Tag: College

Back From The Brink Of Oblivion, Thanks To A Duck

(I think that title is half a reference to Darkest Dungeon – I’m honestly not able to keep track of my own references at this point)

I picked a bad time for a break. Like, a really bad one. Since I last moaned at you about not having anything to write about, I’ve gone through a flag football tournament, karate grading, session of trampoline dodgeball, trip to the Globe, the Hell that is trying to buy a complete suit from the M&S on Oxford Street when you’re a short-arse such as myself, and a healthy bit of crushing despair. But it’s this despair that I’m going to talk about today, before a more update-y post tomorrow.

This despair came from my first-year results: across my three exams, I got a 66, a 58 and a 56, totally one 2.1 and two 2.2s (for reference, all marks are out of 80, and British university grades are ranked from 1, to 2.1, to 2.2, to 3, to a fail). Obviously, this is a far cry from the first I once had genuine hopes of getting, and the endless streak of class-topping As and A*s I got at school, with the sort of relentless consistency that you’d only find otherwise on a record-breaking run of Through The Fire And The Flames, and I moped about it for rather a long time. All my ambitions – ambitions that apparently extend to getting a ‘first’ written on a certificate instead of a ‘second’ – were suddenly pointless, all my work in ruins, all my toils toiled in vain; and then I saw a duck.

And this duck saved me; in the depths of despair I journeyed to Regent’s Park to listen to early noughties punk rock to make me hate things other than myself, and I was listening to Bad Religion’s Hello Cruel World. This is a heavy, slow song with clear breaks between its thumping choruses, and the pauses between verses, breaks that are edgy, and definite. And at the end of the first chorus is one such break, a point of brooding and contempt hammered home by a bass drum followed by silence; yet as I wandered through the park, and reached this musical full stop, the duck arrived. And it quacked.

It quacked right in the gap between the end of the first chorus and second verse, filling the deeply mellow pause with a light-hearted squawking that honestly threw me right out of my stride, and made me sit on the nearest bench, laughing my arse off alone in a park with a bemused duck sitting opposite me. I laughed for ages, and by the time I was done, I had stopped worrying about my exams and plotting unnervingly-detailed plans for revenge involving reverse bear traps, the soundtrack of the 2013 epic The Last Of Us, and a tool that can only be described as the bastard offspring of a claw hammer and a rat-king.

Because failure is not an end, but a beginning; it’s not the result of crap preparations, it’s the start of more preparations for a greater challenge. I’ve looked into reasons why these results aren’t what I wanted (starting with being way too ambitious in the first bloody place) with my Dad and tutor, and I’ll do a full post-mortem over summer, so that I can smash this degree in the next two years, when my exams actually count for something.

So thank you, noble duck – who shall henceforth be known as Greg of Regent’s Park in honour of the singer whose song he wonderfully interrupted – for your work in stopping me from being a whiny bitch for any longer than a few hours; because if I’m gonna fail, I’ll at least get some fun blog posts out of it.

The End Of Exams, The End Of Insulin

(I’ve managed to go from feeling like a conquering hero to an infantile mess in like an hour)

Quick post today because I’m scrambling around St Pancras trying to find emergency insulin before going for a Nando’s that may not may not be cheeky with my friends. But exams are done, bringing with them that bitter sense of regret that you didn’t revise as hard as you should have and that you picked the hardest conceivable essay question while your friends all did an obviously easier one. I’ll write a full post-mortem in the coming days, but now I’m trying to stop myself from dying of hyperglycaemia. Hooray!

Know Your Limits

(sorry, another exam post. They’re kinda on my mind at the moment)

I spend my time revising these days; and as much as I’d like to plough through fourteen hours of work a day, every day for the sake of grades, I know that this is both impossible, and probably won’t help my results too much.

It’s impossible because we, like Alfa Romeos, are not machines. The best part of our brains is that they can adapt to new and different things, which has the annoying side-effect that we become distracted almost by nature, because when you have a mind capable of thinking of more than Old English vocab, it’s hard to put blinkers on it and make it think only of Old English vocab. And trying to stick to a stupidly ambitious schedule just results in failure, and a lingering sense of defeat and unpreparedness is the last thing you want in an exam.

