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Chrysalis Fellow and Highgate Cholmeleian Aiden Tsen is celebrating his unconditional Oxbridge offer for October 2020. In his profile here, Aiden takes us through his journey to Oxford University, talking about his passion for chemistry, through to his reasons for taking a gap year, and how he plans to pursue a career in academia.

Can you describe some of the emotions and first thoughts you had on receiving your offer at Oxford?

When I got the email from New College, I thought they must have made a mistake! I phoned my mum to tell her, and she was suspicious because I usually only call when I’ve forgotten something important, but she was really happy and cooked my favourite meal for dinner. I was around Highgate that day, so I told various people, including my favourite Chemistry teacher. It was lovely to tell her the good news.

It still doesn’t feel real, especially thinking back to this time last year. So much has changed since then: I was sick during Sixth Form, which affected my attendance and meant that at one point I had to use a cane to get around. I was having a really difficult time, and I (eventually) realised that I wasn’t physically or mentally ready to go to university. The school helped me to decide that taking a gap year and focusing on my A-Levels was the best decision. I’m an incredibly lucky person for everything to have worked out as well as it has and to have as many people supporting me as I do.

How have you found your gap year?

Though it’s strange still being around Highgate while my friends have gone off to universities all around the UK, I’m really enjoying it. I’ve learned a lot from my job as a Chrysalis Fellow, gaining new insight into both the workings of Highgate and the education sector as a whole – I’ve even taught some lessons at other schools myself!

My job has also indirectly led to a bunch of other opportunities. I work with Dr Szydlo, and I’ve been able to do lots of cool things with him, such as going to his Royal Institution talk on metals and (even contributing content to his talk on hydrogen at) the International Year of the Periodic Table Symposium at Cambridge! In addition, a document that I wrote for fun on chemistry in other languages was used by the Chemistry Department for Modern Foreign Languages Week, which I’m very proud of. I’ve realised that in all areas of life, being proactive and creating opportunities for yourself is really important both for your future goals and your own happiness.

Taking a gap year was definitely the right choice for me. I’ve been able to do lots of things I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise and it’s reaffirmed to me that I definitely want to study Chemistry at university.

When did you decide you wanted to apply for Oxford?

I hadn’t thought much about going to university before I came to Highgate in Year 12, though at the time my main interest was Computer Science so I would have wanted to study that instead. I think a better question is ‘when did you decide you wanted to apply for Chemistry?’ because ultimately it’s about the subject and course more than anything. That was only in January of Year 12 when the Chemistry Department encouraged us all to sit the Chemistry Olympiad, and I realised what a beautiful subject it is. Even before that, it was only a timetabling issue that led to me taking Chemistry in the first place, so I’m definitely an accidental chemist!

To answer your actual question, I decided I wanted to apply to Oxford around May of Year 12. It was my choice, and I didn’t feel pressured by my parents or teachers to apply. I wanted to do straight Chemistry as opposed to Natural Sciences, and I thought Oxford would offer what I want from a Chemistry degree, as (hopefully) born out of the fact that I really enjoyed the interviews. I also love the city, and my college is gorgeous, so that helps too.

How did you find the transition from another school to Highgate in Year 12?

It was difficult at first because it was very different and the Senior School is massive – it took me about three weeks to figure out where all of my lessons were! However, my Head of House was a great source of support and I was able to become good friends with both other people who were new to the Sixth Form and people who’d been here since they were seven. And as mentioned before, it was only because I came here that I wound up doing Chemistry A-Level at all, so I’m very happy with my decision to come to Highgate! Switching schools can start off quite rough, especially because of the transition from GCSE to A-Level, but that doesn’t mean it can’t improve and turn out to be a lot of fun in the end.

What do you see yourself doing long term with regards to Chemistry?

I definitely want to do something where I can share my love for science. Currently, I think I’d like to go into academic research. Since the last year of my course is a research project, I’ll be able to see if I enjoy it. If I don’t, I might consider the idea of becoming a secondary school teacher. My Chemistry teachers changed my life, so I think it would be cool to do the same for someone else. I’m open to other ideas though: I want to try my hand at scientific journalism at uni, and one of my (many) hobbies is designing cards based on Chemistry.

What advice do you have for others considering university, or even Oxbridge?

I stand by the statement that course is king – I can’t imagine sentencing myself to four years of a subject I don’t like, and paying for it as well! In addition, things like disability or illness shouldn’t discourage you from applying: universities want the best, determined candidates, and working through either is definitely proof of determination. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking a year out to think about what you want to do, or not going to university at all.

I wish good luck to anyone applying to Oxbridge. Said as someone who went through it twice, it’s a lengthy process that requires a lot of emotional investment, and getting rejected hurts! There’s a lot of luck involved too, and it’s possible the tutorial system doesn’t suit you, so a rejection definitely isn’t a reflection on your intelligence, let alone your worth as a person. And you should feel no obligation to accept an offer from Oxbridge if you prefer another university.

That being said, you learn so much about and so become much better at your subject in the process of applying, which will put you in good stead at any university. In addition, the interviews are essentially conversations with a world-class academic, which is really exciting. The only way to definitely not get in is to not apply. You have nothing to lose, so if you want to give it a shot, go for it.


Update: September 2021

Aiden Tsen (SH 2019) started studying Chemistry at Oxford in October 2020 as the Covid pandemic surged across the UK.  Aiden caught the virus and was badly effected, which resulted in him needing to abort the course after one term. However, he has now recovered and excited about a new opportunity afoot, which he sought and secured independently, a place without a degree, on the innovative Year Here, a postgraduate programme in social enterprise, as part of their 2021/22 cohort.