Hons, Dons, and one smoking MA Oxon
November 23, 2007 2:57 PM   Subscribe

Help me be accepted to Oxford University. I am not concerned with academic requirements (my grades are excellent). I need to know what I can do to set myself apart from all the other ambitious and overeducated nerds who will be fighting for my place. I have exactly two years to make myself amazing.

I’m 25, back at University, and I’ve finally figured out what I want to do with my life. My desired career is competitive (way more brilliant academics graduate with art history degrees than find curatorial jobs in prestigious museums). I want to do my MA at Oxford for several reasons: a) I’m a serious snob b) I value quality of education c) I know the networking possibilities are endless and c) I’m cynical enough to know that ‘Oxon’ on the resume receives more attention than ‘Milton Keynes Poly’ does.

I’m presently in the early stages of my BA at a good Canadian university (UBC). Once I finish here, I’ll have the following:
-BA Hons* in art history (focusing on either classical period Greece or late Roman Britain – I haven’t decided yet)
-Minor in classical studies (double major if I have the time – I’m doing this in 2 years)
-Languages: English, French, German, Latin

*Canadian universities don’t have a system of firsts, seconds, and thirds.

Here be the problem: I have to work to finance my education, so I don’t have a lot of time for extracurricular activities. I can do some volunteering, but I really do not have the time to get heavily involved at school. I also do not have the time or funds to do a semester abroad, though I am quite well-travelled already (in Europe, at least).

(I'm a British citizen, but not a resident. I'm planning on moving to the UK permanently.)
posted by rhinny to Education (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you can write something (book review, essay, etc.) and get published in a peer-reviewed journal, that would look nice on the application.
posted by HotPatatta at 3:05 PM on November 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Go see your closest political representative (as prominent as you can get). They are a really under-used resource when it comes to this type of thing (atleast in the US). Normally they will be more than happy to help a young, driven individual advance themselves through their network of contacts.
posted by chrisalbon at 3:14 PM on November 23, 2007

Are you sure you mean MA? At Oxford, the MA is an undergraduate degree (technically, you graduate with a BA and are automatically upgraded to an MA a few terms later). If you want to do a taught post-grad degree (i.e. not a Ph.D, which at Oxford is called a D.Phil), that means an M.St, M.Phil or M.Sc.
posted by matthewr at 3:25 PM on November 23, 2007

First off, you can't 'do an MA' at Oxford. You pay 163;10 for it after you've done your BA. The obvious option is a taught MPhil, and you'll need to work out which one suits you best. The other alternative is a second BA where your North American degree lets you skip the first year of the undergraduate course, but that's a tough thing to start at the age of 27 when your peers will be 19-20.

What will get you in? Being good at your subject, a lot of intellectual curiosity, demonstrated originality of thought. Having extracurricular props really doesn't make a difference at the graduate level, unless you're looking for a scholarship. Being able to pay overseas fees doesn't hurt at the graduate level, but you would be competing against Oxford graduates who've done well enough to be eligible for postgrad scholarships.

But if you're being honest about your motivations, they remind me just a bit too much of the kind of people who don't get accepted because they're applying for the wrong reasons. I'm not even certain if there's a course that's a good fit for your subject area, and another institution without the large accumulation of old buildings and faux cachet might be a better fit.
posted by holgate at 3:27 PM on November 23, 2007

Best answer: Start researching internship opportunities with major museums. Your career center at your college can help you and can also help you tap in to the alumni network of your school and perhaps find a well placed graduate who can be a mentor and get you some contacts. When you score a really good internship (make sure you will be involved in something meaningful, not just making copies), then use that environment to network some more. It really is a 6 degrees of separation world, and the art world at that level is relatively small, so be a stand out intern and get everything you can out of it. Good luck!
posted by 45moore45 at 3:31 PM on November 23, 2007

