IMAGINE COMING OUT of a class feeling over the moon and a bit disoriented, having indulged in an intense intellectual debate that has jolted you out of your everyday existence. That was how I felt after my first seminar in Oxford, where I did a postgraduate course in politics. Like other applicants from Hong Kong, I wanted to further my studies in a top-notch university and stretch my intellectual capacity. The argumentative approach to learning was new to me. The tutorial system - a one-on-one class arrangement that confronts you directly with your supervisor - can be a daunting experience. I would always get the jitters before going to a tutorial. Not to mention the gruelling moments when my supervisor ripped my essay apart while I had to remain composed and strike back. Seminars, comprising about 10 people, also turned up the temperature as everybody raced against one another to formulate an original argument in class discussions. The pressure to excel was immense, and late nights and caffeine-boosters were unavoidable. But hard work bears fruit. Rounds of debates have not only filled me with the excitement of learning but also developed in me a high degree of critical thinking and articulation. Perhaps it is in this respect that education in Oxford sets itself apart from universities in Hong Kong. While opportunities to express opinion in class are not lacking in Hong Kong, big classes and a quiet student culture compromise the depth and intensity of class interaction. In my year as a postgraduate student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I gained book knowledge but did not acquire the skills to identify flaws in an argument and construct an incisive case on the spot. Social life, too, in Britain offers a different strand of knowledge from formal education. Pub quizzes, which are highly amusing and informative, have become my window to the local culture. In teaming up with friends (or strangers), fumbling for answers to random questions and gulping down beer, I gradually settled in Oxford. Indeed, an open mind is the key to overcoming the initial unease a new environment thrusts upon you. Do not be frustrated about not understanding the local accent or slang at the beginning; it takes time to find your feet. While an excellent academic record is a prerequisite to getting into Oxford, good references and a strong personal statement also carry weight. Ask your department head to write you a recommendation letter if possible. If you have spent a semester abroad, try to get a reference from the teachers there. Explain your interest in the course and outline your future plans in the personal statement. Associate any relevant work experience with the application.