What to read this Summer – Oxbridge English Applications

Given that the English courses at both universities will expose students to an extensive array of literature, from the earliest Anglo-Saxon texts through to up-to-the-minute publications, it is difficult to draw up a list of texts which are ‘likely’ to be brought up at interview. In fact, it is extremely unlikely that you will be ‘put on the spot’ by being questioned on a text which you haven’t read. Instead, interviewers will usually want to hear what sort of books you have been reading, both for your A Levels and for pleasure, and will then wish to have a conversation with you about those texts. The Oxford website states the following with regards to recommended reading per-interview:
“We recommend that you read as widely as possible, and think critically about all the texts – literary or not – that you read.  Even the Twilight series can be useful reading.  Read more about this in our examples of interview questions.
You may also like to look at literary websites and listen to radio programs such as BBC Radio 4′s ‘In Our Time’.”
This is good advice, and straight from the horse’s mouth. However, it is an extremely good idea to have explored some key texts before the interview in order to have a frame of reference for conversations that might be held in the interview process. It goes without saying that someone who is already beginning to immerse themselves in great works of literature is likely to be a preferable English candidate. Demonstrating a familiarity with even just one or two of the following works will demonstrate that you are a ‘serious’ fan of literature, as well as a fan of serious literature.
Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma
Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights
John Bunyan: The Pilgrim’s Progress
Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness, The Secret Agent
Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe
Charles Dickens: Bleak House, Great Expectations, Hard Times, Oliver Twist
George Eliot: Middlemarch, The Mill On The Floss
Thomas Hardy: Tess of the D’Urbevilles, Jude The Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge
James Joyce: Dubliners
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein
William Makepeace Thackery:
Vanity Fair
George Orwell: 1984, Animal Farm
Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels
Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Virginia Woolf: To The Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway
It may be useful to immerse yourself in the works of the following poets:
William Blake
Lord Byron
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
John Donne
T S Eliot
Thomas Hardy
Seamus Heaney
John Keats
John Milton
Wilfred Owen
Alexander Pope
Percy Bysshe Shelley
William Wordsworth
William Shakespeare: various works, Particularly King Lear, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, The Taming Of The Shrew, Measure for Measure, The Merchant Of Venice, Richard III.
Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot
Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest
It is unlikely that interviewers will expect you to have an extensive background in literary theory and practical criticism. However, the following books are suggested as initial guides towards this aspect of the subject. In addition to providing a solid introduction to some of the most important and interesting ideas about literature and the ways in which we read, these texts will also enable you to begin engaging with your own reading on the highest level and stand you in good stead for serious discussion in your interview.
Jonathan Culler: Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction
Robert Eaglestone: Doing English
Terry Eagleton: Literary Theory
David Lodge: The Art of Fiction
To reiterate, this is a rather limited reflection of the English literary canon, and we are not suggesting that these texts will definitely be mentioned in your interview. In fact, interviewers are extremely unlikely to quiz you on literature that you have not read. Rather, the intention is to enable you to demonstrate that, over and above other potential candidates, you are already in the habit of seeking out and engaging with the core classics of English literature. This in turn shows the kind of motivated, passionate and independent personality that makes for a strong and successful English student.

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