08/09/2014: Attending an ordinary secondary school in Budapest, Nori Kertesz wouldn’t have dreamed about getting into one of the world’s best universities. When she applied to Milestone she only knew that she wanted to study abroad. Yet things didn’t quite turn out the way she planned. She has been through the toughest 18 months of her life, but it was definitely worth it, as she has been admitted to Cambridge University, where she is going to study sociology. An interview.
You’ve probably heard what they say about Milestone: only students of the best secondary schools have the chance to be admitted.
Yes, I have, but if so, then I’m the counter-example. I didn’t come from a top school; it was a just an unremarkable, ordinary Budapest high school.
And in a few days you will leave home behind for something that is anything but ordinary.
Well, yes. I’m going to Cambridge.
Why do you say it like that?
But wasn’t that your goal, to make it to one of the world’s best universities?
Of course it was… well, actually no, not at first, at least. I would never have dreamed of going to Cambridge. When I applied to Milestone I only knew I wanted to study abroad.
Let’s forget about Cambridge for a moment. Why did you want to go abroad?
For the adventure, at first. To see something else. To break out of the routine a bit. And it is a kind of family tradition: my mom’s Latvian, my dad’s Hungarian, but they met at the University of Leipzig in Germany. They supported me in this, even more so after the Hungarian government passed the law that forces state funded students to stay in Hungary after graduation. And I think I have more academic opportunities abroad.
And you knew what you wanted to study?
I didn’t have a clue! When we first came to Milestone to have a talk, I said something about studying business. Ádám talked me out of it in no time. Then when I started the programme it quickly became clear that I was most interested in sociology.
There were these sessions called ‘shopping lectures’. You got to know what to expect from studying philosophy, sociology or engineering, for instance. Of course, I had no idea before. So you could get a taste of everything. Then there were the seminars. And at one point I realized that I was really taken up with sociology issues. We discussed several topics during the 4-weeks seminar, from the basic principles of sociology through matters of globalisation to subcultures. I liked the complexity of the field very much; everybody can find a segment they are interested in. I remember preparing a presentation about hippies for a session. I loved it. But it was my mentor, Christoph who suggested Cambridge.
What did you say?
I said: no way.
I thought it was absolutely impossible. Absolutely.
It was a few months before the Oxford and Cambridge application deadline. I was sure I couldn’t make it. And I’d just decided I wanted to study sociology.
And he finally convinced you?
He didn’t coax me overtly. He just slipped the question ‘Nori, Cambridge?’ into every conversation we had during the mentoring session. Every single time. And every time I’d get more and more scared.
Yeah, because after a while I realized that he said it on purpose. That maybe I had a chance. However, the mere thought of the interview was terrifying. It was terrifying to know how much the people who got an offer from Cambridge had studied to get it. They all came from top schools. And most of the people around me had not even heard of Cambridge. How on Earth would I stand the chance to get an offer? Me? From Cambridge?
When did you change your mind?
My time in Milestone helped. I got to know a lot of people of my age, and I saw that we weren’t that different. I found my place quickly and didn’t feel like an outsider. I saw my friends applying to Cambridge. So I decided to give it a try.
The community pushed you forward?
Absolutely. I only talked about my plans here. But of course I still didn’t believe in the whole thing: Cambridge being the main goal and the other universities the insurance options – no, it was the other way round. I listed the others first; if I got an offer from Cambridge, all the better.
Do you remember the moment when you made your decision?
It was during a mentoring session.
What was Christoph’s reaction?
An enormous ‘yesss’. And we got down to business immediately before I had the chance to change my mind.
Did you take it for granted that you’d get an offer from the other four universities?
I trusted Christoph.
Christoph, mainly. Of course I knew that I’d be the one to be admitted, but I also knew that if he said no, it meant no, and if he said I could do it, then I could do it.
What do you have to do to get into Cambridge?
You have to choose a college, first of all. A college doesn’t just mean a dormitory, it’s a community. There are 32 to choose from. For me, a central location was important. This might sound silly, but I wanted it to look like the school in Harry Potter. Sports weren’t important, and I didn’t want to go to an all-girls college. I applied to Pembroke, but I got an offer from Churchill.
Is it central?
On the outskirts. But I learnt to ride a bike two weeks ago, so that’s okay.
Is it anything like Harry Potter?
It’s a huge concrete block. And rather grey.
How about sports?
Quite important. They have a lot of tennis courts and running trails.
An all-girls college?
Certainly not! (Laughs.)
