Don't just take a punt on Oxbridge, prepare

26th June 2015 at 01:00
Many high-achieving students will be eyeing a place at Oxford or Cambridge, so be sure your application advice is up to the mark

Oxbridge might not be the right route for everyone and the UK is lucky to have a plethora of top universities to choose from. But for many students, getting into either Oxford or Cambridge will be their sole ambition over the next few months.

Indeed, as the exam season draws to a close, students who are thinking of applying to one of the two world-famous institutions will inevitably be reflecting on what they need to do before the Oxbridge admissions deadline in October.

Most will turn to their school for advice. Some teachers will be well versed in what is required but many will have little experience of advising students about Oxbridge, or may feel that their knowledge is out of date. Then there are the common misunderstandings that have grown up about Oxbridge.

The following five-point guide should address these issues.

1 Managing misconceptions

Many candidates believe that Oxford and Cambridge are socially exclusive and that they wouldn't fit in. Both universities are keen to debunk this idea.

"Cambridge isn't about where you are from, it's about where you want to go," says Tom Almeroth-Williams, communications officer at the university. "We are a diverse community of scholars and we welcome applications from students of the highest intellectual potential, irrespective of social, racial, religious or financial considerations."

Helen Charlesworth, head of enquiries and marketing at Oxford's undergraduate admissions and outreach office, says: "Around a quarter of undergraduates at Oxford receive financial support and students from low-income families are eligible for one of the most generous financial support schemes of any university in the country - including generous bursaries, reduced tuition fees and fully funded summer internships for some of the least advantaged students."

In 2013-14, the percentage of state-school pupils at Oxford was 57 per cent; at Cambridge, it was 61 per cent. Both institutions offer non-repayable bursaries to any European Union or UK undergraduate whose family income is below pound;42,620 (visit bit.lyCambridgeBursaries and bit.lyOxfordBursaries). These range from pound;500 to pound;4,500 for every year of the course.

Oxford and Cambridge are actually great levellers, according to one former student. "Everyone, regardless of background, has to defend his or her ideas. If a student can do that they'll be fine.

"The same applies if they're from a privileged family: if they can't do that, they'll struggle. If teachers think their students are Oxbridge material, they should encourage them to apply."

2 The application

Every element of the application, according to admissions experts, should abide by one simple rule: does the student demonstrate a passion for their subject that drives them to pursue it independently? The first hurdle is the personal statement. Oxbridge statements have particular requirements that are often overlooked by teachers, as well as students.

They should be concise rather than conversational. Extracurricular interests that are not relevant to the course in question are not taken into account, according to Cambridge.

Charlesworth adds: "It's really important that the statement is in your words and that you evaluate your experiences, rather than just listing them."

Both universities stress that admissions are based solely on academic criteria; personal statements should focus on showcasing a student's academic passion for his or her chosen subject. That said, the biggest mistake applicants make, says Rebecca Williams, head of programmes at consultants Oxbridge Applications (a company that runs an Oxbridge preparation access scheme), is to turn the personal statement into "a patchwork of mini essays".

It is crucial that students demonstrate wide reading of their subject outside of the syllabus, "but they shouldn't try to make analytical points about the academic ideas they raise; they should use them to demonstrate their interest in the subject," Williams says.

Former Oxbridge admissions tutors agree that this is a common problem. "A candidate's opinion on engineering or maths is less important than why they want to study maths or engineering," one tutor says.

Students will be asked to express critical views, but this will take place at the interview.

3 Courses

In the past few years, Oxford and Cambridge have become much more explicit about the qualifications they prefer. Colleges at both institutions list the combinations of subjects they require for specific courses on their websites.

The most common ones are, as you might expect, pretty traditional. But teachers may be surprised at some of the subjects that aren't very widely accepted. These include psychology, law, government, business studies and sociology.

Some subjects, such as citizenship, general studies, environmental science and sports studies, are considered only as optional extras.

4 Colleges

Although it is vital to choose the right course, the importance of college selection is often overlooked.

On application, students can specify the name of a college or leave the choice open. Williams advises students to choose.

"They will spend at least three years of their life at a college - so it makes sense to try to get into one that best suits them," she says. "Most colleges are varied enough to accommodate all types, but they are different."

Some have a wider offering of bursaries, or offer better sports facilities. Some are ancient, architectural confections right in the city centre. Others are further afield and more modern. Some have accommodation available for an undergraduate's entire university career, others don't. These are not insider secrets - the necessary information is available on college websites. Ask your students to do some basic research before they apply.

And there's another reason why applicants should think carefully about which college to choose: admission success rates vary. "Courses in some colleges are more oversubscribed than others," says one sixth-form tutor with experience of both universities. "Past success rates per college are published on their websites."

5 The interview

Students who show potential will be called to interview. It is this part of the application process that many young people find most daunting.

Oxbridge interviews are designed to test how a student will learn, rather than how much a candidate knows or whether they have read the "correct" texts.

The interviews aren't meant to intimidate but they are difficult because tutors want to know how students will respond when they don't know the answer. Faced with a demonstrable fallacy, do students shut down or argue, or does it lead them to make a more interesting point?

In most cases the interviewer will continue to ask more questions until a candidate is unsure how to respond. "Tutors don't want candidates to `download the answer', they want to see how they think," another former tutor says.

As a result, it is impossible to rehearse interview questions, experts say. So how can teachers help? It's crucial that they encourage students to read widely outside of the exam syllabus. "Enthusiasm for a subject isn't best demonstrated by a student's ability to regurgitate what he or she is studying at A-level," says the sixth-form tutor.

Understandably, most young people aren't familiar with communicating an academic subject at an advanced level. Although admissions tutors are prepared to look beyond this, the more that students practise discussing advanced ideas with others, the less nervous they should become.

Oxbridge application timetable

Now to September Applicants should be researching and drafting personal statements, as well as completing further reading

1 September to 15 October The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) will be accepting applications for 2016 courses at Oxbridge

4 November The majority of Oxford admissions tests will take place for the courses that require them

Mid-November to early December Invitations to interview will be issued

December The majority of interviews will take place, as well as Cambridge Admissions Tests

Mid-January Candidates will be notified if they have been successful

What else?

Get the insiders' lowdown on Oxbridge in this TES webchat.


Use this simple lesson to get students thinking about personal statements.


Give this list of independent tasks to students aiming for Oxbridge.


Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today