Oxbridge admissions is a topic mired in myths and misinformation. Surprisingly few studies have been undertaken to assess what matters most for high-achieving pupils aiming to secure a place at one of two of the world’s most prestigious universities.
As anyone who was assisting a student applying to Oxford or Cambridge before the mid-October deadline this year will tell you, navigating an admissions system involving 69 colleges, hundreds of bespoke subject tests and interviews with tutors can be a daunting prospect. So how can you make the process easier next year?
Stereotypes of Oxbridge as a bastion of social privilege might explain why over 40 per cent of secondary state school teachers say they would rarely or never advise academically gifted pupils to apply to either university. A quarter of teachers believe fewer than 20 per cent of Oxbridge students come from state schools, yet the actual figure is around 60 per cent. Contrary to what many people think, studying at Oxbridge doesn’t cost more than studying at other universities. The biggest barrier to Oxbridge is getting the right grades and applying in the first place.
What we do know is that Oxbridge continues to be the breeding ground for future professional and public elites – from prime ministers to Nobel prize winners and world-renowned authors. Oxford and Cambridge graduates command higher average wages than other graduates. It’s no surprise, then, that admissions are highly competitive, with an average of five applicants for every degree place. So it’s crucial to do your homework.
Oxford and Cambridge are similar, but they are also different. If you study at Oxford, the final degree result is based on exams taken at the end of the final year, whereas at Cambridge, students are assessed in more than one year of the course.
Oxford and Cambridge are “collegiate” universities, composed of 69 autonomous bodies providing teaching, accommodation, and financial support. Students must gain a place at a college to study at either university. But they are advised to choose the right degree course rather than prioritise the college. Tutors favour qualifications in traditional subjects such as English, maths, history and chemistry. Applicants-per-place vary by subject and college.
If a student from your school is invited to an interview, the academics will want to see how they can debate and argue on their feet. It is not about being right or wrong. A teacher can make all the difference with an original, well-written and compelling reference.
Use tangible examples backing any claims. Good writers open with an eye-catching opening sentence and end with compelling last words. Teachers can also explain why students achieved any lower-than-expected grades, so Oxbridge tutors can put their performance in context.
Students’ personal statements should be seen as an audition with a world-leading academic expert. They should focus less on extracurricular accomplishments and more on demonstrating passion for a university subject. One study found that teachers’ well-meaning but misguided advice had sometimes made statements worse in the eyes of tutors.
Outreach programmes run at Oxford and Cambridge give pupils from less-privileged backgrounds a taster of academic life and practical tips on admissions. The Sutton Trust’s residential summer schools were found to improve admission prospects, yet they can be vastly oversubscribed: it’s harder to get on the Cambridge summer school than into Cambridge itself.
It is worth contacting admissions tutors to find out more. Every college has one.
Finally, remember there is an early admissions deadline and you can’t apply to both Oxford and Cambridge.
Lee Elliot Major is chief executive of the Sutton Trust and Steve Higgins is a professor of education at Durham University. Together, they authored the teaching and learning toolkit, now the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit