Student and Graduate Publishing

Applying for Oxbridge: Sorting Myth from Reality

Friday, 27 July 2018 12:55

By Helen Lami, director of Academic Summer

Do you speak fluent Latin or ancient Greek? Do you have a private school education? And do you have a certificate in punting? If you answered yes to those questions, and you believe the stereotypes, then you may be the perfect candidate for Oxford and Cambridge university (or Oxbridge as they are collectively known). 

As the director of a summer school which supports students with applying for Oxbridge, I’ve come across countless myths like these. But, if you can look past the stereotypes, you’ll find that Oxford and Cambridge aren’t as selective as many believe. They look for the brightest students from all backgrounds. And, rather than being a closed process, applications take place through UCAS and it isn’t all that different from any other university. 

To help you sort fact from fiction when it comes to Oxbridge, here’s my guide to what students can expect from the application process, with some useful tips to help you on your way.

Oxford or Cambridge?

So, you’re thinking about applying to Oxbridge. In that case, you’ll probably be one of the top academic performers in your school year. Depending on the course you’re considering, conditional offers require A or A* grades in A-Levels and only top grades in the Higher Levels of the IB Diploma, 7s and 6s.

Both universities offer the very best international standards and facilities for teaching. But which one should you choose? Unfortunately, you can’t apply for both during the same admissions round. You’ll need to do as much research as possible to help you make the right choice.

Look thoroughly over each institution’s undergraduate prospectus and visit both universities on open days. Visiting is also a good opportunity to wander around and get a feel for the place. After all, it’s important that you like the city itself, as well as the course and college.

How to apply

Once you’ve made up your mind on your chosen university, you can then make a start filling out the UCAS application form. Oxbridge applications close slightly earlier than for other universities, so make sure you get yours in by 6pm, UK time, on 15 October. 

The application form is mostly straight-forward, but the personal statement will require a lot of time and thought. All students find getting the right tone a challenge. Yet the key is to match the passion and motivation of the lecturers who teach the subject. A well written personal statement will show that the applicant has a high level of independent intellectual fervour around the degree subject. Students need to show their drive for studying the subject and going above and beyond the standard A Level syllabus to achieve the highest grades. 

Both universities will also ask students to prepare and submit samples of written work. The writing should be engaging, dynamic and full of thought-provoking views. It’s also critical that you know the subject extremely well, because most admissions tutors will expect students to talk about it with confidence as a discussion point during the interview.

Will there be an admission test?

If you’re applying for Cambridge, the answer to this question is probably not. Oxford University, on the other hand, sets entry tests for most of its courses. These tests are all about measuring problem-solving and critical thinking skills that students will require for their degree course. To help prepare, it’s a good idea to get hold of past sample papers, which will provide you with a fuller sense of the type of academic skills required to study at a world-class institution. 

What to expect at the interview

If your written application is successful, you’ll be asked to do an interview with the course tutors at the college, or it will take place over Skype or on the phone. Despite what the many urban myths suggest, there are no trick questions and you won’t be expected to conduct the interview in Latin. 

However, you will be challenged. The tutors who interview you will pose some tough questions on your chosen subject and these will get harder as the discussion progresses. The aim is to ensure you have a genuine interest in the course and an ability to articulate your own views based on your knowledge. It’s critical that students practice beforehand, with friends, family or supportive teachers.

The most important piece of advice for applying is stay calm and never lose heart. Even if you don’t get a place, it will still be a fantastic experience and you’ll learn a huge amount about yourself and what to expect from any top university.

But, if you are one of the lucky ones, the long-term opportunities it could offer might be considerable. So, go ahead and give it a try. By the end of the year, you could be on your way to Oxbridge.