... Are you doing that?) If by original research you mean off-the-wall speculation without a strong empirical grounding, though, avoid that. Demonstrating facility with primary sources and languages should be the primary goal of the writing sample IMO.

I'm just saying these master's programs are not as selective as PhD programs in the US. (I see now that Oxford has recently merged most master's degrees in history into one program, though, and don't know what that will mean for course selectivity going forward.) The MSt in global history at Oxford is a slight exception, and the MPhil in intellectual history at Cambridge may be one too, IDK, but even a 20% acceptance rate is not that bad. Again, funding allocation is where the majority of admitted students are 'culled,' in the sense that even if they can afford to attend, they will have lost out on funding to other students; I'm sure the history faculties at Oxbridge don't see this final filter as a good thing and would like to be able to fund all students, but it is what it is.

I assume I demonstrated sufficient research potential through my writing sample and SOP, which outlined the historical questions I'm interested in. I turned down the offer from Cambridge because I couldn't defer enrollment in my PhD program.

Work on your language skills if applicable, take classes that will allow you to produce a 15-20-page piece in which you analyse primary sources, read secondary literature widely and let it guide your interests. Do not specialize too early.

Edited by L13

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi L,

I can't thank you enough for taking the time to answer all my questions. Knowing what's coming really helps ease the anxiety.

By original research, I mean coming up with a completely new idea or angle that no other scholars have already argued whereas for using primary sources well, I meant just being able to find them and use them properly to back up your argument (which may be something previous scholars already talked about). 

 

Thanks for your advice.  I will probably be taking the senior thesis next fall and I will try to use as many primary sources as I can. Also, will getting an RA position also demonstrate good research potential as well?

 

Since I am interested in modern British history, English is pretty much all I need right? Although as I mentioned before, I've done Latin/Greek and coming from Canada I can read a bit of French as well. It seems a bit counterintuitive but why avoid specializing early? I know research interests can radically change on a dime but isn't it good to be focused on a particular area?  Or are you trying to say that I should leave room to explore? 

 

By the way, in your application to Oxford,  was your stated research interest the same as for Cambridge or did you propose two different ideas? 

Edited by MotherofAllCorgis

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

No problem!

IDK about RAing, sorry. I don't think ECs and credentials are that important compared to your own words and your letters of recommendation, but maybe they count for more than I know.

It's good that you don't actually need a foreign language (yet), but the more languages you know in history, the better. People in this field will take you more seriously the more languages you can read, rightly or wrongly (I think rightly, personally), so IF you can fit it into your schedule, do work on your classical languages/French. You never know when you might need them. But don't prioritize this/stress over it.

I submitted more or less the same application to both universities. At the time, I thought I knew what I wanted to do very well and didn't want to hedge my bets by applying to different programs.

Re. specialization, different people can have vastly different takes on this, but I think it's good when you're a research professional and bad when you're a student. My undergrad history department had breadth requirements that forced me to take classes in different subfields and I regard it as one of the most beneficial features of my undergraduate education. If you get tunnel vision too early, you'll only get exposed to methodologies and theorists your favourite professors think are important--scholars tend to have personal mini-canons and I think you need exposure to as many of them as possible in order to develop as a historian--you won't know what's in and what's considered passé by the field as a whole, you may have a harder time adjusting to new trends and ideas, you'll miss out on valuable interdisciplinary work, etc. etc. etc. These are generalizations, but many historians believe in them and I do too.

When I told my advisor I had been reading recent issues of the top journal in our subfield in search of inspiration for my dissertation, she told me to stop doing that and start reading the AHR. Well, first she said I shouldn't be reading any journals at all and should let my topic appear to me in a dream (paraphrasing...), but then she said you keep up with the field by reading a generalist journal.

Again, other historians may disagree here, but basically, my position is that learning about many things is better than learning about one thing when you're still building a knowledge base.

Edited by L13

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 hours ago, MotherofAllCorgis said:

Since I am interested in modern British history, English is pretty much all I need right? Although as I mentioned before, I've done Latin/Greek and coming from Canada I can read a bit of French as well. It seems a bit counterintuitive but why avoid specializing early? I know research interests can radically change on a dime but isn't it good to be focused on a particular area?  Or are you trying to say that I should leave room to explore? 

I played with the idea of doing modern British history for a while, and from what I saw on British university sites, another language was a must. I think German and French were the recommended ones. In general, modern European history seems to recommend French and German, unless you're focusing on a different country. 

Just from experience, I would give yourself room to explore. I had about 100 different specialities before I realized where my passions were. It also took different classes, internships, and personal study. Don't limit yourself so soon, imo. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
6 hours ago, historygeek said:

I played with the idea of doing modern British history for a while, and from what I saw on British university sites, another language was a must. I think German and French were the recommended ones. In general, modern European history seems to recommend French and German, unless you're focusing on a different country. 

Just from experience, I would give yourself room to explore. I had about 100 different specialities before I realized where my passions were. It also took different classes, internships, and personal study. Don't limit yourself so soon, imo. 

Thanks for your suggestion :)

For now, how "specialized" should I get or rather, how specialized is too specialized for someone like me who is still going into 3rd year of undergrad?