This is the first reason why you should probably ease up a little the night before a test, for the sake of your mark. The other is that, because the very concept of an ‘exam’ is designed by Satan himself, exams spend a few hours to test your knowledge of years’ worth of work. As a result, you can’t hope to display all of that knowledge in those hours – so don’t kill yourself over learning it all – and it’s those three hours that are the most important individual period of time in determining your grade. I see your performance in those three hours of equal, and perhaps even greater, importance to your final grade, because exams test how well you can do exams with a few bits of contextual knowledge thrown in, and are a fundamentally poor way of measuring long-term memory and actual comprehension.

As a result, I’ve been focussing more on the exam itself than the prior knowledge in the last few years, spending more time staying relaxed, well-fed and with plenty of sleep, than dismissing two meals a day for the sake of some extra notes. In year 11, I got eight A*s and three As, but two of the As were in my two strongest subjects; by year 13, I got an A* and As, with the A* being in my beset subject English. Obviously this is a small sample size, and there are a million other variables involved, but a greater emphasis on calmness in an exam than a mind full of useless shite would appear to be more effective at maximising the things I’m good at. And considering there’s no part of this degree that I actively dislike (Tristram Shandy‘s annoying, but not without charm), I’m going to use this method of preparation, and see how it goes.

But I’m aware of the need for balance; I can’t just play Frozen Cortex, be totally relaxed the night before and be in a position to write lots, but have nothing to write about. I’ve revised quotes, because they’re the bases of arguments, but not whole essays because that’s too much brainpower for ideas I should be smart enough to construct on the spot; I’ve learned Old English vocab because there’s no way of doing an Old English translation without it, but I’ve not learned all 115 lines of The Wanderer because we’ll only be tested on 25.

I know my limits for studying, both in terms of what I can do – learn 200 words of Old English – and what I can’t – learn an entire poem and period of literary history. I’m not underprepared, nor am I swamped in quotes and ideas to the point that they’re tangling into a single incoherent argument, rather than the separate, more nuanced ideas I should really be operating with. The only problem with the great experiment that is the end-of-year exam is that we have to wait a bit for our results; I’m genuinely quite interested to see if this balance of preparation works.

And there’s the other bitch that comes with examsperiments; the results can technically be a “failure”, and you’ll have to repeat your methodology.

The Day Before The Exam

(you better lose yourself in the critics / they wrote shit that you flicked / through without too much thought)

Tomorrow is my first university exam, and so will be inevitably accompanied by a flight of devils blasting GWAR, an announcement by the Tory government that they’re taxing the inhalation of oxygen by anyone without a double-barrelled middle name, and this pair of twats from my own distant past. At the moment, it’ll be considered a blessing if UCL graciously provide us with a clock with which to check the time as we write our essays.

These days, directly before exams, are my least favourite of the year. With an exam looming, it’s so easy to fall into a trap of self-doubt, that you don’t know literally all of the Bible by heart so you’re going to fail miserably, or frenzied cramming to make up for what you wrongly perceive to be a lax prior month of revision. In reality, now is perhaps the worst time to abandon a months-entrenched, carefully constructed plan because there’s no time to make up for it.

Today essentially epitomises the last month of revision: some excitement for being able to write about things you’re interested in, some fear for the consequences of said writing, some isolation that everyone seems to be much better-prepared than you, some comradeship that you’re all being screwed over together by the same exams, professors and timetables. And that’s all today is: another day that seems like so much more; a day that only has earth-shattering significance if you decide that it does, and let that decision affect your day.

So best wishes to people sitting exams specifically tomorrow, those who are in the thick of them already, and those who still have a few days before their personal apocalypse rains down upon them; because there are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and getting royally frakked over by grade boundaries and mark schemes, so let’s all suffer together.

Some Kickass Old English Words

(sadly I can’t find a word for ‘kickass’)

In my ‘studies’ (i.e. flicking through the glossary of Peter Baker’s Introduction To Old English in pursuit of funny words instead of actually translating ones I need’) of Old English, I’ve stumbled across some rather awesome words, that I will now share with you (instead of actually learning Old English vocab).

