Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Open Days

Like a village fete?
Photo by Vieve Forward 

On September 18th, the flags and bunting will come out as Oxford University hosts the last of its 2015 Open Days. For many years, each college had its own schedule of Open Days, which did not necessarily coincide with one another. Now, Open Days are bigger, fewer in number and centrally co-ordinated, with departments and faculties welcoming visitors too. This makes for a more efficient visit for prospective students (and gridlock on Oxford’s roads and pavements).

            Exactly what a college tutor is expected to do on an Open Day varies. Somerville for a while assembled its tutors in a big hall, where we stood behind little tables, handing out leaflets about our subject to the passing crowds – a bit like a village fete. We now have a more congenial model, where visitors are able to visit tutors in their college rooms, see them in their natural habitat, and get some feel for the environment where tutorials take place. (Or a hastily tidied version of that environment.) Prospective students can drop in at any point over a two-hour period, and we sit and chat – for five, ten, fifteen minutes.

            So what do we talk about? I’m usually asked about the course: what options one can do in the first year, are they taught in college or not? I’m asked too about how the admissions system works, which involves taking a deep breath and explaining the different elements on which we assess a History application: GSCE marks, submitted written work, History Admissions Test, scores from 2 separate interviews (all of which we look at together, to form one big picture). I’m asked what would-be Oxford historians should be reading over their summer holidays, what in my opinion caused the English Reformation, or the unification of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, or for my views on post-modernism. But most of all, I’m asked a wise and cunning question: as a tutor, what advice would I give an Oxford History applicant?

            That too involves a pause, and a deep breath. I say things such as: if you are applying for a joint school (e.g. History and subject x), be very sure that you passionately want to do both those subjects, and are genuinely gifted in them both – don’t do it if you simply can’t choose between them. If you are specifying a college in your application, it’s a really good idea to go to an Open Day there and talk to the tutors who will be teaching you – it’s nice for them to meet you, but more importantly it will give you a chance to see if these are human beings you can and want to work with over three years. If you are specifying a college on your application, do a little bit of research on it. And then I shake their hand, and say a sincere ‘good luck!’.

Often, I never see these bright and engaged interlocutors ever again. Sometimes, they return as Freshers a year later; some of them I remain in touch with for many years...