Applying to Oxford or Cambridge is no small feat. Everyone’s heard horror stories of stone-faced academics asking impossible, abstract questions in terrifying interviews.
Applying to Oxbridge: tips from a seasoned graduate
The first important thing to note is: don’t let these fears put you off applying. These ancient and world-renowned universities are incredibly special places to learn. If you are lucky enough and smart enough to get in, your intellectual horizons will expand beyond your imagining. You’ll learn from experts and you’ll be challenged in ways that will prove indispensable in both your professional and personal life later on. And you’ll be surrounded by interesting, sometimes eccentric fellow students who will challenge you in equally engaging ways.
People are often insecure about their own abilities - I know I was - and you might be surprised about the kind of person Oxford tutors are looking for. It’s not always those buttoned-up students with stellar grades and an impeccable school record; yes, grades are important, but how you behave in the interview is arguably more important. Tutors have a way of sniffing out those students who really want to learn and who have an unassailable passion in the subject that they are applying for.
So, to begin at the beginning; how do you know if you should apply?
Well, the obvious answer is - do you love your subject? Does writing an English essay or solving hard maths equations excite you? It’s a myth that you have to live and breathe your subject to be the right candidate, but it’s also true that enjoying your subject is vital for two reasons: firstly, tutors will be able to tell whether you genuinely love it, and (more importantly), you won’t enjoy your time at the university if you don’t. Or worse, drop out, which would be bad for both you and the university.
One of the most important bits of advice, then, is only apply if you are interested and you can see yourself enjoying working hard on it. Applying is one thing, tackling the workload once you are there is another. It’s not easy: but that’s why it’s a very special place to learn.
I went to a school which did not specialise in academia; I was not an obvious candidate for Oxbridge (having only pulled my intellectual socks up aged 17) and I wasn’t always the best-behaved. For this reason, I wasn’t encouraged by my teachers to apply, and it was really because of friends and family - who recognised my potential and pushed me, that I applied to Oxford.
So remember: if you don’t get support from your school, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply. If you think Oxford is the right place for you, apply!
So: you’ve decided to apply. Now what?
The first thing to do is make sure that you work really hard for your exams. Not only will this level of attention to workload set you up if you do get in, but it also shows tutors that you are serious and dedicated.
Then comes choosing which college to apply to. The idea that some colleges are harder to get into than others is generally untrue: don’t apply for a college just because you think it will heighten your chances of success.
Think about all the factors: what are the tutors like? Would you prefer a large or smaller college? In the centre or a little further out? Most importantly, covid-permitting, it’s really important to visit on an open day. Often you can only gauge whether you’d enjoy living somewhere by actually going there.
There are a few key stages in the application process. There’s the initial application, with a personal statement, an entrance exam for most subjects, and then the interview. Before you start any of these, it’s really important to absorb as much of the subject as you can. For English, for instance, make sure you have a good understanding of the basics: Romantics, Shakespeare - things like that. Once you’ve got a good foundational knowledge, then you can start exploring more niche and original angles (which Oxbridge tutors love).
Each entrance exam is different, but practise is key: try and do as many papers as you can, under timed conditions. If you have the money, get some help from an Oxbridge graduate whose been through the process.
And onto the interview
If you are lucky enough to be asked (and a lot of people aren’t) then this is the most important stage of preparation. Firstly, do some research about the college: find out what the tutors specialise in, and make sure you are clued up on that particular area.
Secondly, make sure that you know in depth everything that you’ve written on your personal statement: they’ll catch you out if you’ve lied and the statement usually forms the basis of half the interview. And go beyond: if you’ve written about one Shakespeare play, for instance, make sure that you’ve got a few more up your sleeve if you are asked.
And, to parrot the mantra yet again (and with more importance here), practice makes perfect. Practise being interviewed with your teacher, your parents, and even your friends. Try and replicate a pressured environment, so that when the nerves set in on the actual day, you are prepared. There are lots of really useful Oxbridge interview days where you are interviewed back to back by ex-graduates. I found them incredibly useful.
One final point: interviews are really scary, and you’d be pushed to find a successful applicant who came out of it with full confidence in having succeeded. Sometimes those people who think they nailed it actually didn’t, and vice versa. It’s a challenging process, and if you aren’t successful then it’s no time wasted- you learn a huge amount just from applying.
So, if you love your subject and the prospect of studying it rigorously and thoughtfully for three years excites you, then take the plunge.
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