I think HotPatatta's suggestion of being published in a peer-reviewed journal is a good one, but perhaps even writing a book of your own would work. It depends how confident you feel about your topic and whether you could find the time to put one together, but it's definitely a major help in academic circles. Failing all that, building up a popular blog around your topic is going to demonstrate your curiousity and steadfastness very well (I'd certainly read a very well produced blog on art history, and it's not a topic I'm wildly interested in).
posted by wackybrit at 3:49 PM on November 23, 2007

There was an article in the journal in the past month or so about academic consultants who will guide your every move into a competitive university. They aren't cheap, but they work.
posted by caddis at 4:10 PM on November 23, 2007

You could try making contact with the people here - the faculty that will offer you either the M.St (coursework) or M.Litt (research). But are you getting carried away with the snob factor? If it's career progression you want, you should probably pick the place with the best track record for art history.
posted by greycap at 4:16 PM on November 23, 2007

Response by poster: matthewr & holgate: I did mean M.St, not an M.Litt. I've been subbing MA in conversation because the average person I talk to here has never heard of an M.St.

As for snobbery, I added that mainly as a joke. I'm applying to loads of other schools as well. I come from a long line of academics... had my crazy hippie Mother not fled the UK in the 70's, I would have been expected to attend a top British university.

As for course-fit, I'm crossing my fingers and hoping something in my field is offered that year... if not, I'll either go for a straight history program or wait another year.

Thanks to everyone, I am doing loads of research on this myself but I figured hivemind might think of something I hadn't.
posted by rhinny at 5:05 PM on November 23, 2007

In art history, at post-graduate level , the Courtauld Institute carries as much prestige if not more than Oxford or for that matter Cambridge, I would say. It's also better for networking, because it's in London. Oxbridge is prestigious at undergraduate level because selection implies you're cleverer than all the other snotty-nosed brats of your age. But once you go to post-graduate level there's going to be less interest in your "potential", more in your achievements, commitment, intellectual curiosity (as someone said).
posted by londongeezer at 5:17 PM on November 23, 2007

OK, it's good that you're thinking about this early. There's no rush, so don't try and start everything at once. I'm sorry this is so long.

Oxbridge is still a bit too traditional to put much stock in extra-curricular activities that are not directly related to your course, in my opinion. I'm speaking as a Cambridge sciences student though. What you need is to be outstanding. Getting published is a big help, if you can manage that*. Don't go nuts comparing yourself to your peers, though. It has a corrosive effect.

Will your university record your grades for you? They'd better, and you'd better be in the top 15% of your class*. Whoever reads your application will likely have some cursory knowledge of the Canadian university system, and be able to assess where you are. Also, look into any societies at UBC that are in your field. An extra-curricular activity that would help is to take part in one, actively. This does not have to be a time drain - be smart about what you do. My first thought is that you give general interest talks every so often.

As far as I know, UK humanities students tend to get their funding (what there is of it) from these guys. You will want to talk to them to find out how you could establish a connection to the UK while taking a degree in Canada.

If you can do something with a professor, or a PhD student, or even an undergraduate in the department you want to study in, do it. Put aside some money as you earn it, for the eventuality that you get invited to the UK (during summer holidays, say) at some time in the next two years. These things do happen. Your chances of getting a place if you are personally known are hugely greater. It could be the single most important factor.

Don't fixate on Oxford. Don't fixate on any one university. You can be really, really good at what you do, and still be declined because of a shortage of places (you will hear this a lot during your application). The preparation you put in will still leave you set for another, very good, UK university.

*I was lucky enough to be an undergraduate here at Cambridge. I got a 2.1, and I got to stay on. Everyone here who isn't from Cambridge has a first. I've googled a lot of them, and the majority have something - a co-authored paper, some award, whatever.

Finally, some top secret information. You do not talk about the networking opportunities until your second week here. A degree of knowledge about your likely interviewers' fields of study is a good way to charm them. I was glad to hear you were joking about the snob bit - it can be a sore point, what with the animus against Oxbridge that you sometimes run into. My undergraduate interviewers were (and are) lovely people, but I know of some unusual interviews in other colleges. Another good reason to have the contacts, yes?

