A guide to Oxford and Cambridge admissions

In this blog, Dr Matt Williams, (Access Fellow at Oxford) and, Sandy Mill (Schools Liaison Officer at Cambridge), provide their insights to help you stand out from the crowd in the highly competitive world of Oxbridge admissions.

Matt and Sandy will be running a session at the 2019 Seren Conference in December about ‘Making an Oxbridge application’.

Where should you start when thinking about Oxbridge admissions? 

Matt: How about we start at the finish?! What sort of people get places at Oxbridge and excel there? It’s all about academic ability and potential for us.

We’re not looking for students with a hugely impressive list of extra-curricular activities like DoE Gold or climbing Kilimanjaro. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that stuff, we’re just not able to use it as a means of picking students.

We’re looking instead for a strong (but not necessarily perfect) set of grades and the potential to excel in small group tutorial teaching.

Sandy: It’s not about who is the “smartest” person either.

We do want intelligent students with very good grades, but most of all we are looking for those who are going to learn in the ways that we teach – particularly through the supervisions and tutorials.

We want people who are able to talk about the things that they are passionate about; open-minded individuals who are able to take new information on board and draw their own conclusions; students who are willing to question authority and push back the boundaries of what we know.

People who don’t take ‘I don’t know’ as the end of the story, but who regard that as a challenge to overcome.

Matt: So, we’re hunting for curious minds and people who don’t just parrot information but think for themselves.

How can students become more curious and independently minded?

Matt: People tend to assume Oxbridge students are born a certain way and that it’s impossible to attain that level of intellect otherwise. However, it’s all about curiosity and independent thinking and these qualities, at least in part, can be learnt.

Start with a question about the universe that is personally interesting and do some research on it. For example, how come some trees are so tall? How much does the internet weigh? Why does anyone care how I pronounce the word ‘scone’? — then hunt for answers.

Read books and academic articles, download podcasts, watch lectures and vlogs on YouTube, chat with teachers and friends.

What do you think the answer might be to your puzzle? If someone has a different answer, don’t necessarily abandon yours, work out why you disagree.

Don’t forget, at the outer limits, practically all of academia is guesswork. We don’t have definitive answers to many of the most interesting questions about the world or the wider universe.

Good guesswork is often the name of the game and Year 12 students need to build a bit of confidence in their guessing abilities.

What can you do to make a brilliant, stand-out application?

Sandy: I say this a lot, but quite simply go and geek out! Explore your subjects and engage with them as much as possible. It should be fun, interesting and a great excuse to find out more about the things that amaze, puzzle and stimulate your mind.

If you’re not sure what you’re into, explore different things that capture your interest and dive deeper to see if they are something you are truly passionate about.

Talk with other students about your interests and attend any sessions on application preparation to help you get all of the information you need to navigate applications effectively.

 Matt: The most important resources you need are time and energy.

Pursue a subject that gives you energy! That is, something you find so interesting that you are impelled to look further and deeper into.

How should you decide between subjects, or between Oxford and Cambridge?

Matt: Ask yourself What do you love studying? What could you read about on a day off and not be bored by it?

For me that’s always been politics. I could read and think about politics, even when I don’t have the energy to do anything else. Politics is such a hilarious and grubby soap opera, and it’s got me hooked. It’s like a box set that I can’t binge-watch because new episodes keep coming out!

A lot of students start by thinking about careers. That is sensible, but shouldn’t be the sole consideration. For instance, a lot of people say they want to be lawyers and so they will apply to study Law as a result. You don’t need to study Law as an undergrad to be a lawyer. You can convert from almost any degree (even medicine) to Law. And if you’ve done well as an undergrad at a top uni, law firms will pay for your conversion.

Choose a subject you’re motivated to study.

If you want to get into Oxbridge for Law for example, you need to be enthralled to the academic study of Law — jurisprudence, civil procedure, torts, human rights etc.

Some of you will be thinking of applying for subjects you’ve never formally studied before — such as medicine, biochemistry, or Arabic. Find out what a degree in those subjects entails, read some academic works produced by tutors and ask will it hold my interest for three years of study?

Sandy: Find the course that most suits you and lets you study things you are interested in.

