You have reached that point in your life where you are 17-18 years old and everyone around you is talking about university. Your grades are good and your teachers are suggesting you apply to Oxbridge. This was the situation I found myself in four years ago; however I came from a school which didn’t have a reputation for sending students to Oxbridge and none of my relatives had gone to university. I was in desperate need for advice then and that is why I am writing this blog; to ensure that students like me don’t make the same mistakes I did when applying to Oxbridge. Fortunately for me, I managed to succeed J and can give you my advice and tips!
There are three crucial stages when applying and I have advice for each step. Some tips may be more appropriate for certain subjects, so please feel free to skip sections which do not apply to you:
1) The application – The first thing to consider is your college choice. Oxbridge say, “college choice doesn’t matter,” however it does, in a way only students from Oxbridge can understand. All the “state school vs private school” discussion surrounding Oxbridge is nonsense, and your interviewer, who may become your tutor for the next three years, most likely won’t even know what school you are from; please do not let this be a factor when deciding on colleges. College choice is important because different tutors, and hence colleges, specialise in different areas of your chosen subject. You should apply to a college where the tutors specialise in areas of the course in which you are interested in; you will most likely perform better at interview this way. Here are two examples:
- Student A: Has applied to college X for Physics. He/she has really enjoyed the Mechanics modules at A-level Maths and wants to potentially go into Theoretical Physics . He/she turns up for interview and gets to know the tutors and realise they specialise in atmospheric physics, something which the student is not really keen on. The tutors then ask questions at interview which someone from a more atmospheric background may ask, involving particle flows, estimating the number of particles in a room etc. The student find these problems very difficult; they do not involve complex algebra or any differential equations, and require a lot of lateral thinking, something the student isn’t great at.
- Student B: Has also applied to college X for History. He/she loves Ancient history specifically and has heard that this college have a tutor who is a world renowned expert on all things Ancient. The tutors ask the student about his/her general interests in History and they have a lengthy discussion on causes which led to the fall of the Roman Empire. He/she leaves the interview feeling very happy and almost forgot that they were being assessed!
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Can you guess which student got the offer? Hopefully that shows why college choice can make all the difference, and can determine whether someone has a good interview or not.
Also, when applying to Oxbridge, do not get overly concerned about the Personal statement, I have heard most tutors do not even read them carefully; some spend more time laughing at arrogant students! You can do more harm than good to your application with the personal statement. Be yourself and simply explain why you enjoy the course, mention interesting books you have read and do not be arrogant. Keep it simple J
2) Entrance Exam Preparation – This varies from subject to subject, however the over arching themes still apply.
- Try lots of past papers on the web which Oxbridge is more than happy to share. Whatever exam you have, it will be totally different to your A-levels/IB exams. They are testing your ability to tackle an unforeseen problem in which you may have to combine knowledge from lots of different areas. Do not expect to get everything correct the first time.
- You are not expected to get more than 70% so do not get disheartened if you think things are going badly. Think positive and stay calm. If you are stuck, take a step back and break the problem down into its main areas.
- Finally, try lots of brain teasers and maths challenge type questions. School exams ultimately test your ability to do the same problems, just with different numbers; whereas any Oxbridge exam tests you ability to use the same numbers, but in all kinds of neat problems! You never know, you may even enjoy the exam J
3) Interviews – For most courses, this is the main decider on whether you get an offer or not. Everything you have done up to this point has enabled you to get here. Now the real work actually begins.
When I had my interviews, and subsequently throughout my time at Oxford, I noticed predominantly two types of students at Oxford interviews: Those who acted as if they belonged in Oxford, with a sense of entitlement, who wore tweed jackets to their interviews and generally spoke rudely to anyone who didn’t speak like them. Or those who were totally intimated by the grand halls, the academic style of the tutors and generally didn’t feel comfortable. My advice is not to become either of these. 99% of the former students are all style and no substance; the tutors see straight through them at interview and they get rejected. Furthermore, students who can’t speak up for themselves in a discussion, who generally lack confidence, will find it very difficult to perform well at interview. Once you get to Oxbridge you’ll realise, from the current students, that the stereotype just isn’t true and you have as much right to be there than anyone else. Do not feel intimated by the environment and try to stay positive, no matter what anyone says.
The Oxbridge interview is not an assessment on what/how much you know; it is an assessment on how you think, how you tackle unforeseen information and how you argue your point. The tutor interviewing you will most likely be teaching you for the next 3-4 years, so he/she wants someone who can fully engage and who is genuinely interested in the subject. Do not be afraid of silences and take your time to think things through. Once you have made a point, be prepared for questions on what you have just said. Be prepared to justify everything you have mentioned! Oxbridge love cynical, curious and critical thinkers, not someone who can regurgitate every sentence from a textbook. If you do not know something, then just let them know, there is nothing wrong with that.
My top advice for preparing for interviews will be to take part in debating, whether at school, or on the news etc. At my interviews, I was able to hold my own ground because I had done so frequently at public speaking competitions. Unless you are from a school which thoroughly encourages discussions in the classroom, which most state schools don’t (speaking from experience), then I would strongly recommend some critical thinking practise. Try debating, it worked for me J
So there you have it, those are my tips broken down into the three main areas which affect the outcome of your Oxbridge application.
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