Ānmōd, united in purpose – It’s probably just me, but I hate the Modern English construction of things being ‘united’, but consisting of separate words.

Ælfscīne, of Elven beauty – Old English, creating fantasy compound words way before Tolkein.

Bealuwaru, dweller in evil – I quite like the idea of evil being an almost geographical concept, that anyone can fall into like a pit, rather than an individual trait that people either inherently are or can adopt.

Befēran, overtake – For all the Mario Kart that Beowulf and Wiglaf play outside of the poem.

Fyrngeflit, ancient quarrel – Because the kids these days need to be taught a thing or two about real quarrelling.

Gefaran, traverse / die – Old English, the only language where walking across the street and being mauled to death by a bear can accurately be described with identical sentences.

Gifan / Gīferness, to give / greed – There’s only one letter and a letter-topping line between the roots of these two opposite words; gives me the impression that there is more common ground than we think in the giving and receiving of things, and the only difference is an artificial linguistic perception we, as people, have put onto them.

Hlagol, inclined to laugh – This is literally a mispronunciation and an extra syllable away from being ‘lol’ in Old English.

Inwidhlemm, hostile wound – As opposed to all the friendly ones you receive in battle, obviously.

Nihtstapa, walker in the night – A compound invented by my friend, this is one of those common examples of Old English wisdom, that they have a word to describe the nocturnal stumbling habits of twenty-first century university students a good thousand years before such people existed.

Ofhrēowan, cause pity for someone  – This makes pity into a thing we impose onto others, rather than a purely individual and internal response of a victim or sufferer. It’s a pretty depressing concept, but if we can force negative emotions onto people as well as positive ones, it opens up far more interactions and relationships than you get on even Sims 4.

Sencan, submerge – For all those submarines the Weather-Geats built.

Sigebēam, tree of victory – Literally the best metaphor I’ve ever laid eyes upon. Either that, or it’s another bit of Old English hat Tolkien turned into The Lord Of The Rings (I’m thinking the Ents here?).

Sigewong, field of victory – A close second to the previous word, a big part of my affection for this one comes from the use of ‘wong’. Hehehehe.

These Exams Will Be Fun

(‘f’ is for ‘failure, and repeating the year’…)

I’m looking forward to the exams I’ll sit in two weeks. I’m seeing them as fundamentally different to previous exams I’ve sat; A-levels were about proving that I was actually a competent reader of books and writer of essays, both for the sake of impressing a university and to get over my own fear that everything I’ve ever achieved in my life has been the result of chance as opposed to skill. As a result I was guarded with my points, careful not to make an obscure, off-the-wall suggestion because such things can be interpreted as the mark of a great writer, or one who’s talking out of their arse, and considering all I had was an A* at GCSE at that point, I’d probably fall into the latter category.

But now I know that I’m not an atrocious writer; I’m not great, but I’ve got the grades to show I can do exam essays, and the marks both this year and in previous years to remind myself that I’m not too bad at writing real essays either. And now that I’m free from this need to prove myself to be competent, I’m way more relaxed about these exams: I’m not saying that my A-level in English will land me in the ‘great writer’ category whenever I make an odd point in an essay, but I’m more comfortable making those points, knowing that I have a proven record of not being shite at English. I’ve passed the point where a single poor essay will define me was a reader and writer, so it’s pretty liberating to turn the entirety of my Beowulf revision into a discussion of the lineage of the Shield-Danes.

And if I do fail miserably, I’ll have failed that exam, not failed as a writer; and I’ll have failed that exam making some weird-ass points in the process.

Interview-Passing Pro Tips!

(apologies if you’ve had your interviews and this is all in vain!)

A lot of my friends read this blog, at least sporadically, and a lot of my friends – hello – will be having university interviews in the next few months, or this time next year; so I thought I’d give you the benefit of my fifteen minutes’ worth of interview experience, and try to offer advice to the daunting culmination of both your academic and personal development over the last ten years, in the form of five bullet points and some brief explanatory paragraphs. Time Person of the Year material right here..

