The prestigious universities of Oxford and Cambridge are rightly renowned for being hard to get into. But Oxbridge’s academic reputation shouldn’t put prospective students off from applying. We’ve spoken to current students from Oxford and Cambridge to give us the inside scoop of what it’s really like to apply to the most famous universities in the country, and hear their tips for the next generation of Oxbridge students.
‘But I don’t go to a private school!’
It is a common misconception that you won’t get a look in at Oxbridge if you attend a state school. However, if this once was the case, it certainly isn’t anymore. Both universities are actively encouraging people from all backgrounds to apply and take into consideration that some students wouldn’t have had some of the opportunities that their public school peers might have.
Ruth Palethorpe, a student at Oxford added: “There are certainly circumstances in which state school students are favoured over public schools in order to (rightfully) increase the intake from state schools.” If you are from a state school and want to further your education at Oxford or Cambridge, speak to your careers advisor at school and book regular meetings with them so that you can get one-on-one time to discuss your application and what you need to do to better your chances of acceptance. It is also a good idea to take as many opportunities that you can, such as work experience, helping at after school clubs, mentoring younger students or writing a blog. Even serving tea and coffee at a school production will show that you’re a dedicated and hardworking person.
‘The application process has so many steps – I can’t cope!’
We asked current students what the application process was like. Step one is the UCAS form, including a personal statement, predicted grades and sample essays. Depending on the course you are applying to, you are likely to have an admissions test, interview, and college essays. Once you’ve completed all that, you will receive a final decision letter, letting you know whether or not your application was successful. Overall, students reported that the application process was hard work, but offered advice on how to ease any stress. In all cases, it is important to read around the subject before writing any essays, and before your interview.
“Certainly, the whole process was challenging but far from unbearable. The interviews and tests encourage you to think about your subject in a far more nuanced and advanced way than is required by the A level syllabus which, if you’re willing to spend several years studying it at uni, is no bad thing.” – Nick Pymont, Classics at Oxford University.
It is also a good idea to look at the process in steps (as there are a lot!). Write each step down, so you know where you’re at and which part of the process you need to focus on next. Create a plan that includes your A level work and extracurricular hobbies. Look at the application timelines for Oxford and Cambridge so you understand the structure. You need to find a balance of working hard on your application, but also doing well in your exams to ensure you meet the entry grades.
‘What will they ask in the interview?’
It is natural to want to prepare all your answers ahead of an interview, but that’s just unrealistic. There’s no predicting what you will be asked, and so scripted answers can get in the way and disrupt your flow. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be prepared. The majority of the students we spoke to said that admissions tutors ask about what they had written in their personal statement. For example, English students are asked about texts they mentioned and why they feel they are significant. A philosophy student had written about a philosopher’s opinion on slavery that he greatly disagreed with, but the tutors asked him to try and argue the side of the philosopher in the interview. So, before your interview read, and re-read, your personal statement. Make sure you know what you wrote about and why. What does it say about you? Do you have any interesting anecdotes to support what you wrote? Have you always had these opinions, or did something happen that caused you to think differently?
‘I’ve never done an entry exam before’
Entry exams differ in length and content depending on the course you are applying to. One student suggested that, where possible, it is a good idea to do past papers, and found that their exam was similar to all the past papers they had practiced on. Ruth Palethorpe offered some reassuring advice: “I found them challenging but fairly fun. It’s important to remember that you are not supposed to be able to get 100% in them; they are designed to pick out between students and so if everyone does well, it’s no use to them.” Do your best, prepare and practice, and read around your subject before the exam.
‘I don’t think I’ll apply to Oxbridge – it’s too much work alongside my A levels’
You’d be hard pushed to find someone who doesn’t find studying for A levels stressful, but why put all that effort in if it means you can’t apply to your dream university? In the summer before starting Year 13, you can start to prepare in anticipation of what is to come. Over your break, start reading up on your subject, as well as the university collegiate system and admissions process. This way, by the time the autumn term comes around, you will find you’ve already got a lot of the work under your belt, giving you time to focus on your A levels too. For most, the Oxbridge admissions process is over by January, so it’s only a few months with a heighten workload, which is worth it if you wish to attend a prestigious university.
‘I need advice!’
We’ve got your back! Below you will find some advice from current Oxbridge students:
Just read and read on your subject. The only thing they care about is that you love your subject and are good at it! – Ruth Palethorpe, French and Italian at Oxford
Don’t worry and stress about it. It is more straight forward than you think and they are not trying to catch you out. They are trying to see the best in you. – Kate Goodrum, Land Economy at Cambridge
As cliched as it sounds, try to enjoy the process. Your interviewers and potential tutors want to see that you are passionate about your subject so try to show them that. Pursue an area of the subject you find interesting and go as far as you can with it. They don’t expect you to have all the answers before you get there, they just want to know that you’re keen and able to try and find them. Looking at a niche that stimulates you also makes the process much easier than just reading as many books or articles as you can with no particular aim or desire to do so. – Nick Pymont, Classics at Oxford
I would advise students to be genuine and honest in their personal statement, and not to try and play up to the idea of what they think a Cambridge student would write or say. They want to know how you think and what you’re interested in, and often won’t be interested in you trying to over-intellectualise things or exaggerate your knowledge. Really just try and be open and inquisitive, show your passion for your subject, and say what you really think. – Ella Hopcroft, Philosophy at Cambridge
So to summarise. It doesn’t matter what kind of school you attend, as long as you put the work in and are passionate and dedicated to progress in your chosen subject. Remember that preparation is key. Best of luck!
Jessie Parker joined the team as Editorial Intern in 2020. After completing a degree in Creative Writing and Publishing, Jessie has recently had her creative non-fiction book published.