Let’s go back to the point where you sent your application…
Yes. Not long afterwards I was surprised to get a letter from them. They wanted me to send them two essays. I could choose the topic, but they wanted something I had written in secondary school. But I had none. We didn’t write essays in English in school.
And didn’t you have the time to write two new ones?
You are not supposed to write them just for the application.
How would they find out?
They wouldn’t. They’d trust you. I told them that I could send one, but it was rather long. And I wrote it in Milestone, not in school. They accepted that.
What was your topic?
I wrote it for the final exam of the Milestone sociology seminar. I compared and analysed the lyrics of pop songs from the past 50 years. I got the idea from a professional study that looked at nearly half a million songs. Of course I didn’t have the time to do a project of that magnitude, but it was great to learn the methods of research and how to write an essay. I thought it was well-written, but I was sure they wouldn’t call me in for an interview. But they did. We were in Berlin for a Model UN conference with Milestone when my phone picked up a Wi-Fi connection and I got the e-mail. I was so happy I started screaming. I hugged everyone and it was great that they all understood what was going on.
And then the day of the interview arrived.
That was really tough. I had my Prom on Saturday, and I left for the interview on Monday. I had one day to get some rest. In addition I had to drop by an event at Transparency International, where I was doing an internship. Milestone suggested that, too. I went to the airport from there.
Were you nervous?
I had been stressed out for two weeks before that. I thought I’d not prepared enough and this would be too big of a challenge. I’d been really stressed and nervous. But when I arrived for the interview I calmed down completely.
What was it like?
There were two ladies, a strict one and a friendlier one. Maybe they’d decided to play it that way, I don’t know. We talked about the possible effects of introducing TV to a community for the first time. The topic of female circumcision was more difficult. Because of my name (Kertesz = Gardener), we talked about the things a garden can tell about its owner. Throughout the whole interview I felt like they knew me. They’d prepared a lot of questions just for me. These people had prepared for me. It was a great discussion, at the end they had to stop me because I spent more time in there than the other candidates.
How did you find out that you got in?
There were two letters. I got the small envelope first; that’s always a bad sign. It told me that they really liked me, and they thought I was good enough to get in, but there was no place for me at Pembroke College. So they put me in the “pool”, which means other colleges can pick you. I was very nervous. I read all the online discussion groups about pools. And I saw that there were fewer and fewer places available. I almost lost hope when one day I got the huge envelope – that was a good sign. My hands were shaking as I opened it. I started to cry. I ran to Milestone, but I made everybody swear not to tell Christoph. I wanted to tell him myself. So I arrived, the ruined envelope in my hands. I gave it to him and I saw that his hands were shaking, too. We both were on cloud nine.
Were you able to relax afterwards?
I was very happy at first. Then the next day I thought that I couldn’t do it. And I had to ace my final exams in school as well. I was very worried about that.
How did you do?
I aced them. Advanced History was the most important, and I scored 90%.
You know what’s interesting? You were afraid of Cambridge, the interview, the final exams, but meanwhile you were one of the bravest, most active, dynamic students in Milestone in the last one to one and a half years. You were the president of two smaller societies.
Yes, of the Debate and the Gastronomy Societies. I found my place here. Milestone offered so many opportunities and I wanted to make the most of it. And I had a wonderful time, too. It got really busy during the year; we had something to do all the time. Here, everybody decides for themselves to what extent they want to get involved in the community. I think everyone should take an active part in everything.
What is the difference between Milestone and a school?
Things are a lot more serious, and yet we are a thousand times more independent. I always felt that our collaboration was great; you don’t get this in a school. And what I loved was that we got to organise, to work on projects. On projects we chose, we were interested in, which were important to us. For example, we built the Debate Society from scraps, where we have parliamentary debates, about the legalization of marijuana or the future of the monarchy in the United Kingdom, for example. Then the jury decides the winning team. And what was very important to me was that you could have a good relationship with everybody here. Maybe because we shared the same goals. I got to know 4 or 5 people here who became my best friends. And another 50 whom I love talking to anytime. Milestone became my second home.
To conclude, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions. What were your three most memorable experiences?
That’s a difficult question. There was a great picnic on Margaret Island at the beginning of the programme. And the ski trip was awesome, too, and I don’t even ski. And the most uplifting moment was when we became alumni in the Milestone camp: we became ‘Laikas’.
And what is the one word that comes to mind about Milestone?
One word? hm… Opportunity. No, strike that. Community, more like. Yes, community it is.
Are you worried about anything right now? You can name one thing. Apart from Cambridge.
Of course it’s Cambridge. (Laughs.) And riding a bike. But I’ll get the hang of them both.