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From Dubai English Speaking College to the Dreaming Spires of Oxford. Stories from the Edge of the Future – A Guide to Applying for University.
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Background. Stories from the Edge of the Future – A Guide to Applying for University.

Student Voices Series. “From Dubai English Speaking College to the Dreaming Spires of Oxford.”

In the fourth of a special series of articles, Jessica Cullen, a Sixth Form student at DESC, writes of her personal journey applying for university.

Miss Cullen speaks directly with SchoolsCompared about grappling with the biggest jump into the future facing students in the final years of school; applying to university and the challenge of what next…

What do we learn? Many things, including that there are rarely clear and definite answers for the next steps following school for any student – and just perhaps the best advice of all is to be true to yourself and follow your passions.

Each student in this Student Voices series of articles from SchoolsCompared, was given free reign to describe their experiences and to offer their advice to fellow students, and families, facing the many dilemmas, struggles, and sometimes sleepless nights, of what comes after school – and the best ways, for each of them, of getting there.

It takes no small amount of courage to agree to put your name to an article in a such a public forum, and we extend our enormous gratitude – and (giant) heaps of praise, for each of you who have taken the plunge to contribute and placed yourselves above the parapet.

For many of our contributors, this will be the first time that they will have had their names in print – well done! Who knows, maybe we shall see you in the years to come as a journalist changing the world…

The fourth of our stories, as above, comes from Jessica Cullen, writing from the Dubai English Speaking College, or DESC as it has become affectionately known in the UAE.

Miss Cullen writes eloquently and honestly too about the challenges facing students who study subjects with no clear cut career path; her passion for English Literature; and the impact of recognising that all her best-laid plans to study in the US were not quite what they seemed as dreams collided with reality.

Throughout, Miss Cullen praises her school and its alumni, both of which helped her crystallise her thoughts and made the application process and decision making manageable.

Finally, Miss Cullen brings hope to all of us that even our most impossible dreams do, just sometimes, and perhaps, when it counts the most, come true…

“From Dubai English Speaking College to the Dreaming Spires of Oxford.”

by Jessica Cullen. Dubai English Speaking College. 2014 – 2021.

Photograph of Miss Jessica Cullen, From Dubai English Speaking College to the University of Oxford UK


To-night from Oxford up your pathway strays!
Here came I often, often, in old days—
Thyrsis and I; we still had Thyrsis then.
Runs it not here, the track by Childsworth Farm,
Past the high wood, to where the elm-tree crowns
The hill behind whose ridge the sunset flames?
The signal-elm, that looks on Ilsley Downs,
The Vale, the three lone weirs, the youthful Thames?—
This winter-eve is warm,
Humid the air! leafless, yet soft as spring,
The tender purple spray on copse and briers!
And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening,
Lovely all times she lies, lovely to-night!—
From Thyrsis. Matthew Arnold. 24 December 1822 – 15 April 1888.


“I have always found university to be a very conflicting thing.

On one hand it represents the next stage of my life, achieving all of my dreams and stepping into the future.

On the other hand, it seems daunting to enter this new world.

I felt that I needed to consider it deeply.

Yet, it was only at the start of this academic year that university became real. All of a sudden I began properly considering what to do with my life.

My name is Jessica Cullen, and I am currently attending Dubai English Speaking College where I study A level Mathematics, Spanish and English Literature, along with an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ).

This short biography begins with the first difficulty I encountered in the university application process – I really had no idea exactly what I wanted to study.

I have studied subjects that I genuinely enjoy, and this has allowed me to get good grades with the help of amazing teaching. But they are all different subjects and reflect potentially very different pathways in life.

However, I am not the first, nor the last, to feel this way: not knowing exactly what to study is a collective feeling that nearly all students possess.

So, aided by the advice of my teachers and family, I decided to choose the subject that I had the most passion for: English Literature.

I initially wanted to apply to the US, followed by England and Australia. These were all countries where I could continue playing football, attend an incredible university and, I thought, feel like I was at home.

However, when it came to finally applying to the US, I discovered that it wasn’t the place I wanted to go. It was too different and too far. Therefore, despite having achieved the required SAT score, I decided not to apply there.

