Accidental English Student

By Ceri Holloway

After hearing lots of candidates saying they’d been dead set on studying their subjects years before applying, I was worried that the lack of prior commitment to my subject would be a disadvantage in my applications. Despite enjoying Literature classes in school and having parents that are both English language teachers, I’d always thought an English degree would be too narrowly focused for my liking.

When I began researching potential degree courses, I toyed with a huge number of subjects ranging from Modern Languages to Sociology. Many of these did not get past my first screening stage as I lacked some key requirements, such as not actually knowing any of what universities considered “Modern” languages. Looking at Oxford specifically, I had my mind set on PPE. However, my premature dreams of becoming the next political trailblazer came to a swift halt when I tried to start writing my personal statement. “Left-wing feminist” emblazoned on my social media bios, I sat down only to realise I had absolutely nothing significant to say about why I wanted to do PPE beyond a mash up of my most “woke” twitter threads. Stumped and drained of ideas, I had to start the brainstorming process all over again.

I was, at the time, in a YouTube rabbit hole as a way of coping with the stress of application season. I won’t pretend this sprouted out of academic interest: I had just binge watched The Night Manager and the X-men movies, and I was desperate for Tom Hiddleston and James McAvoy content. It started with your standard press interviews which, due to the magical algorithm deities that rule the internet, became “Actors with the best accent impressions” videos. The knack some actors had for mimicking accents besides their own both impressed and confounded me, making me wonder if this gift was simply something bestowed upon a number of chosen ones around the world. Further suggested videos by Hollywood dialect coaches explaining the work behind accent and dialect acquisition proved that this definitely wasn’t the case. From this, I soon found myself reading about English variations, including the rise of non-standard Englishes. This was particularly fascinating for me as I’m from a country that has its own variety of English (Malaysian English = Manglish). People often think I’m joking when I say my unhealthy obsession with celebrity culture directly fed into my UCAS statement – I’d like to go on record saying that my teenage fangirling shaped the beginnings of my Oxford application! So, not having read a single book that wasn’t on the syllabus between my GCSEs and AS levels, I sent in my finalised UCAS application applying to do English (and various accompanying subjects like Linguistics and Comparative Literature in my non-Oxford choices).

Though my path to English student™️ didn’t have an especially “academic” start, and that I thought I’d ruined everything because I almost insulted Shakespeare in one of my interviews, Oxford welcomed my strange interest in the English language with open arms. One year into my degree, I thank the algorithm gods (and several hefty doses of good luck) for allowing me to be part of a field I’m increasingly passionate about. In my first term, I focused on female characters and writers, dodging the traditional male figures of the Western canon. I wrote about “Manglish” in the language paper through analysing excerpts from Malaysian travel food documentaries, explaining how the features I’d been taught were examples “bad English” are linguistically significant in analysing regional Englishes. My last essay before the summer was a deep dive into the postcolonial landscapes of Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent – it ended up having a bibliography which was mostly made up of Geography references! The individualised tutorial system at Oxford allows for the exploration of such diverse interests and is hence easily my favourite thing about the course. It has enabled me to find a more personal connection to a subject which I had stumbled into, and the process of growing to love my subject has been thoroughly enjoyable!

Much like my YouTube “watch later” playlist, my interests continue to be wide-ranging and seemingly discordant. As we come to another UCAS application season, I hope my somewhat unconventional start to doing English at Oxford will show that there is no one type of person that belongs here more than others. Whether you’re overlapping Mean Girls and Victorian heroines or Bollywood and postcolonialism (both of which I did), I believe academia benefits from these “hot takes” in the constant search for original ideas. So, if you’re stuck on your application, crack open your browsers and start watching! After all, a little Netflix never hurt nobody.