< Back < Back


Profile: Elspeth Tolan

Elspeth at matriculation in front of the wisteria

Elspeth Tolan (2021, History)

Elspeth is in her first year studying history at Univ and is a student ambassador. In this profile, she discusses full-circle moments, the myth of an “Oxford type” and getting out of your comfort zone.

Why did you choose to apply to Univ/for History?
I am very fortunate in that choosing to study History, and applying to Univ, were both relatively easy decisions. History was the subject that I had enjoyed the most throughout my time at school. Once I started my A Levels, as much as I enjoyed my other subjects (English Literature, Politics, and an EPQ), I consistently found myself drawn to the historical aspects of each topic that we studied. I also really enjoyed making connections between my subjects. I think that it was within this context that I first started to really delve into my subject, and to realise that it was this sort of in-depth and complex understanding that I wanted to get out of my university experience – something which I felt that the tutorial system at Oxford provided.

My experience with Univ as a college was incredibly positive, meaning that I had no doubt about applying here. After visiting other colleges and universities, and feeling somewhat out-of-place, I found Univ to be so welcoming. I attended an English and History Study Day in February 2020 which allowed me to explore both subjects more deeply, and to get a feel for the college. It was on this day that I decided Univ, and History, was definitely for me. I felt so comfortable, and like I really could belong here. Skip to two years later, and I helped out as a Student Ambassador at the very same Study Day I had attended previously. Discussing the lecture given at both events with the tutor who had delivered them (and being asked for my opinion on it as a first year undergraduate, who had also listened to it in Year 12) was a very surreal, and full-circle moment!

How do you think you have changed since walking through Univ’s doors for the first time?
I think I have become more confident, especially from an academic perspective. It is sometimes scary to present your ideas about a topic to a tutor who has often, quite literally, written the book on any given topic. The slight nerves will always remain I suspect, but it is remarkable how the tutorial system can foster an environment in which you can become comfortable with developing and sharing new ideas. I think I have realised that I can make valuable contributions to a discussion, and that it is good to share what you are thinking and feeling. I think you make the most progress in those moments of uncertainty, when you are pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone. I feel like I have learnt to embrace this completely since starting at Univ, as I try to take every opportunity offered to me – opportunities I know that I am so fortunate to have.

What’s your favourite part of Univ?
My favourite part of Univ is the unashamedly warm community that exists in every part of the College. Despite knowing them for less than a year, I have developed a group of friends that I now cannot imagine my day-to-day life without. The whole college is exceptionally friendly, and it’s so nice to have a familiar face to say hello to every time you walk down High Street.  My tutors have also all been so supportive, constantly showing that they genuinely respect and care about their students as individuals and helping us with any issues we might face. All of this, coupled with the incredible kindness and help offered by the Porters (fonts of all wisdom/the people who work in the Lodge), Scouts (cleaners), and all other staff across the College, means that it really does feel like a home away from home.

Elspeth in hall with friendsHas anything surprised you about Oxford/Univ/your course?
I think I have been most surprised by the freedom that exists here. Obviously, there is the freedom of living away from home which is one of the most important and enjoyable things about university, but I have also found freedom in many other ways. Academically, especially in History, I have been shocked by the range of topics that we are able to study. We also have a lot of freedom when it comes to approaching the essay questions we are set. Being able to play to both your strengths, and your interests, means that every week is a chance to explore what you found most thought-provoking in the reading, or to bring your own interests and perspective into your interpretation of a topic. I think bringing up the absolute anthem that is “Common People” by Pulp in a tutorial about middle-class philanthropy in the nineteenth and twentieth century is the best example I can give of this!

There is also a lot of freedom to do what you enjoy, both in college and across the university. The number and variety of societies available, as well as all the city has to offer, means that there really is something for everyone to enjoy.

It has also been somewhat surprising to feel so settled here. Coming from a “non-traditional” Oxford background as a Northern, first-generation university student, there is often a very powerful stereotype about what life would be like here. Whilst there is no denying that there is more to be done in tackling the harmful parts of the university culture and structure which uphold these stereotypes, it has been truly refreshing to feel like I can, and do, belong here. The many fantastic people I have met, and the wonderful opportunities on offer, have been the defining features of my time here so far, and I look forward to becoming even more comfortable over the next few years.

Do you have any advice for prospective students?
My main advice to prospective students is that they should be unapologetically themselves throughout their application process to any university, but especially to Oxford. I think there can often be beliefs, especially for those with few, if any, connections to the university, that there is some sort of “Oxford type”. This is completely untrue. The University is made up of interesting, and interested individuals, from so many backgrounds. No one should be put off from applying based upon any aspect of their life that they feel wouldn’t be welcomed, as there will be an open and supportive community waiting to make you feel at home, whether that be in a friendship group, college, or society (or ideally all three!).

Throughout the admissions process, I would advise students to once again stay committed to themselves. I found that, despite the challenges, I really enjoyed the process, because I consistently chose to focus on things that I thought were truly fascinating, and that I wanted to be studying. Regardless of the outcome, I think you will gain the most from taking this approach and seeing it as an opportunity to delve into what you like most about your subject.

What do you do outside your studies?
When I’m not working, I love playing saxophone in Hertford College’s Jazz Band. It’s great to meet likeminded people and make friends from across the university, as well as doing something I enjoy so much. I’m also really engaged with theatre across the city, both professional and student. I try to see as many shows as I can, especially as we are so lucky to have lots of major productions visiting Oxford on tour.

I am also passionate about outreach and increasing access to Oxford. As a Student Ambassador, I help to run events in college, and conduct independent school visits to talk to prospective students. I also volunteer for outside organisations which try to demystify the admissions process and university life, as well as showing students that they belong at Oxford regardless of their background.

Describe Univ in three words.
Challenging. Supportive. Transformative.

Published: 13 June 2022

Explore Univ on social media
University College Oxford

Contact Univ

If you have any questions or need more information, just ask: