Top of the Class

#5 How I Got In - Oxford PPE Admit on Exam Stress, Debating and Why He Chose PPE

May 22, 2021 Crimson Education Season 3 Episode 5
Top of the Class
#5 How I Got In - Oxford PPE Admit on Exam Stress, Debating and Why He Chose PPE
Show Notes Transcript

South African student, Michael, got into Oxford University's prestigious PPE program. Michael spoke with Crimson CEO, Jamie Beaton, about how his experience in debating helped him choose PPE, his crazy exam schedule and more.

Jamie Beaton  00:17

Welcome, everybody. This is top of the class. And today I'm here with Michael who recently just got admitted into Oxford's and very famous PPE program philosophy, politics and economics from South Africa. I'm excited to be on the show with you today, Michael. 

Michael  00:30

Yeah, thanks for having me. 

Jamie Beaton  00:32

Let's just jump right right into it. So when do you first get the idea to think about applying to the UK? And was it always a goal for you? Or did it happen quite late in your education journey?

Michael  00:43

It really has always been a goal for me, particularly to go study at Oxford, not just the UK. And you know, knowing that I wanted to study a PPE, I was pretty sure about that for the last sort of four years of school. So it's definitely been a long term journey for me.

Jamie Beaton  00:58

Back when I was in high school, I was quite unsure about where they want to apply for, you know, Cambridge or Oxford, and I was tossing up Economics and Management, pp and economics, and I ended up applying for economics at Cambridge. So how did you kind of build that certainty around going to Oxford? And then how'd you pull that center and dunk the PPE program particularly?

Michael  01:16

So in terms of in terms of applying to Oxford? It was, I really actually caught on to that question. I mean, it was just always a goal. For me, I think a lot of it stemmed around from the the history of the Rhodes Scholarship in South Africa. So obviously, I mean, it has it has quite a dubious connotation. and rightfully so nowadays. But when I was really young, I mean, we were always told about the Rhodes Scholarship, and how amazing it would be to get it. So it sort of started as an interest in trying to get the Rhodes Scholarship and then developed as an interest to go to Oxford. And then in terms of, you know, really deciding that I wanted to do a PPE. It was just really what I'm interested in. So I love politics, I loved philosophy, and I love economics. So it was really also, again, a simple choice.

Jamie Beaton  02:03

Digging into PPE a little bit. So I see a lot of students get exposure to economics in high school, but it's hard to typically get exposure to politics, and perhaps even more difficult to get exposure to philosophy. So how did you kind of find your interests in those, those other areas, what which of those three kind of came first, and what have been your activities, or moments that gave you excitement around those other kind of strands of the degree?

Michael  02:26

So for me at high school, I didn't really get exposure to any of them through any of my coursework, they weren't offered as subjects or anything. And my interest probably came first with politics, particularly because of sort of idolizing people like Barack Obama, and sort of getting interested in politics like that. It's and then, you know, the rest sort of just just followed from there, I was quite, I was quite involved with World schools and more the United Nations debating at school. So my interest in all three subjects were sort of met in the process of engaging with debates and that sort of stuff. 

Jamie Beaton  03:02

Interesting, okay, it makes a lot of sense. It's quite funny. A lot of students do get into PPE don't really have background in any of those areas, which is kind of quite common, but it's such a versatile degree that you can really pick it up. I guess once you get over there thinking about career aspirations, what kind of career pathways are you thinking about? I see lots of PPE grads looking at, you know, Wall Street, City of London, you know, going to finance others thinking about government, you know, where are your pathways the moment looking like?

Michael  03:29

To be honest with you, I'm not quite sure I'm I'd definitely be interested in sort of the whole host of careers that a PPE opens up. I'm not closing anything off just yet. I think I'd definitely like to study a bit further, I don't think I'd be happy after three years. So maybe a post grad somewhere, and then see where that gets me. 

Jamie Beaton  03:50

Beautiful. Okay. And in terms of the application process, so getting into Oxford is difficult. The interview process is known to be rigorous, challenging, you've got often other tests, you've got to do, I guess, walk us through the different pieces that went into getting in Oxford, what were the various components you went through?

Michael  04:05

So I started working with Crimson in grade 10. And they they sort of gave me advice on what extracurricular activities actually be targeting. And, you know, it was quite nice at the time there was there was a lot of stuff that I was already doing, and there wasn't too much that I had to add on to my extracurricular activities. So from when I started working with crimson, I pretty much just carried on doing what I was doing. And then I started working on my personal statement quite early on, and just worked through that from June. But I think definitely the trickiest parts about the application process for me was the fact that I wrote my a level exams in October and the beginning of November. So I had a I think it was like a 12 day stretch where I wrote level a level exams and on the final day, I wrote my TSA my thinking skills assessment, which is the idea exam. So that was definitely the trickiest part about the application process for me.

Jamie Beaton  05:06

I chuckle a little bit, not only because that's some sort of crazy kind of hunger games of exams, but also because I guess back in the day in high school, I had a pretty similar painful experience. And I remember, I actually had to fly to the UK to go sit the TSA. So I was sort of jet lagged as well. So at least did you have to you did your TSA locally, right? And then your interview on zoom? 