Good luck!
posted by topynate at 5:34 PM on November 23, 2007

Best answer: Grad school is sort of funny. When you go to graduate school you don't go to the "big name," rather you go to the place that has the individual(s) with whom you'd like to study. How do you find that individual(s)?

As you progress in your BA academic career, when you read books/articles for class or for essays, if one catches your fancy, start reading more of that person's work. Get familiar with it and the critiques of it (for different perspectives).

Go to the professors / grad students in your department and ask for recommended reading lists. Find out what the reading list is for the 1st year courses for grad students in your department. Read those works. Maybe one of those will strike your fancy as well.

Become a research assistant for your favorite grad student, then your favorite professor. This serves a number of purposes: 1, you see if this sort of lifestyle is really of interest to you and 2, you'll get exposed to more reading, and 3, you'll get people who will write you letters of recommendation. (Because another funny part of applying to grad school is that it isn't all grades, GRE scores, and SOP... it is A LOT about your professor(s) telling other professors that they know that they are vouching for you.

For all I know Oxford doesn't even have a great Art History department or it might not have the sort of Art History scholarship that you're going to be keen on. According to this ranking, which is a reputational survey, it isn't even on the list of top programs. It isn't on this one either.

Here's a guide from UPenn on getting into Art History grad programs.
posted by k8t at 5:37 PM on November 23, 2007 [6 favorites]

k8t, both the surveys you linked are restricted to the US in scope. I (heart) the rest of your comment, though.
posted by topynate at 5:41 PM on November 23, 2007

PS, if you need to take a GRE, start learning the vocab now. Every 1000 words you learn increases your score 100 points on the verbal section.
posted by k8t at 5:55 PM on November 23, 2007

Tpoynate, I <3>
One other thing, OP, don't forget - publications come from research assistantships sometimes, but also honors theses.
posted by k8t at 5:56 PM on November 23, 2007

heart = <3>
posted by k8t at 5:56 PM on November 23, 2007

your comment too.
posted by k8t at 5:57 PM on November 23, 2007

But once you go to post-graduate level there's going to be less interest in your "potential", more in your achievements, commitment, intellectual curiosity (as someone said).

It's really a transitional period where potential still counts, but it's backed up by achievements. For students coming out of the North American system and heading to the British one, it's usually considered that there's still honing to be done, given the broader course structure. (Conversely, British PhD/DPhils tend to lack the practical experience of their American peers.)

But Oxford is traditional in other ways, not least in the delineation of its faculties: the course that seems to suit your needs isn't a history or an art history course: it's the M.St. in Classical Archaeology.

k8t beat me to it, though: get a sense of your field, work out who you'd like to study under, get on good terms with your professors. In essence, become a part-time postgrad: sign up to the appropriate mailing lists, do some independent research, consider submitting papers to a conference or two if you feel capable.
posted by holgate at 6:04 PM on November 23, 2007

For all I know Oxford doesn't even have a great Art History department or it might not have the sort of Art History scholarship that you're going to be keen on. According to this ranking, which is a reputational survey, it isn't even on the list of top programs. It isn't on this one either.

It's a structural thing. The Ruskin is its own tiny fiefdom -- just twenty students per year -- and is essentially an art college. The Courtauld is the gold standard for art history in the UK, but it's again dealing with a slightly different model; art history in Oxford is generally the purview of the classical/archaeology departments, or the history faculty.
posted by holgate at 6:16 PM on November 23, 2007

Some other suggestions:

1. Attach yourself to a professor at your uni who is big in the field you are interested in AND (ideally) who went to Oxbridge him/her self.

2. Do graduate / research work for this professor. Publish papers together (their name will be first, but thats the sucky life of a grad student).

3. Investigate appropriate rewards in your field, and prepare yourself for them.

4. Arrange a summer at Oxbridge in the department you are interested. If you can't manage that, investigate the professors there carefully - identify a couple you really find interesting and write them and see if you can establish a professional relationship (read their academic papers, etc. etc.)

