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Music at Oxbridge: What I wish I knew before I applied

 Declan Molloy

The process of applying to Oxbridge for any subject can appear mysterious and somewhat daunting. It requires a fair amount of dedication and time commitment, from submitting personal statements early, through assembling written work, to attending a full week of interviews and tests. Music is in some ways even more arduous, must you submit essays and composition work, as well as giving a five-minute performance. The most important thing is that the admissions panel is not looking for perfection! Instead, this elaborate admissions process is designed simply to find out as much as they can about what you do, where your interests lie, and what you want to get out of the course.


During my application phase, I wrongly thought that perfection was the priority. I produced endless rewrites of personal statements and essays, checking them over and over until I had brain fog. Realistically, I was never going to catch every badly-worded sentence or typo - and, indeed, there were some shockers that slipped into the submission! This is not to say that you shouldn’t proofread carefully (you definitely should), you must not beat yourself up if you make mistakes. The focus should be substantially on the substance and potential of your work.


The interview week itself was a whirlwind, more fascinating than it was nerve-wracking. While there were the inevitable stresses of travelling punctually and dressing smartly, the main thing I remember is how much I actually enjoyed meeting the other candidates and talking to the tutors about music. I was given some reading and score materials to look at prior to the interview, and I mistakenly obsessed over them. I thought the panel were trying to quiz me - they were not! It was much more the case that they helped me find the answers by asking big questions (e.g. ‘what do you think the composer is exploring here?’) followed by much smaller questions (e.g. ‘what is happening in bar 34?’), guiding me to reach the answer for myself. Again, they want someone they can teach rather than someone who claims to know everything, and my eagerness to learn is what won me the place and empowered me to enjoy the experience.


Essentially, there are three main pieces of advice I would give to anyone applying to Oxbridge. Firstly, make sure you have all your dates clearly marked in your diary, to avoid unhealthy perfectionism and deadline anxiety. Secondly, approach your reading and preparation based on what genuinely interests you, rather than trying to cover everything - this is not possible! Thirdly, and most importantly, be yourself and relax! If your tutor likes you for the person, you are, that is a really promising start. As my interviewer said to me some years later: ‘if I can make a student laugh, I can teach them’.

Declan is a musician who graduated from Oxford in 2021, before pursuing a two-year Masters in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. His teaching experience ranges from instrumental lessons to providing interview preparation for university applicants. Whether you need someone to proofread an essay, critique a mock recital, or guide a composition project, he’d be more than happy to help!

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