Michael  05:28


Jamie Beaton  05:29

That's good. How was the TSA? So I guess for those of you who are not familiar with TSA, the thinking skills assessment is used to programs like PPE use things like economics, it was used for my, for example, my Cambridge program that I applied for back in the day, how did you prep for that? Yeah, how'd you find the test? What was it like?

Michael  05:45

So I really enjoyed the TSA because I found like, all the questions quite interesting and the structure around it. So, you know, when I first started really researching the PPE at the beginning of grade 10, I did a few practice t essays and sort of got my header into that way of thinking very early on. And then yeah, I think the TSA for me was actually the biggest shock to come out of the application process, because I did a lot better in the actual test than I was doing all of my practice. So I was getting scores of sort of mid 70s, in my practice, and then I got a low 90 in the final test. So it was, you know, as the biggest shock, I got the results on the same day that I got my a level results. And I was, you know, as everyone is, I think I was really nervous about whether or not I'd even get the course requirements for my a level subjects. And then I was so happy when I did. And then I got the TSA later that afternoon. I was just always in shock for the rest of the day.

Jamie Beaton  06:39

Nice. You see, you would have gotten a conditional offer to start with from Oxford, right?

Michael  06:44

Yeah. But it was actually sort of the timing was weird. So my A-Level results were published on the 11th of January. And the Oxford offer was sent out on the 12th of January. So yeah, I'd already met the requirements.

Jamie Beaton  06:58

Wow, that's very cool. Okay, so how is your Oxford reaction? Like, what was the day? Like, when did you check it? How did the family respond? How did you handle that kind of euphoric news?

Michael  07:08

It was, it was really weird circumstances. So I was actually by myself at the time my, my dad who works from home was busy in a meeting, and my mom was out doing some deliveries, she was taking over my summer job so I can monitor my emails for the day. So as I was actually at home alone, and you know, I just opened the news and I, I did an Oxbridge summer program in grade 10. And at the time, I bought an Oxford shirt from the official University store. And I went and when I read my offer, I went and put on that same shirt that I still had, and I just went and stood outside my dad's window and waved at him. So that was sort of the reaction. 

Jamie Beaton  07:46

That's hilarious. And how did he react?

Michael  07:49

He was probably more shocked than I was, I think, I think yeah. Yeah, exactly. And yeah, he literally just finished his meeting, say, he came downstairs and he was just like, "No way. You got in?" And then, I mean, the rest of the day was so amazing, because of the response I got from basically anyone I'd ever known, saying, congratulations, when they saw the news. It was you know, it was it was amazing to see.

Jamie Beaton  08:15

Yeah, it's a real community response to things like this. It's really, really pretty epic and inspiring. And how do you a level so what I did was to do take what IGs or GCSEs did you take and how did you choose going to what a levels that you wanted to focus on in the end?

Michael  08:31

So our school setup is a bit different to what most people are used to we, we have to curriculum, we can do a levels or the IBP, which is the South African National senior certificate. And we only started the A levels. The first year our school started offering a levels was the year we started. So we were sort of the first group, you know, charging forth into the unknown, not really knowing what to expect. So we didn't do any agency SES beforehand. So we sort of made the jump from grade 10 South African learning to a levels in one go. And we also we also did extra as levels to meet South African University requirements. So you know, my AS levels were weird I did, I did maths, physics, history, chemistry and English language, and then also IGCSE French. And then from there, it was, the decision of where to go in terms of what to focus on was quite simple. I took history because I loved it. And then I took maths and physics because I knew I could get at least A's for them. And then I also took further maths just as something extra.

Jamie Beaton  09:42

It felt so spicy. I took that as well and it took up a ton of time. It was it was a base of an A level. How did you find that? Did you do mechanics? Pure instead of statistics?

Michael  09:53

Yeah, so they actually changed. What was also quite tricky is that it was the first year they changed the further maths syllabus. So, the exam, the past exams didn't really fit the exams that we'd be studying. So you didn't have a lot of practice material that was perfect. But I also actually didn't have a teacher. So the only teacher time I really had was a tutor with Crimson. And that was under 30 hours or something. So it was, you know, it was really daunting. And also, something I'm not too proud of is I didn't have great time management during lockdown. So I ended up spending practically the month of September learning pure turned statistics from scratch.

Jamie Beaton  10:36

Wow, I love the hustle. That's great. So you spent 30 to 40 hours on it. Okay, beyond your tutoring time, how much kind of independent time would you say to put in to get the a level done?

Michael  10:47

A lot. It was at least a you know, like I said, it's hard to estimate because I did it in a very concentrated period of time. But I think there was probably a month. And also one thing I don't think I'll ever forget is I got 89 as my percentage uniform mark for my a level. And the grade threshold for an A star was 187 out of 250. And I got 186 out of 250.

Jamie Beaton  11:13

Did you consider going for the cheeky remark?

Michael  11:16

I did. But when I told my parents, they'd have to pay over 200 pounds if they didn't get a if I didn't have a change mark, they weren't interested in it.