5. Think carefully about your recommendations and begin NOW cultivating the sort of people who will give excellent recommendations - dean of your department, well-regarded academic in your field (perhaps your professor that you attach yourself to...), well-regarded professionals, as mentioned above politicans are good.
posted by zia at 7:07 PM on November 23, 2007

As you progress in your BA academic career, when you read books/articles for class or for essays, if one catches your fancy, start reading more of that person's work. Get familiar with it and the critiques of it (for different perspectives).

I'll second this and also add that you should be reading journals from your field so you become conversant with the discussions that are happening right now. You want to be able to show that you are the type of person who can make contributions to the "conversations" that are happening in your field.

Check out Gerald Graff's article "Hiding it From the Kids" for advice on how to write a statement of purpose that'll work.
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 7:36 PM on November 23, 2007

I’m cynical enough to know that ‘Oxon’ on the resume receives more attention than ‘Milton Keynes Poly’ does.

More like naive enough. My friend (from the U.S.) went to Oxford for his undergraduate degree thinking that nobody in the U.S. knows a 2-1 from a 3rd and that the name alone would carry him. He went to University College and came back with a PPE that got him exactly squat (where "squat" = "customer service at a student travel agency"). The good news was that after something like 5 years you can pay 10 pounds and get an MA.

Why not go to a college that's actually known for its art history department?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:32 PM on November 23, 2007

I've been doing a PhD at Cambridge for several years, so I am somewhat qualified to give you the lowdown on the Oxbridge environment. Let's start:

I’m a serious snob

Then you should know that there are really serious snobs here, who will turn up their noses at you for not doing your undergraduate degree at Oxbridge or Harvard, the only other North American people seem to have heard of.

I value quality of education

Many of the MPhils at Cambridge are disorganized vehicles for extracting five-figure tuition fees from overseas students who the university then leaves primarily to their own devices. I would never recommend a standalone MPhil to someone who wanted more than to mess around for a year. You might want to investigate how true this is at Oxford.

(On the other hand, I would highly recommend a Cambridge MPhil to someone considering doing a PhD in the same subject at Cambridge. I think the extra year gives these people a real advantage when working on their PhD.)

I’m cynical enough to know that ‘Oxon’ on the resume receives more attention than ‘Milton Keynes Poly’ does.


Canadian universities don’t have a system of firsts, seconds, and thirds.

Cambridge, at least, will attempt to translate whatever you do have into the British classification system. If you don't have what they regard as a first, you will be at a disadvantage. If you don't have a 2:1, they won't let you in.

I ♥ using &hearts; to create hearts.
posted by grouse at 12:52 AM on November 24, 2007

Museum jobs in the UK are very competitive from the start, not just when you get to the higher levels. A post-grad course alone may not be enough to get in -- experience of volunteer work is apparently expected.

Undergraduate entry to Oxbridge is famously chancy because of the huge numbers of qualified applicants. Entry to graduate courses should be slightly better, but they do get applicants from all over the world. Make friends with a professor or two who can give you a good recommendation. Involvement with student societies will look good, particularly if it involves organizational skills -- Secretary generally trumps other formal posts.
posted by Idcoytco at 4:27 AM on November 24, 2007

I know very little about Oxbridge (never interested me), and I know only a bit about the museum world (I work for one of the major funders for the sector - and we don't really do the art side of things), but I'm just coming to add again that you should be absolutely sure that Oxbridge is the right place to go to do the work you want to do... not just for the name.

It really does depend on what you want to do and where you want to work in the future, but the museums sector in the UK is changing, and broadening, and opening up, and becoming more and more accessible to people who haven't taken a 'traditional' route. Oxbridge isn't necessarily the only way in anymore. You might want to try and look at the backgrounds of people who are doing work you want to do and see how they got there (look at the younger people, I'm sure at the British Museum there are still plenty of people over a 'certain age' who got there because of which college they went to).

