Introductory Talk to New A-Level Students

By Dr Zoe Lundy (Head of Biology)
August 2015, Oxford International College

Zoe Lundy graduated from Oxford University with an MBioch and DPhil in Clinical Medicine. She is the winner of the Lightweight, Openweight Reserve and Blue Boat women's boat races, National Champion Gold medalist in coxed fours and elite coxed four Henley Women's Regatta finalist.

This talk is in two sections as there are two major things I'd like to talk to you about this evening; the first of these is about getting into university, and the second is what it means to be successful - both of which I think you'll agree are highly topical.

In one year from now, you will already have begun to work on your personal statement. This 4000 character piece of writing, and your A level grades, are all that a university has to judge you by (give or take any additional admissions requirements such as the BMAT or UKCAT). If you have not yet begun to think about the content of your statement, then I suggest you begin today. It is your opportunity to present your unique skill set and experiences. It is your platform on which to stand out and be remembered amongst hundreds or thousands of other applicants. How are you going to do it?

If you are under the impression that straight As or A*s is enough to win you a place at the most competitive institutions, then I am sorry to be the one to break this news...  It isn't.

Grades do not win university places - people do. You cannot be a shrinking violet. You have to stand up and show them what you can do. You are all more than your exam results. You all have other interests and passions. You must be able to show that you are well-rounded, as well as academically proficient. The tutors that read your personal statements will work closely with you throughout your degree, and they are looking for students who can communicate and express themselves. They are looking for exceptional people, with exceptional characters, not just exceptional results.

This is especially important if you are applying to Oxford or Cambridge, who will interview almost all of their candidates. Everyone that is called for interview will have achieved or predicted grades that are good enough. Your grades may indeed earn you an interview, but you must then earn your place. You must to be able to interact with the tutors with confidence and finesse, to display a three-dimensional disposition and a genuine flare for your chosen degree course.
Right now I consider you all ‘rough diamonds’ - full of potential, but in need of some shining. We are all here to help, and as long as you are fully willing, we will send you out, fully polished, into the world where you can do good. But, you have to work WITH us. You must be interactive and participatory in lessons. You must speak up and ask questions in class. If you cannot learn to do this, you will crumble in an interview when the tutors push you to answer difficult questions. If you're someone who tends to be quieter, then you must now begin to find your voice. You are all individuals, and you should embrace that individuality, and begin to think of what you can offer a university, as well as what it can offer you.

When I was asked to do this talk, Kim asked me what how I made it through my Oxford interviews successfully, and I really had no answer. I think it's extremely hard to know what other people see in you without asking them! But it did make me think. It made me think about what success means, and I'm just going to talk you through some of my thought process.

I think that in order to define success, you need to first define your parameters. One person's success can be another person's failure. For three successive Olympics, Katherine Grainger (the rower I admire most in the world) won a silver medal in rowing. She is an incredible athlete, and a true inspiration. She is one of the sport's greatest, and yet, she and her crew were in tears while they stood on the podium in Beijing to receive their silver medals.

There is a difference between winning a silver medal and losing a gold. The British were rowed through by the Chinese crew in the final 100m of the race, and it was heart-breaking to watch. For most people, even a shot at competing at the Olympic games would be a dream come true. I am sure that just getting there was once Katherine Grainger's idea of success. As you grow and achieve and change, what you consider to be success and failure will also change. And this is ok.

So how do you define your own parameters of success? Set them too high, and you risk feeling like a failure; set them too low and you might not achieve your potential. Right now, your parameters are achieving A* and A grades at A-level, and securing a place at the university of your choice, reading a subject you're passionate about. You are at the very beginning of your journey, and it's absolutely essential that you approach it with the correct mindset from day 1. My advice is to set your goals a little higher then you think you can reach. Standing on your tip toes isn't as comfortable as standing on flat feet, but you are taller. I'd like to read you a quote that I found many years ago. It was written by Marianne Wilson and famously quoted by Nelson Mandela at his inaugural speech in 1994. As I've gotten older and experienced more, these words have only rung more true, and I think that someday you will agree:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

We do not often associate achieving our goals with fear, but what if we exceed our own expectations and we can't cope with the success? What if we fail, and we cannot cope with that either? We think, "but how can I be the best, I'm nothing special". But you are wrong. Someone has to be the fastest, someone has to be the strongest, someone has to score the highest. Why shouldn't it be you? Throughout your life, other people will try to impose limitations on you, and it is important that you defy these, that you exceed these and that you never, ever place limitations on yourself.

It is no one's job to believe in you, and no one will, unless you believe in you. Belief that you can achieve whatever you set your mind to will keep you working when others give up, it will give you the tools you need to craft your own success from any situation. Any natural talent you have is not enough. Talent is only the beginning. Success is only achieved through hours and hours of hard graft, of being knocked down but refusing to quit, and if you are unwilling to put in the effort, you will be overtaken by those who simply want it more.

Part of success is being able to cope with failure. If you think that failure is not part of success then you are wrong. You have to fail to realise how much you want to succeed. You must not fear failure. If you are afraid to fail, you will never truly push yourself. What if you give your best, and you still fail? My answer to that, is this: I would sooner look myself in the eye and know I did my best, than know I failed because held back through fear. There is no honour in being able to say that you could have done better if you had tried harder. The rowing race that I am most proud of was actually one that I lost, as it is the one race I know I gave my all to. No one can ask for more than your best, and if you give your best then you have not failed.

So how do you stop the task at hand from feeling too overwhelming? How do you pace yourself for a goal you know will take two years to achieve. How do you cope with the pressure? There is a skill to not thinking too far ahead. You must discipline yourself to focus on what you need to do on a day-by-day basis. If a tennis player cannot focus on winning one point at a time, how can he or she win the match? For many of the races I won, I would not think further ahead than the next stroke, because I was in so much agony, that thinking of the number of strokes I still had to take, might have lost me the race. Big dreams are made of little goals. Complete one task at a time, brilliantly, and then the next, and the next, Do this for long enough, and you will get there. When you do, you can finally step back and appreciate that you have achieved something incredible.