Jamie Beaton  11:25

That's funny. That's what I've seen over the years. A lot of students do remarks usually doesn't move, but they resolve then, you know, like a boundary grade moves over. But typically it's the humanities subject. So I think Yeah, you probably rest easy with with your further math. That's pretty heroic and 89% is pretty good further maths.

Michael  11:44

Yeah, I was very, very happy. It was it was definitely what I was most shocked about with my results. I was not expecting to do that. Well. Also, because the mechanics exam that year was just ridiculous. I mean, the the grade threshold for an A was 50%. So I was I was feeling so down in the gutter after writing it.

Jamie Beaton  12:03

Yeah. Well, I remember from undergrad I had this class called econ 1011. A. And it's known as Harvard's most difficult undergraduate economics class. And the average score in the midterm was 37%. I think I got like a 45%. And you know, that just feels horrible. You know, you could never get 50%. And, you know, in high school, you're used to getting 80s 90s 100 and whatever. So yeah, it's funny when you have like a humping paper like that, but at least scaling sort of takes care of it. Yeah, exactly. Yeah, yeah. And the exam that you are if you're just having a disaster, and everyone else is just...

Michael  12:39

It was also a horrible day, because I wrote maths pure two in the morning, the day before, I'd written history, paper three, which is the main paper. And the day before that I'd written the main physics paper, and it was also my birthday. So it was like at the end, all right.

Jamie Beaton  12:58

Well, I guess you probably you don't you don't want to go and have a dinner, you just want to keep studying. Exactly. I don't remember my birthday. I guess you can celebrate once you're in. And so now you've got a bit of a benefit get between now and September, or so, you know, when do you what do you plan on doing with this, with this time you have any exciting plans.

Michael  13:16

So, you know, I've really lost quite a bit of it. I mean, I've been out of school for six months, I'm doing a bit of SAT tutoring with Crimson at the moment, which is, you know, quite fun and entertaining. And it's just keeping me you know, sort of in check and not letting my academics run away from me. And then I'm also I'm just, you know, trying to get involved and see as many friends as I can that on staying that aren't going overseas so that I can try and stay in contact with them.

Jamie Beaton  13:42

That's a really cool question, actually. What are some of the trends in terms of the African High Schoolers aspirations on the world stage? So it varies by school a little bit, but what are you seeing as far as patterns, you know, who tends to go overseas? What are their aspirations is the UK most popular? What's the US like? Just give me a sense of what it's like through your lens.

Michael  14:00

So, you know, our school is quite a heavy percentage of it as a boarding school. So a lot of the borders come from within South Africa, but there's also a healthy contingent from East Africa and Southern Africa. So Zambians, Kenyans, Tanzanians, and a lot of the foreigners tend to go to English universities. There's a very small contingent from from our school that is going to the states and sort of a much stronger community with in the UK. So I'll have friends in Durham Exeter, London. Yeah. So there's more I kind of can't think of any now but that that's sort of the trend and then a lot of the South African students end up going to the main universities, NSA.

Jamie Beaton  14:49

Like UCT and stuff?

Michael  14:51

Yeah, UCT Stellenbosch, Tuks, the University of Pretoria that is, so that that's where they mostly dispose to and then again It depends where they get in because some degrees, some University is obviously more challenging than others.

Jamie Beaton  15:06

Thanks a lot of sense. And then as far as like, aspirations where people want to be based, there's lots of this, you know, young talent sets, they overseas, I guess for most of their adult life, or these guys typically come back and want to do things like government when they're a bit older or what what is the usual kind of pattern?

Michael  15:23

There isn't really a usual kind of pattern. A lot of a lot of people that are educated in South Africa will stand South Africa. Again, it vary so much from year to year and person to person. And but I do think quite a large portion of the people that go overseas tend to stay overseas, not necessarily where they studied, but they don't often come back.

Jamie Beaton  15:48

Well, awesome. Okay. And then I guess last question for me, if you went back to high school to do it all over again, would you change anything? I guess the outcome was pretty amazing. But, you know, anything, you wouldn't change for it for a clone and rewinding the clock five years?

Michael  16:02

Look, I you know, I think I had one main objective in high school and now is to get into Oxford. So, you know, there's, there's nothing I really would have changed. If I if I had to have changed one thing, I probably wouldn't have done that as levels I, I did, I would have just done probably maybe five air levels and started focusing on those exams at the beginning of grade 11 rather than focusing on getting as levels and then eight levels.

Jamie Beaton  16:31

Got it, wise, Okay, awesome. Well, a huge congrats on your success. I think you're gonna have a real blast over there. PPE is really Oxford's most famous degree. And I think yeah, you'll have a real blast. So congrats on what's been a wild High School adventure. 

Michael  16:45

Thank you very, very much. 

Jamie Beaton  16:46

And hopefully we can meet up. I'm currently finishing my D Phil at St. John's College in Oxford, although it's all been remote for the last like year, but I might see you on campus sometimes soon. 

Michael  16:55

That'd be amazing. 

Jamie Beaton  16:56

Nice to meet you.

Michael  16:57

You too. Bye.