Also pretty much all museums and galleries over here have volunteering programmes, if you can afford to live unpaid in the UK for a summer or two, I would go for it.
posted by Helga-woo at 6:01 AM on November 24, 2007

I'm not sure how much they weigh the essay portion of your app, or if they even have an essay requirement, but in preparing for your draft, I'd start out listing 10 reasons that you'll be successful in life. How you define success is up to you. Keep these personality traits alive in the theme of your essay. Universities want to invest in someone who is going to be a "winner," a mover and shaker. While you might not be at that stage right now, you have to think that you have that potential despite an Oxford degree. Those who believe that a prestigious degree will make them set for life and manifest all of their dreams lack the personality traits that will make them successful. For example, you mentioned that the networking opportunities are endless at Oxford. While that may be true, there is nothing that prevents you from networking w/ established businessmen, artists, curators, etc. where you live.

I'm sure that you've heard all of this before, it just hasn't hit home yet b/c you are still young. I'm not trying to lecture you, rather give you insight as to what investors are looking for, b/c afterall their student body is an investment. You have to ask yourself, "Why would anyone invest in me?" b/c once you graduate from Oxford, you'll have to answer that same question. Why would a museum pick you over another Oxford grad, all things being equal? In the end, it comes down to those personality traits that will make you successful.
posted by dannon205 at 12:02 PM on November 24, 2007

OK, so this (i.e. my question) is kind of retarded, but are you sure you want to go the classical art route? I'm guessing the loads and loads and loads of people are going to be focusing on this area. If your goal is simply to have a curatorial role at a museum, it might be better to focus on a still well represented but less common area. I don't know enough about Art History to hazard a guess. Of the two, I am guessing more people do classical Greece than Roman Britain, but you might do even better by focusing on another historical period that takes your fancy. Why force yourself to be overwhelmingly brilliant when you can just be really clever?
posted by Deathalicious at 2:27 PM on November 24, 2007

I'm an MA student at Harvard doing Middle Eastern studies - an unrelated field, but a similar situation, I think. I went to McGill, took some time off to be a journalist in the Middle East, decided that Oxford was the place I clearly needed to be, went to visit, had an excellent interview, sent in my application, and waited. I didn't get in.

I had only applied to one grad school, and, Max Fischer-like, I had put down Oxford as my only choice and as my safety. Not such a good choice. I whiled away a painful year teaching ESL in Vancouver and dreaming in Arabic.

It took me a full year to decide that I was applying to grad school because I was actually dedicated and interested enough in a particular subject to pay $50,000 a year doing it (MA's aren't funded) and dedicating the time it takes to be in grad school. When I applied again, I cast my net a little wider, worked really fucking hard on the letter of intent, sent in the applications, and then forgot all about them. I got accepted to Harvard two months later, completely out of the blue.

If there's any advice tied to all of this, it's this: it sucks to put all your hopes on one school, because you're probably not going to get in. I mean that - the odds just aren't in your favor. For the top schools, all you can do are make low probabilities a little higher, but if you're really and truly serious about this, you'll be serious enough to assess your career and networking probabilities at schools from a number of tiers, and spread out your risk.

Now, I haven't asked, but I think I got into Harvard for these reasons, which are broad enough that they might apply to your situation: 1) I've published papers. Granted, they've been published in undergraduate journals, and granted, not all all of them are in my particular discipline, but those journals were peer-reviewed, and I consider those papers good enough to show off my ability to write and to analyze. 2) I've done work relating to my discipline. I have a portfolio of news articles, and I also have direct experience in the region. 3) My background fit with the cohort they were trying to build. In my case, that meant religion and national affiliation, but in your case that might mean intellectual school, particular kind of art interest, etc.

My best advice to you when you apply, wherever you apply, is to find out as much as you can about the department and its faculty, research their interests, and then sell yourself by showing how you have the exact same interests they do. What a surprise, you're just like them! They're bound to let you in. Well, maybe. I think that's what worked for me, but your mileage may vary. Remember, this whole process is largely about luck anyway.