 

Right now I know for sure that I like British/Imperial history from the Victorian era to Thatcher. I chose this time period because I like working with primary sources that are a bit more accessible plus I just like this period in general since it played a pretty important part in the development of modern Britain today and the first half of this period was when Britain was pretty much the most powerful and influential country in the world, so that's interesting.

I am really interested in, I guess, British Conservatism, the monarchy (especially), the military, and the British Empire.

 

 

Aren't you applying directly to PhD from undergrad?  I think you probably got it harder than me then! For stuff like your senior thesis and research proposals, how did you personally come up with something new to argue or research about? My GPA is great so that doesn't worry me but after hearing about the emphasis on putting out original research for things like writing samples, it is really daunting.

Edited by MotherofAllCorgis

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi MotherofallCorgis.  I will be attending Cambridge this Fall for my mphil in history of medicine. I completed my undergraduate degree in the US.  I really think L13 did a brilliant job answering your questions so I don’t have much to add beyond echoing the importance of research experience.  The majority of my interview consisted of my advisor asking questions about my research background and writing sample (my senior thesis). Because of the GPA cut off for my program (3.70 at Cambridge and 3.75 at Oxford I think) everyone who applies has good grades.  Research and LORs are consequently very, very important.  I decided not to apply to Oxford because I was not able to find potential advisors working in a similar area to me.  

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, glycoprotein1 said:

Hi MotherofallCorgis.  I will be attending Cambridge this Fall for my mphil in history of medicine. I completed my undergraduate degree in the US.  I really think L13 did a brilliant job answering your questions so I don’t have much to add beyond echoing the importance of research experience.  The majority of my interview consisted of my advisor asking questions about my research background and writing sample (my senior thesis). Because of the GPA cut off for my program (3.70 at Cambridge and 3.75 at Oxford I think) everyone who applies has good grades.  Research and LORs are consequently very, very important.  I decided not to apply to Oxford because I was not able to find potential advisors working in a similar area to me.  

Hi glycoprotein (cool name btw!)

I thought there were no interviews for Oxbridge masters? Maybe it is a HPSM thing?

Do you have any advice for getting good research experience? What did you personally do? (Sorry if I am asking a question LS might have already answered but I always had it in my head that research experience was like RAing or working in a lab with profs as the science kids do.)  Will just a good senior thesis cut it then?

 

Regarding LOR, it is of course better to get a prof that knows you well but does their background of the prof also matter? All things being roughly equal, a LOR from a  prof who went to Cambridge looks better than a prof who went to Florida State right?

 

Edited by MotherofAllCorgis

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
14 hours ago, MotherofAllCorgis said:

Since I am interested in modern British history, English is pretty much all I need right? Although as I mentioned before, I've done Latin/Greek and coming from Canada I can read a bit of French as well. It seems a bit counterintuitive but why avoid specializing early? I know research interests can radically change on a dime but isn't it good to be focused on a particular area?  Or are you trying to say that I should leave room to explore? 

 
4 hours ago, MotherofAllCorgis said:

Right now I know for sure that I like British/Imperial history from the Victorian era to Thatcher. I chose this time period because I like working with primary sources that are a bit more accessible plus I just like this period in general since it played a pretty important part in the development of modern Britain today and the first half of this period was when Britain was pretty much the most powerful and influential country in the world, so that's interesting.

I am really interested in, I guess, British Conservatism, the monarchy (especially), the military, and the British Empire.

 

 

These two posts worry me a bit. If you want to do an MA, then you should be fine to go ahead and apply to Oxford or Cambridge. However, a Ph.D. at both institutions without at least one foreign language is unacceptable. In your time period and topic, you could use French, German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, etc. as possible second and third languages. The 'global' turn requires scholars to branch their language skills outside of the norms in order to ask unique and new questions. In your specific case, British Imperial History was dominated by men who only spoke English for decades (could still be argued today) which caused the historiography to be fairly biased and reinforced a lot of colonial attitudes. In order to mediate and alleviate these caveats, I suggest working on your French starting tomorrow and looking into either an Asian or African language. You could also, in theory, pick up Spanish, but I think a 'non-Western' language will be more beneficial and nuanced for your field.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi tigla,

Thanks for your insight! Right now I am just focusing on a masters at Oxbridge rather than a DPhil/PhD but if I ever proceed to doctoral level I will certainly take your advice. At my home university, you must demonstrate knowledge of a foreign language before undertaking the PhD so I am well aware of the need.

 

Just curious though, how well-versed do you have to be at another foreign language? Just well enough to read primary sources?

Edited by MotherofAllCorgis

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Re. British history, everyone in my department who comes in focusing exclusively on English sources is required to pass at least one foreign language exam and this will be the case at most PhD programs. I assume it’s less important at the master’s level, but you will be expected to know a foreign language at some point in the future even if it never becomes relevant to your interests (which is possible, but as @Tigla said it’s getting rarer and rarer in your field because of the greater marketability of having an international or transnational element in your work). Again, don’t stress over this now, but be realistic about the expectations of the field and pencil some language classes into your schedule if you can.

