How would you describe the process of sitting your ELAT?
On the day, myself and one other girl applying for Natural Sciences at Cambridge were shown to a spare classroom at 9am. My exam was one hour and a half, and I was presented with a blank working book and a selection of six unseen literary passages, instructing me to write a comparative essay on any two. The theme uniting the selection changes every year, and this time it was ‘Clothing’. I ended up picking an extract from Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ and a modern poem about female body image. The question asks for analysis of any interesting features, and it stays the same every year – so it’s obviously a very broad task! In fact, I think this eases the pressure: there’s so much scope for expression of your unique writing style that it feels like a welcome break from the assessment objectives and strict guidelines of most classwork and coursework. You feel as if you can truly focus on the features you’re confident with identifying and examining, and you can form an argument linking any themes and concepts you like.
Did you prepare? If so, how?
Online there are examples of past answers which are marked and given general comments. I’d say this is the best preparation you can do. As an Oxford applicant, you’re very likely to be the kind of student who is very prepared to work hard, scour the web for resources, and pore over books in search of study aids for the entrance exam. However, as frustrating as I know it is to hear, I would caution that this really isn’t the answer. The most you can do is familiarise yourself with the online mark scheme, but for a humanities subject these are so broad that you simply have to trust your own abilities and produce the quality of work you’re capable of. Your unique style is what makes you a potential applicant for such a well-established academic institution, so it would be counterintuitive for the university to publish strict guidelines and rules for an entrance exam designed to allow your individual style to flourish. In preparation, the most I did was occasionally pick a random page from a paperback on my bookshelf, prop myself down, and give myself ten minutes of close analysis of interesting linguistic features, before spending the next five minutes sketching a plan of how I would combine these into an essay. Remember, though, that this is what you will be doing regularly in your core A Level studies, so don’t feel like you need to carve out extra time in your schedule for incorporating hefty amounts of extra practice.
Do you have any top tips?
As natural a reaction as it is, don’t let your nerves and determination convince you that loads of extra work is necessary: you have the skills, and this is purely a chance to show them off.
Anything you wish you’d known beforehand?
There are no hidden complexities to this exam that only the super-geniuses among us can perceive: the question really is as straightforward as it seems. Oxford isn’t trying to catch you out: they are creating a nice, even baseline to assess everyone’s style on similar grounds. Try not to overthink these 90 minutes of your life, as monumental as getting to the stage of applying to such a highly academic establishment is: please just enjoy yourself, and have faith in your own abilities!