(Oh, and when you get to grad school, work hard on your papers, and try to avoid extensive commenting on MeFi as you procrastinate.)
posted by awenner at 9:37 PM on November 24, 2007

I have a Cambridge MA degree (which cost me only £20) having read History of Art for Part II as an undergraduate. Of my peers, for those who did masters, they either went to the Courtauld or to the Warburg Institute depending on what in particular they wished to study. (Both have considerably more academic snob value than Oxbridge.) Others went straight into PhDs where choice of institution was always dictated by where the right supervisor was based (Courtauld, UEA, Birkbeck, Warburg, Sussex, Cambridge). I've never met anyone with an Oxford History of Art MSt.

I know you're studying classical art at the moment but is this your area of interest in the long term? (Are you looking to work in the Louvre / British Museum?) You need to be clear what kind of museum career you want. If you're planning to emulate Saint Neil, Nick Serota, Charles Saumarez Smith etc, get a PhD with the right supervisor. If you want to make a name for yourself curating contemporary shows, I'd do the Goldsmiths curating MA. Goldsmiths does not have the academic cachet, but you'll be studying alongside Fine Arts students some of whom will be the next generation of YBAs. Same goes for doing something at the University of the Arts (Camberwell, St Martins etc). If you want a job at the Tate or the ICA, get into the London Consortium MRes/PhD programme (run jointly by Birkbeck, Tate, ICA, Architectural Association).

Extracuricular activities are only important if you're planning to do a curating MA where you should be interning at a museum / trying to stage some shows. For all other degrees, academic excellence and original research are all you need.

Oh, and History of Art students are not nerds, swots perhaps but not nerds. (I suspect I am truly the sole exception to the rule.)
posted by boudicca at 6:40 AM on November 26, 2007

I know people who Have been accepted to competitive programs in Britain and the US from Canadian universities - they got there on marks and on good undergraduate theses, in other words, their academic preparation alone. No extracurriculars were counted, or even asked about; they had no trips abroad, and didn't do anything during their undergraduate careers other than study hard (and work part-time jobs to get money, of course). They did talk to professors - they developed good relationships with their instructors by visiting their office hours, talking to them about the subject, etc (for fun, not for any alterior motive), and that helped with a lot references. They were also good contributors to seminars, and that meant that they weren't just good students, but memorable ones.

For most humanities graduate programs, it's all about the marks - you will need an Aish average (doesn't have to be 4.0, but should be high 3, like 3.7 or 3.8 or so). Extracurriculars don't matter - you aren't applying for medicine or education where they care if you like people or not. You are talking about an academic-oriented program, and everyone knows that humanities academics are misanthropes who hate people and would rather stay in the far corner of some cold dusty library than actually talk to people.* Extracurricular activities are just a distraction - you will impress them by people as good as you can be at exactly what you are studying. Experience in curatorship might be useful, especially if you are looking at a more practice-oriented program. But I know that in History for instance, doing public history outreach for kids or something like that would mean nothing to getting into graduate school when compared to writing good History

NOTE: in the sciences, research/lab experience is important to getting into graduate school. This is not true for humanities, since we don't have labs. Writing an excellent undergraduate thesis is a good thing for getting into a competitive program; publications are great, but extremely rare, and definitely not necessary (maybe for some of the super competitive scholarships, but not simply for admittance.

But you may have a bigger concern - despite the fact that you are British citizen, if you have not been resident in Britain, you will be required to pay overseas fees. Scholarships and funding for students from Canada is more competitive than getting into British graduate programs, even at Oxbridge. And unlike American universities, most British universities will provide little to no help getting this funding if you are not a scientist - that was my friend's experience with both Oxford and Cambridge (accepted to both, funded by neither).

If you are serious about attending any British university, start researching funding opportunities at the beginning of your third year -- applications will be due a year or so before the actually period the funding is for. If you can, apply for a SSHRC - that is the best funding a Canadian can get in the humanities, and it's better funding the earlier you apply (you can get up to 4 years, but only if you apply before your first year of graduate school). If you don't get a SSHRC, you can reapply every year.

*yes, I am a humanities graduate student, how could you tell?
posted by jb at 7:54 AM on November 30, 2007

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