Updated: Jan 24
Niamh was the first student in her secondary school to ever reach Oxford or Cambridge. Here's how she did it.
Hello! My name is Niamh Coyle and I’m a first year Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic student at Girton College, Cambridge. I’m from Co. Donegal and I’m the first person from my school to ever attend either Cambridge or Oxford. I chose to apply to ASNaC as it covered the language, literature and history of the British Isles and Scandinavia - an area which I have a deep interest in and also because I really wanted to learn Mediaeval Irish and Norse. The degree is unique to Cambridge so I didn’t have to decide between Cambridge and Oxford. As well as Irish, English, and Maths, I took Chemistry, Biology, French, and History for the Leaving Certificate. For my course, I don’t think that the variety of subjects we do is a bad thing at all, as most people have done slightly different A-Levels. However, some of the topics, like those on Anglo-Saxon history or the Vikings, English students tend to have a little more experience with as they cover some of this at school, even before A-Levels. This shouldn’t stop you from applying though as everything is taught from beginner level so you won’t be left behind. I enjoyed all my subjects equally so my CAO Form had a mix of everything in it, from Biological and Biomedical Sciences in Trinity College Dublin and UCD to Linguistics and Celtic Studies in DCU. For my UCAS application, I only applied to ASNaC in Cambridge so I was able to focus my personal statement specifically to this course.
Cambridge Application For my personal statement, I divided my subject into three different areas which were language, literature, and history, and then wrote about aspects of these areas that I had an interest in or had read about before. I linked the topics I was most interested in with these areas so I wrote about Icelandic and Irish literature and Old English and Irish Language. I also made sure the statement was personal to me, so to open it, I began by talking about my name and my experiences of having an Irish name. I only wrote one sentence about my extracurricular activities and this was when I explained that I started a Ciorcal Comhrá in my school, as it was the only thing that I had done that directly linked to my degree. I didn’t write about my Leaving Certificate subjects because I knew the people that would be reading it would already have that information from the UCAS form and the Cambridge specific SAQ. I wrote one draft of my personal statement and got my sister and mum to read through it and point out any spelling or grammar mistakes and then submitted it after this. I used the Student Room website to work out what universities looked for in the personal statement and attended the online open days to get some subject specific information.
The Interview Although ASNaC doesn’t have an admissions test, when I got an invitation to interview, I was asked to submit two pieces of marked work from school. I submitted a History essay that I had done for homework from the topic ‘Pursuit of Sovereignty and the Impact of Partition’ and an essay that I wrote for an assessment in exam conditions on King Lear. I had completed both of these pieces in 6th year. My biggest piece of advice would be to pick pieces that you genuinely have an interest in and to have some ideas about how they could link to the degree in some way. It also doesn’t have to be a piece that was marked as your best piece, as long as you can talk about it, the pieces will be good. I had two interviews, each with two interviewers and each lasting one hour. For my interview I made sure that I had re-read both pieces of submitted work and that I had re-read the notes from the MOOC in Medieval Icelandic Sagas. Both of the interviews focused on different topics. My first interview was heavily based on my personal statement with some questions about my written work, while the second was based on grammar. Although the interview experience is unnerving, and it is definitely intense, for me it was also quite enjoyable, especially the second interview.
How Super-Curriculars Benefitted my Application Something which I think is very important and that gave my plenty to write and talk about in my personal statement and in my interviews is taking part in courses or talks that are related to the subject in some way. It also gives you the chance to find out if you really like the course and if the course will be something you want to study for three years. For me these included a summer camp through the Centre of Talented Youth Ireland in Celtic Studies in the summer of 2019 which covered language, language development and the history of the Celtic period in Ireland. I really enjoyed this summer camp as it really allowed me to delve deeper into a history I didn’t have much knowledge of. It also showed me that I would like to study a degree that encompassed languageand history into one. I took part in the All-Ireland Linguistic Olympiad in 6th year which I found very enjoyable. I liked the challenge of working through problems in unfamiliar languages. I also completed an online course through the University of Iceland in Mediaeval Icelandic Sagas during my gap year which really showed me how much I enjoyed Icelandic literature because before doing this course I hadn’t had any exposure to it previously.
Life at Cambridge Now Now that I’m here I am absolutely loving my course. I’ve picked the papers ‘England before the Norman Conquest’, ‘Scandinavian History in the Viking Age’, the ‘Gaelic Speaking Peoples from the 4th to the 12th century’, ‘Medieval Irish Language and Literature’, ‘Old Norse Language and Literature’, and ‘Palaeography and Codicology’. My favourite papers are definitely the language papers and Palaeography and Codicology. The workload is a lot but it is definitely manageable. I have to write one essay per week and also do both Irish and Norse translation work as well as revise any grammar that we covered in class. To pick a college, I first narrowed down which colleges offered accommodation for three years, and most importantly as an international student, which colleges allow students to keep their belongings in their rooms over the vacations. This narrows down the options considerably. Then, I went through each college and looked at its history and the principles on which they were founded. I chose to apply to Girton and was fortunate enough to be offered a place by Girton College. I chose Girton as it was the first residential college for degree-level education for women in Britain, and it was the first of all of the women’s colleges in Cambridge to become mixed. This history is something that I respected and it felt like a place where I could see myself studying in the future. I also wanted a separation between where I lived and where I attended lectures and Girton offered this as it is situated just outside the city centre and has a large outdoor area for students too, including an orchard. As well as reading the college website I also discovered a Youtube channel called ‘Sailing with Sharvani’ which offered a good insight into college and university life. As well as the academic side of Cambridge there is a vibrant student life, with almost any society, club, or sport you could think of. I am a member of the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Society and I play lacrosse with both my college and the university - I’d never played lacrosse in my life before coming to Cambridge. I can also attend events ran by various societies such as the Women’s History Society or the Irish Society. There is a fantastic support system in place for international students. In Girton, we could arrive a few days before the other first years to get things organised such as bikes and bank accounts, and also to get to know the other international freshers. As well as the extra-curriculars we also get to attend formal dinners which really add to the whole experience. I would highly recommend applying to Cambridge.
Final Tips and Conclusion
I took a year out after school. In this year I completed the MOOC and also worked as an au-pair in France and Brussels. While au-pairing isn’t directly related to my degree, I did hugely improve my French which is connected to it. Having an in-depth knowledge of the grammar of one language is something that I feel benefits me, as I can make connections
between grammar points, and since I have already learned how I best learn vocabulary etc., it has saved me some time whilst being here.
Moreover, the student-run ASNaC website was incredibly helpful in providing help with the Personal Statement and other aspects of the application process. If interested, you can access it here.
Even though I have only completed one term here, I would highly encourage anyone thinking of applying to just go for it. The academics, social life, and entire experience is something that is quite unique and definitely the opportunity of a lifetime.