Dr Matthew Williams: How to improve your Oxbridge chances

Darllenwch yn y Gymraeg

This week, Dr Matthew Williams from Jesus College Oxford gives his advice on how you can improve your chances if you’re considering Oxbridge.

I’m a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and as a tutor in politics I have read well over a thousand applications! So what am I looking for?

Jesus College by John Cairns

Jesus College by John Cairns

The first thing to note is how difficult it is for us to make our decisions. We receive a lot of strong applications, and deciding between them is tough. As a result, we take an unusually large amount of information from each of our applicants. Besides your UCAS form, we use admissions tests and interviews to help us make the right decisions. From all of this information, we are looking, in particular, for evidence of your academic ability and potential.

That means, we’re not especially interested in any non-academic information. Whether or not you’ve excelled in sport, music, or drama, is, for instance, not going to affect your chances of securing a place. We’re also not interested in which school you’ve attended, how rich your family are, what colour skin you’ve got, what religion you follow (if any), what your gender is etc. None of these factors speak to your academic ability or potential, and so we don’t give them any consideration.

Academic ability is assessed primarily from your school results. So, fairly obviously, you need to work hard in years 12 and 13 to get the best possible A-levels (or equivalent). We don’t expect applicants to have a flawless academic record. I have occasionally admitted students to Oxford who didn’t have any A*s at GCSE, for example. Most of our degrees require you to attain AAA at A-level, not four A*s.

Jesus College by John Cairns

Jesus College by John Cairns

Academic potential is more difficult for us to gauge. We have to guess at how you might develop whilst at university. Some of the key things we’re looking for are enthusiasm and independent-mindedness. By enthusiasm, I mean that we want to have confidence that our students will make the most of their time at university. For independent-mindedness, we’re looking for young academics who do not just regurgitate something they’ve heard, but instead are willing to offer their own thoughts to help resolve complex problems.

So, what specifically should you be doing to demonstrate your enthusiasm and independent-mindedness? I suggest you devolve back to a toddler’s mindset! Like a toddler, you need to ask ‘why?’ about everything! Having thus critically assessed the world around you, pick out a specific puzzle that really bamboozles and amazes you, that’s connected to your chosen degree. Then try to solve this puzzle by reading books and articles, watching online lectures, visiting museums, talking to experts, and so on. When it comes to writing your personal statement, you can then point to a specific ‘hook’ that pulled you into the subject. And you can explain how your enthusiasm and independent-mindedness led you to some preliminary thoughts on the puzzle at hand.

I’ll give you some examples of questions that have been flying around my mind in recent weeks:

‘Why should I trust the value of a ten-pound note?’

‘Do historians essentially write fiction, if they cannot fully know the past?’

‘Is ageing a genetic disorder, that can be halted or even cured?’

‘Is democracy dying, or thriving?’

At the end of the day, not being offered a place at Oxbridge does not mean you’re not academically able, nor that you’re lacking in potential. As I said, it’s difficult to make these decisions, and it comes down to tiny differences. I wasn’t accepted by Cambridge as a 17 year old, but I don’t regret trying. I wasn’t at the top of my game at 17, but going for Cambridge really pushed me to develop my true potential, which ultimately brought me to Oxford as an academic. There’s no harm done in having a crack at the top unis, and a lot to be gained!

For more information, feel free to contact me at matthew.williams@jesus.ox.ac.uk

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