Matthew Hurst (Oxford '21, Manchester '15) completed his MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. His professional background is in operations roles with a focus on UK-China projects. He has been a member of delegations between the UK and China, spoken at conferences, and published articles about UK-China. Matthew earned a First Class BA in Philosophy from the University of Manchester, receiving the Dean's Award and three other awards.
This is the final part in a 4-part series featuring Matthew's advice and experience.
Matthew's important advice:
"Choosing a college can be overwhelming."
"My advice to anyone choosing a college right now is not to go off of the college’s ranking and reputation alone."
"The problem with asking parents and teachers for advice is that the world they lived in is nothing like the one we live in now."
Q: You were a staff-student liaison at your high school, so you have a lot of knowledge of the inner workings of a school. Could you share some interesting things you learned as a student council member that many high school students might not expect?
A: Something that I was surprised to learn as a teenager - but which seems so obvious now - is that teachers and staff are people, too. In the UK, we usually take A Levels from 16- to 18-years-old. When I began studying for my A Levels, that was the first time we were allowed to call our teachers by their first names and as a staff-student liaison, I saw teachers outside of a classroom setting (in meeting rooms and staff rooms). It struck me that they acted a little differently to when they were trying to command a classroom and that they were altogether more human, with their own gripes and interests outside of school.
Q: When choosing colleges, what attracted you to go to the University of Manchester?
A: Choosing a college can be overwhelming. You could look at league tables, famous academics, and alumni, reputation, etc., but the best piece of advice I ever received was to approach college applications more like choosing a location and a lifestyle, rather than choosing a college per ce. You cannot thrive in an environment you do not like living in. This is especially true for undergraduate courses, which last at least three years in England.
When I was 18, the most important things to me were cinemas and cultural venues, train connections to family and friends, urbanity, and certain topics within my discipline. The spreadsheet nerd that I am, I made a template for evaluating universities and the cities they were in using Microsoft Excel. Then, I looked up information online about every university in England that offered my course and information about its city and quantified this in my template. Next, I attributed weights to each of those aspects. I gave the university’s position in the league tables a weight but also gave weight to other aspects that were important to me in terms of lifestyle. This helped to counter the impulse to simply apply to the highest-ranked universities. I then sorted highest to lowest to give me my own ‘interest score’ for each university.
However, one cannot rely on quantitative measures alone for making such an important decision. So, I also visited my top universities in person. This proved to be an extremely valuable exercise: when I visited my top university, I decided that, despite my calculations, I did not like it after all. I proceeded to visit my top colleges and allowed my own, subjective feelings about my visits to inform my spreadsheet. (For some of these universities, even if I had missed the official open day, I would still visit, nonetheless. In England, you can usually visit campus at any time of the year - open day or no open day. In some ways, visiting during an ordinary day may even give you a better idea than visiting on an open day, when everyone is on their best behavior!) Ultimately, when I visited the University of Manchester, it was not only a great university and city on paper, but it also simply felt right.
So, my advice to anyone choosing a college right now is not to go off of the college’s ranking and reputation alone. Consider the environment you think you will thrive in - where would you like to live for three or four years? Ask yourself what is important to you now and how important those things are, relative to other factors. When you talk to people about their experiences, consider whether the things that they liked about the college are things that you would like and whether the things they disliked are things you would dislike, too. Most importantly, visit the universities you are considering - even if you have missed the open day.
Q: You mentioned that you maintained connections with your high school, by giving presentations about your experiences hosting classes and giving experience. In what ways do high schoolers benefit from talking and getting advice from college students?
A: Asking for advice and listening to the life experiences of others is always useful. Even if the specific advice they are giving is not entirely, directly, or immediately relevant to your own situation, there is always some nugget of wisdom you can take from the conversation. This might be as simple as deciding that you most certainly do not want to imitate that person’s choices.
The problem with asking parents and teachers for advice is that the world they lived in is nothing like the one we live in now. The world has changed a lot since the generation before us were seeking their education and starting their careers. So, when I visit my high school and talk to them about my experiences, I hope to bring them a more up-to-date, contemporary view on the worlds of work and education.
Q: As a former tour guide host for the University of Manchester, what were some frequent questions that you got asked?
A: The most common questions revolve around what I liked or disliked about the course, University, accommodation, city, etc. However, I would remind visitors that the things I valued were not necessarily the same things that they would value if they were in my place. I liked that Manchester is a city university (i.e. the main buildings are amongst commercial and office buildings in the center of town) on a busy main road within walking distance from the heart of the city, but other people might prefer a campus university (i.e. where the university is in its own, enclosed area and where all the buildings are college buildings).
Q: You took 5 years between getting your Bachelor’s degree at Manchester and studying for your Master’s at Oxford. How do you think this gap helped you in terms of orienting yourself more towards working with China and applying for Oxford?
A: Although I didn’t plan it, the five-year gap between undergraduate and postgraduate was, when I look back on it now, absolutely essential. Firstly, the real world and work experience I gained during that time helped me to grow as a student and also as a person: I approached my Master's degree with much more purpose, having sampled the real world during those five years. Secondly, in terms of the Master's application itself, I went from studying Philosophy at the undergraduate level to Chinese Studies at the postgraduate level - which is a bit of a change of topic! So, I drew upon the professional and personal experiences I had interacting with China during the five-year gap for the purposes of my application. Thirdly, in trying out different roles - both paid jobs and volunteering - during the gap, I learned more about my own skills and what I liked to do, and the Master's was a good way to consolidate this experience. Lastly, practically speaking, I was able to make and save money during those five years of work to actually pay for the Master's.
Q: As an alumnus of both Oxford and Manchester, two of the most prestigious schools in the UK, what were some differences between studying at these two schools?
A: This is a great question, but one that is extremely difficult to answer! There was a five year gap between my time at Manchester and my studies at Oxford during which technology has continued to transform the student experience. Furthermore, most of my Oxford experience was spent studying from afar due to the pandemic. Lastly, studying at different levels and different subjects (Philosophy undergraduate at Manchester, Contemporary Chinese Studies Masters at Oxford) makes it hard to compare the two experiences.
Nonetheless, there are some broad differences that stand out. Oxford has a collegiate system whereas Manchester does not. Manchester’s main university library is large and comprehensive, whereas Oxford has lots of smaller libraries dotted around. In Oxford, you feel like the city revolves around the university and everywhere is walkable whereas in Manchester, with almost four times the population of Oxford, the university is just one aspect of the city and you will rely more heavily on public transport to get around. Having said all this, a university experience is what you make of it and comes largely down to the people you encounter. People make a place and an intake one academic year can be extremely different to the next.
Q: Attending Zhejiang University, a Chinese school, why did you feel the need to gain more international experiences?
A: My main motivation in applying to Zhejiang University was to improve my Chinese language abilities. I had been taking classes in the evenings for several years, but had become frustrated with the slow speed of my improvement. I had hoped that dedicating a period of time to focused, intensive study would propel my language abilities forward. I am grateful to the Center for Language Education and Cooperation (CLEC) for their scholarship support and to the staff of Zhejiang University for making adaptations in light of the pandemic.
Thanks for reading!
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