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Oxbridge recruiters woo a packed house

Getting into a seminar about getting into Oxford and Cambridge can be hard, reports Biddy Passmore

If medical courses at Oxford and Cambridge are shortly overrun by bright pupils from the London boroughs of Brent and Harrow, the dons should not be surprised.

So great was the demand for places at the medicine seminar at last Friday's conference on getting into Oxbridge colleges that a second had to be speedily arranged. Sessions on law and maths were full to bursting as well.

Indeed this, the second such conference organised by Lifetime Careers, the Nord Anglia subsidiary that runs the careers service for both the north London boroughs, was a runaway success.

Last year, 300 potential applicants turned up to hear how to get into the two ancient universities - and what life would be like if they managed it. This year, some 900 trekked to the University of Westminster's smart new Harrow Campus to hear presentations from dons, the Midland Bank, Arthur Anderson, IBM and the army.

Oxford and Cambridge, both eager to attract applicants from state comprehensives - and black students - could not have chosen more suitable ground: more than half of post-16 students in Brent and Harrow are from ethnic minorities.

But, while local comprehensives and colleges were well represented at the conference, not all those who attended were from north-west London, or from the state sector. State-school children from Barking and Dagenham joined private-school pupils from Dulwich, south London, for this is the only conference of its kind in the country.

The heads and deputies who had accompanied their charges fired anxious questions at the panel.

Should potential candidates take three or four A-levels? Is taking a gap year and applying after A-levels a help or a hindrance? What about asking for a deferred place?

Dr Susan Stobbs, chairwoman of the Cambridge University Admissions Forum, reminded her audience that Cambridge turns down 3,000 applicants with three As at A-level every year. Extra qualities, notably enthusiasm, self-discipline and the ability to think logically, were required.

In the main auditorium, meanwhile, a nervous Anita Agyeman described life at Oxford. A former pupil at Claremont High School, a grant-maintained comprehensive in Brent, she is now studying English at Mansfield College.

She had two or three essays a fortnight, plus translations and she had to read a lot in the holidays. And there were exams at the beginning of every term to check up.

"Social life? There's basically none," she declared, although she looked very happy on it.

If English is hard work, it's a doddle compared with the first two years of medicine. As Dr Piers Nye of Balliol College told the second session on the subject, medical students at Oxford and Cambridge cover in 40 weeks what is covered at ordinary medical schools in 70.

"It's a very tough, very intense course," he said. "Pre-clinical medical students at Oxford are barely ordinary undergraduates during their first five terms."

Then, when the course turns into pure physiology, they become "normal healthy undergraduates with only one tutorial a week".

Richard Moon, brother of the Welsh Rugby international Rupert, and Roger Uttley, the England Rugby Union manager, urged students to take full advantage of the sport.

They would never again have free access to such good facilities, said Mr Uttley. It was vital not to waste too much time drinking.

OxfordCambridge, an applicant's guide to Oxford and Cambridge, by Liz Walkers, is available price pound;5.99 from Biblios Publishers on 01403 710851.

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