Check the reading lists and modules for courses online. Just because two courses share the same name, doesn’t mean that they have the same content.

If you arrived at university to find the course didn’t have a module on your particular interest, you would be sorely disappointed to be spending all that time and money on a course that didn’t do what you wanted it to.

Matt: As for choosing between Oxford and Cambridge, the first and most important point to consider is whether they offer the right course for you.

There are some major differences in degree programmes between the two — for example, Oxford has courses like PPE, and Cambridge has Natural Sciences rather than individual courses in Physics, Chemistry and Biology. But there are also a lot of similarities — both have fairly similar Medicine degrees, for instance.

Dig deeper and find out what, if any, relevant differences there are. Trust your gut. Which city do you prefer, if you’ve had a chance to visit them?

Ignore the nonsense myths. Oxford is not the one for humanities and Cambridge the one for sciences. They each excel at both. It can be a personal preference.

How should you decide which college to apply for?

Matt: Don’t overthink it. At the end of the day, you’re getting a degree from Oxford or Cambridge that counts the same regardless of which college you pick.

The academic experience is practically identical at all colleges, even if the facilities differ a bit.

Look at accommodation options and whether they can house you for the whole degree; what financial support is available; what other facilities they have like sports fields, and music rooms.

It’s also worth noting that Oxford and Cambridge operate sophisticated pooling systems between colleges which means you won’t be any less likely to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge if you apply to a popular college.

Colleges can share applications around to ensure we take the best, regardless of which college they picked.

Sandy: I absolutely agree with Matt.

Make a list of the things you would like from a college and check to see which ones meet the most of those criteria.

Visit some colleges and see which ones feel like they could be your home for the next three or more years.

You may not receive an offer from your first choice due to the pooling systems, so it’s important not to get your heart too set on one particular college, as you may end up being accepted by a different one.

How can you prepare and plan for admissions test?

Sandy: The first step is to download the relevant preparation materials online, and check if you have an assessment before the time of your interview.

For Cambridge, find this here: www.cam.ac.uk/assessments

Prepare for these tests like an exam – learning the structures of papers, revising knowledge and practicing skills set on the specifications, and by doing the practice papers we provide online.

The Cambridge assessments are designed not to be able to be coached for but are more about practicing relevant skills and ensuring that you have any required knowledge (especially in the sciences).

Use your preferred exam techniques, look at the types of questions you will face, timings that you will need to follow and the structures of the papers, to help you prepare.

Matt: I’ve made videos on admissions tests (and the TSA test in particular) on our YouTube channel.

These tests need a lot of practice. They are among the most important predictors of who gets in, and practice improves performance.

How can you prepare for your interview?

Sandy: To put it very simply, get used to talking about your subject.

Build in time for discussions with a teacher, parent or guardian who can help you go deeper into your understanding of your chosen field.

Matt: You can do most, if not all, interview prep on your own.

I have two techniques that work well in preparing for interviews —the toddler and the kitten techniques:

The toddler technique:

Look at problems and even everyday items as if you’ve never seen them before and question everything.

If I ask a student to analyse an American flag, they’ll likely start by stating it has fifty stars and thirteen stripes. That’s fine, but a toddler would look at an American flag as something entirely new to them and would ask lots of questions — Why is it that shape and those colours? What even is a ‘flag’? Why do the stars have five points? Why are the stars stuck in a box in one corner? 

The toddler technique can be used on anything. It ensures that you think about a problem for yourself not for somebody else.

The kitten technique:

Is all about tenaciously pulling at threads, like a kitten with a ball of wool!

You need to keep asking yourself ‘Why?’ in response to any statement.

Why does the American flag have red in it? Maybe because it looks like blood.

Why does it look like blood, and why would anyone want that on a flag?! Erm, because spilling blood is an important part of building nations.

 But why? And why is blood red anyway? And why use blood to symbolise sacrifice, why not something else?

These techniques encourage you to analyse more deeply and think for yourself.

Practice it on past interview questions (of which I have hundreds that I can email to you — matthew.williams@jesus.ox.ac.uk

You can find out more about applying to and life at Oxford or Cambridge at the Seren Conference this December.

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