Also, I’m 1-1 in interviews, having got into UCL, but been rejected by Cambridge; and before you say anything, I was pooled by Cambridge, which means I was technically good enough, they just ran out of space at my college (right? *cries*).

1) Be yourself

Hate to sound like a cliched self-help video right off the bat, but this advice works. Remember that to get to the interview stage, you have to be academically good enough for the university you’re applying to, so that the interview itself is that university’s professors judging you more as a person than as a grade-grabbing machine. Therefore, they want to see if you’re a decent person, if you’re inquisitive, if you can listen to instructions and converse in a grown-up manner, and if you can conduct yourself in a more elegant way than you usually do, which is probably eating Doritos off your chest while marathonning Orange Is The New Black on Netflix.

Also, there aren’t really objectively bad character traits you can display beyond the obvious: being rude and ignorant is a bad thing, but you won’t get penalised if you’re a little shy, or a bit too talkative. Basically, be yourself, without being a dick (this was a stumbling block for me).

2) They want you there

This is perhaps the most important piece of advice, so I’ve put it in the unremarkable number two slot. Essentially, approach your interview from the mindset that you and the interviewers are working together, for the common goal of getting you an offer, rather than the more daunting position that your interviewers are obstacles to the happy dreamworld that is university life, with its societies and open-minded students and conveniently plentiful public toilets.

If you take that more optimistic approach, you’ll start seeing their questions in a more helpful light; that tricky question becomes an opportunity to show your creativity and original thinking, it might be wrong but at least you gave it a go. If you take the more negative approach, however, you’re likely to perceive hard questions as them stroking their superior egos and intellects in front of you, which can be soul-crushing in a ten-minute meeting.

3) Don’t be a suck-up

It’s easy to look up their course’s reading list, skim a few of those books and casually mention how you’ve just happened to read The Iliad, so really you were destined for the course. For the love of God, don’t do this – anything you mention they will take as a red flag to grill you on, so you might end up talking a lot about the war in Troy, when you’ve only read the Wikipedia summary. They’ll be able to spot false reading like that easily.

Even worse is finding out your interviewers in advance, then reading books or essays they’ve written, with the goal of saying how great those works were to your interviewer; I read some essays by my Cambridge interviewers before I went up, just to get an idea of the sort of texts I might be asked to talk about, and the communicative style of my interviewers (and the one with the pompous-sounding essay was rather pompous), which was marginally helpful, but I didn’t suck my interviewer’s dick over it.

4) Be honest

Another line from a self-help video! I mentioned that I’d read Middlemarch in my UCL interview, but in reality I’d only read the first half; so as soon as the ending was mentioned, I had to fess up that I’d blagged a little bit, and I was only halfway through. I don’t want to say that that piece of honesty got me the place, but if the interview is designed to judge you as a person, I’d imagine most people would prefer an honest embellisher (because everybody does that on their personal statements) than a guy who outright lies to their faces. Unless you’re really good at lying, at which point go for it and let me know the results (DISCLAIMER: any failure to get into university using this method is strictly not my fault).

5) Other people are irrelevant

Yes you’ve got an interview at Cambridge, and yes you’ve been talking to other candidates in the common room waiting for your turn in the interview room, and yes they’ve memorised The Bible, have translated The Divine Comedy from Italian into English, French and Spanish, and had an essay of theirs published in the London Review of Books, and they’re three months younger than you.

In all honestly, such people can get stuffed.

Although this process is probably a competition somewhere down the line – someone decided that I was worse than one other student for the one remaining place at Cambridge to do English – there aren’t really a fixed number of places for a course, so you don’t have to survive an Apprentice-style elimination, where you have to beat each of the other students individually.

You just have to prove that you’re competent at and interested in your subject, and if your interviewers agree with you, they’ll give you (and that overachieving bastard) a place. Remember, you’re eighteen and you’re applying to university; the point is to learn once you get there, not be learned; as long as you show enthusiasm for your subject, you ought to do fine.

And if you bomb out of all your interviews and have to join the Navy to get a job, at least you’ll be free of 27-odd grand of debt!