Great candidates to read Geography at university have a deep and meaningful relationship with aspects of the subject and discipline. They are, fundamentally, motivated to study Geography at university, because they’ve found parts of it intellectually fascinating and enjoyable – and great applicants are able to demonstrate this in their application.
I think there are three key components that make great Geography candidates:
They can demonstrate scholarship and critical engagement.
This is simply a sense of reading and thinking about what you’ve read. The best Geographers – even just when we consider this in terms of an A Level essay, for example – are able to recognise lots of ideas, lots of case studies and examples, and evaluate and think about what that means. They don’t accept ideas at face value, but are able to thoughtfully incorporate them in to their existing understanding.
And, just like in our A Level experience, the best Geographers are able to play at a level above their existing understanding. They’re able to demonstrate engagement with undergraduate quality thinking (or beyond!), rather than sticking closely to the confines of their specification and taught course. Most often, this is demonstrated in an application through reading or engagement activities (e.g. RGS lectures, speaker events etc.).
Complexity and range of the discipline.
Geography is a huge subject, and there are lots of areas of it which have their own focus and specialisation. A great Geography candidate is able to recognise that there’s a lot of ideas out there, and that you *don’t* have to engage with, or indeed, be an expert on all of them.
In an application, then, it’s often better to show deeper engagement with a smaller slice of the discipline – I am interested in X, so I read Y, and followed that up with Z, and explored that further with A, B and C – rather than trying to show that you know all of the bits of Geography in a very limited or superficial way. Again, this is really about critical and sustained engagement – rather than brief and light touch!
Explaining and exploring the ideas.
Fundamentally, the biggest differentiation between Oxford & Cambridge (and a couple of other places) and other universities is the focus on dialogic teaching as the key focus of your student experience. As well as lectures, seminars and workshops that you’d have at any Geography Department, you’ll get regular discussions and debates in small groups. At Oxford, they’re called tutorials, and Cambridge call them supervisions. But at heart, you’re expected to be able – and willing – to discuss your ideas regularly with your tutor and peers, and hold your own in an academic conversation about the particular topic in question.
So, you need to be able to talk coherently about your subject. This isn’t really something that gets discussed in your initial application phases, but it’s the primary purpose of the interview phase.
I’ve said before that I believe the best way of doing this is through a ‘rich diet of Geography education’ from start to finish. We want thoughtful, engaged and enthusiastic Geographers in all of our lessons – and good dialogic teaching helps to model the scholarship and communication elements. The more students can hear and see what academic Geographical discussion looks like in their day to day, the less work they’ll have to do to prepare specifically for the application phase.
As we come towards the Sixth Form, though, I think it’s worth having some strategies in place for explicitly raising the level of engagement and scholarship, and making it accessible and normal for students to explore the world of academic Geography:
- Consider whether your school can support and subscribe to journals or publications so they can regularly be visible to students. You might like to get them to explore the GA’s GEO platform, or some of the additional resources on the RGS website
- Can you subscribe to the Royal Geographical Society so that you have access to lectures and speaker programmes?
- Alternatively, can you set up a Geographical Society for Sixth Form students to speak – and hear guest speakers – in your own school, or nearby schools? If you’ve got good connections with careers leaders, or former students, they can be really helpful to push towards interesting topics to cover! If you have students doing EPQs, or extended essays and similar thoughts – then getting them to show and talk about their work can be really powerful as a demonstration of academic thinking.
- Depending on your school and Department context, it’s interesting to think about what access to books and reading your students might have. You might be able to work with your library team, if you have one, to get great material in. If that’s not an option, a few books each year can soon build up a Department library of great reading material that can be kept in one of your classrooms, or a shared office space. Having the ability to say “oh, yes, you should read…. this book on that interesting question”, and be able to recommend and hand the student the book sends a really powerful message about academic reading, and makes it part of the normal process.
This helps to prepare students for the three parts of excellent Geography, and gives them interesting points for research to make decisions about what to apply for, and exactly what to look for in their decision-making process.
It’ll also be a key part of preparing for the personal statement process, and I think should be the key focus for Year 12 and the summer period.