I therefore looked to England and chose my universities based on their rankings for English, the cities in which they were located and following on from the advice of the DESC alumni who attend them. The latter helped me create a vivid image of what my life would look like there.

The UCAS process felt strangely unreal thanks to COVID and these fluctuating times, as I was applying to a series of universities that I had never visited.

The University of Oxford had always been a dream of mine but, even when I was applying, I never thought that being accepted would actually become a reality.

The process of applying to the University of Oxford falls earlier than most other UK universities. Doing the admissions test was daunting, but I focused all my time and energy on the application. When the interviews came around, COVID again caused havoc and the interviews were held online, rather than face to face. But the tutors were lovely, and I was helped by DESC in every way to make sure I was prepared to answer any question they might throw at me.

I think the day that I got the acceptance to study at the University of Oxford will live in my mind forever, and I am going to work as hard as possible to ensure I get the grades to secure my place.

Although Oxford is the best university for me, as gives me the opportunity to play football and study the subject I love at the highest level, my advice to any nervous students applying to university would be don’t just set your hopes on one university. I was ecstatic to get an offer, but I knew that whether or not I did, it would not define my worth, or my intelligence.

Think about where you want to live and what you want your university experience to be, rather than just the ranking of the university.  You want to really enjoy the next three or four years of your life.

Application wise, I’d say start early and get it done quickly – the more people who can read your personal statement or your essays, the more advice you will get and, consequently, the better they will be.

Alongside this I would HIGHLY recommend getting a current student to read over these as well, especially for Oxbridge, as they will help you immensely in terms of writing a personal statement that reflects you properly.

If you have any interviews, don’t overthink them. You will do well if you show the passion you have for your subject, and any practice is good practice. Many people are pedantic and scrupulous in what they want to say, but a good interview feels like a conversation so let it be natural and authentic.

Most of all, however, trust yourself.

Let your university application process be enjoyable and have confidence in your abilities.

Don’t start this next stage of your life stressed; trust your school will help you and take all the little wins.

In the end just simply do your best – that’s what I did.

Jessica Cullen. Dubai English Speaking College. 2021.


Notes for students and parents.

Dubai English Speaking College, and its slipstream school, Dubai English Speaking School, were jointly awarded the Award for Best Schools in the UAE 2019-20. The KHDA Outstanding, Ivy League not-for-profit, has also been recognised for the extraordinary quality and breadth of its inclusive technical stream options for students at Sixth Form and the richness of its provision for all children in Sport.

DESC has long-been considered one of the UAE’s most inspirational and prestigious schools, shining a light in UAE education for its deep commitment to inclusion and for its delivering a world class British curriculum education that meets the needs, potential and ability of all its students.

The Sixth Form Common Room at Dubai English Speaking College DESC - the hub for applying for University at Sixth Form.

The Sixth Form Common Room at Dubai English Speaking School – the informal hub for applying to university and planning next steps… 


Click to read our independent review for parents of Dubai English Speaking College.

Learn more about the school’s achievements in Sport here.

Click to visit the official web site of Dubai English Speaking School and College here.

Click to learn about studying English Literature at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom here.

About The Author
Jessica Cullen
Jessica Cullen studied at Dubai English Speaking College between 2014 and 2021. Passionate about English Literature, in 2021, Miss Cullen was offered a place to study English Literature at the University of Oxford, Miss Cullen has written widely, including a standout contribution to a novel authored by students drawn from schools across the UAE. On this, Miss Cullen wrote: “I am very pleased that I have been able to be a part of this project, and I think the story has certainly shown the imagination of so many talented writers in the UAE. Within my chapter, my main goal was to explore some of the characters and events that have happened in past chapters in more detail, whilst also building Isla’s character arc further. As well as this, although we have been introduced to many of the important people in Neina’s life, I wanted to explore why they are so important to her, and explore their relationship with The Prophecy Tower. Finally, I must say thank you - I am grateful to be part of something so inspiring.” Miss Cullen will be genuinely missed when she leaves Dubai English Speaking College on her graduation in 2021.

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