The language exam I took at my school entailed reading an excerpt from a scholarly text and translating it into English with the aid of a dictionary. (I should have taken two exams, but the one in Latin was waived for me. Obviously that one would have included primary source materials.) The format may be different for other languages/at other schools, but the point is that your reading skills are the focus.

Edit: I remember now that I had the same GPA cutoffs as @glycoprotein1, for the record. My GPA was slightly below 3.7, though, so as I said, they're potentially flexible.

Edited by L13

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@MotherofAllCorgis, as has already been said, funding might be the most difficult part of this. Does your college/university have a National Fellowships advisor? If so, you want to start working with that person ASAP. Look into all the (admittedly ridiculously competitive) funding options, eg Marshall Foundation, Gates Cambridge, Fulbright, etc., and start doing what you can now to make yourself a competitive candidate. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

A lot of good advice has already been given but I thought I'd add my two cents as well...

Regarding your concerns about your thesis: My offer for Oxford was based on either my final GPA or the final grade received on my thesis/capstone. I also ended up using a section of my thesis for my writing sample, but as others have mentioned using any well-written paper that demonstrates your ability to think critically, use primary sources, and etc, should be fine.

Advice for your personal statement, particularly if you're going for the MSt over the MPhil - the personal statement for the MSt application is sort of different from other (at least American) personal statement prompts. First off, since the MSt application doesn't require a formal research proposal, the statement is where you do lightly propose what you want to work on while you're there. On top of this, Oxford doesn't want a personal statement that is rather self-congratulatory. They want to know why you want to continue your studies there, and what you want to do with your degree once you've finished. I sort of struggled with this especially after since the professors helping me recommended I spent more time in my statement talking about the great things I had done, even though I think the application guide pretty much explicitly says not to do that. As from the application guide: "It should focus on how you see the course as building upon your previous study, and what you hope to do with the qualifications you gain from the University, rather than on personal achievements and aspirations."

As for your research interests - as others have said, keep your mind open as of now and don't let it narrow your search for schools. I know you're about halfway through undergrad, but in my own experience my interests really developed/shifted from the end of my second year to the end of undergrad. Like what L13 said, its always good to take classes that maybe aren't in the field you want to study, as it can help build your base, draw similarities, or carry over ways of thinking/approaching topics. You never know what you may learn, or how a class may influence or change the way to look at things. 

Also for languages - while there is no requirement for the MSt, you will certainly need a language or two for any doctoral program you pursue (as others have said). While you won't need them **now** , it can never hurt to start working on them in the meantime so you're ready for when you do need demonstrate your knowledge them. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 6/13/2018 at 10:37 PM, MotherofAllCorgis said:

Aren't you applying directly to PhD from undergrad?  I think you probably got it harder than me then! For stuff like your senior thesis and research proposals, how did you personally come up with something new to argue or research about? My GPA is great so that doesn't worry me but after hearing about the emphasis on putting out original research for things like writing samples, it is really daunting.

I am! 

For my senior thesis, I decided to write about how Italian immigrants in Saint Louis kept such a cohesive cultural and ethnic identity. Other ethnic colonies in Saint Louis dissipated, and there was a lot of sanitation of Italian-American identity in the twentieth century (which didn't happen in Saint Louis). I came up with this while doing research at my internship, which was at a small museum in Saint Louis' Italian neighborhood. In grad school, I want to focus on the history of Italian women in the US and Italy. I've always been interested in women's history, but I realized that a lot of historiography kind of ignores immigrant women outside of them as a labor force. I wanted to explore the history of immigrant women beyond just labor. As someone who grew up with immigrant women, I knew their history was more than that. Exploring this as a historian started in my freshman year, but intensified when I did preliminary thesis research. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 6/13/2018 at 10:00 PM, MotherofAllCorgis said:

Hi glycoprotein (cool name btw!)

I thought there were no interviews for Oxbridge masters? Maybe it is a HPSM thing?

Do you have any advice for getting good research experience? What did you personally do? (Sorry if I am asking a question LS might have already answered but I always had it in my head that research experience was like RAing or working in a lab with profs as the science kids do.)  Will just a good senior thesis cut it then?

 

Regarding LOR, it is of course better to get a prof that knows you well but does their background of the prof also matter? All things being roughly equal, a LOR from a  prof who went to Cambridge looks better than a prof who went to Florida State right?

 

Thanks! Some programs require interviews while others do not.  HPSM requires an interview!  What I recommend (also what worked for me at my first conference) is to seek out small/local conferences in areas you’re interested in and come up with a related research proposal to submit.   This will get your foot in the door and give you a taste of what research is like.  A good senior thesis is helpful (and even crucial if you have no other work because it can serve as a summary of your talents.  Do keep in mind, however, why you’re doing research in the first place.  A good product is always nice, but what you take from your experience and talk about/apply down the road is arguably just as important.  

Well, it depends.  It certaintly could be best to have a Cambridge prof’s LOR but only if they know you just as well as your Florida State equivalent LOR writer.  My LORs came from my research advisors at my state school and it didn’t hurt a bit if that’s what your worried about.  

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

×

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.